Marathon Dream Team

Md. Father Who Longed to Race With His Disabled Daughter Pushes the Bounds of Stamina

Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 30, 2006; Page B01

If life had gone differently, Tim Mullen figures, this would have been the year that his 17-year-old daughter, Leah, ran her first marathon alongside him.

Instead, the 43-year-old Maryland man bundled up his deaf and developmentally disabled daughter, strapped her into a running stroller and pushed her 26.2 miles yesterday in the Marine Corps Marathon.

It was both a test of his stamina and a display of love for his daughter.

Leah, who cannot speak, was smiling and cooing throughout the 4 hours, 11 minutes and 25 seconds it took her father to push her along the course.

"She likes the sensation of the wind against her face," said Scott Penhallegon, 29, one of several people who lined the route to cheer her on. "When we first saw her, she had a big smile, and you could just tell she was having a great time."

Leah expresses happiness by clapping. Everywhere she looked yesterday, she saw thousands clapping for her. "She was loving it," her father said.

She was just shy of 2 when she was found to have neuroblastoma, a cancer with an 80 percent fatality rate at that age. The tumor was removed, but her body produced an antibody that attacked her nervous system. She lost her hearing, is given to frequent seizures and developmentally is at the level of a 2-year old. She can walk but is unsteady on her feet.

The only way Leah could do a marathon was if Tim Mullen pushed her.

They had plenty of backup. Tim Mullen's brother, Mike, came from New Jersey to pedal alongside them on a bike that towed a trailer stuffed with Leah's medications, diapers, food, extra clothing and a walkie-talkie.

Several friends took turns escorting them on the course, jumping on the route and running for several miles before jumping off. At the windiest section, Hains Point, where Mullen worried that gusts would make it difficult to push the stroller, four friends ran with him and formed a windshield. One of them, Bob Villaneuva, 33, of Baltimore, ran the whole distance. It was his first marathon.

Dozens of family members and friends, including babysitters and teaching aides and therapists from the Ridge Ruxton School, a specialized school in Baltimore that Leah attends, cheered them from the road. Some relatives flew in from as far away as Florida. At about the 15-mile mark, a group of them met Mullen to help him check Leah's diaper. "It was faster than a NASCAR pit stop," Mullen said. "We were in and out in 25 seconds."

Mullen, who lives in Timonium, started running in 2001 after realizing that he was winded by rushing up two flights of stairs. "It was kind of disgusting," said Mullen, who had wrestled and played baseball and football as a teenager but never liked to run. "I went home that night, strapped on whatever athletic clothing I had and got no more than a half-mile from the house before I turned around. The next night, I ran a little farther."

Nine marathons later and 40 pounds lighter, Mullen started thinking about trying to run with Leah. Increasingly, he'd notice others running with their children at various races. "I came across a mother and daughter running side by side all the way, and I ran along with them for a while, encouraging them," he said, adding that he sometimes fantasized about doing the same with Leah. "You can't go back and change things, but the thoughts are there."

He had seen a television program about the Hoyts, a father-and-son team from Massachusetts who have completed 64 marathons with Dick pushing his son Rick -- who has cerebral palsy -- in a wheelchair. The Hoyts, who have also completed six Ironman triathlons, are credited with inspiring thousands of physically challenged athletes to compete in mainstream athletic events.

"It kind of hit me that I wanted to do something with Leah," said Mullen, an executive chef with Marriott.

For Father's Day, Mullen's wife, Laura, gave him a running stroller that would support Leah's 65-pound frame. Then he started training, learning to negotiate hills and wind with a stroller. On days when Leah couldn't go with him, he put dumbbells in the stroller to simulate her weight.

The Mullens' younger daughter, 10-year-old Hayley, designed a "Run with Leah" logo that was made into stickers and printed onto sweat shirts.

As Tim Mullen and Leah climbed the final hill of the race and neared the finish line at the Iwo Jima Memorial, Villaneuva reached over a barrier and pulled Hayley from the spectator area. She ran to the finish line with her father and sister.

"There aren't many things they can do as a family," said Donna Asanza, Leah's aunt. "This is their day. This is their trip to Disney."

 2006 The Washington Post Company