Programming note: To learn more about the disability community, watch the upcoming episode of “United Shades of America with W. Kamau Bell” on Sunday at 10 p.m. ET/PT.
For many with cerebral palsy, the mere thought of running – let alone running a half marathon – would seem like an impossible dream. However, for Justin Gallegos, that dream became a reality on April 29 as he crossed the finish line at the 2018 Eugene Half Marathon in Eugene, Oregon.
A huge NASCAR fan, Gallegos grew up idolizing Dale Earnhardt Jr. However, he could only dream of racing around the track and competing as an athlete. As a child, he had to use a walker to assist him until he was in kindergarten, and he went through years of physical therapy to straighten his gait. Little did he know that he would one day be competing on a race track of his own, in custom-made Nike running shoes.
Gallegos, 20, was born with cerebral palsy, a neurological disorder that affects muscle coordination and body movement. There are varying degrees of cerebral palsy and it affects individuals in different ways. Some may be paralyzed and require around-the-clock care, while others may only be partially impaired. According to the Cerebral Palsy Foundation, one in three people affected by cerebral palsy are unable to walk. For Gallegos, while he is able to walk and even run, his path to become one of the few able-bodied people with cerebral palsy to complete a half marathon certainly did not come easily.
“Yes, I had accommodations in school,” says Gallegos. “Yes, I had to go to therapy and doctor’s appointments and meetings in school to address my disability. But at home, my parents treated me like I was a normal kid. The mentality in my home, it was never, ‘Oh, my kid has a disability. We need to look for handouts, or whatever should we do?’ I think the reason I am where I am today is because of my parents. They don’t look for excuses, and they treated me like my disability wasn’t there.”
That mentality helped give Gallegos the courage to give sports a shot. His father, Brent, played football in high school, so he wanted to follow in his footsteps. However, concerned about the dangers, his father persuaded him to give cross-country running a chance. It was then, as a freshman in high school six years ago, that his passion for running began.
To say that things were tough when he first began to run would be an understatement. He would often come home with cuts, scrapes and bruises on his elbows and knees. His father even bought him kneepads to help protect his joints from the constant wear and tear. Through it all, Gallegos persevered even when his father voiced concerns.
“I never thought about quitting or anything like that – it’s not who I am, and it’s not in my nature,” he tells me. “If something stands in my way, I’ll find a way around it or find a way to deal with it head on. That’s not denying that things were tough in the very beginning. I did fall down a lot and it did hurt.”
Gallegos had to rewire his body to run. He dragged his feet a lot, which caused him to fall. So he had to learn an entirely different way to move his body, forcing himself to pick up his feet and lift his knees more. Over time, he was able to strengthen his muscles, improve his coordination and fix his gait to the point where he no longer needed those kneepads.
“I would say it took me at least my whole freshman year and going into my sophomore year for me to begin to really improve my stride and my technique,” he says. “It was in my sophomore year that I saw a significant difference, but in regards to falling, once my body was able to pick up on those movements, I started falling less as the years went by and my times dropped significantly.”
Gallegos is enrolled at the University of Oregon where he is studying journalism. A member of the track club, it was there that Gallegos first entertained the idea of attempting to run a half marathon. Through the help of a friend, he was connected with the Nike Sports Lab, where they worked with him on his quest to complete his first half marathon.
“Working with Nike has been a dream come true,” Gallegos says. “It’s definitely more than I ever could’ve expected. At first, I thought they were just going to give me some shoes to try out, but it turned into something more, where they actually wanted to bring me onto the project and hear my voice and opinions and figure out from an actual disabled person’s standpoint how we can make this shoe better.”
As a forefoot striker, Gallegos puts significantly more pressure on the front of his feet, which causes his shoes to wear down at a much quicker pace. This is common among many disabled people, so the team at Nike focused on reinforcing that area to allow for more cushioning and durability while also helping with stability. Nike also offers a special series of shoes called FlyEase, which swaps the laces out for a zipper-and-strap system to make it easier for people like Gallegos to get in and out of his shoes.
“I’m not doing this just for me,” says Gallegos. “It means a lot knowing that I have a say and a voice representing the shoes that potentially thousands and thousands of disabled people are going to be putting on their feet. I have a tremendous opportunity here.”
Gallegos did his part, ramping up his training and averaging close to 30 miles a week. In total, he logged over 250 training miles while preparing for the Eugene Half Marathon, and he set two goals for himself: to finish the race and to complete it under two hours. Things were certainly not easy, as he battled foot cramps at points throughout the race, which forced him to slow down to let his legs relax and to catch his breath. He hit a wall near the 11-mile marker, where things began to get really tough. However, he would not give up, pushing through to get to the finish line.
While he fell short of breaking the two-hour mark, clocking in at 2:03:49, he had a clear message that he wanted to share with the world: “It doesn’t matter what others say or do, your only limit is your mind!”
Running a half marathon was the toughest thing he’s ever done, but it was also the most gratifying. “I was very happy,” Gallegos says of crossing the finish line. “I put in so many hours of training for this. I committed myself to this, and I made a goal and I made it happen.”
With a half marathon under his belt, Gallegos has his sights set on eventually running a full marathon. But he doesn’t plan to stop there, as he ultimately wants to represent the United States as a Paralympian.
“It means a lot to be able to call myself an athlete,” Gallegos says. “I worked very hard to get to where I am today. I set out on this journey to show that you are not defined by your body – you are only defined by your mind. So, I believe everyone has the capability of being an athlete.”