34 for 34: Jamie Watts’ Birthday Challenge

Jamie Watts sets off on the Freedom Four Miler in Arlington in June 2014. Photo: Brian W. Knight/Swim Bike Run Photography
Jamie Watts sets off on the Freedom Four Miler in Arlington in June 2014. Photo: Brian W. Knight/Swim Bike Run Photography

She started off anonymously, but as Jamie Watts kept going, more and more people noticed what she was achieving.

“No one was ever supposed to see me.”

That’s what she thought, back when she first started running in 2012.  With a simple goal of getting herself in shape, Watts began running on a treadmill at her gym several times a week, but she never intended to run in public.

Disabled since birth with cerebral palsy, Watts’  gait is different than most.  She runs on the treadmill independently, but uses a cane to compete in all of her races. Like any runner, Watts has to take extra care on rough or steep terrain, but she views it as just a part of her overall strategy when completing a race.

Disability does not limit Jamie’s spirit, or her ambitions. Six months after she began a concerted effort in running, Watts decided to register for her first public race, the Marine Corps Gender Defender 5k in Quantico, Va. “I thought I’d start with the Marines – and they’re intense,” she said. Though she was so sore after the race she could barely stand, she loved every minute of it. She was soon racing regularly, about seven races per year.

On April 25, 2015, three years after beginning her journey, and dozens of races later, Watts crossed the finish line of her longest race yet, the Pacers George Washington Parkway Classic, with a time of 6 hours, 32 minutes, and 12 seconds for 10 miles.  The race represented the accomplishment of a significant milestone for Watts: her 34th race completed over the course of a year, a goal she set out to complete last June to commemorate her upcoming 34th birthday on June 13.

The journey to get to the finish line of a 10 mile race began when Watts met Stacy Sanders, a Pacers race staffer,  at a 5k race last June. Watts mentioned to Sanders her tentative goal of finishing 34 races, but also her concerns that it would be too logistically challenging to complete.

“Living in DC, we have lots of races, but some are in cold or bad weather. What if I fall, or what if they can’t keep the roads closed long enough for me to finish?” she worried. Rainy or icy conditions, rough terrain, and downhills all present challenges for Watts due to her disability. Sanders responded that Pacers would do whatever it took for her to meet her goal.

Pacers was good on their word – and much credit is due Lisa Reeves, Pacers’ race director, for making it her priority. “The objective with Jamie is to provide the same quality experience as everyone else,” she said. “I’d like to see her finish in the middle of the pack. That means she gets crowds, and music, all of it.”

After talking with Sanders, Watts’s first Pacers race was the Freedom Four Miler, a race that finishes on a tough uphill course, on what happened to be an extremely humid day last June. “I’m used to finishing when no one is around, but that day, there was a huge crowd of people when I finished,” Watts said.

Finishing with the crowd meant Pacers had to accommodate an earlier start time for Watts on all races – sometimes 30 minutes to one hour. On the day of the 10 miler, Watts lined up to the starting line at 6 a.m., a full two hours earlier than the rest of the participants.

As she continued onward towards her goal throughout this past year, Watts would research and plan her races about a month in advance, but then often added additional ones at the last minute when her friends invited her to try out new events. This meant she would sometime race twice in one day, or twice in one weekend.

“I had the goal in the back of mind to complete, but I always thought that something was going to happen and I wouldn’t be able to finish. But as we got closer and closer, we started to think I could do it,” she said.  “And I say ‘we’ because I could not have done it without Pacers. I give that credit to Lisa and her team, and it is flawless every time.”

In addition to the early start time, Pacers also designated an assigned volunteer to run with Watts during every race.  “That wasn’t something I asked for, but it’s something they came up with as a best practice,” Watts said. “Lisa knows I’m a strong runner, but she wants to make sure I’m fully supported just like everyone else.” Watts and Reeves chat before every race to make sure all details are in place.

She did encounter some challenges along the way. One race around Halloween took runners through a field at night in the dark. Watts would trip every 10 feet over a tree root, falling multiple times. “It was major danger,” she said, “but I met people on the course, and eventually we all finished together. Every race you have that flash of thought, when you think ‘I’m not going to finish this.’ But everyone has that. And then you power through.”

Of all her races, Watts is most proud of completing the 10 miler. “I knew I had the first 10k down, but I needed my friends to get me through the rest,” she said.

This concern was realized on race day. Between miles seven and eight, she began to fear she couldn’t finish. But as she approached two spectators cheering on the side of the GW Parkway, she realized one was her best friend Katie, who flew in from Austin the night before to surprise her at the race. “I just remember saying over and over, ‘I am so glad you are here,’” she said. “There were some tears of joy between mile 7 and 8.”

Watts’ enthusiasm, upbeat attitude, and positive outlook have made an impression on many.

“She is amazing. One of the kindest, gentlest, most generous individuals you will ever meet,” Reeves said. “And appreciative almost to a fault, because what we do to help her out is just what we do.”

In addition to her training, where she keeps a consistent schedule of four miles a day, five days a week, Watts works at an organization supporting individuals with disabilities. She also loves attending concerts and spending time with friends.

Throughout it all, she has maintained her love of racing. She has no plans to take a break, now that her 34 race challenge is complete. Her next race is the Marine Corps Historic 10k on May 17, and she is already preparing for the two killer hills on the course.

Reeves has no doubts she can do it. “There are no limits on what a person can do, and she is a true example of that,” she said.

Where she did it
June 14 – PurpleStride for Pancreatic Cancer
June 21 – Fit Foodie 5k
June 29- Freedom Four Miler
July 4 – Firecracker 5k
July 12 – Latinas Leading Tomorrow 5k
July 19 – Pittsburgh Epilepsy Walk
July 26 –Crystal City Twilighter 5k
Aug. 8 – Lost Dog 5k
Aug. 9 – Glo Run DC
Aug. 15 – Lost Dog 5k
Sept. 6 – National Press Club 5k
Sept. 12 – Divas Wine Country
Sept. 20 – Light The Way 5k
Sept. 27 – Clarendon Day 5k
Sept. 28 – Color Run DC
Oct. 4 (a.m.)- Run or Dye
Oct. 4 (p.m) – Dead Man’s Run
Oct. 11 – Monster Glow Dash
Nov. 1 – Color Run
Nov. 2 – Stache Dash 5k
Nov. 9 (a.m.) – Veterans Day 2.5
Nov. 9 (p.m.) – Color My College
Nov. 22 – Marine Corps Turkey Trot- 10k
Nov. 27 – Fairfax Turkey Trot Four Miler
Dec. 7 – Jingle All the Way 5k
Dec. 14 – Frosty 5k
Jan. 1 – St. Louis Commitment Day 5k
Jan 25 – Ft. Myers, Fal. Cypress Sprint for Music
Feb. – First Down 5k
Febr. 8- Love the Run You’re With
March 1 – St. Pat’s 5k
March 14 – Four Courts Four Miler
April 11 – Epilepsy Walk DC
April 26 – George Washington Parkway Classic


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