GiGiFIT Acceptance Challenge Story, By: Ashley Schoenfisch

Nearly 30 years ago, I began my journey as a distance runner, and I believe strongly that distance running should be accessible and inclusive.  Over the past 6 months, I had the opportunity to train alongside Playhouse participant Lucía for the GiGiFIT Acceptance Challenge 5K.  Before I share our story, it’s important to say “Thank you”…

  • To Lu and family, for saying yes to this journey.  You allowed me, my family, and our community to be part of something great in a unique, tangible way.
  • To Purple Bowl, for your strong support and inspiring example of what inclusivity looks like.  Our town is better because of you.
  • To GiGi’s Playhouse, for spreading the Playhouse mission and vision through the GiGiFIT Acceptance Challenge.  It’s so much more than a race, isn’t it?
Lu & Ashley

Ironically, our story begins like this:  Lu was not interested in running.  She wanted a trainer, but she did not like to run.  “Let’s just talk,” I said.  “What do you want in a trainer?”  “What is it about running that you don’t like?”  These questions kept the door open and helped me understand Lu’s perspective.  To move forward, I would need her to take ownership of this experience.  I showed her a map of her neighborhood, outlining a 0.4 mile loop.  I proposed we walk it, but said “if you want to try running, I’ll be there to teach and support you.”  She was in.

A few mornings a week, we met to warm up, walk, and talk.  Using a smart watch, she could see her distance, pace, and heart rate.  After each session, she logged those details.  Before long, she was comfortable adding in short jogs.  We focused on running slowly, in order to keep a consistent pace longer, and we experimented with ways to tackle hills efficiently.  Lu learned to listen to her body, gauge her effort, and respond.  With upbeat music and friendly waves from neighbors, we began to cover more ground.  In November/December, we would cover about a mile.  By January, a mile and a half, and by March, two.  At that point, I knew the 5K race (3.1 miles) was within reach.


When the official 2023 GiGiFIT Acceptance Challenge was canceled due to storms, Lu and I decided to meet early the next morning to complete our own.  She pushed herself, and her pace reflected that: about a minute faster per mile than her typical training pace!  The last quarter mile was nearly all uphill, and she stopped once—at the top—because I told her to look back at what she just conquered.  What a journey!  

As is often the case with race training partners, Lu and I developed a dear friendship.  We’d talk about our families, our work, our goals.  There were some notable differences I saw between us, but they weren’t based on genetics.  Mainly, they were age-related: Nearly 20 years older, I’d never heard of Big Time Rush, I don’t know the trendy dance moves she could effortlessly incorporate into a run, and I learned helpful features about my smart watch through her tech-savvy insights.  Our families got to know each other better, and my children look up to Lu as they do any adult friend.

Through the 5K, Lu’s Team Purple Bowl raised over $5,000 to support the Playhouse.  But the fact that Lu also trained for and completed this race speaks volumes.  Across the US and beyond, distance runners with Down syndrome are paving the way for inclusion.  These runners have what it takes: grit and dedication.  I gave Lu guidance and encouragement, but her drive to succeed came from within; she showed up, on time, to every training session ready to listen, communicate, and work. 

In case you’re wondering, Lu’s outlook on running has changed.  In fact, she’s told me she loves it.  I’m so thankful for this experience, and I can’t wait to see what trail she helps blaze next.


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