PAYSON When Sam Eliason gets to the finish line at the St. George Marathon on Saturday, it will be in a position that he could only watch and dream of until now.
Eliason, a 15-year-old sophomore at Payson High School, was involved in a near-drowning accident as a 9-month-old. The accident left him with cerebral palsy, a condition that does nothing to limit his mental capabilities but limits his physical abilities and has prevented him from joining his parents, siblings and members of his extended family in the family's annual tradition of running the St. George Marathon.
But after 15 years of cheering at the sidelines as runners cross the stripe, Eliason will join their ranks this year as the marathon's first-ever "Honorary Participant," competing in a specially designed racing buggy that family members will take turns pushing as they run.
"He's never been able to participate, but he's always been at the finish line ... always carrying a poster, waving his arms and yelling 'Good job!"' said his mother, Cathy Eliason. "He supports all the runners, even his mother who finishes last."
In 1989, Sam Eliason's father began running the St. George Marathon. It has since evolved into an Eliason family tradition, with 20 to 30 family members competing each year. The Eliasons now plan their family reunion around the 26-mile event.
This year, however, will be different.
"This year, it's all about staying together with Sam and finishing together," said Adam Eliason, Sam's uncle. "It's not about doing our own personal bests."
Adam Eliason said he first got the idea because he was amazed at how much time and effort Sam's parents put into caring for him and he wanted to find a way for the extended family to do something special for Sam.
He wanted to register Sam in the marathon earlier this year, though marathon officials were initially reluctant because of a policy against strollers and buggies, which is limited to 6,700 runners.
Once they heard the Eliason family story, they simply couldn't say no.
"We just had to sit down and think about it," marathon committee member John Bradley said. "It makes a lot of sense to recognize someone who has supported the marathon for so long. ... We're excited too for it, and we're excited to have Sam's family join us. They've been loyal supporters of the marathon for years and we look forward to giving back to the Eliason family."
The Honorary Participant title will become an annual tradition at the marathon, Bradley said, to recognize supporters who can't physically compete themselves.
After getting approval, the extended family pitched in to buy the $1,000 buggy.
Even little cousins gave some of their allowance money.
The hope, Eliason said, is that Sam will feel like part of the race.
"(Sam) has some definite challenges he'll be facing, so what I'm hoping is he'll see that others are overcoming challenges at the St. George Marathon and that he can overcome his challenges, too," Adam Eliason said.
Cathy Eliason said her son has been so excited about the race, he stopped drinking sodas, swore off dessert and has been taking daily training laps around the neighborhood in his electric wheelchair."This just means the world," she said. "As his mom, I've always had a sadness in my heart that he couldn't do the normal things, like run and skip and jump and climb a mountain. ... Now, he'll be able to experience a freedom from his limitations. It was really humbling when my brother-in-law came up with the idea, and it's been overwhelming to see the response from the family."