Among all the winners in the Little Rock Marathon, there probably weren’t any happier than the five participants from Independent Living Services in Conway.
It was a first for them and for ILS.
“It actually brought tears to my eyes; it was awesome,” said Lisa Garner, coordinator of special events at ILS.
ILS is a nonprofit organization that provides services for adults who have intellectual or developmental disabilities.
Participants were Trevion Stephens, Blake Hensley, Nikki Atkins and Jerome Riley, all of Conway, and Taylor Freeman of Mayflower.
The marathon theme was “Lucky,” and the ILS team name was Luck Dynasty, a play on the television-show title Duck Dynasty.
The five participated in a relay, switching out in an Advanced Mobility Freedom stroller pushed by FBI agent Heath White of Florida. He has family in North Little Rock, and his mother lives in Sherwood, Garner said.
White’s story has been told in the media many times — he started running marathons, and when his daughter, Paisley, was born with Down syndrome, he ran while pushing her in a jogging stroller. This year, she was old enough to run by herself.
White called FBI spokeswoman Maria Hoskins, an ILS board member. Her daughter, Christina Brown, 28, of Mayflower is an ILS consumer.
He offered to push Brown and other ILS consumers in the marathon.
Garner set the plan in motion, said Jackie Fliss, executive director of ILS.
“Lisa planned this thing to a T,” Fliss said. “She had all the routes planned out, where people were supposed to be. She was amazing.”
Garner laughed and said she did it with “a lot of prayer.”
White also sent Garner a list of good places along the route for the transitions, she said.
ILS staff members or the consumers’ family members were told where to be on the route.
White started by pushing Riley, 18, a few miles; then he got out and switched with his cousin, consumer Stephens, 21, and White ran on.
Garner drove to each new transition point to make sure the consumers made the switch and were strapped in and ready to go.
“The changeover from Nikki to Taylor was just flawless,” Garner said.
Taylor Freeman, 18, filled in for Brown, who couldn’t attend the race because of health reasons.
“Mr. White, he gave me a ride,” Freeman said.
“It was great!” Riley said. “It was like being in a race car.”
At the end of the race, everyone walked across the finish line at the same time, except for Atkins, 27, who uses a wheelchair full time.
“I got to push Nikki across the finish line, so I felt like part of it,” Garner said.
Agent White, pushing Blake, crossed the finish line in 4 hours, 45 minutes and 2 seconds, Garner said, and placed third in the physically disabled category.
“The roar from the crowd was just priceless,” Garner said. “They ate it up.”
Riley said the crowd was yelling, “Hurrah! Yay, Jerome!”
Garner said they gathered around White for him to get his medal, but all the ILS consumers received one.
“It was so precious,” she said.
She said they were all smiles.
“This is heavy,” consumer Blake Hensley, 24, said of his medal, which he was wearing.
He was right. The 8-inch-long marathon medals weigh 2 pounds, 12 ounces, the largest in the nation, according to Runner’s World magazine.
The word “Lucky” is part of the horseshoe-shape design.
Hensley liked his medal, but he mentioned also getting to eat a hamburger at Hardee’s that day.
The ILS consumers said they want to participate in next year’s marathon.
“I want to do it now!” Riley said.
Senior writer Tammy Keith can be reached at (501) 327-0370 or email@example.com.