Dwarfs outrunning expectations in Boston Marathon
Bundled up against a cold wind on a training run several years ago, Juli Windsor was bounding along a sidewalk when she noticed sirens flashing and a police officer emerging from his cruiser, urging her to stop.
She looked back to face the officer and watched as his concern turned into embarrassment.
At 3-foot-9, it wasn’t the first time Windsor had been mistaken for a runaway child.
“That’s what it’s like for me running,” she said.
On Monday, after years of taunts and overcoming doubts about their stamina, Windsor and a friend will become the first dwarfs on record to run the Boston Marathon, race officials said.
The 27-year-old physician’s assistant from the South End and John Young, 47, a high school math teacher from Salem, both qualified by running previous marathons, perhaps making them the first dwarfs ever to complete the 26.2-mile race.
“I’m not aware of any other dwarf to run a marathon,” said Mike Cekanor, a spokesman for the Dwarf Athletic Association of America, which organizes the annual US National Dwarf Games.
Aside from the extra effort it requires to take at least twice as many steps as the average runner, dwarfs often suffer from problems in their spines and can experience greater back and joint pain after running long distances.
Given the physical challenges, it’s a major feat for a dwarf to finish a marathon, said Gary Arnold, president of Little People of America, an advocacy group for the roughly 35,000 Americans with dwarfism.
“It’s just a lot more wear and tear on the body,” he said. “It’s amazing that they can do this.”
Windsor, who notes that she is “as tall as the length of some runners’ legs,” has been flouting expectations since she joined her middle school’s cross-country team while growing up in a suburb of Atlanta.
Running was a peaceful time for her, she said, and a means of measuring up to other students, especially when she beat them.
“I had a lot of anger and felt like life wasn’t fair,” she said. “I found running to be a time that I could think through and process life. It allowed me to push myself in new ways.”
The idea of running the Boston Marathon loomed as the ultimate achievement, something she put at the top of a list of life goals she has kept on a piece of paper since high school. (The list, with star stickers beside each goal, includes earning a doctorate, adopting a dwarf, and inspiring others.)
“I’ve always known about it and read about it. I’ve heard all these stories, and in my mind, I’ve always thought that if I could run Boston, that would be amazing,” Windsor said. “For every runner, Boston is a dream.”
She ran her first marathon three years ago around Disney World, finishing in just under five hours. Last year she ran the Bay State Marathon in Lowell — despite having pneumonia — and finished in under six hours, just qualifying her for Boston’s mobility-impaired division.
Over the years, Windsor has faced her share of challenges and discomforting moments.
There have been the epithets, such as when children and others have called her a “midget” derogatorily. Too often people laugh at her or take her picture surreptitiously, as if she’s a circus freak, she said. She can recall being stopped while running at least three times when someone thought she was a child, although that has never bothered her.
“I’m like the average size of a 6-year-old,” Windsor said. “I’m glad people care about children running away.”
However, she feels violated when people take her picture without asking.
“It’s like I’m a spectacle, or some kind of amusement for them to laugh at or share with friends on Facebook,” she said. “I feel like little people are part of the last group that people feel OK about making fun of. It’s like we’re cute, and we’re supposed to respond cheerfully. You would never do that with people in a wheelchair.”
While Windsor is rippling with muscles and may be as chiseled as the most elite runners, her back curves inward, making running downhill painful. She has to use her abdominal muscles when she runs to try and avoid pain. She also faces risks while running in tight packs and has been kicked in the face a few times.
For John Young, who is 4-foot-4 and has competed in more than 20 triathlons, long-distance running is still a relatively novel experience. Before 2009, when he weighed nearly 200 pounds, he had never run more than a lap around a track.
His road to the marathon began when a student at his private school in South Hamilton challenged students and staff to ride their bikes to school. Young began making the 11-mile trip every day on his child-sized bike, sparking a good bit of ridicule.
“It’s usually staring, pointing, laughing, and sometimes yelling,” he said. Things like: ‘Look at that midget on a bike!’ ”
The pounding of road races is particularly hard on Young, as he also suffers from a curved spine and experiences numbness in his lower back after long distances.
But he, too, finds motivation in the challenges.
“The people who support and encourage me are the ones that get me to the starting line, while the ones who doubt or ridicule me are the ones that carry me to the finish line,” he said. “Whenever I really start to hurt, I think of someone laughing, pointing, and saying, ‘You can’t do that!’ and it seems to give me the strength to carry on.”
Windsor and Young are among 27,000 people registered to run the 117th marathon. They have been training nearly every day for months and are counting on more cheers than jeers to spur them to the end, especially from their friends, spouses, and extended family who will line the route. Young’s 10-year-old son will be there, too, first along the route and later at the finish line in Copley Square.
Windsor hopes to finish in four hours and 15 minutes, while Young aims to make it in under six hours. With Windsor starting an hour and 40 minutes later in the last wave of runners, the two friends could finish together. “I would love to finish with her,” Young said, “but of course don’t expect either one of us to slow down to make that happen.”
Unlike other competitors, their division lacks prize money, which ranges from $30,000 for the winner of the wheelchair competition to $150,000 for the fastest elite runner, awarded in equal amounts to men and women.
“It’s just such a small group, and the money is not there from the sponsors,” said Marc Davis, a spokesman for the Boston Athletic Association, which organizes the marathon.
The omission smacks of unfairness, Windsor and Young say.
“If you’re going to include people with disabilities who are in wheelchairs, why not include all disabilities?” Windsor said. “I think it should be more inclusive.”
Young added: “I have done too many races where that is always the case.”
Both are running for larger reasons, which include raising money to help dwarfs.
“There is something to prove,” Windsor said. “I really hope that this run sends out a message to the greater population of little people that anything is possible.”