If you LOVE Disney and you LOVE running, then running Disney can often be the pinnacle of one’s racing career! While there are those who compete to win in events all around the country, many of us simply run because we love it, and if you love all things Disney too, then you would agree that there is not a better place to run than at Walt Disney World! This is my and my daughter’s case. While we sound pretty typical thus far, we run Disney differently than most people do. I run with my daughter, but not side by side. Rather, Courteney “runs” in front of me, while I run behind her. It’s not because she’s faster but it’s because Courteney gets pushed in her running wheelchair.
My daughter Courteney is not just physically impaired, but also cognitively impaired and extremely medically fragile. But running does something amazing to her and for her…it makes her go fast, the wind blowing in her face makes her smile, having one-on-one dad and daughter time creates a special bond and the adrenaline of running gets her right “happy arm” swaying and swinging. This girl knows what makes her happy and knows how to have fun! Running has changed her life (and mine!) and brought so much purpose and joy to her! My hope is that her story inspires you greatly!
Four years ago while at the Cleveland Zoo, I was made aware of a 5K event being held there soon. I thought about the hills there and how Courteney loves moving fast in her wheelchair – she waves her “happy arm” to let us know – and so I decided running there would probably be something that she would love. And sure enough, she did. While I was sweating bullets running Courteney all over Northeast Ohio, as she continued to wave her happy arm like a true princess would do waving to the crowd. We quickly progressed from 5Ks to 10Ks over the next year…leading us to the winter of 2014.
Walt Disney World has been a very special place for Courteney and our family. She had her Make-A-Wish trip there back in 2006 and her brother Kevin had his Make-A-Wish trip in 2014. And in-between, and after, we’ve visited multiple times. If you know Disney is special, just take imagine what WDW does for kids who have challenges. In the midst of doing life with a child(ren) with a disability and so much of life not working and so many places not working, all of a sudden you step onto Main Street U.S.A. and you realize very quickly that something is entirely different. You realize that it’s magical, it’s accepting, almost all the attractions are accessible and the characters open their arms wide to your child…there’s something uniquely different about Disney. This is why WDW has truly meant the WORLD to our family. It’s a place where dreams and wishes have come true for us all in our house. It was at the end of 2014, just after she turned 14, that I realized that I would love nothing more than to push her in the runDisney Glass Slipper Challenge for her 16th birthday (Feb 2017). Due to some very unexpected, life threatening health circumstances that came up in Courteney’s life in early 2015, I realized at that time that the time was NOW for the Glass Slipper Challenge! None of us are guaranteed tomorrow and with the medical challenges that were on the horizon for Courteney, I didn’t want to miss an opportunity like this with her. That realization led to the decision to tackle the Challenge in February of 2016, just after her 15th birthday.
Soon after though, I found out that runDisney had not had any individuals with mobility aids (wheelchairs, crutches, walkers, etc.) participate in past Disney races (though I’ve heard that it did happen at least once several years prior) for safety reasons. But in April of 2015, with a great deal of determination and persistence (and along with meeting the typical runner requirements…and a few safety accommodations!) Courteney was invited to register for, and participate in, the Glass Slipper Challenge while being pushed in her racing wheelchair for the 2016 event… thus making her THE FIRST person approved to participate by being pushed in a running chair in the Disney Princess Half Marathon Weekend. She was, and continues to be, a trailblazer! runDisney stated that they wanted to be more inclusive! Way to go Disney!!!! And because of her efforts, others were, and continue to be, approved to “run” in wheelchairs also, including in the 2016 Walt Disney World Marathon weekend just a month before we’d run. At the time, Courteney was going to participate in what could have literally been the race of her lifetime! Little did we know that we’d make a habit out of this! After running in the magical event in 2016, we were set to do it again in 2017, and so we did! And we’re already registered to head back there next February for the 5th anniversary of the Challenge.
Sure there were lots of tedious tasks to take care of in the process leading up to race weekend – from securing an accessible room at Pop Century to making sure Mears had wheelchair transportation available to and from the races. But, any special needs family traveling to Disney has to make accommodations, so I didn’t let my mind get wrapped up in the “usual” details for us. Instead, I thought about the unchartered waters we were heading into. Honestly, words cannot truly express the vast emotions and feelings that ran through my body and mind on that Saturday morning, on our very first race day at Epcot for the 10K.
First, the early morning! Wow, taking care of a medically fragile child is often round the clock, but having to make a conscious effort to wake up by 2:00 AM, to be on a bus by 3:45 AM, and to the ADA tent by 4:30 for the start was definitely a new experience for us! But, from the moment we stepped onto the bus headed to Epcot, I knew it was going to be magical. Before we traveled to Florida, word of her historic achievement had spread across multiple news outlets and formats across the country. And so there we were on a packed bus of runners and we found quickly that multiple people had heard of Courteney’s story. Person after person came up to her to meet her and congratulate her! I was quickly overcome with complete joy, knowing that it was all so worth the effort! We were last to unload from the busses, and as we stepped out, the entire group of runners that had been with us formed a human archway with “spirit” fingers for Courteney to roll under, celebrating her as she headed to the tents! It was so surreal. But, it just got better and better! After checking in with the ADA folks, we were escorted to the front of corral A for a special start. As we passed thousands of runners in all the corrals we heard intense, loud cheering for Courteney. I think I cried for an hour afterwards just thinking about the love being shown to her and of how proud I was of her! While we have had tons of incredible experiences at WDW and Disneyland, before and after that weekend, both on family trips or running related, that single moment of walking through the crowd to the front stands as my favorite Disney memory of all time – hands down!
If you’ve ever run at WDW then you know what a course experience is like – second to none! The excitement that Courteney and I had in running through Epcot and the Magic Kingdom that weekend, from the sights and sounds to meeting so many of our favorite characters (and especially even those hard to find ones too) was pure magic! Not a single race we’ve ever done, or ever will do, outside of another runDisney event could, or ever, will compare! The courses were so entertaining and exciting… I mean, who wouldn’t want to run through Cinderella Castle, right? We even had countless fellow runners, spectators, and even two cast members cheering for Courteney by name, saying that they had heard her story. In fact, she was even referred to as the “Princess from Ohio” at one point – truly priceless!! Then, crossing the finish line was as exhilarating! Knowing the obstacles, both health related and running related, that we had faced made it so worth it! And to top it off, the race volunteer assigned to assist us that weekend allowed my wife, Christine, to present us with our medals at the finish line. Amazing!!!
But, our story hardly finishes with race weekend 2016! Since then, we’ve run many more half marathons, including participating once again in the 2017 Princess Half Marathon weekend. And, I am so thrilled to share that Courteney was one of 8 pushchair wheelchair runners participating in one or more of the events that weekend. (I’ve even heard that there have been others who have participated in runDisney’s other offerings – AWESOME!!) It was truly exciting and an honor to meet these new friends, just as it was as great in seeing again many runners whom we had met the previous year, even becoming friends with some too! Like I mentioned, her story garnered lots of attention throughout the country, so while that was great for Courteney, my wife and I have always worked to instill a belief in our children about giving back. Despite Courteney’s multiple, severe medical disabilities, we want her to know the importance of giving and that she is able to do so. When we finally ran the GSC in 2016, I realized during that event, that it was time to create a non-profit charity and run for amazing causes that directly impact the special needs community; so, Team Boyle Foundation was formed. Our goal is to “run with purpose.” And in doing so, Courteney has been able to raise over $20,000 for both local and international special needs causes near and dear to our heart just from running Disney!!
We know that we are not promised a tomorrow, so in the meantime, we will continue to run every February, for as long as we are physically able, with the ultimate goal of making a difference in the world. Whether you are participating in a runDisney event for pleasure, or running to overcome your own obstacles, I encourage you to “run with purpose” too! You can make a difference in your own life and in the life of others around you.
Dan Boyle is loving husband and father to two very special teenagers. He is a 6th grade math teacher, lover of all things Disney, and avid runner. He and his daughter Courteney became the first duo to be allowed to use a running push-wheelchair to compete in the runDisney Princess Half Marathon Glass Slipper Challenge in 2016. After competing again in 2017, they plan to continue to run in that and many other races for as long as humanly possible! In addition, he and his family started the non-profit Team Boyle Foundation as a way to race and raise money to help promote awareness and support for the special needs community. Follow his journey at www.facebook.com/