The photo by a total stranger just short of the New York City Marathon finish line captured one of the most intimate moments of Robby Ketchell's life. Hobbled, his face creased with exhaustion, Ketchell was about to limp in far slower than his time goal. Cradled in his arms was the reason for his valiant effort: his infant son, Wyatt, sound asleep amid the hubbub.
That image, snapped by a spectator named Elizabeth Griffin, went viral on social media. Robby and his wife, Marya -- who had handed Wyatt over the barricades so Robby could carry him for the last two-tenths of a mile -- spent the next few days responding to an onslaught of messages. Everyone wanted to know the story behind the father and the angelic baby. Robby revealed in interviews that he was honoring his son by running to raise funds and awareness for an organization devoted to Down syndrome, LuMind Research.
One of the most meaningful reactions came via a tweet by an old friend, retired professional cyclist David Millar of Great Britain.
HEY @RobbyKetchell - if you can put up with me I'll run with you for a 3:21 in the 2019 New York Marathon and support you and Wyatt as you supported me back in our racing days.
And that is how it came to pass that, this Sunday, a former world-class rider who hadn't run a footrace since his school days will set out from Staten Island intending to cover 26.2 miles. Millar and Ketchell don't envision finishing at the same time, but they'll be together in spirit and purpose, just as they have been while exchanging texts and videos from a distance over the long months of training. Both are running for LuMind.
"I've been training relentlessly," said Millar, 42, whose career included national titles and stage wins in three-week Grand Tour races. "I'm genuinely, properly excited about it -- and anxious about going into the unknown."
Millar, a father of three, caught a cold from one of his kids during what was supposed to be his heaviest training week, so his longest lead-up run was 17 miles. He still thinks he can run well under the 3-hour, 21-minute goal he and Ketchell share -- a number symbolizing the third copy of the 21st chromosome that causes Down syndrome.
"If hadn't set a goal that was scary, I would have taken my foot off the gas," Millar said. "I know from my experience there are certain things you can't prepare for."
The Ketchells and Millar became close during their days with the pro cycling team formerly sponsored by Garmin (now EF-Education First). Millar had returned after a doping suspension to become an outspoken advocate for clean sport. Marya Ketchell was the team's communications director and often helped him navigate media attention. Robby Ketchell later came on board with the U.S.-based outfit as a sports scientist.
He ran his own consulting company for a time and most recently joined the British cycling behemoth Team Ineos, whose CEO is Millar's sister Fran. Ketchell was part of the group that designed Kenyan marathoner Eliud Kipchoge's successful bid to run the marathon distance in under two hours in Vienna on Oct. 12 -- an accomplishment that required near-perfect course conditions and a flying wedge of pacers. (The time does not count as a competitive record.)
Millar retired and transitioned into broadcasting and an apparel business. He lost touch with Robby and Marya, who live in New Hampshire. When Millar heard about Wyatt's early struggles, he found himself unsure of what to say.
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Today, Eliud Kipchoge made history and became the first person to ever run a marathon in under two hours. But he is so much more than that. He is someone who has defied the odds. He is someone who has said, over and over, that no human is limited. This morning, he proved it on the world's biggest stage. It was an achievement that transcended athletics. It was 1 hour, 59 minutes and 40.2 seconds in which one man showed all of us that with courage and belief and human spirit, there are no limits. And behind him, humbly. Quietly. Strongly, was Robby. He will never tell anyone everything he did to make today happen, but I will. Because yes, he did it for sport and yes, he did it for Eliud and yes, he did it for INEOS and also for the history books. But in his heart and his mind, he did it for Wyatt. And someday, when he's older, Wyatt will know and understand that his dad was a part of something that stripped away limits. And that is something he will carry with him for the rest of his life. So, Wyatt (and world), here's a short list of how your dad helped Eliud Kipchoge run the fastest marathon ever (there's so much more, but I'll let him tell you all the details... he's much better at them): >>> Weather analysis: This means your dad was responsible for picking the right day and the right time for the optimal weather conditions for the race. >>> Aerodynamic formation: Your dad created the formation that the pacemakers (who came from all over the world) ran in - a formation that has never been done before and will henceforth be known as The Ketchell (at least in our house). >> Course optimization: So this is how your dad picked the location - Vienna, where we are right now - based on elevation and turn radius. He also designed the fastest path around the course for Eliud. I'm told that there were lasers and computers and wind sensors and measurement wheels... and so much more. These are all tales he can tell you himself, though... but I know he will first tell you that Eliud is a hero. And I want you to know that is so very true. And so is your dad, in our history book. Congratulations, Eliud and Ineos, Fran, Robby and the whole team who made history today.
The Ketchells, meanwhile, mutually decided they would chronicle their son's journey even before he was born prematurely in March 2018. The couple post frequently on social media about the fears they felt when Marya was pregnant, their determination to combat stereotypes about Down syndrome and, most of all, their loving conviction that Wyatt will define his own capabilities.
"I'm a different person because of it," said Robby Ketchell, who is 36. "It makes me want to honor him because of what he continues to go through. I'm trying to push past a limit of my own."
Wyatt spent two months in neonatal intensive care after he was born, and he needed open-heart surgery the same week he turned 1; one reason he was asleep when Robby carried him over the finish line in Central Park is that he hadn't had the operation yet and was chronically fatigued. He's far more alert now at 19 months, and the Ketchells, supported by specialists, are working with him daily to help him learn to feed himself.
Wyatt has been in a training program of his own, striving mightily to overcome hypotonia, or low muscle tone. He pulls himself to a standing position independently now and "cruises" by holding on to furniture or other objects. He's starting to use a walker that encourages forward motion.
Robby tackled New York City last year as a tribute to his son's strong will, but the former ultrarunner wasn't able to reach his 3:21 goal. It didn't help that he started with plantar fasciitis in both feet.
"You don't have respect for a city marathon until you go out and run the course," said Ketchell, who walked over the finish line in 4:41:12. "I had no idea how hilly it was. I was overheating and dousing myself with water 7 or 8 miles in. I was wearing a jersey with Wyatt's name, and it was not a high-performance jersey. As I slowed down, on the [Queensboro] bridge, I did a 10-minute mile. I was cold and soaking wet. The crowds were insane. But I had shocked my system. It was over."
Millar also was humbled by his process. He laced up running shoes the day after he tweeted at Robby, but six weeks later, found himself gimpy with shin splints and other ailments.
"The engine could keep up, but the chassis kept breaking," Millar said. "I had to stop and do six weeks of core training and work on cadence and technique. My inner athlete came out, and I became a supergeek.
"It's been an amazing journey. I have to thank Marya and Robby and Wyatt. I was an ex-pro, drifting around. I was doing well in other ways -- great family, business doing well, but something was hugely missing. Taking responsibility for my body again helps my mind massively."
Said Robby, who once helped Millar with high-performance details such as skinsuit and helmet design, "I never thought we'd be training for the same goal." His lead-up hasn't been ideal, given the time he devotes to parental and professional responsibilities.
He commuted to Vienna for much of the summer and early fall, and most of his training runs were done on the same course where Kipchoge broke the 2-hour mark. Since it's flat and straight, it didn't offer optimal prep for New York. But Ketchell said the wisdom he acquired last year should be immensely helpful.
Watching and marveling from the sideline, Marya Ketchell can't help but recall how much effort she put into trying to keep pro cyclists like Millar from being on their feet at all, much less for three hours. She scheduled many interviews while riders lay prone on the massage table, and tried to secure ground-floor rooms in hotels that lacked elevators. It is emotional for her to watch Millar take on road running from scratch.
"It means the world to us, to me personally, and someday it will to Wyatt," she said. "David is an exceptional athlete, of course, but it's not an easy thing to do. It blows me away."