Tribal youth overcomes adversity to run 'awesome' Salem race

05.14.2012 Dean Rhodes People

SALEM -- On Saturday, May 5, at Bush Park, 9-year-old Tribal member Inatye Lewis participated in a 2,000-meter race for third-graders.

He was thinking, "Go, and run, and try to impress my mom."

His mother, Donna Lewis, is married to Tribal member and Cultural Resources Department manager David Lewis. She provided the back story and how she felt about the race even before her youngest son ran it.

Inatye, she wrote in an e-mail, was born with a rare birth defect called tibial hemimelia, which is a congenital absence or reduction (and delayed growth throughout childhood) of the tibial bone or the shin bone.

"Usually other malformations of the leg and foot are present (as with Inatye) and the joints and muscles of the affected leg(s) often form incorrectly," she wrote. "The majority of children born with this syndrome end up with an amputation in the first few years of life.

"Some children are able to have enough surgical intervention to keep their limb(s), but the surgery can be intensive and painful. Inatye falls into the latter category. He has enough of a tibia present that at age 9, he still has his left leg.

"So far he has undergone four procedures (a total of eight different surgeries) and has many more to go. One of these procedures was a painful limb-lengthening procedure that lasted most of his kindergarten year - he will have another in a few years. The latest - a femoral bone graft and Achilles tendon lengthening - took all of second grade (last year) to recover. In fact, this time last year he was just getting out the wheelchair and using a walker to get around at school.

"He has worked very hard to recover and regain his strength (and his doctor at Shriner's has recently given him a year off surgery since he is doing so well). His knee and ankle on his left leg are not completely formed joints like most of the rest of us have, and he has much less muscle mass in the left leg."

Despite all of that, Inatye decided to run in the Awesome 3000 in Salem, something he has never been able to do before.

"We have been training for a couple months and he is now up to handling the 2K that the kids in his grade run," Donna wrote. "He is certainly not the fastest runner, and won't finish first, but I know he will finish and that is such a HUGE step from where he has come from ... having his first surgery at 10 months old."

Inatye said his leg "hurt a little bit (during the race), but not too much. It started hurting a lot more a couple feet from the track."

Still, he walked and ran the race to the finish with his best friend, Zinn Morton, who said the race was "Great. I walked most of it." Morton also stopped to tie his shoes three times and Inatye jumped on the opportunity to get ahead, though they came in pretty close together at the end.

With a brace on his leg, Inatye just about sprinted the last meters and when he came through the finish line and out to the area reserved for parents to meet their kids, Donna, David and Inatye's brother, Saghaley, 11, also a Tribal member, who ran an earlier race, were all there. The success shined on all their faces.

The race took the boys through a trail in Bush's Pasture Park before entering the track at McCulloch Stadium, and Inatye said the boys got lost once momentarily, but there was someone there to help set them straight.

In fact, some 400 volunteers made this 30-year-old race, this year hosting some 3,300 children and their families on top of that, run smoothly. The runners (and walkers) staged in the center of the track in groups, and from the stands you could hear one after another rising up and screaming.

"They would say, 'We can't hear you,' " Inatye said of the group leaders, who urged them on to yell, "Third Grade!" when it was time. Each of the groups yelled their grade or age group, but you could not tell what they were yelling from the stands. And nobody seemed to care, either. The real deal was the natural connection between runners and families.

"I saw my parents up in the stands," Inatye said. "The third grade had the biggest group. We were the best group."

It was controlled mayhem, with smiles and tears and excitement and gentle security everywhere. Some came through the finish line with a "that was easy" look on their faces or lips. A few came through with new ace bandages on their wrists and tears running down their cheeks. Nowhere was there an emphasis on winning these races. Nobody was held up as first or second. All were winners receiving certificates and participation medals from the day. Some who entered an essay contest won scholarships to college.

This was the first year Inatye participated and the first time he brought home a medal.

"All the kids wear their medals at school," he said, "and I was always mad because I couldn't get one." He wore this year's medal around his neck at the end of the race.

As if the morning's run were not enough, each of the brothers participated the day before in a jog-a-thon at Swegle Elementary School, where both Lewis boys attend, to raise funds for the school. Inatye walked and ran 1.5 miles and Saghaley two miles.

Speaking of Inatye, David said, "I owe him $24 dollars. I promised him $4 a lap and he did six laps."

A 30-year-old institution in Salem, the Awesome 3000 is sponsored by the Salem Keizer Education Foundation.

Inatye and Saghaley are not the only Lewises to have run this non-race. Nearly 30 years ago, David's sister, Tribal member Patti Schmitt, also participated.

In the minutes before the race, Inatye needed his inhaler, and Donna ran from the stands, with a security volunteer, to make sure he had it before the race.

The morning races were over well before noon, but the day had just begun for the Lewis kids. They were headed, afterwards, to Cold Stone Creamery, then to "The Avengers" movie, and the next day to Powell's on Burnside in Portland for the release of the 2012 "Honoring Our Rivers Student Anthology" that featured one of Saghaley's drawings.

Despite the success he had achieved, and there seemed nothing about it he did not understand, Inatye got used to the interview format, and in the end, he admitted, "Running is not my sport."

Maybe so. Maybe no. But the Lewises are still moving forward with new vistas for the boys this summer, including Tribal Culture Camp, Title VII Indian Ed summer school, a program run by Tribal member Shelby Olson-Rogers, martial arts training and "getting Inatye back up on his bike," David said.