Peyton Howard doesn’t let his stroller define his lifestyle. Despite not being able to walk, he maintains a fairly active lifestyle for someone with disabilities.
Peyton, who turns 10 years old Sunday, is going to make history Saturday at the Owensboro Invitational cross country meet. Peyton was diagnosed with quadriplegic cerebral palsy just before he turned 1, but he hasn’t let that stop him from being involved with racing.
Although Peyton can’t run himself, he’s done stroller racing for almost 3 years. With the help of Country Heights 4th-grader Jonah Murphy, Peyton will compete for the Daviess County team in a 1K race at the Invitational Saturday.
It’s the first time Peyton has raced with anyone besides Jeff Miller, and on a bigger scale, it’s the first time anyone has competed in a stroller at a KHSAA sanctioned event. Miller, who founded Team Karlie, has been the biggest proponent for Howard’s racing, took it upon himself to get approval all the way to the state level.
Miller first went to DCMS coach Josh Murphy — Jonah’s dad — who was completely on board. Owensboro Invitational director and high school coach Gary Mesplay was also supportive, so Miller went to local official Craig Hopkins, who didn’t have an answer because it’s never been done before.
“Craig contacted whoever is in charge in Lexington that deals with the officials,” Miller said. “They said the same thing. ‘We can’t say no because it’s never happened. They had a meeting and said yes.’”
That’s all it took, and now Peyton is looking forward to another race. He and Miller have competed more than 20 times in the last 3 years, but they shared an instant connection the first time they met.
Peyton started attending Puzzle Pieces around 8 years old when his family was soon approached by a few people representing team Karlie. Peyton’s parents, Misty and Clint said they weren’t sure about joining at first, but any doubts went away after the first meeting with Miller.
“They’re best buddies,” Misty said. “Jeff just stepped in from the very beginning when they asked us about joining Team Karlie. From the first time we met him, you could tell he and Peyton really clicked. He’s always been so good with Peyton and goes above and beyond to do things like this and get him involved in so much.”
It has been a long road for Peyton to get to this point. He was born premature and had to stay in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at St. Mary’s Health Hospital in Evansville. At 2½ months old, doctors did a brain ultrasound and found a few cysts. Less than a year later they got the full diagnosis, that he had a severe case of cerebral palsy.
Peyton’s mind doesn’t always cooperate with his body, but that doesn’t stop him from enjoying life and being involved in as much as he can. He’s always been quick to love adventure — his brother used to push him when they were younger, and when they crashed Peyton would always laugh. Now, he prefers rocky rides over smooth ones.
“From the time he was little, the things you would think would make him timid or scared, he loved it,” Misty said. “The faster and bumpier, the better.”
Howard enjoys more than just the races — he likes to show off his accomplishments. He has a full trophy case at home, and it’s been nothing but fun for him since the beginning.
“As soon as we strapped him in, he was ready to go,” Clint said. “He wants to show his medal off to everybody as soon as we leave. We’ll go somewhere and he holds it just as proud as can be.”
Misty said it isn’t always easy seeing Peyton want to do things everyone else does, so they go out of their way to help him be able to enjoy things.
“Ever since he was little, we’ve tried to always get him involved in everything we could to help him not feel left out and keep him active,” Misty said. “He wants to do everything so bad, and that kind of kills you as a parent because we’d love for him to be able to do it. Now that he’s getting a little bit older, he’s noticing even more what he can’t do, and that breaks your heart. That’s why we try to go above and beyond to get him involved in everything.”
Now, they’re excited to see Peyton have the chance to do something groundbreaking with a fellow student. Jonah said he wasn’t sure about it at first, but after some thought was eager to be involved. His dad wasn’t surprised that Jonah decided to help.
“He has such a sweet spirit and a real soft heart,” Josh said of his son. “He knew it would be challenging and he was a little inquisitive, but he’s excited about doing it.”
Josh recently got involved in stroller racing and is happy they can bring that into the school system.
“It’s different, and it makes you appreciate certain things in life,” Josh said. “You can help other people out and bring joy to other people. It’s awesome. I’m glad my son gets to be a part of something so awesome.”
Miller is hoping that Peyton’s participation will start a movement in the school system. Long-term, he’d like to see a whole category of racing for children with disabilities.
“Hopefully, if it catches on, we could have a separate division in the meets,” he said. “Peyton’s a groundbreaker, and hopefully people out here on the day of the meet see this and think ‘I’d like for my kid to do that.’ We want to give anybody with physical challenges the opportunity to do what everyone else does.”
It’s the first time Peyton will be racing without Miller, but the two definitely plan to keep competing together — and competing is no understatement.
“It’s like we’re both participating in the race,” Miller said. “He likes to race. He likes to be competitive. There’s been times where I thought I was on my last stride, and he says faster. We’ve had a blast doing it.”
Miller said there have been plenty of times he was ready to slow down, but Peyton always keeps him pushing further, and he has no plans of stopping any time soon.
“He motivates me,” Miller said. “I run a lot harder than if I was just doing it by myself, I guarantee you. As long as I can stay upright, we’ll do it.”
Misty said they are thankful for Miller, and none of this would have been possible if he had never gotten involved.
“When this came along and Jeff came along, it was such a blessing,” she said. “It’s wonderful. We love it for Peyton to be able to have all these different opportunities that if it wasn’t for Jeff and everybody else, he wouldn’t have that chance. It means the world to us, because it definitely means the world to him.”
About Team Karlie
As stated on their website, “Team Karlie’s mission is to provide people with physical disabilities the use of a special jogging stroller so they can participate in the sport of running. Team Karlie wants others who can’t walk or run to experience the energy and excitement of racing. Those with physical disabilities often feel frustrated by their limited mobility and the sport of running is something they would not be able to experience without the use of the special jogging strollers.”
Team Karlie began in March of 2009 for Karlie Hempel, who was born with cerebral palsy. Miller pushed Hempel in her first race, with fellow student Lauren Tucker running by their side the entire way.