Hattiesburg Half Marathon Featured Athlete Inspires Runners Nationwide
The Pinebelt Foundation has named Kayleigh Williamson, the first woman with Down Syndrome to complete the Austin Half Marathon, the feature athlete for the upcoming Hattiesburg Half Marathon, 10k, and 5k sponsored in part by Forrest General Hospital. The Foundation chose Williamson to represent the race because of her determination and the example she sets to work hard for health.
“We could not be prouder to have Kayleigh as the Hattiesburg Half Marathon feature athlete. Kayleigh’s spirit is contagious and her motivation is unstoppable. Kayleigh is an inspiration to runners and non-runners alike. Her journey is planting a seed for so many people to look inside themselves and give the impossible a try,” said Rhonda Hayden, race director and development director, The Pinebelt Foundation.
Williamson started running in 2014 with her eye on completing a half marathon in 2016. Leading up to Williamson’s decision to train for a half marathon, her mother, Sandy Williamson, had become concerned for her daughter’s health as well as her own. They both weighed over 200 pounds, and in addition to being pre-diabetic, Kayleigh Williamson had developed two autoimmune disorders, idiopathic thrombocytopenic purpura, ITP, and Graves’ Disease, along with sleep apnea. ITP is a disorder that can lead to excessive bruising or bleeding, which is generally cause by unusually low blood platelet levels. Graves’ Disease is a common disorder that effects the thyroid gland. The turning point came for Sandy Williamson after her mother had suffered her second stroke.
“I saw the path it was taking my mom down, and I did not want to go down that path. Now my mom has stage 7 Alzheimer’s disease. I started doing the 5ks and joining Weight Watchers. I did my first half marathon in 2013, and then did a full marathon in 2014. At that time, Kayleigh asked if she could join Weight Watchers also, and she started doing some 5ks. She wanted to do a half marathon in 2016, and that’s when we started training for it,” Williamson said.
Sandy and Kayleigh Williamson completely overhauled their diets, cutting out soda and fast food and following the Weight Watchers points system. When Kayleigh Williamson began her marathon training, she ran 30 minute miles. She completed the 2017 Austin Half Marathon in six and a half hours and since then, has improved her time with every race cutting nearly 2 full hours from her time the following year.
Williamson said, “Just seeing the benefits of this lifestyle for Kayleigh’s health—she no longer has sleep apnea, and she’s no longer pre-diabetic. Seeing the change in her total quality of life has just kept us going. Plus, it’s a community that’s totally opening its arms and saying they love having her there. They love having both of us there.”
Kayleigh Williamson enjoys other endeavors as well including participating in the Special Olympics and encouraging others through Kayleigh’s Club, her non-profit running club in Austin, Texas. One of the Kayleigh’s Club runners, Gabby, will run the Hattiesburg 5k; it will be her first official 5k.
“I see the difference in their health. I see the difference in their quality of life, and to see that impact, there is some pride in that. There is some pride in knowing that our ultimate goal is to get others to see past the way we have always seen our kids and see them for being a healthier version of themselves,” said Sandy Williamson.
Williamson said it is humbling to see the impact she and Kayleigh have made on others through their running and through Kayleigh’s Club.
“I cannot think of a more deserving athlete to represent the Hattiesburg Half Marathon. Kayleigh has made great strides toward improving her overall health and continues to encourage and empower others to take those steps as well. Kayleigh has made a positive impact not only on herself and family, but on her community in Austin, Texas and on a national scale through the attention and praise she received after finishing her first half marathon. She is exactly the type of athlete we want to see representing the marathon and our community,” said Millie Swan, vice president, Forrest Health. Forrest General Hospital is the title sponsor of the Hattiesburg Half Marathon.
This half marathon holds special meaning for the pair because of their early ties to the Hattiesburg community. Sandy Williamson graduated from Southern Miss in 1991, and Kayleigh was born in McComb, Mississippi in 1990. Mother and daughter lived in Hattiesburg for a year before moving to Austin, Texas.
Williamson said, “We lived on welfare and donations, so some Sunday school classes at Temple Baptist Church and University Baptist Church kind of adopted us. They provided Kayleigh with diapers. They provided some vouchers for gas in my car my senior year until I graduated. So there is a significant meaning behind us doing a race in Hattiesburg.”
Williamson is looking forward to visiting Hattiesburg again and seeing how much has changed since she moved.
She said, “I think the race for me is going to be very nostalgic, because I haven’t been back to Hattiesburg since I graduated. I figure a lot has changed. For me, it’s important because it’s like coming back to my roots.”
There is still plenty of time to sign up for the Hattiesburg Half Marathon, 10k, and 5k. Or come out Saturday, April 6, to cheer for Kayleigh and the other runners competing this year. For more information or to register, visit https://www.rnshattiesburg.com/.
Register for the Rise and Shine Hattiesburg 5k, 10k and Half Marathon
Join Kayleigh in running the inaugural Hattiesburg Half Marathon or the 5k or 10k on April 6.