No runner finished ahead of Mount Tabor (N.C.) High School's Kayla Montgomery during her senior cross country season. And her undefeated streak continued as she won the NCHSAA 4-A State Cross-Country title with a blazing time of 17:29, the fastest 5K time in the state across all classifications.
In addition to being considerably faster than her high school competitors, Montgomery differs from other runners in another major way. At the age of 15, she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, an inflammatory disease that affects the nervous system. She's one of approximately 2.3 million Americans living with MS, according to the National Muscular Sclerosis Society. Yet Montgomery has not let the disease stop her from running fast and living her athletic dreams.
During her freshman year, Montgomery was a two-sport athlete. Soccer was her favorite and cross country took a back seat. But after she was diagnosed with MS, she was no longer able to play soccer. That sport requires constant cutting and stopping, and Montgomery loses feeling in her legs when she stops running. The non-stop nature of cross country allowed her to continue with the sport, so she focused on her XC career while learning how to fight her MS symptoms.
In her first cross country season, Montgomery was one of the slowest runners on the team, but by her senior year, she had cut eight minutes off her time. Her goal was to run the 3.1-mile race in under 18 minutes and beat the school record, which she did.
"Instead of letting [MS] stop me from running," says Montgomery, "I used it to motivate me to break records."
The symptoms of MS that show up during Montgomery's runs include not just the loss of feeling in her legs but also a sudden collapse once she finishes a race. She runs as fast as she can, then she's is literally caught by her coach after she crosses the finish line.
"I don't feel anything at all," Montgomery says, "It kind of feels like I'm floating, there's nothing underneath me."
Since being crowned a cross country champ, Montgomery has been training with the boys team, and she has set her sights on breaking records in track & field as well. She has already won the North Carolina state title in the 3,200 meters, placing 21st in the nation. On March 14, she will compete in a 5K race at the National Indoor Track Championships in New York, where she hopes to break her previous personal record of 17 minutes.
Montgomery has become one of the fastest female high school runners in the nation, and it doesn't seem like her running career will end anytime soon. She has committed to Lipscomb University in Nashville, Tenn., for the fall semester.
"Since I know that my mobility is a gift right now, I guess I make every day that I run the best I can so that I don't waste that gift," she says.
Sources: New York Times; NBC News
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