- Associated Press - Saturday, November 19, 2016

PITTSBURGH (AP) - When she stepped to the starting line, Madeline King did not think she would win.

Her coach, who had quietly checked in with her all season to see how she was feeling, was hoping merely for a top-10 finish. Her parents were hopeful, but they knew better than anyone what Madeline had been through just to make it to the starting line.

Then the race began.

It was a warm day, Oct. 19, when Pittsburgh Public Schools held its middle school cross country championships at Schenley Park.

All 74 runners had to qualify to be here. They were the best of the best, and when a group of eight runners pulled away from the field, 13-year-old Madeline was among them.

“I was thinking, ‘This is my last race, and I want to win,’” recalled Madeline, an eighth-grader at Colfax Elementary School in Squirrel Hill. “I wanted to show people that even if you have a serious disease, you can still be as strong as everyone else, that you can still win races and compete, that it doesn’t hold you back.”

In keeping with her running style, Madeline went out hard. Her times are better when she pushes from the start rather than saving energy for a strong finish.

Still, halfway through the 2-mile race, two girls broke away from the lead group. Madeline was stuck in fourth place, falling as much as a quarter-mile behind the leader.

The odds, it seemed, were too much to overcome.

Madeline was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease at age 7, after doctors discovered at her annual checkup that she had stopped growing. Crohn’s disease can cause abdominal pain, diarrhea, weight loss, anemia and fatigue. In some cases, it is life-threatening.

Madeline lost weight and became anemic. She fell into a constant cycle of remission and flare-up. Her parents watched helplessly as doctors tried new drugs and suggested various diets. Nothing worked.

Then it got worse.

When Madeline entered sixth grade, her symptoms went from moderate to severe. During one family vacation, she was in so much pain she could barely leave the couch. In seventh grade, she missed all or part of 40 school days. The isolation led to loneliness.

“Sometimes you feel like you’re just like everybody else, and then you have that constant reminder that there’s something bad in your life,” she said. “You just have to get through it. You have to pay attention to the great things in your life and not the bad things. But you definitely feel left out of situations.”

Through all the pain, Madeline insisted on playing soccer and running cross country.

Identifying as an athlete made her feel normal, even when she wasn’t.

At home, the pain could be so severe that she would cradle her stomach.

In competition, she always found a way to overcome.

As she did Oct. 19.

Madeline focused. She passed a runner and moved into third place. She zeroed in on the girl in second. And she started gaining on her.

Her dad, Andy King, waited for her before the final big hill, less than a half-mile from the finish. When he saw the lead runner, he thought: Nobody’s catching her.

The second-place runner came into view, and then Madeline.

Andy King watched the leader slow as she climbed the hill. Then Madeline moved into second place and attacked the hill. They disappeared from view with less than 400 meters to go.

Madeline’s mom, Wendy King, waited near the finish line. She noted the lead runner’s pink tights and fair hair and thought: That’s Madeline! She’s in first.

She was in first because near the top of that last hill, Madeline broke into a sprint. She told herself: There’s enough oxygen when you finish. Right now, just run!

She blew past the lead runner without slowing. She wanted to demoralize her competitor, to state clearly that she would not be caught. She closed her eyes and pumped her arms and legs.

Madeline remembers only the pain. She has Crohn’s-related arthritis in both knees, and this season she battled shin splints that required her legs to be heavily taped before every race.

Everything hurt.

Yet she pulled away.

She crossed the finish line first, in 14 minutes, 39 seconds, and collapsed.

Her parents, coach and other racers congratulated her.

Race officials placed a medal around her neck and presented the school with a trophy.

Madeline King was the winner.

Not a girl with a debilitating disease.

Just the winner.

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Online:

https://bit.ly/2fPmrYG

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Information from: Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, https://pghtrib.com

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