Disabled athletes shine in Baltimore Running Festival

Erin Michael ran the relay race in the Baltimore Running Festival last year and saw a few disabled racers — but thought there could be more.

The 29-year-old therapist at Kennedy Krieger Institute encouraged and then helped train nine patients who finished the race Saturday. Michael ran the 5K, then raced back a mile to watch her proteges.

"I was moved to tears during what was one of the proudest moments of my life," she said. "I saw several walking to the finish line and one rolling by on his bike."

Kennedy Krieger, which treats people with disorders of the brain, spinal cord and musculoskeletal system, put together the festival's largest charity team with 208 racers, who raised nearly $90,000 to support future running participants with disabilities.

That cyclist Michael spotted was 17-year-old Marshall Garber. He was suddenly paralyzed from the waist down by a fibrous mass that developed on his spinal cord two years ago. Surgery saved his life but left him without the use of his legs. He has made regular trips from his home in Cleveland to pursue advanced rehabilitation at the institute and made an extra trip this week.

"I came just for the race and to support my hospital," he said.

He trained vigorously for months on a hand, or crank, bike, which he propels with his arms while lying flat on his back. To prepare for the full 26.2 mile race, he built endurance and strengthened his arms and chest muscles.

During the race, "He lost the water bottle he needed for hydration and got lost himself once," Margaret Garber said of her son. "He still came in third among the wheeled athletes, and we could not be prouder. Erin has really been his inspiration."

Michael replied, "That inspiration goes both ways. Marshall is really motivated and really believes in himself."

Jerry Sersen arrived at the Kennedy Krieger team tent at M&T Bank Stadium, invigorated after walking the 5K. He popped a bottle of Champagne and filled several paper cups.

"I am 58, but I feel like 40," he said.

He came to Kennedy Krieger five years ago, barely able to walk. A childhood car accident damaged his spine and caused lifelong mobility problems. Until June, when he began training for the festival, the Joppatowne resident had not walked more than a mile in years.

His wife, Karen, and physical therapist, Nia Wallace-Clennon, walked beside him in the race but credited him with doing all the work on his own. His therapist laughed when he called her "the mistress of torture and pain." A few yards before the finish line, Sersen threw down his walking sticks and ended the race unaided.

Sarah Alexander, 23, proudly gave her time in the 5K. "I made it in one hour, 41 minutes — four minutes under my goal," she said.

She suffers from transverse myelitis, a paralyzing neurological disorder that attacks the spinal cord. Her back and arms were aching, but she refused to sit. She stood in the team tent and congratulated all her teammates in her Mississippi drawl, enfolding them in hugs.

"Through devastating injuries, these athletes are showing us all that anything is possible," Michael said.

Joe Kelly, 34, who broke his neck in a shallow dive 14 years ago, never thought he would enter a 5K, let alone finish the race.

Kelly said, "All of a sudden, I am a distance walker."

Most were so buoyed by their success, they were already planning to repeat in 2013. Sersen said he might try the half-marathon next time. Garber is setting his sights even higher.

"I want to go to the 2016 Paralympics," he said.

"That could easily happen," said his mother. "This is just the beginning."


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