Running With Angels…

I know a guy who likes to run.  No, that’s not right.  I know a runner.  That’s FAR more accurate.  He started running less than 10 years ago but he’s already run the Boston Marathon three times.  For the uninitiated, that’s no small feat.  He started running “short” 5k’s with his wife.  It got good to him and the races started getting longer and longer.  A marathon is 26.2 miles.  He started doing those and, before too long, they weren’t enough, either.  So, he started looking for ways to increase the challenge.  Speed was one challenge, of course.  Then came longer distances and added challenges during the run.  One day, he told his sister, who gets about using a wheelchair due to Muscular Dystrophy, that he’d like to push her in a race.  She thought that was a great idea.

Now, I’ll tell you the truth.  I thought it was one of those vague-bookings.  (You know, you run in to someone you haven’t seen in awhile and one of you says, “Oh, we should get together” but no solid plans are ever made.)  There were some efforts to find appropriate equipment.  As it happens, though, the chairs are VERY expensive – particularly when one considers they were planning only one race – so…vague-booking, right?  Well, not so fast…

There’s an organization out there called ‘Ainsley’s Angels of America.’  They’re a pretty awesome group.  Their mission statement reads, in part: “In addition to ensuring everyone can experience endurance events, Ainsley’s Angels of America aims to build awareness about America’s special needs community through inclusion in all aspects of life.”  Basically, they facilitate exactly the kind of thing Mark and Rhonda wanted to do.  They make racing chairs available for disabled people to get the experience of being in a race.  And, yes, you have to be disabled.  They won’t just lend you a racing chair on a lark.

When an idea moves from the “wouldn’t that be nice” phase to “hey, we’re doing this” phase, things begin to crystallize.  Details emerge like, “I wonder what it’s like to actually DO this!”  So, a half marathon “trial run” seemed a good “entry level” race for the pair.  I was to be “ground support.”  They signed up for the Armed Forces Half Marathon in Concord, CA and began making arrangements with Ainsley’s Angels.  At one point, the Angels’ “Ambassador”, Russ, asked Mark to estimate his time over the course of the race.  Having never pushed a person in a chair during a race before, Mark estimated roughly two hours.  Russ said he’d try to assign an appropriate co-runner.

Now, in hindsight, it seems like one of us might have realized that “assign a co-runner” suggested some sort of requirement of the organization – but we didn’t.  They said, “assign a co-runner” and we heard “offer a co-runner.”  See the difference?  No, neither did we.  The day of the race, Mark and Rhonda arrived at the Angels’ booth where they were introduced to Chris, their co-runner.  Chris explained to Mark that, normally, the co-runners trade places every mile – detail on how the “offer” works.  Mark acknowledged the information and the three of them lined up for the start.

As the runners took off, I snapped this photo:

Reduced with circles

The guy circled in blue is Mark.  He doesn’t much like the photo because I caught him in mid-gasp as he took in air.  To me, though, it just says “power.”  In Mark’s mind, he’s in a race and he races to win.  He explained to me later that his goal was just to get the chair moving as fast as possible as quickly as possible and then let momentum do much of the work.

The guy circled in Ainsley’s Angels pink is Chris, Mark’s “co-runner.”  You can see the rest of the ‘Wheels’ division behind them.  To me, Chris’s face very clearly indicates surprise.  I’m pretty sure he didn’t expect Mark to make such a strong start.  See, Chris is a regular co-runner.  He knows the rules.  He knows that the co-runner wasn’t an “offer” so much as a “requirement.”  HE knows the runners are expected to stay together…

They didn’t…

Mark and Rhonda ended up with a first place finish in their division.  Well, Rhonda did.  Somehow, Mark ended up in a different division so, confusing though it may be, Mark ended up 92nd overall out of a field of 695 – but he was pushing a wheelchair with a grown woman in it so…that’s not bad.  His finish time was 1:51:42.  Her finish time was 1:52:38 (compensation for a “soft start”).  After the start of the race, we never saw Chris again.  The Ainsley’s Angels team were very gracious when they explained to Mark that he wasn’t supposed to leave his co-runner.  Mark and Rhonda expect to run one more race in concert with Ainsley’s Angels: a full marathon, of course.

I’ll tell you this: Ainsley’s Angels of America is an incredible group that depends upon charitable contributions to keep the racers racing.  So here’s a link to their donations page should you feel so inclined…

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