Mighty marathoner on a mission

With 3 races since April, Micah Snell, 3, is on a roll in fundraising effort

By Marissa Harshman, Columbian health reporter

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photoJeff Snell and his son, Micah, will run their third marathon in three states on Sunday. Jeff pushes Micah, who has cerebral palsy, in a stroller as Suzie Snell cheers for her son and husband.

(/The Columbian)

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To keep up with Micah and make donations to United Cerebral Palsy of Oregon and Southwest Washington, visit www.micahsmiles.org Facebook: on.fb.me/1a9qJzd

This Sunday, 3-year-old Micah Snell will finish his fifth marathon — his third in just three months.

Of course, he won't run the race like the other entrants.

On race day, Micah will traverse the 26.2-mile course through and around downtown Vancouver in a jogger stroller pushed by his dad, Jeff Snell. The Camas toddler will don a bright orange Micah's Miles shirt and snuggle under an orange blanket. He'll share his seat with his orange sock monkey and his tiger stuffed animal.

While Jeff runs, Micah will eat — his feeding tube is set to a slow drip — nap and babble, his way of communicating with Jeff.

For most who have cerebral palsy, a marathon is out of reach. But not for Micah.

This Sunday marks the culmination of Jeff and Micah's marathon series. In the past three months, they've taken on three marathons in three states. First, the Eugene Marathon on April 28. Then, the Coeur d'Alene Marathon on May 26. And this Sunday, the Vancouver USA Marathon.

But the finish line Sunday will be a little extra special.

This weekend is an anniversary of sorts; Jeff and Micah's first marathon together was the inaugural Vancouver USA Marathon in 2011. And since the final race is local, Micah and Jeff will be surrounded by friends and family during and after the race.

And, of course, Sunday is Father's Day.

"I feel lucky to get to race with him," Jeff said.

Early diagnosis

When Suzie Snell was 24 weeks pregnant with Micah, he was diagnosed with agenesis of the corpus callosum, a condition that falls under the umbrella of cerebral palsy.

Cerebral palsy is caused by abnormal brain development, usually before birth. The condition can cause movement, muscle tone and posture disorders, according to the Mayo Clinic. People with cerebral palsy often have other conditions related to developmental brain abnormalities, such as intellectual disabilities, vision and hearing problems and seizures, according to the Mayo Clinic.

Micah doesn't speak or walk. He has vision problems and experiences seizures. Through extensive therapy, though, he's gained some mobility, improved control of his head and strengthened his legs and core muscles. He recently began rolling from his back to his side.

"(Running is) something Micah can do with us," Jeff said.

Challenges

Jeff and Suzie spent most of the first year after Micah was born just trying to survive.

They learned about cerebral palsy and what it meant for Micah's future. They had hospital visits, experiments with feeding tubes and seizures to manage. They also had to navigate the confusing and complicated medical insurance world — getting approval for services, arguing for coverage of others.

Once life settled down, Jeff and Suzie thought of other parents in similar situations. They're both educated and have good jobs -- Jeff as deputy superintendent of the Camas School District, Suzie as a guidance counselor at Felida Elementary School. They wondered how other families with less means would be able to manage the same frustrating time.

So they reached out to United Cerebral Palsy of Oregon and Southwest Washington, a Portland-based nonprofit that helps families and promotes independence for people with disabilities. The Snells proposed entering marathons and soliciting donations to raise money for the foundation, naming the effort "Micah's Miles."

The family has two purposes for the fundraising efforts, Jeff said. First, is to raise money and help other families of people with cerebral palsy. The second, is to share their son with the world.

"Micah can't talk. And he can't sit up. He can't walk," Jeff said. "But what can he do?"

Micah has an amazing personality, Jeff said. People light up when they see Micah. They love his smile. They're inspired by him.

Superhero Micah

"We need to share his story," Jeff said. "We want the world to know Micah."

To do that, they created a Micah's Miles Facebook page and website, where they collect donations for the foundation. Last year, Jeff and Micah ran in the Vancouver USA Marathon and raised $5,000, mainly from friends and family. So far this year, they've raised a couple thousand dollars for the foundation.

The family also made bright orange Micah's Miles T-shirts featuring a cape-wearing superhero Micah.

Micah has low vision due to his brain abnormality. Orange was the first color to which Micah responded. As a result, orange has become the Micah's Miles team color.

Between the websites and the bright shirts, people have come to recognize Micah. They stop him after races to say "hi." They share their own stories. They ask Jeff and Micah to run for loved ones they've lost to cerebral palsy.

"It's pretty touching for us," Jeff said.

Jeff and Suzie plan to continue sharing their son with the world, one marathon at a time.

Marissa Harshman: 360-735-4546; http://twitter.com/col_health; http://facebook.com/reporterharshman; marissa.harshman@columbian.com.