- Associated Press - Sunday, May 8, 2016

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) - Luke Stafford didn’t change his stride or his expression when the chant began.

Most others weren’t nearly so composed, The Oklahoman (https://bit.ly/1rXgr2S ) reported.

At the Oklahoma City Memorial Marathon, examples of guts and grit are everywhere. But last week, none was greater than the 8-year-old with cerebral palsy doing the kids’ marathon.

As he neared the finish line at the end of 1.2 miles, the rhythmic cheer began.

“Luke! Luke! Luke! Luke!”

Adults wiped tears from their eyes, but surrounded by dozens of safety runners whose job is to get every last kid across the finish line, Luke just kept right on going. Eyes straight ahead. Hands grasping his walker. Braced legs taking one small step after another.

And truthfully, Luke didn’t have anything to prove. He’s always been an active kid despite having the neurological disorder that affects his movement, coordination and balance. He even decided to do the kids’ marathon last year after hearing about it from his music teacher at Will Rogers Elementary in Shawnee. She’d done some running, and she encouraged all the students in her class to do the kids’ race.

Luke was the only one who did.

He and his parents prepared for it, walking several times a week from their house to a nearby Sonic. And when race day came, they had a great time. Luke loved it, and people loved him.

They shared his story on social media, and Luke became an inspiration to thousands.

But this year as Luke had increasing health problems, neither his dad, Ken, nor his mom, Dwyn, mentioned doing the kids’ marathon again.

Would it be too much?

Would it be impossible?

Then last week, Luke told them that he wanted to do the race again. They talked about it, and his parents’ asked him if he was sure.

But they knew he was.

“Once he sets his mind to it,” his dad said, “we’re doing it.”

They got in several walks this past week.

“We did a pretty good trip two days ago,” Luke’s older brother Ken said.

His dad said, “Of course, you have to throw in some Sonic.”

But no one knew exactly how the race would go.

Dad and brother formed a buffer around Luke at the starting line, then stayed on either side of his walker as the race started and wave after wave of children passed. Most of the kids didn’t even notice Luke, but a few saw him working his way slowly up the first hill.

“Once you get up this hill,” his dad said, “it’s all downhill.”

After a block, Luke stopped and sat down on a strap tacked to the outer bars of his walker. The brace on his left leg needed adjusting, so his dad knelt down to remove his shoe, check his brace and massage his foot while his brother stood behind the walker.

There would be lots more stops. Sometimes for a drink. Sometimes for a breather. Sometimes for a massage.

But each time, Luke grabbed the bars of his walker, pushed himself up and started again.

Walking along Sheridan between the Cox Convention Center and the Sheraton Hotel, three safety runners joined the procession. All were cross-country runners from Mustang High School, and soon, they were talking with Luke, a straight-A student who loves science and Greek mythology, about subjects they loved and teachers they hated.

Then the conversation turned to video games.

Luke talked the rest of the way, mostly to Alex Fischer, a senior at Mustang. They had a lengthy, multi-block discussion of Pokemon.

“Luke,” Fischer said at one point, “you’re my hero.”

Everyone who saw Luke felt the same way. The two little boys who ran up just to give Luke a high-five. The large group of kids and adults decked out in bright yellow Santa Fe South shirts that waited to cheer for Luke. The mom who could be heard saying to one of her young children after seeing Luke, “It is awesome that he didn’t quit.”

Luke gave a walking, talking sermon to everyone that morning.

The last couple blocks, by the way, there was no stopping. No break for drinks. No time for rest. He motored to the finish. And when he finally crossed the line to wild cheers and applause, he was spent.

“I’m about to fall to pieces,” he said as his dad cut slices off an apple that Luke shoved whole into his mouth.

But even though he was tired and hungry and sore, Luke was already thinking about coming back next year. He loves getting a medal - now, he’ll have two to hang in his room - and he would even like to help start a kids’ marathon group at his school.

“Why don’t you do that?” his dad said. “Get everybody together?”

Luke could be the first member of the group.

“I already am,” he said.

Yes, Luke. Yes, you are.

___

Information from: The Oklahoman, https://www.newsok.com

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