Kiley Lyall is leading the pack as the first runner with autism to land the cover of Women’s Running magazine.
Lyall has an impressive list of races under her belt, and she’s done it all while dealing with moderate autism, mild cerebral palsy and life-threatening seizures.
Lyall’s mom, Kathleen, entered Kiley in a contest to become the next covergirl of Women’s Running magazine, where she was chosen out of seven other finalists after over 10,000 readers voted.
Kiley, who is also a photographer, has difficulty speaking as a side effect of her condition, so Kathleen spoke for her with Kiley by her side in an exclusive interview with PEOPLE.
“Kiley’s been running for many years now, and people on the outside keep telling her how inspirational she is, and how she motivates them to want to run with all the struggles she goes through,” Katheen says. “One of my friends said this would be a really cool thing to enter because Kiley makes them want to run. But we never thought anything would come of it.”
Kiley is 24 now, but she’s been running since age 8, when she put in a gold medal finish at a local Special Olympics event in her hometown outside Chicago.
“She was the final leg in a relay with kids age 15 to 16, and it was all boys, she was the only girl,” Kathleen explains. “They were in last place at the time, and when they handed her the baton, she slowly passed everybody on the way to the finish line and she won a gold medal.”
“I think after that, she enjoyed winning. She couldn’t verbalize much at the time, but this was physically something she could accomplish and she was pretty good at it.”
Kiley loves running now, and keeping up with the sport has improved her condition.
“With everything she struggles with, she realized that running made her body feel so much better,” Kathleen says. “She started talking more, and she started wanting to run more because it made her feel better.”
Kiley’s seizures are often triggered by stress, and Kathleen thinks that because running helps alleviate her stress, it in turn reduces how often she has seizures.
Though she runs without too much difficultly now, it wasn’t always easy. Kathleen, who runs every race with her daughter, says Kiley almost had to give up at mile 10 of her first half-marathon.
“We made it through the first 10 miles, and then Kiley experienced a seizure,” Kathleen recounts. “I looked at her and said, ‘What do you think, should we finish the race?’ and she just looked at me and she said, ‘Yeah let’s go.’ ”
The duo continued on, until Kiley had another seizure at mile 11. But Kiley was determined.
“There were paramedics nearby, and they didn’t think she could finish. And I said, ‘It’s mile 11, we have two to go, and she’s never [going to] let me live this down.’ ”
With the paramedics following behind on bike, Kiley and Kathleen crossed the finish line.
“I think that s how Kiley’s been her whole life,” Kathleen says. “Through the seizures, she just pretty much has them, and she doesn’t really let them stop her. She’s always been like that, it’s in her spirit.”
Kiley has since run another half-marathon without any issues, and loves to disappear with the other runners.
“Kiley’s big thing is that she doesn’t want to be picked out of the crowd,” Kathleen says. “She just wants to blend in with everyone else she runs with. They don’t look at her as someone with a disability, they look at her as Kiley, and that’s what she wants.”
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Kiley’s racing plans are on hold for a little bit as she may go in for brain surgery to ease her epilepsy, but she and her mom are excited about seeing how readers react to Women’s Running’s new cover girl.
“We’re hoping that it will open doors for these other athletes that have limited abilities, and just promote what they can do,” Kathleen says. “Everyone thinks that running is this big elite thing – and it does take motivation and determination – but we want to change perception of these individuals and let people know that they’re very, very capable of achieving their goals.”