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2/15/2024 by Denali Lerch

“Runner 321” Returns to Publix Atlanta Marathon Weekend

On Publix Atlanta Marathon Weekend, two young athletes will be wearing the same special race number: 18-year-old Adrienne Bunn and 11-year-old Caroline Field will participate as "Runner 321."

They share something else, as well: the determination to prove that anyone who puts their mind to it can achieve their goals.

Runner 321 is an initiative launched in March 2022 on World Down Syndrome Day by Chris Nikic, a seasoned marathoner and the first person with Down syndrome to complete an Ironman triathlon when he did so in 2020. The initiative, powered by adidas, encouraged race organizers to reserve bib number "321" for an athlete with Down syndrome, and has since expanded to include multiple neurodivergent runners.

Last year, Nikic became the first Runner 321 at an Atlanta Track Club event when he competed in the marathon, bringing a group of Special Olympics athletes with him from Florida to also participate in the weekend's events.

Chris Nikic and Joshua Olds in the 2023 Publix Atlanta 5K

Runner 321 takes its name from the fact that 95 percent of people with Down syndrome have trisomy 21 - a full copy of chromosome 21, leading to three copies instead of two. Nikic and his team stated they did not want Runner 321 to only be for individuals with Down syndrome, though, but for all athletes with disabilities.

This year, Bunn and Field will be wearing the honorary number along with their official competitors' bibs. Bunn might be new to the marathon here but is no stranger to Publix Atlanta Marathon Weekend. An 18-year-old marathoner and triathlete with Autism Spectrum Disorder, she was among Nikic's team who completed the Publix Atlanta Half Marathon last year and is now prepared to tackle the 26.2-mile course.

The athlete, from Ocala, Fla. was the youngest competitor in the first-ever women-only Ironman World Championship in 2023 and the first known competitor with autism in any Ironman event. Just three weeks after crossing that finish line, she ran the TCS New York City Marathon as her first stand-alone marathon.

Bunn likely would never have competed in Hawaii or New York City, though, if it weren't for the unpleasant side effects of the medications she was prescribed and required to take as a child.

"The schools made us give her medication to focus and we just noticed right away that her whole personality changed while she was on that medication," said her mother, June Bunn. "She was lethargic and not herself. We weren't happy with it, but the school was happy with it because they wanted her to be cookie cutter."

Adrienne Bunn (left) and Kayleigh Williamson (right) in Atlanta for the 2023 Publix Atlanta Marathon Weekend

That all changed once Adrienne found her love for running and her personality flipped back on like a light switch, after her teacher started a running program at her elementary school, For every mile the students ran, they'd receive a plastic charm in the shape of a foot.

Suddenly, the more miles she ran the less she needed the medication, and she slowly started to wean off it without the school noticing a change.

"People with all abilities can put their mind to something and achieve that goal and, disability or not, running is a therapy for so many people," Adrienne said. "It's like therapy when you can shut off your mind or focus on yourself, and I think everyone should have that opportunity."

Meanwhile, in Marietta, 11-year-old Caroline Field has been watching athletes like Adrienne, Chris and Kayleigh Williamson, the first runner with Down syndrome to complete the TCS New York City Marathon, as she prepares to run her first-ever 5K at Publix Atlanta Marathon Weekend.

Field, an athlete with Down syndrome, has run the Microsoft Peachtree Junior and 50m dash since she was 3. Her mother, Katie Field, has also been a source of Caroline's inspiration - she'll be running the half marathon the day after her daughter's 5K.

"Caroline has always watched me run and loves all the Peachtree Juniors she's competed in, so when we heard that she could be Runner 321, I just knew right away that she was capable," Katie said.

Caroline Field at the 2023 Microsoft Peachtree Junior

When Caroline is not training for her upcoming 5K debut, she focuses on her physical fitness through tae-kwon-do and tennis three to four times a week.

"I want my story to be that people with disabilities can accomplish anything they set their mind to," Caroline said.

On Saturday, Feb. 24 at 2:00 p.m., Adrienne Bunn will speak at the Publix Atlanta Marathon Weekend Expo at the Home Depot Backyard, to help promote inclusivity for runners with disabilities.