For the last three months, 24-year-old Nikki Christian has been preparing to compete in her first marathon. On Saturdays she can be found at Seven Mile CrossFit, and every Sunday morning she wakes up at 6 a.m., puts on her neon-colored sneakers, and sets out to train along the wide stretch of Esterley Tibbetts Highway heading into West Bay.
The schedule is rigorous, the goal daunting. It would be for anyone new to the world of competitive running. That Ms. Christian has taken this on, though, is extraordinary. To compete in the marathon, Ms. Christian will be pushed in a specially designed racing wheelchair.
Ms. Christian has cerebral palsy, a congenital disorder caused by damage to the brain at birth. The condition affects people in different ways. The most common form, which Ms. Christian has, is called spastic cerebral palsy. It causes impaired muscle coordination, making it difficult for her to stabilize and move her body. She practices taking steps sometimes with the help of others, but she does not walk on her own.
While she may not be the one running, the endeavor requires her physical and mental endurance, bravery and trust. And it requires teamwork. As her “pusher” Scott Ruby says, “She pulls me.”
“She’s got the heart of a warrior,” he added.
Ms. Christian and her family never imagined she would do anything like what she is now attempting. But if all goes as planned, and with the help of her team, called “Nikki’s Voice,” Ms. Christian will become the country’s first assisted marathoner when she competes in the Intertrust Cayman Islands Marathon in December.
“I am determined,” she said.
That’s a trait she shares with her co-racer Mr. Ruby, a seasoned marathoner who holds the current record for Cayman’s 54-mile ultra-marathon. Mr. Ruby came up with the idea to run the marathon with Ms. Christian this year, to give a person who has never been able to run, or even ride a bike, the experience of speeding through the open air and competing in a major race.
“Every year in the marathon we see a bunch of youngsters in wheelchairs down there,” Mr. Ruby said. “They’re always there clapping and cheering, some of them are just trying to clap for us, and they don’t even know us.”
“I thought, ‘Boy, wouldn’t they like to be cheered for?’” he said.
Mr. Ruby was also inspired by Team Hoyt, a father-son pair from Massachusetts who have competed in thousands of races, including marathons, triathlons and even Ironman competitions. Rick Hoyt is a spastic quadriplegic with cerebral palsy, so his father, Dick, has pushed or pulled him through every race they have done together.
Mr. Ruby thought that somebody should do the same in Cayman, and approached Ms. Christian and her family, whom he had known for years. Ms. Christian was on board with the plan almost immediately, and her family talked it over with each other and Ms. Christian’s doctors.
Her family has always done what they can to ensure that she is able to have a wide range of experiences.
“I try to get her out there and make her as independent as possible,” said her mother, Velma Christian. “I’ve taken her everywhere that a normal person would go. I try to make her life as normal as possible.”
Ms. Christian graduated from Triple C School in 2009 and hopes to eventually attend college. She goes to physical therapy a few times a week and frequently goes on drives with her father when he comes home from work. At present, much of her time during the week is spent at home, with the Christians’ live-in helper.
About a year ago, her family says, Ms. Christian’s behavior began to change. She was once an avid reader, always on the computer researching or on the phone texting with friends. Then she stopped. She began to eat less too, and became less talkative. This was something that had to be considered before making the decision to compete in the race.
“At first we were skeptical because of the change in her behavior … but we decided that we would do it,” her father, Raymond Christian, said. “It’s just a different way of motivating her, trying to reinstate that attitude that she had before.”
Over the course of training, Ms. Christian’s family has been by her side the whole way, taking photos and videos during CrossFit training, and riding in their truck behind Ms. Christian and Mr. Ruby as they run, to provide a safety barrier between them and the cars speeding by. Her 25-year-old brother has also come out to nearly every training session.
“It’s for her, so that’s all that matters to me,” Corey Christian said. “If I had the power, I would give her my legs to walk.”
In addition to her family, several other individuals make up team Nikki’s Voice. Mr. Ruby’s wife, Miles Ruby, is the team nutritionist, monitoring all of her husband’s workouts and ensuring that he has the fuel he needs to run such long distances while pushing Ms. Christian. Mr. Ruby’s daughters are part of the team too, taking photos and videos so that the world can follow Ms. Christian’s progress. The team also has an engineer who modifies the chair as issues arise during training.
The team now has three sponsors: CrossFit 7 Mile Beach, HomeGas, and a company called Zija, which provides Mr. Ruby’s nutritional drink.
When Ms. Christian and Mr. Ruby compete in December, they will be surrounded by members of the running class Mr. Ruby teaches, who will help ensure that the chair is protected in the crowd of around 2,000 runners.
“It’s an amazing team,” Ms. Christian said. “My heart is full.”
Over the course of training, her personality has become stronger – she smiles a lot, she cracks jokes, making herself and her teammates laugh. And she is becoming more like she was once, with a healthy appetite and a fondness for texting, as several early-morning texts to Mr. Ruby prove.
With the support of her team, Ms. Christian is not only finding her own voice again, but also making sure the world knows what people with disabilities can accomplish.
“When we compete in the marathon, the goal is speed,” Mr. Ruby said. “We’re not in this to survive … we’re not going to be the ‘Aww, here they come team.’ We’re going to be the … ‘they’re fast team.’”
To date, Mr. Ruby has run almost 500 miles with Ms. Christian’s chair, and she has been along for most of those. She has decided to participate in as many of Mr. Ruby’s training sessions as possible before the 26.2-mile race.
“I feel like I need to do it with him to appreciate it more,” she said.
The training has begun to intensify. They just added a weekday evening run to the schedule and are planning to run in a few races before the marathon.
After a run Wednesday evening – a 5K completed in 21 minutes and 49 seconds – the team assembled at Coconut Joe’s for dinner. Ms. Christian had some questions about the marathon for Mr. Ruby. Would she have to get up early? Yes, he said. Would they get to wear special T-shirts? Yes. All the team members will get T-shirts with blue flames on the side, just like the ones on her chair, and Ms. Christian is pretty excited about that.
“What’s [the marathon] like?” she asked Mr. Ruby.
“It’s lights and flashes and people cheering for you, people succeeding and failing. And there are people making history. Like you,” he answered.
Mr. Ruby hopes that ultimately the whole community will become a part of “Nikki’s Voice.” He encourages passers-by who see the two on the road to “honk the horn, give us some love.”
“It’s so easy to throw money at a problem and make it go away, or think you’re making it go away, but j
ust to lend somebody your ear, or lend somebody your heart, it makes a big difference,” Mr. Ruby said. “I just hope people see us and it makes their day better and makes them realize that, with a little bit of love and a little bit of gratitude, nothing is impossible.”