Five year old Kayleigh Nelson stared up at the imposing face of Shenandoah County Elementary School and tried to swallow the terror that was rising in her throat.
"It'll be fine, sweetie," her father said. "We talked about this, remember? There's no reason to be nervous or afraid."
The enormous lie caused Dan Nelson's stomach to rumble in protest. Or, maybe it was his undigested breakfast of Diet Mountain Dew and cold pizza. At least he had made sure that Kayleigh had a nutritious meal to start her day. God, it was hard. His wife had died just three months earlier from a vicious strain of bacterial meningitis that hit her hard and fast. Dan realized how fortunate he was that his parents and sister lived in town. As a suddenly single parent he didn't know how he would have managed without their help. He was learning how to cook meals and make lunches for Kayleigh, but had trouble matching her clothes and styling her hair. His sister was helping him with that, but still, some mornings Kayleigh left the house dressed like a very small homeless person. But not today, not on her first day of kindergarten. She was wearing her new school clothes with a pretty pink bow in her hair.
"Do you want me to go in with you?" Dan Nelson asked.
"No, daddy," Kayleigh replied. "I'll be okay."
Dan Nelson kissed his daughter and watched as she made her way slowly up the ramp. He hoped there would be someone waiting to welcome Kayleigh and take her to her classroom. He had met the previous week with Kayleigh's teacher and the school principal so they would know what to expect. As if on cue, Kate Austin appeared at the door and waved to him. Dan returned the wave and watched as Miss Austin greeted her new student and gave her a quick hug. Kayleigh waved goodbye to her father and disappeared inside the school. Dan Nelson drew a shaky breath, wiped his eyes, and drove away.
Miss Austin asked each child to say their name and tell the class something about themselves. Kayleigh listened with a mixture of interest and anxiety. Finally, it was her turn to speak.
"My name is Kayleigh Nelson, and I live with my daddy. My mama got sick and died. She was practicing to run the marathon, but she can't run it now, so I'm going to run it for her."
Every arm in the room shot into the air.
"How can you run if you're in a wheelchair?" Emma Howard asked.
"I run with my arms," Kayleigh answered. "That's how I move."
"Do you ever leave your wheelchair?" Riley Anne Parker asked.
Kayleigh giggled and nodded. "I lift myself out to go to bed, or sit on the sofa, or take a bath, stuff like that."
"How far is a marathon?" Rain Jervey asked.
"Twenty-six miles," Kayleigh said.
The class was silent. The children weren't exactly sure just how far that was, but they knew it was too far for any of them to run.
The rest of the day flew by. Recess, lunch, story time, and then the final bell rang. Kayleigh made her way out the door and down the ramp to wait for her grandmother to pick her up. Emma, Riley Anne, Rain, and Hannah Beth Simmons kept her company.
"Do you want to come home with me after school?" Emma asked.
Kayleigh nodded and smiled. "But, I have to ask my daddy first," she said. "Where do you live?"
"Wild Pony Ranch," Emma answered.
Kayleigh's eyes grew large. "A real ranch with horses?" she asked.
Kayleigh's smile slipped. "I don't know if I can ride a horse," she said. "I've never tried. Her eyes dropped to her lap. "I might just be in the way."
The school bus pulled up.
"You won't be in the way," Emma called as she and her friends started for the bus. Emma stopped suddenly and said, "we've been talking, Kayleigh. We're going to help you run the marathon."
Kayleigh loved spending afternoons at Wild Pony Ranch with her new friends. She loved the horses, especially Dixiebelle. Emma's mother, Sarah Jane, was a certified therapeutic riding instructor, and she soon had Kayleigh riding Dixiebelle slowly around the horse ring. Emma's father, John "Cowboy" Howard, was a national rodeo champion, and Kayleigh was thrilled to watch him ride his magnificent stallion, Jubal. But, mostly she practiced for the Shenandoah County Marathon, now only three weeks away. Wild Pony Ranch had miles of trails and hard dirt roads, and Kayleigh trained on them every afternoon. Emma, Riley Anne, Rain, and Hannah Beth accompanied her on horseback, offering encouragement and support.
"You're really strong, Kayleigh," Emma said one afternoon, two weeks before the marathon.
"I feel strong," Kayleigh replied. "I hope I'm strong enough. Twenty-six miles is a long way to run."
Emma nodded. "I've thought of a way to make you even stronger. From now on you need to practice with Ranger riding in your lap."
Kayleigh broke into a huge grin. "Okay," she said, reaching for the little Pomeranian.
Ranger and Kayleigh quickly formed a bond. The little dog would sit quietly in Kayleigh's lap during her afternoon training sessions. At least once Ranger actually fell asleep, lulled by the warm afternoon sun and the gentle motion of the wheelchair.
Race day was rapidly approaching. On Friday afternoon Dan Nelson invited everyone over to his house for a pizza dinner. The race was the next day.
"Are you ready for the marathon, sweetie?" Kayleigh's father asked.
"I think so, daddy," Kayleigh replied.
"She's ready, Mr. Nelson," Emma said. She looked around at her parents, Riley Anne, Rain, and Hannah Beth. "And so are we," she added.
The morning of the race was partly sunny and cool, perfect running conditions. Roads were blocked off and police directed traffic as excited runners and spectators milled around the starting line. Kayleigh waited with her friends while her father went to pick up her race packet. John Howard was surveying the crowd when he noticed Dan Nelson and the race director, Jack Sims, engaged in a heated discussion.
"Problem?" John Howard asked, wandering over to Dan.
A red-faced Dan Nelson said, "This jerk doesn't want to let Kayleigh run."
"This race is for runners, not wheelchairs," Jack Sims said. "Tell him, Cowboy," he said to Emma's father.
John Howard looked at the man and said, "I have four questions for you, Jack. Just nod your head yes or no."
Jack Sims waited.
"Did Mr. Nelson pay the entry fee?"
Jack Sims nodded.
"Did Mr. Nelson sign the standard liability waiver?"
Jack Sims nodded.
"Does the race application prohibit a wheelchair-bound runner?"
Reluctantly, Jack Sims shook his head.
"Do you want me to pull all of Wild Pony Ranch's business from your store and take it to Lowes or Home Depot?"
This time the man shook his head fast and hard.
Dan Nelson grabbed the packet and walked away in disgust.
"Thanks for your help, Cowboy," he said. "You'd make a great lawyer."
"What a horrible thing to say," John Howard replied with a smile.
"Runners to the starting line," the announcer called.
Everyone gathered around Kayleigh to wish her luck. Dan Nelson walked beside his daughter to the starting line.
"I just want you to know how proud I am of you," Dan said. "Your mama would be proud of you, too. You'll always remember this day, Kayleigh."
Kayleigh looked worried. "I hope I can do it," she said. "I know I have to finish in under nine hours to get my certificate of completion."
"You're a champion in my book no matter what happens," her father said. "Just take your time and do the best you can."
Kayleigh lined up behind the other runners and waited. The crowd roared as the gun sounded to start the race. Her father had told her to stop at every aid station to drink water or energy drinks to prevent dehydration. After the first mile Kayleigh was well behind the other runners. That was okay; she didn't mind finishing last, as long as she got her certificate. People along the road seemed to know her name, and cheered as she rolled past them.
The day was warming up quickly. Kayleigh pulled over to the first aid station at the four mile mark and quickly downed cups of water and Coke. No other runners were in sight. Her arms were starting to ache by the time she reached the six mile mark.
"Go, Kayleigh," someone cheered. Kayleigh looked over and saw Emma on the side of the road waving her over. Emma handed her a banana, which Kayleigh inhaled, and a bottle of water. Kayleigh stopped again for water at the next aid station. Her muscles started to burn as she passed ten miles. She reached the halfway point in four hours. The next thirteen miles looked endless. Her arms were now screaming. Kayleigh rolled slowly to the side of the road and began to cry.
"Lunch time," Sarah Jane said, as she walked over to Dan Nelson carrying two takeout bags of fast food. Dan was watching the runners who had been coming across the finish line for the past hour.
"Oh, thanks, Sarah Jane," Dan said reaching for his wallet.
Sarah Jane patted his hand and said, "my treat."
Dan's cell phone rang and he listened as Cowboy told him that Kayleigh had hit a rough patch but was on the move again. Rain and Riley Anne had been waiting with Coke and chocolate bars for energy, and Hannah Beth was two miles down the road with water and another banana. Dan closed his phone and glanced at the race clock.
"Long day," Sarah Jane said.
"Your daughter has such a beautiful name, Dan. I've been meaning to tell you that," Sarah Jane said.
Dan smiled. "Kayleigh is actually Gaelic in origin," he said. "It means party or celebration."
"She's a very special little girl," Sarah Jane said.
"Yes, she is," Dan replied.
For the first time in hours Kayleigh saw other runners. Coronary Ridge looked like a battle field. She passed one runner who was moving up the hill at the speed of a dial-up internet connection. A woman stumbled off the road as if she had been zapped by a taser. Kayleigh passed another runner who was busy vomiting into some weeds. She finally reached the top of the ridge, her arms shaking violently with fatigue. She noticed a runner sitting on the side of the road with his head down. He looked up, and Kayleigh could see that he was old, but the exhaustion and despair in his eyes was older. Perhaps drawing inspiration from a five year old girl in a wheelchair, the man struggled to his feet and broke into a shambling gait, staggering down the road like the Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz.
Five more miles. Kayleigh looked at the race clock and began to worry. She reached twenty three miles and her arms began to spasm, causing her to shriek in pain. Emma rushed forward and held out another chocolate bar as Kayleigh devoured it like a starving animal. She had been eating and drinking all day, but she couldn't keep up. She felt herself losing the battle, her strength draining away like dirty bath water. She glanced again at the race clock. It was hopeless.
Dan Nelson was a nervous wreck. He nearly screamed when his cell phone rang.
"Kayleigh just passed twenty five miles," Cowboy said. "Get ready, Dan. She's coming."
Almost everyone else had gone home. Dan Nelson got out his camera and moved over to the finish line for a clear view. He stared up the road and waited.
Kayleigh could see the finish line and the giant race clock in the distance. She saw her father waiting and thought she heard him call her name. She was close enough to see the time on the clock quickly slipping away. With a last desperate surge, Kayleigh leaned forward in her chair and thrust a wildly shaking arm across the plane of the finish line. Then, she was in her father's arms crying and trembling with pain and exhaustion. They both looked up at the clock and saw that it registered nine hours and fourteen seconds. Dan Nelson walked anxiously over to the race official who recorded the final times. Kayleigh accepted congratulations from everyone and waited for the results. She held her breath as her father walked slowly toward her, his head down. He knelt down beside Kayleigh and smiled as he handed her the precious certificate of completion made out to Kayleigh Nelson. Eight hours, fifty nine minutes, and fifty eight seconds. Kayleigh blushed as people cheered.
"Congratulations, Dan. I know you're proud," Sarah Jane said.
"Thanks, Sarah Jane," Dan replied.
"You certainly have reason for a celebration today," Sarah Jane added.
Dan Nelson looked at his daughter and nodded. "Today, and every day," he said.