When participants in the Oklahoma City Memorial Marathon stood ready at the starting line for this year’s run on April 29, among them were two friends taking the run of their lifetimes – seasoned runner Rian Smoak and Puyallup tribal member Bryce Wooten. What is so special about these two is that Bryce has had cerebral palsy since birth, never having walked a step much less taken part in a marathon. But thanks to Rian’s big heart and desire to share the thrill of competition with Bryce, there they were among the huge crowd in position for the starting pistol at 6:25 a.m. – 25,000 runners from all 50 states and 13 countries.
Both of them put in a lot of time together getting physically and mentally prepared for the big day, and the hard work paid off handsomely. Setting a goal to complete the 13.1-mile half-marathon in 2 hours and 30 minutes, they crossed the finish line in 2 hours and 8 minutes.
“We crushed our time,” Bryce said, proud of the medal he received that were given to all competitors who completed the race.
“The cheers from the crowd were phenomenal,” Rian said the day after the race. Bryce, too, was amazed at how much the crowd encouraged him and Rian to keep going.
“I was definitely proud to be an Oklahoman yesterday,” Bryce said.
With the adrenaline and emotions so high during the race, both of them were so pumped that they ran the first 8 miles in under an hour such that they had to slow down and pace themselves.
And they aren’t stopping there. Now that warmer weather has arrived, opportunities for working out together outdoors will amplify their teamwork. After the Oklahoma City Memorial Marathon, Bryce and Rian will do bike rides, swims (with Bryce in an inflatable kayak being pulled by Rian), and more together. Their plan is to run in the New York and Boston Marathons and even complete a triathlon.
“Our goal is to do many things,” Rian said. “We’re on fire. We’re learning so much about what we want to do, so let’s see where this goes.”
In September, they plan to take part in the 14th annual Redman Triathlon in Oklahoma, a 70.3-mile test of endurance that includes a 1.2-mile swim, a 56-mile bike ride and a 13.1 half-marathon. This race is organized by Native American athletes, and on the Redman Triathlon website it states how “Oklahoma” is a word coined by the Native American missionary Allen Wright. He combined the two Choctaw works “ukla,” meaning “man,” and “huma,” meaning “red,” to form the word that first appeared in an 1866 Choctaw treaty.
Rian and Bryce are sponsored by Red Coyote Running and Fitness in Oklahoma, one of the top running equipment suppliers in the country and title sponsor of the Oklahoma City Memorial Marathon. Red Coyote hooked Bryce up with all kinds of running gear, and it pleased Rian to no end, seeing as he has been partnering with them for several years for his own running endeavors.
A VISION MADE REAL
Rian’s friendship with Bryce’s family goes back 10 years to when Rian’s son, Logan, and Bryce’s twin brother Chance were school chums. “Bryce’s family is amazing and had Logan over all the time,” Rian said. This was the same time that Rian started doing triathlons and fell in love with it. “I see people with physical challenges, I see people overcoming addictions, being overweight… You name it. Lives are transformed.”
About three years ago, Rian launched Tri-Dat (www.tri-dat.com) to help others experience these life-changing opportunities. A USA Triathlon Official Club and IRONMAN TriClub, Tri-Dat’s stated mission is to provide a network of triathlon information, training and racing activities, as well as friendship and fun for everyone in the endurance sports community. Problem was, Rian wasn’t quite sure how to go about putting into action his intention to bring the joys of running to others who could really use such a boost but it was always on his mind, especially while at running events that he took part in.
“I came across several families running races with their own child and some (children) had cerebral palsy,” he said, recalling watching in wonder as parents ran while pushing their child ahead of them in a customized race cart. “I thought, ‘How cool is that?’”
It was at a triathlon this past October in Hawaii where Rian had a true epiphany – a blessed vision that would soon be made real.
“I remember crossing the finish line and having that feeling that it was great, but I wanted to give someone else that same feeling of crossing that line. I wondered who in my circle I could partner with.” Who came to mind? Bryce! Rian was nervous about approaching Bryce’s family about it, though, since he didn’t know Bryce as well as he knew his brother Chance. “I went to Bryce’s mom Ashley and didn’t know if she would allow it to happen, but I approached her anyway,” Rian said.
Rian’s plan was to start small with a half-marathon (which ultimately came to fruition at the Oklahoma City Memorial Marathon) and he even purchased a custom race cart ahead of time to show Bryce’s mom more clearly what he had in mind (“Putting the cart before the horse,” as Rian jokingly put it). Bryce’s mom was all for the idea as long as her son was.
“In less than a week I was over there talking to him about it,” Rian said. “Bryce said, ‘How can I help you, Rian?’ I was like wow…how cool is this young man?” Even better, Rian and Bryce fit like hand in glove. “He’s opened my eyes to so many things and he’s probably doing more for me than I am for him,” as Rian put it.
“I’m so very proud of both of them, especially Bryce,” mom Ashley said. “Rian has been such a big blessing for Bryce, and it has made Bryce see things differently – made him have a lot more confidence. He has someone he can look up to and Bryce just loves it. Rian has changed our lives. My son is happy and that’s a huge thing for me as his mother. Being able to know that Bryce is happy means everything to me.”
Next, time to train to be ready by April 29.
A BIGGER PICTURE
A kind and thoughtful soul, when Bryce contemplated taking on this challenge, he saw a much bigger picture than simply garnering accolades for himself in his achievements with Rian.
“I always wanted to help people with a disability like me,” Bryce said. “It was never about whether my life would be affected positively – I just want future generations to have an easier path. I’m tired of sitting on sidelines watching people lower the standards for people with disabilities because they automatically look at me and say how they should feel sorry for this individual. It amazes me how people assume that anyone with a physical or intellectual disability is different than other human beings.”
Bryce said he has always had to prove his worth, so taking part in a marathon adds another chapter to his book of life. “It’s second nature,” as he explained it. “Growing up, I noticed that I was socially different, especially when I was in high school, and for a bit of time I faced depression. Now that I’m in college, I understand why other people like me get depressed when they’re 13 or 14 years old. Doing this race has given me an identity that I can speak for those individuals who cannot speak for themselves. I’ve been that person who wanted to speak out but didn’t know how. My mom and dad have always impressed on me that life will punch you and you have to be ready for it. You have to prove them wrong. Now, I know how to fight.”
Bryce and Rian also ran for the 168 or more people, including 19 children, who died in the bombing of the Oklahoma City Federal Building in 1995. The Oklahoma City Memorial Marathon was founded as a tribute to those who were killed, those who survived and those changed forever. It also supports the privately owned and operated Oklahoma City National Memorial & Museum. From its inaugural race in 2001 with just shy of 5,000 participants, the event now hosts more than 24,000 runners and walkers from every state in the U.S. and several foreign countries, now one of the top 10 marathons in the world.
“We all knew someone who was affected,” Rian said of the bombing, noting that this was his first time to run the Oklahoma City Memorial Marathon. It was also his first running-only race, after having completed triathlons that included running as part of the overall course.
“When we do this race, I will be thinking of those people,” Bryce said. “I’m doing this race for not only people with disabilities, but for them and their families too.”
Bryce thinks of his dad as well, Puyallup tribal member Michael Wooten who passed away in 2016, also a relative of Puyallup Tribal Councilwoman Sylvia Miller, who the family has always called “Auntie.”
“My dad was my best friend,” Bryce said. “I’m not much of a crier, but when I saw my dad laying there lifeless, there were many times when I asked God, ‘Why did you take him? Take me – I don’t deserve to live, he does.’” Such is the depth of love Bryce holds for his dear papa.
POSSIBILITY BECOMES REALITY
In addition to physical workouts developing core strength to get ready for the race (Rian and Bryce both have to be in tip-top shape for these types of endurance events), Bryce is also now more mindful of what he puts into his body. Food can be a runner’s best friend or worst enemy, and Bryce is determined to help his running partner by keeping his own body weight down such that it isn’t a bigger strain on Rian to push him in the race cart. In turn, Bryce is helping Rian also to stay the course nutritionally and physically.
“It’s made me be more dedicated to getting stronger,” Rian said. “The cart is about 45 pounds then to put Bryce in it you’re pushing 165 pounds in front of you so you really feel it. It’s demanding for me as well but what he’s doing, he’s been so amazing.”
“We work out lifting (weights), and when we’re not in gym, I do my own exercises,” Bryce said. “In the gym, we go hardcore. He works my tail off. I have never perspired as much as this man has made me.”
Rian says he loves the times that he and Bryce are together, the laughter especially. “It’s not just the physical aspect of what we’re doing; it’s the learning and opening your eyes and mind to new things. It’s a different ability, not a disability, and we find ourselves laughing harder together than when we’re not together.”
Bryce and Rian have even talked about the possibility of Bryce walking on his own, and the two have set a goal for Bryce to do just that, and without an assistance device. In fact, before his workouts with Rian, Bryce couldn’t lift his right leg at all and now he can make both legs move in a walking motion when Rian lifts him up. This is how miracles occur – one blessed event at a time.
“When Rian and I meet our maker, we want to be remembered as ‘possibility becomes reality,’” Bryce said. “I want the world to know that we’re doing this to benefit other people, not ourselves, so that future generations of people – even if they’re not physically challenged – don’t have to live in a bubble. I want to make sure that future generations don’t have to fight as hard as I did growing up.
“I feel like puzzle pieces are coming together – slowly but surely we’re completing it and it is a beautiful thing.”
Bryce said that this experience has opened his eyes to a new calling – motivational speaking, to help not just people with physical and intellectual challenges learn to love themselves, but to help people from all walks of life.
“I want to motivate people to find their way in life,” he said, “like to maybe volunteer in their community. Even holding the door for somebody or helping an elder with their groceries… Making a difference is the key to success in this world”