AYERSVILLE -- As Mackenzie Guilford crossed the finish line of the Columbus Grove Cross Country Invitational, the moment was special for a number of reasons.
The Ayersville senior not only finished 24th out of 147 overall runners, but she did so in a career-best 3.1-mile time of just a shade over 21 minutes and 53 seconds, shaving nearly 35 seconds off her previous PR set one week prior at the Defiance Early Bird Open.
Moreover, her steady showing on the course led the Lady Pilot harriers to a 4th-place team finish out of a field of 13 strong, while also securing a place in school history as the 25th fastest among Ayersville's top-30 runners of all time.
But Guilford's most exceptional success is neither limited to, nor summed up in a single race or personal best.
Her true victory is ongoing, just as it has been throughout her entire life.
To those familiar with the demands of endurance sports and the dedication required to accomplish such feats, Guilford's mark in the race results may paint a picture of an athlete who lives to run.
While that much may also be true of Guilford, what many do not know of the senior Pilot is a remarkable tale that stretches far beyond the course, laced with determination of incredible proportion with no finish line in sight.
Mackenzie Guilford runs to live.
Diagnosed with cystic fibrosis at 16 months of age, the Ayersville senior has lived the true meaning of the word courage in battling a genetic life-threatening disease that attacks primarily the lungs and pancreas, clogging the organs with mucus.
Approximately 30,000 children and adults are afflicted with cystic fibrosis in the United States, while an additional 10 million more are carriers of the defective CF gene, according to statistics provided by the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation at www.cff.org.
"If (both parents are) both carriers, that chance of you having a child with CF is 25 percent, so she was like that perfect one in four," explained Mackenzie's mother, Jody Guilford.
It was to be the first of many rarities for the future harrier.
Following her diagnosis as an infant, Guilford underwent three aggressive home treatments per day up until the age of 10 - consisting of several aerosolized medications to break up mucus in her lungs - but has since dropped her regimen to just two, sometime implementing a third before a meet if necessary.
But as she explains, strict attention to detail is still first and foremost when it comes to staying healthy.
"I have to get up at 5:30 in the morning and then I start my treatment right away," said Guilford, who is praised by her mother and father, Eric, for never missing a single treatment throughout her life. "It usually takes about an hour, and then like 15 minutes to get everything around for it.
"And then afterwards I have to clean out all the nebulizers and make sure their all sanitary and everything," she added. "I do that two times a day, so I'll do one in the morning and then one when I come home from school."
As one might imagine, Guilford's childhood routine introduced her to sacrifice at a very early age, often times missing out on activities and social events that are the norm for the average kid.
"I can remember being up at the lake and having to be inside when the other kids were playing outside, doing my treatments and stuff," she recalled. "It was kind of frustrating because I didn't understand it back then."
In the big picture, though, her mother believes those experiences only served to bolster the determination that drives the Ayersville standout to this day.
"Socially it's been hard because she's had to give up a lot at times, and she'll just say, 'Well you know, mom, it could be a lot worse. But I can't do that,' Jody reflected. "I think it's made her very driven, even more focused.
"I think she would be that way anyway," she continued. "But whatever she does, like taking care of herself and her health, she's going to do it one-hundred and ten percent."
This proved especially true when the young Pilot made a pivotal decision as a freshman athlete.
NEW FORM OF TREATMENT
"It's really weird, actually. I was playing volleyball in junior high, and then I didn't make the team and I was really disappointed because I had worked really hard. Then my friends were like, "Oh, you should try running,' said Guilford, who is also a distance runner in track. "I was like, "Uh, I don't know if I want to do that.' Then they said, 'It would be really good for your lungs,' and I said, 'Ok, I'll give it a shot.'
"From then on I just loved it and I was hooked."
When dealing with a disease that challenges the respiratory and digestive systems the way cystic fibrosis does, running - particularly in the realm of competitive endurance - is not the first choice typically recommended by physicians. Issues with weight loss affecting lung function and just the challenge of breathing alone were enough to cause concern among Guilford's doctors and parents.
Again, Mackenzie Guilford is not your typical runner. The results proved to be a testament to this almost immediately.
"At first my doctors were really hesitant about letting me do it, but I just feel so much better afterwards," the Ayersville harrier admitted. "If I just take a day off I can already feel a difference in my lungs, and so it just makes me want to run that much more."
Between adopting a high-calorie diet and remaining steadfast in her rigorous treatment schedule, what was initially viewed with skepticism and apprehension soon became lauded as a vital part of battling the debilitating symptoms of CF as time passed and the results became clear.
"I think a lot of children who have CF, they don't choose running because it's so difficult for them," said Jody. "Honestly, (Mackenzie) told me when you breathe it's like you're sucking through a straw. That's how hard it is to get your air.
"But just the mindset to think, 'I'm going to run because I want to do it and I don't care if I have CF,' that's pretty phenomenal right there," she continued. "So I think this was new to the doctors, kind of that she was such an avid runner and that she could do the distance like this."
As fate would have it, though, a frightening setback last fall as a junior would not only test Guilford's resolve as a runner, but also set the stage for an amazing comeback and strengthen her in all aspects as a person.
TRIAL AND TOUGHNESS
Ayersville cross country coach Alexis Zippay knew something was wrong with her junior early on in the season a year ago.
"Our fourth meet at Grover Hill is when we started really noticing the breathing issue with Kenzie last season," she said. "I remember being in the second or third mile, and actually one of her teammates was like, 'You need to stop Kenzie. You need to stop Kenzie.' Once I saw Kenzie, I said, 'Okay, you need to get off. You're done.'
"She said, 'No, no, no … I will catch up. The team needs my points.' Obviously, she eventually did stop."
What occurred that day was the result of a summer illness that had decreased Guilford's weight and lung function to the point of requiring her first-ever "tune-up," a procedure commonly administered to cystic fibrosis patients every six to 12 months.
Guilford's treatment required a four-day stay at Motts Children's Hospital at the University of Michigan, where a PICC line was inserted into her elbow and ran to her upper chest, intravenously supplying antibiotics into her system.
Despite initial doctor's orders to stop running, Guilford's persistence eventually won out and she was allowed very light activity on a treadmill at the hospital before finishing the remainder of her 21-day PICC treatment at home.
"(Running) makes her feel like she's going to live," said her mother. "And she's going to fight through this … she's a fighter. She'll do whatever it takes to live."
It wasn't long before the Pilot hopeful was back on the course, even setting a new PR of 23:12 at the district meet before making a trip with her teammates to regional competition to close out her junior season.
"I just didn't realize how strong I could be until I was knocked down," commented Guilford, who also cites a strong Catholic faith as a major part of her accomplishments. "I didn't think I could get back up again, but I did. I didn't realize how much I was capable of, I guess."
INSPIRATION FOR THE FUTURE
Also holding a sensational GPA of over 4.0, Guilford has her future sights set on attending college after graduation en route to a career in nursing.
For the time being, however, her attitude - and fortitude - has been instrumental examples in providing inspiration to her teammates, in addition to changing the stigma of cystic fibrosis and the possibilities of those afflicted with the currently-incurable disease.
"She usually runs well over 300, 400 miles over the summer," praised Zippay of Guilford. "A lot of (her teammates) have set that goal that they need to run that 300 because Mackenzie did, and look at her go. I definitely feel that she is a definite inspiration to the younger girls. A great role model, a great kid, a good student … I'm gonna miss her."
But how does Guilford feel about her role as an inspiration?
"I don't really feel like I am," she humbly replied. "Everybody always says that I am, but I don't know. They always say, 'How do you do it?' I don't really know. I just think God gives me strength and keeps me going.
"I think about when I would walk the halls in the hospital and I'd see all those kids," continued Guilford, also quick to thank and recognize her family and friends for plenty of support. "Every time that I run now, I think about that I'm running for them because they can't run."
Guilford would love nothing more than to return to the regional CC plateau once again with her team, bringing to fruition so many years of the treatments and hard work it took to compete at this level.
As her father sums up, though, a lifetime already spent as a fighter overcoming the odds has provided the young harrier with all the tools necessary to accomplish and sustain the greatest reward of all.
A happy, healthy and normal life.
"She is very driven to be the as good as she can be at whatever she is doing," he commented. "Hopefully, this drive or stubbornness will serve her well as she continues her fight against CF.
"She runs not from this disease but rather towards a normal life where hopefully, in the future, a cure is found," Eric concluded. "At that time she will be able to say that she lives to run and not that she runs to live."