It’s fair to say that Kelly Russell has a lot on her plate.
A single mom with two small children—one of whom has autism—she is employed as a full-time reading teacher at the Westhampton Beach Middle School, a job requiring that she commute each weekday from her home in Wantagh in Nassau County.
Despite those challenges, Russell has dedicated herself, and her scant free time, to a pursuit many would consider madness even in the most favorable life conditions: training for marathons and Ironman triathlons.
But there’s a motivation behind Russell’s apparent madness, one that goes deeper than the standard Type A-personality desire to push one’s physical and mental capacities to the brink. Russell says she was driven to take up long-distance running, with the goal of completing a marathon, after watching her 7-year-old son, Jackson, and his daily struggles with autism.
Russell was supposed to run in the ING New York City Marathon in 2012, but was one of many whose dreams were dashed by Hurricane Sandy, which forced the race’s cancellation. After an extra year of waiting, Russell finally achieved that major goal, finishing this year’s marathon in 3 hours, 57 minutes. She ran in honor of Jackson, and raised more than $3,000 for Autism Speaks, one of the world’s leading autism science and advocacy organizations, dedicated to funding research for a cure for autism and increasing awareness of autism spectrum disorders.
During the race, which she describes as an extremely emotional experience, Russell had her son’s name drawn on her arm, with a heart around it, in black Sharpie pen.
“I got to run with thousands upon thousands of people, and it was so awe inspiring,” Russell said. “When I got through the finish line, I cried.”
Thoughts of both of her children—she also has a 6-year-old named Molly—got Russell through the toughest parts of the race, she said.
“Every step I took was nothing compared to the work and effort, and beautiful accomplishments, of my son,” she said. “I’m so blessed to have him and be his mother. He gave me the strength to keep going in the tough miles. When I race, I repeat his name and my daughter’s name in my head when it gets hard. I want to be a good role model for them.”
Russell said that while she was disappointed when last year’s marathon was canceled, she now views it as a blessing. “Now that I’ve run it, I realize that I wasn’t prepared then,” she explained.
In the last year, Russell not only kicked up her training, but also decided what her next challenge would be. She’s currently in training for the Ironman Triathlon in Lake Placid that’s scheduled for July 27, 2014. Ironman triathlons start with a 2.4-mile swim, followed by a 112-mile bike ride and a marathon race (26.2 miles).
It’s clear that Russell has an uncommon level of self-motivation, though she notes that support from family and friends has been a huge factor in her ability to get into what she says is the “best shape of my life,” and make competing in these grueling events a possibility. Russell trains with the Wildwood Warriors, a group of like-minded individuals with personal goals for competing in marathons and triathlons. They complete training swims in Wildwood Lake in Northampton, and run and bike together as well. Sixteen members of the group will be competing in the Lake Placid Ironman, and Russell says the group is like a family.
Russell’s actual family has been a big factor in her success as well. Her parents, Donna and Richard Russell, who live nearby, often come to her house in the pre-dawn hours to watch her children so she can get in a training run.
All the sacrifices Russell has to make to train at a high level are well worth it, she says. As she’s trained and improved her times, as well as her fitness and endurance levels, Russell has seen a parallel level of improvement in her son’s life and his ability to cope with the challenges of autism. He moved out of a BOCES school and into a regular school district, started taking Tae Kwon Do classes and joined the Boy Scouts, and has made strides socially, making new friends and winning awards at school, according to his mother.
“He’s doing things with neurotypical children, and aside from his speech impediment, people really aren’t aware of his diagnosis,” she said.
Russell added that her son knew she was racing for him, and referred to this year’s New York City Marathon as “his” race. “It felt very metaphorical to me,” she continued. “I was accomplishing something after seeing my child accomplish so much.”
Russell said her son has come a very long way since his initial diagnosis, and she has as well.
“When he was first diagnosed, he didn’t speak and was incredibly aggressive,” she said. “In some ways, it feels like a death sentence. You’re sitting in the doctor’s office and you think they’ll never talk, they’ll never fall in love, they’ll never have a life. But then you say to yourself, ‘No, this is not the way.’”
Russell said she reached out to Autism Speaks early on, and that the group has been extremely helpful and supportive. She also did her best to find doctors and behavioral therapists who could help her son. As for her running career, Russell said she could barely reach the end of the block without getting winded when she first started out. She explained that her son’s struggles motivated her from the beginning.
“He had hurdles he was trying to overcome, and I was going to do the same,” she said.
Russell’s friends have been impressed by her dedication, and that group includes John Graziano, one of the founding members of the Wildwood Warriors. Graziano noted that Russell has made “an amazing transition” in the last year in terms of her progress as a runner and triathlete, stating that she has a single-mindedness that keeps her focused.
“She spends as much time as she can doing training and being there for her kids,” he said. “She doesn’t go out partying; she’s focused on what she does. I give her a lot of kudos for it, especially with a son who has autism.”
Graziano added that the Wildwood Warriors have grown in popularity as well. The group, whose numbers have grown from five just a year ago to more than 100 today, offers members a camaraderie that comes with such a grueling training schedule.
“We’re a bunch of Type A’s,” he said. “We’re the kind of people that wake up at four and go to bed at 11.”
And it is a lifestyle that won’t change anytime soon for Russell, who has her sights set on ultra-marathons after she tackles the Lake Placid Ironman, which she hopes is just the first of several Ironman triathlons in her future. She also wants to run the New York City Marathon again and, hopefully, qualify for the Boston Marathon.