Meleah Mikeal half marathon continues legacy of perseverance, dedication

Dec. 03, 2013 @ 09:30 AM

In Meleah Mikeal’s bedroom, framed photos of her crossing finish lines with a paper number pinned to her shirt, exausted from miles of continuous running, share wall space with the numerous medals she won.

On Saturday, she crossed the finish line of a half-marathon named in her honor, but this time she crossed the line in her wheelchair.

Mikeal first got into competitive running in the late 1980s and early '90s, eventually finishing a full marathon and three half-marathons.

Mikeal began falling in 2010 and was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), better known as Lou Gehrig’s disease in February 2012 at the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Fla. after seeing a number of doctors that couldn’t diagnose her condition.

Hard to diagnose, each case of ALS is different, but overall the disease is characterized by rapid muscle degeneration and atrophy, with difficulty speaking, swallowing and breathing.

Bright and early Saturday morning, more than 80 runners and a few dozen spectators gathered for the race in the fog and mist, starting and finishing at the Lenoir Aquatic Center, a place Mikeal helped save from closing.

She began working for the city at the aquatic center in 2000 and became director in 2006, when attendance and use of the facility was hitting rock bottom and the city council was contemplating closing the center.

“Every year, whenever we went to work there, when budget time went along, we never know whether it would be there or not,” Mikeal said. “A lot of people in the community didn’t see us or didn’t come over there – it looked like we were wasting money.”

But services like water aerobics and weight lifting were valuable and essential resources for the center’s members, some older and suffering from arthritis or other conditions, and many who have been members since the beginning, she said.

Mikeal and other employees put in the time and hard work, resurfacing floors, painting walls, getting new equipment, landscaping, planting flowers, and simply “putting a woman’s touch on it,” she said.

Eventually, more people started using the facility, and it started to grow again. It was brought back to life, with grants coming in with help from Parks and Recreation director Rob Winkler to take the facility to the next level with new equipment, reworking the grounds with new landscaping and even pool slides.

Each year, attendance at the Aquatic Center climbed under Mikeal's direction, Winkler said, and the facility itself was “as clean and safe as it’s ever been.”

“Her spirit and her enthusiasm are in that facility and always will be,” Winkler said. “We are where we are today because of her.”

Saturday, the center Mikeal put so much of her life into was the hub of activity for the half-marathon, where runners from all over the state, and as far away as California, came to compete on the 13.1-mile course that weaved through Lenoir, from the aquatic center, down the Greenway, through downtown and back.

Darian Smith of Winston-Salem was the first to finish the course, with a time of 1:28:10, followed by Bill Johncock, who ran the course in 1:30:18, and Brad McKee, who ran it in 1:31:18.

“It was definitely a more challenging race than it appeared to be,” said veteran runner Smith, citing zig-zags and long, slow climbs, especially the one up to the aquatic center at the very end.

Appalachian State student Christina Gilboy topped the women’s category, finishing in 1:34:45 in her first competitive race. She was followed by Maude Ariosa of Chapel Hill, who completed the race in 1:35:09, and Brittany Winebarger of Granite Falls, 1:40:56.