- By Pam LeBlanc American-Statesman Staff
It took Kayleigh Williamson six hours and 23 minutes to run and walk the Austin Half Marathon last year.
The finish line had been dismantled when she got there, but race organizers put it up again. When Williamson crossed, followed by an entourage of police and trainers from a local chiropractor’s clinic, the 27-year-old flipped her hair in triumph. She had just become the first woman with Down syndrome to complete the 13.1-mile race. Someone put a medal around her neck, and later one of her coaches gave her a personalized belt buckle.
“I loved it,” Williamson says.
This year, she returns with two new goals in mind — to finish the half-marathon in less than six hours, and to encourage others with Down syndrome to get running and register for the Paramount Break a Leg 5K, part of the Feb. 18 Austin Marathon and Half Marathon slate of events.
Williamson’s coaches at RunLab, a clinic tucked inside Rogue Running, think she can reach her goals. In the past year, she shaved 40 minutes off her time at the 10-mile Run for the Water and dropped her pace from about 30 minutes per mile to 18 minutes per mile.
“My mom told me I am inspiring to other people,” Williamson, 27, said before a treadmill session at RunLab on a recent chilly day. “I run a lot. It’s hard.”
Williamson began training at RunLab in July 2016, after her mother brought her to Rogue Running to get new shoes. Chiropractor Kim Davis, founder of RunLab, which analyzes gaits and treats running-related injuries, offered to check Kayleigh’s running technique.
“At the end of the day, mechanics are mechanics, Down syndrome or not,” Davis says.
After their visit, Davis decided she wanted to help more. She invited Williamson to train with RunLab coaches, and eventually added the athlete to the shop’s roster of elite runners. Since then, Williamson has lost about 50 pounds. Running has boosted her confidence and allowed her to connect with other runners. It has also inspired Kayleigh’s grandmother, who suffers from dementia.
“I think running is fun, and it gets you healthier and faster,” says Williamson, who also competes in basketball, bowling and swimming through the Special Olympics.
Today, Williamson runs three or four times a week and participates in core strengthening classes and weekly track workouts. She’s finished a slew of races, including the Silicon Labs Sunshine Run, Schlotzsky’s Bun Run, Zooma 5K and the Run for the Water 10-miler.
Her mother, Sandy Williamson, 51, runs alongside Kayleigh. It’s a point of pride for the single parent of a child doctors said would be lucky to walk by age 5.
“I want to quit before she wants to quit,” says Sandy Williamson, who has finished more than a dozen half-marathons herself. “She says, ‘Toughen up, buttercup.’”
That makes Kayleigh Williamson laugh.
After seeing Williamson’s success at the half-marathon, Davis decided to put together a team of nontraditional runners for the Zilker Relays last year. She drew enough interest to form three teams, and realized a community need. The Arc of the Capital Area invited Davis to join its board of directors, and Davis created Kayleigh’s Club to encourage other nontraditional runners to start exercising. Participants work on gait mechanics, strength and stability.
“I think fitness is such an empowering and important thing for people with special needs or not,” Davis says. “People with Down syndrome get pigeonholed as unable to run. We want to change that, and Kayleigh’s a great poster child.”
Brandon Ramirez, 14, who has Down syndrome, joined Kayleigh’s Club and has finished several mile-long races. On Feb. 18, he’ll run the Paramount Break a Leg 5K. It will mark his longest run to date, and he’s excited about the chance to earn a finisher medal.
“He saw our (race) medals and wanted one,” says his mother, Adriana Ramirez, 38, who is also a runner. “He wants to be as fast as everyone else.”
That’s the kind of motivation Kayleigh’s mother hopes her daughter can provide.
“What’s really cool is the running community as a whole and how our kids have just been brought into it,” Sandy Williamson says. “The people we’ve met, the friends we’ve made, the support on the course — it’s been amazing.”
It reminds Sandy Williamson of a young woman with Down syndrome she saw on the side of the road when she ran the 3M Half Marathon several years ago. “I thought, ‘Why does she have to be on the sideline?’”
It turns out she doesn’t.