The starting gun fired, and Heath Montgomery took off.
The 7-year-old, sporting race bib number 1341 and a Batman baseball cap, completed the 1-mile walk in the fifth annual Doggie Dash on Sunday in Silver Park, a Missoula Parks and Recreation event that benefits Missoula City-County Animal Control.
For Montgomery, who has cerebral palsy, it was a day to prove to himself what he could accomplish. He's been training three or four weeks for the event, said his mother, Jenny. That includes joining the walking club at Paxson School.
"Because I'm an athlete," he said of why he wanted to do the race.
As he crossed the finish line – in only half an hour, Jenny pointed out, shorter than the 45 minutes she had predicted – the crowd walking with him erupted in cheers, as did those on the sidelines, such as Parks and Rec outdoor recreation specialist Meg Whicher.
"Finish strong, finish strong!" she yelled.
It was the Montgomery family's first time participating in the Doggie Dash. Their 3-year-old dog, Honeybee, joined them for the walk.
"This is one of the best races of the year," Jenny said. "And it's a good way to get fit. It's really important for kids with disabilities to get active. For kids with disabilities, the rate of obesity is nine times as high."
The Doggie Dash has raised about $12,000 over the past few years, Whicher said.
"Our recreation manager (Shirley Kinsey) used to live in a town that did a doggie dash as a fundraiser every year," she said. "So she kind of reinvented it and brought it to Missoula and we do it to support Animal Control and their pets that are looking to be adopted."
They cap the race at about 50 dogs – "if you think about it, more than 50 dogs in one place is out of control."
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Participants could walk or run the 1-mile and 5K races. This year, funding will go toward some of Animal Control’s shelter projects, said animal shelter attendant Nikki Wood.
“We want to have a big outdoor dog play yard, where people can do intros with dogs,” Wood said. “And we’re trying to build more outdoor kennels.”
The shelter can hold 30 dogs and 45 cats.
"This winter was actually probably one of the best winters we've had," Wood said. "It's now starting to pick up. Just yesterday, we went from eight dogs to now 16. It's just that time of year. Spring and summer are our busiest months."
"It gets my muscles and legs strong," Heath said, taking some time to stretch before the race. That strength means he's set a record for himself of 16 unassisted steps, Jenny said.
Heath was inspired by local athlete Joe Stone, who suffered a spinal cord injury during a paragliding accident in 2010, leaving him paralyzed from the chest down with partial motor function and sensation below the neck.
In 2013, Stone became the first wheelchair-using quadriplegic to complete an Ironman triathlon race.
Stone accompanied Heath on the walk Sunday, cheering him on along the way. Sunday morning, Heath was hanging out at home, watching the documentary about Stone, "It's Raining, So What."
After the race, it was time to recharge with a Scotty's Table lunch, where Heath could visit with his favorite waitress, Amy Rosendahl.
"He's one of my favorite kids ever," Whicher said.