LINCOLN, Neb. – Nicholas Lahr and Samuel Butalla share a unique connection when it comes to racing in the annual Lincoln Marathon in Nebraska.
The Nebraska natives have each completed the annual 26.2-mile race three times. They have also completed the Des Moines marathon and the Lincoln half-marathon. But what makes them unique is the mode in which each of the two have completed the race, together.
Nick, a first lieutenant UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter pilot with the Kansas Army National Guard’s 1st Battalion, 108th Aviation Regiment, ran each of the Lincoln races on foot while pushing Sam, who experiences the competition from the seat of his wheelchair. This mighty duo completed the 46th annual Lincoln Marathon, which serves as the National Guard All Guard Marathon Team time trials, when they crossed the 26.2-mile finish May 7.
“He is nonverbal, but he responds to audio stimulus, so when we would run on the underpasses and bridges, I give him a little cheer and he would laugh; everyone clapping on the side was really making him laugh, so it was awesome,” Nick said.
Their story goes back to when Nick was a cadet in the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Army ROTC program and met Sam’s older sister, Taylor, through ROTC. He learned that firefighters volunteered to run with Sam for a race, which sparked his interest in running with Sam.
“It sounded like a cool challenge, and it’s proven to be a really good time every race we’ve participated in,” said Nick.
Sam was born with Peroxisome Biogenesis Disorder, which slowly took away his senses. Along with being in a wheelchair, he is nonverbal, blind and deaf but has a cochlear implant that allows him to pick up vibrations and noises, which is how he responds to audio stimulation. At the age of 6, he had leukemia, which caused his symptoms to worsen. But because of his parents, Rich and Shannon, he has been kept off a feeding tube and is fed by them or a caregiver for every meal, contributing to his living longer than expected.
As Nick put it, Sam is a fighter.
“Even though he suffers from that condition, he still has such a great spirit and such an awesome personality even though he can’t verbalize how he’s feeling,” Nick said. “He’s always expressive and has a contagious smile.”
Although Nick now lives in Kansas, he keeps in touch with Sam and his family and tries to travel back to Lincoln to run with Sam as much as possible before a race.
By pushing Sam’s wheelchair, Nick allows Sam to participate in the marathon despite his disability. In doing so, Nick hopes this will encourage others to do the same for those with physical limitations.
“Even though Sam can’t run himself or even walk himself, we can still find ways to include people with disabilities,” Nick said. “It is really inspiring that he motivates me while I’m running and it’s a good thing for everyone, that concept of inclusivity.”
Throughout the Lincoln Marathon, Sam’s parents cheered them on at multiple points on the route.
“They were jumping around to all the points, so I saw them at least four or five times throughout the race, which helps me because I have that support for refueling and getting things taken care of and then for Sam if he were to ever need anything,” Nick said. “They’re always right there to help be support, so it’s really great.”
Rich and Shannon weren’t the only ones cheering Nick and Sam. Spectators along the route cheered and clapped as they passed.
“I tend to get a lot of support while I’m running; Lincoln’s always a great race with people lined up on the streets and cheering people on,” Nick said.
As for the National Guard members there to support the marathon, Nick added, “Our people were the ones cheering the hardest and the loudest and giving me really good claps, and that just made Sam really happy, so it was awesome.”
This year, Nick added the goal of qualifying for the All Guard Marathon Team, aiming to complete 26.2 miles in 3 hours and 15 minutes. Nick said having Sam with him made the race that much more special when he finished with a time of 3 hours, 15 minutes, and 7 seconds, qualifying him for the All Guard Marathon Team.
“Trying to compete to make the team while pushing Sam was a bit of a challenge, but I think it pushed me a lot much harder,” Nick said. “It made it easier to dig deep since Sam gives me that inspiration and that edge to push me throughout the race.”
Nick’s next goal is to qualify for the Boston Marathon. If they can coordinate travel, he’d like to run it with Sam.