Like everyone running in Sunday’s Miami Half Marathon, Peri Finkelstein has been logging countless miles.
But she’s been doing it in her basement, bumping into poles and boxes, accompanied by her pet cockapoo Bouly while her mother folds laundry.
Finkelstein, 17, has muscular dystrophy. She could settle for being confined to her wheelchair, restricted by her ventilator. But she refuses.
She intends to complete her sixth Miami Half Marathon, but this will be her most difficult. Last year, for the first time, she got out of her chair and walked the last 1,437 steps — each stride a victory in itself — with her gait trainer. This year, she plans to walk the final mile.
“Hopefully, I can inspire other people, no matter what obstacle they have to overcome,” Finkelstein said.
She concedes she is not a graceful walker, in the conventional sense. She’s bent over, she drags her feet, she wears a harness, her pace is laboriously slow.
“But it’s her walk, so it’s beautiful,” said her mother, Lori. “She’s moving, and it makes her happy. You want your children to be perfect and look perfect, but we don’t focus on pretty.”
Finkelstein will complete the first 12.1 miles with her 12-member Team Peri, including iron-armed Lori, who does all the pushing of the 50-pound chair.
“If I let go, I’ll fall or stop, so it’s my job to keep going,” Lori said, flexing her biceps.
Also accompanying Finkelstein are father Paul, a New York attorney, sister Katy, brother Joel and runners from Chai Lifeline, which supports children with life-threatening and severe medical conditions.
“They’ve been our lifeline since she was a baby,” Lori said. “Peri wants to give back.”
She will be joined by former New York Mets pitcher Nelson Figueroa, who met Finkelstein and her brother in 2009 when they went to batting practice. They presented Figueroa and David Wright with her homemade blue and orange bracelets. Figueroa saw a video of her walking the last part of the 2016 race, and “it moved me to tears to see how strong she had become. I was just in awe.”
Figueroa, now a broadcast analyst, had hip replacement surgery last year, so it’s going to be a challenge for him, too. He’s filmed a PSA with Finkelstein and held a bowling fundraiser with pro athletes, actors and disabled kids who pledged $160,000 to Finkelstein’s favorite cause, Lifeline’s Camp Simcha, a summer camp in Glen Spey, New York, that is specially outfitted for disabled youngsters. Finkelstein has raised more than $200,000 through her marathon participation for the camp “that makes these kids feel like normal kids,” Lori said.
Finkelstein, who lives in West Hempstead on Long Island, is a National Honor Society junior at the Henry Viscardi School in Albertson. She likes to bake, read and shop. She used to attend a mainstream school but was driven away by bullying.
“Present her with a challenge, she’ll accept it,” Katy said. “Say she can’t do something and she will.”
Finkelstein, who was placed on a ventilator at age 3, used to be able to walk limited distances. But after breaking her legs three times, being dropped by various nurses and undergoing eight surgeries for scoliosis, she stopped in 2011.
“It was too hard and painful,” Lori said. “She lost her spirit. She was sick of being sick.”
Finkelstein reached out to one of her former therapists, Andrea McFarlin, and told her: “I need your help. I want to walk again.”
“Andrea kicked Peri’s butt,” Katy said. “Peri had to learn from scratch, but she’s very stubborn and goal-driven.”
Back home, 81 laps around the basement equals three quarters of a mile.
It takes Finkelstein about an hour to do her workout. Since she arrived at the Eden Roc Hotel in Miami Beach, she’s been doing laps around a conference room.
She expects her finishing time to be about 3:15, which would have her crossing the finish line on Biscayne Boulevard at about 9:15 a.m.
Last year, she walked a quarter mile.
This year, the goal is one mile. Next year?
Finkelstein will need a bigger basement.