It is 4:15 a.m., and only empty benches and a lone security guard greet Claire Bridges (pictured) as she runs.
Claire has a condition that some would view as a setback, but for the determined runner, having cerebral palsy is only one more obstacle to face in completing the Montgomery Half-Marathon on Oct. 2.
She walks for several minutes before her early-morning workout to loosen her legs, placing her hands inside her dad's rolled-down car window to balance so she can stretch her legs -- especially her left hip flexor, made sore because of the condition that affects coordination and body movement.
Her dad, Gary Bridges, sits in the car with a stopwatch, holding it up to a streetlight to make sure it is set to 00:00, and waits for her to start her four-mile run.
He estimates it will take her 45 minutes.
The 21-year-old Claire is training for the city's second annual half marathon -- her second race at the 13.1-mile distance. Her three weekday training runs -- Mondays, Wednesdays and Thursdays -- are at The Shoppes at EastChase, and start at Gold's Gym. Saturday long runs recently have been the Montgomery Half-Marathon course, winding her through Capitol Heights, Alabama State University and Cloverdale.
Gary Bridges follows the 4-foot-11-inch runner -- "just in case" she falls or cramps and is unable to get up.
He explains this as his daughter walks more to loosen her legs. A 3:30 a.m. wake-up call only allows her to dress, hydrate and get into the car. Every minute after her arrival at Gold's Gym is crucial: warm up, run, lift weights -- and then head home to shower before classes start at Huntingdon College, where she is a senior exercise science major.
Nothing is open when Claire starts her run at EastChase. Not even Starbucks. Claire's early schedule rivals the arrival time of the food delivery drivers at Bonefish Grill. On her second lap around EastChase, they finally show up for work.
She runs, and the men watch her pass, and her dad keeps a watchful eye, never letting her out of his sight.
Claire pays the men no attention. She looks straight ahead, and keeps running with her left heel never hitting the ground. She is working on a heel-to-toe foot strike -- her cerebral palsy affects only her left side. But she said what she does now is comfortable.
"When I run, it makes me feel like I do not have a disability," she said. "I am just another runner out there getting her morning run in before I tackle another day."
The only sounds this early in the morning at EastChase are the outside sprinkler systems, Gary's radio playing classic rock, and Claire's breath whenever her dad stops his car to let her pass him.
"Good job," he calls out after her first mile lap. "About 11 minutes that first mile.
"She's looking good. She finds out that the farther she runs, the faster she is. It just takes a while to warm up. She has never complained about her ... malady. It's more, 'These are the cards I've been dealt.'"
Hazard lights on, he is there every step of the way for Claire, for the three- to four-mile weekday runs and even for the "late" training runs downtown Saturdays at 6 a.m. -- the longer, eight- to-12-mile runs to familiarize her with the Montgomery Half-Marathon course.
Asked why he sacrifices his time, Gary Bridges quickly answers, "It's no sacrifice. It's my girl. She has dreams to do stuff, and I'm going to do it with her.
"She has always wanted to run; I don't know where that came from."
He drives past Dillard's, then Mimi's Café and Game Stop.
At two miles, he hands Claire a bottle of water. She stretches for less than 30 seconds, hands the water back and takes off. Never saying a word.
Claire maintains that she has her good and bad days like any other runner.
"I have days where I do not want to get out of bed to run, and days that I know I can go just one more mile further than I planned," she said.
The list is less than a dozen, but noteworthy.
Claire finished the 2010 Mercedes Half-Marathon in 3:09:13, finishing 154th out of 159 in her 20-24-year-old age group, and finishing as the 1,530th woman -- beating about 200 women.
"There were times I thought I wasn't going to finish," she said of that race. She said she had been sick two weeks before the race and that had forced her to miss a couple of long training runs. "The longest I've run before Mercedes was eight miles."
Claire started running with a running club at Huntingdon College last year. Every year, the club trains runners to complete either a half or full marathon.
"We usually have about 50 people show up the first day of training, and ... we only took 10 to Mercedes" half and full marathon in Birmingham, said Amy Hulsey, a faculty sponsor and an accounting professor at Huntingdon.
"Claire was a steady 12-minute miler. She put in every single training time. If she couldn't meet with the group ... if she had a test to study for ... she'd hit the treadmill.
"She just loves to push herself like anyone else. She just likes to push herself physically. She has that competitive spirit."
Claire started running races in 2008 -- her first was the Jubilee 8K. She could hardly walk the next day, but it didn't stop her from returning to run it the next year.
"I started running when I was young," she said. "I had to do the one-mile every Friday when I was in the seventh grade. My goal was to get under 10 minutes. If you got under 10 minutes, you didn't have to run the mile the next Friday."
It took her several times, but she made it. She and her dad ran after dinner almost every night to practice. Just a mile. Just to do it.
Now, she is finishing her third mile on her loop-route at EastChase, and her father knows he won't be able to follow his daughter during the Montgomery Half.
Will he be nervous?
"The whole time," he said. "What makes me worry is her breathing. She wouldn't let me follow her anyway; that would embarrass her."
Watch her from a distance, and Claire's cerebral palsy isn't even noticeable. Her parents -- her mom is Jane Bridges -- didn't even realize it until she was about 3 years old.
Claire stood for the first time at 13 months, and walked at 17 months -- just over the average start-time for children. Her parents noticed, though, that as Claire started walking, she kept falling.
They learned she is a left hemiplegic. And that her case is mild. Cerebral palsy doesn't get better or worse, although the stretching from all her running helps with stiff muscles and joints. Most importantly, though, Claire doesn't let it define her.
"It's not who I am," she said. "I just wanted to be like everyone else. I always just wanted to keep up with my twin."
Her twin, Meggie, also is a senior at Huntingdon. They have a brother, Caleb, 23, and another sister, Hannah, 26.
There are five scars on Claire's left leg. She had major surgery when she was 7, part of which was done to lengthen her hamstring.
The 2007 Brewbaker Technology Magnet High School graduate said having cerebral palsy is something that forces her to work harder for what she wants -- to learn to overcome obstacles she may face along the way.
One obstacle is learning how to ride a bike. A huge goal of hers is to compete in a triathlon. First, she has to learn how to balance on a bike.
"I have the swimming and running parts down for the triathlon," she said. "Just not the bike. Having CP, my balance and coordination are not very good."
At just 21 years old, Claire has had to overcome a lot of stares, a lot of questions, and a lot of providing the same answers to why she walks and runs differently.
"When I was younger, I was really shy and didn't have a lot of confidence in myself, mostly because of having CP," she said. "I was afraid of what everyone thought of me. Today, I have a lot more confidence in myself and things I do."
Her dad thinks somewhere, somebody must have said something to her.
"Or, it could be her mama's and my fault," he said. "We were probably overprotective, but as a parent, what are you supposed to do?"
After Claire's third mile on her early morning training run, she quits talking to her dad.
"Yeah, she's 'in' now," he explains of her focus.
He moves on, and soon drives past Five Guys Burgers and Fries.
Gary Bridges thinks his daughter has something to prove.
If anything, like any daughter, she likes to prove him wrong, but usually comes back with a "You were right."
Like, not being triathlon ready because of the imbalance on the bike. Needing new running shoes -- she was content wearing her old ones until after the Montgomery Half. Dad convinced her otherwise, and she shaved four minutes off a training run.
Her training this morning at EastChase is complete. She ran four miles, and followed it up with an hour workout at Gold's Gym -- where she focused on her shoulders, and for fun, her abs.
It is now 6:15 a.m. The sun is just starting to rise. Claire has already finished her two-hour workout as more people begin to show up at the gym.
Claire hopes to finish Saturday's half marathon in less than three hours, but won't be bothered if she finishes between 2:30 or 2:45. Her training has been on pace to meet that goal.
She has run parts of the training course about 10 times, so she knows it well. Still, there are internal doubts.
"It's not the pain, because I know I can cover the distance," she said. "It is a confidence issue.
"There are some days I can do the four miles in 40 minutes, but sometimes, I do 11-minute miles. I beat myself up if I don't run what I wanted to, or if I missed a run, or a workout."
It is what a runner says. If her goal is to fit in, she's there.
Thursday, September 30, 2010
Montgomery Advertiser in Alabama:
Posted by BA Haller at 8:44 PM