Monica Byerly doesn’t have a running background. However, she has a cause, and her dogged efforts in support of that cause have her halfway to one of the world’s great distance-running accomplishments.
Byerly, a teacher at Hidden River Middle School in Monroe and a Snohomish resident, completed her third “Six Star” marathon when she crossed the finish line at the London Marathon on April 22. And it was her devotion to the cause of autism awareness that has her halfway to joining an exclusive club of runners who have completed the six biggest marathons in the world.
Byerly, 44, has now finished the Chicago, New York and London marathons. She has her sights firmly set on the other three members of the big six — Boston, Tokyo and Berlin — and earning her Six Star Finisher Certificate, which has been issued to approximately 3,000 runners.
Not bad for someone who didn’t run her first marathon until 2011 when she was well into her 30s.
“I absolutely believe I can achieve the six marathons,” Byerly said. “It will probably take me years because getting into the races is so hard. But I’m to the point where I enjoy the spirit of the marathon and all the preparation that goes into it.”
She’s also fueled by a cause that’s close to her heart.
Byerly teaches special education and math at Hidden River Middle School. She also has a teenage son who’s on the autism spectrum. Therefore, she has a personal stake in the cause.
“I started running because being a mom to three kids and raising a kid on the autism spectrum can be very mentally and emotionally taxing,” Byerly said. “So for me, running was a time to be alone with my thoughts. It became where I could set my own personal goals, and my whole life was no longer revolving around the needs of one person. I was able to be a better mom because I was able to set goals for myself.
“I also like a challenge, and the marathon is one of the most challenging races to do.”
Hidden River is also dedicated to autism awareness. The school has been recognized by the State of Washington for its work with students with learning disabilities, and for its efforts in immersing students with autism into general classes. This year Hidden River began its Autism Awareness Project dedicated to teaching students about autism.
So Byerly has no shortage of supporters.
“I think it’s pretty awesome,” Hidden River Middle School principal Brett Wille said about Byerly’s pursuits. “She’s passionate about running and she’s passionate about kids, and she’s especially passionate about students with autism. You have all three things coming together for a great cause. It’s neat that she’s so passionate about something and wants to make a difference. We’re very supportive of her doing this.”
What Byerly didn’t have with regards to the London Marathon was the luck of the draw. Byerly applied for a lottery entry into the marathon, which has about 40,000 participants but few entries for Americans. She didn’t get selected. Therefore, she sought out alternate paths to London.
She found one through the Organization for Autism Research (OAR). The charity based in Arlington, Virginia, had 15 entries to the London Marathon it was offering to runners willing to engage in fundraising for the organization, which funds grants for autism research and education, provides money for families with autistic members, and assists adults with autism in gaining employment.
It was a natural fit for Byerly, who was especially appreciative of OAR’s support of autistic adults.
“That was probably my greatest excitement about this organization and what they do,” Byerly said. “A lot of organizations do things for younger children, but once you get older the resources diminish. It’s very hard to be a successful independent autistic person in this country, the employment rate for people with autism is about 18 percent, so once people with autism leave school it’s really hard for them to live on their own and get a job. An organization helping adults get jobs, that’s huge.”
Byerly submitted an essay to OAR about her experiences raising an autistic child and what she was doing at Hidden River in raising autism awareness — as well as her love for running. She was picked to be one of the 15 members of Team OAR.
Part of running for Team OAR was raising at least $6,500 for the charity. Byerly raised $8,150 without raising a sweat.
“I was going to organize a fun run, but I ended up reaching the goal before I needed to do that,” Byerly said. “I have a lot of friend support for what I do, and they helped me go above and beyond my goal.”
Byerly ended up not being able to run the London Marathon the way she wanted. She is trying to earn a qualifying time for the Boston Marathon — the time for her classification is 3 hours, 55 minutes and her best time is 4:01:20 — and in the course of training for London she developed plantar fasciitis in her foot. Therefore, not wanting to worsen the injury but still wanting to take part, she ended up walking most of the London Marathon.
But that didn’t lessen the wonder of participating in a race that begins at Greenwich Park, crosses the River Thames via Tower Bridge, and passes Buckingham Palace just before the finish line.
“It was really cool,” Byerly said. “The course meanders through Canary Wharf, goes past the Tower of London, and at the finish line you circle around St. James Park and past the huge statue and fountain at Buckingham Palace. It was remarkable.”
The next goal for Byerly is next year’s Boston Marathon. Byerly can get in by qualifying, and she’s also looked into charity options — OAR doesn’t do the Boston Marathon, but the Doug Flutie Jr. Foundation for Autism does. OAR has entries to the Berlin Marathon, so she intends to run Berlin through them.
Three marathons down, three more to go. Indeed, achieving “Six Star” status is just miles away for Byerly, and she’ll be carrying her banner for autism awareness through the rest of her course.
If you have an idea for a community sports story, email Nick Patterson at firstname.lastname@example.org.