This weekend I had a phenomenal experience that has changed running for me forever. I ran my first race as a volunteer for Ainsley’s Angels. It is an organization that promotes inclusion for and awareness of the special needs community by pairing up runners (“angels”) with those who can’t run the races by themselves (“captains”). Using race chariots, the captains ride along with the angels and so are able to participate in endurance events
The first time I saw anything like this it was a viral video about Team Hoyt, a father-son duo. The son, wheelchair-bound and suffering from Cerebral Palsy, told his dad that he didn’t feel disabled when he was being pushed in a wheelchair in a race. In an inspiring show of love, the father found ways to pull his son along during the swimming, biking, and running portions of triathlons and together they have now completed more than 1,000 races. I recall being moved to tears during the video, but I didn’t know at the time that there was a way that I could be involved as well.
At a road race in May, however, I discovered the local chapter of Ainsley’s Angels, a similar organization founded by a family that discovered the therapeutic benefits of race inclusion for their daughter, Ainsley, who suffers from INAD. As I encountered the captain-angel teams during the race, I saw lots of smiles and knew that I had to volunteer.
This Saturday was my first race with the Angels, the Raleigh 8,000. I confess that I was somewhat nervous when I showed up. Were we actually providing a helpful service? Or were we forcing people to participate in races to soothe our own egos? I had never pushed a wheelchair, stroller, or anything similar before. What if I screwed up? What if I accidentally dumped my captain or ran down another runner? What if I said something that was inadvertently insensitive? What if I suddenly had an uncontrollable need to go to the bathroom in the middle of the race??
Fortunately the other angels were relaxed and reassuring. This was a very small race (just 300 total runners and only 3 angel teams), so there wasn’t much pressure. I met my captain, Theo, a five-year-old with a big mop of curly hair, and I knew it would be fine. His mom, whose hands were very full with two other children, told me that they drove in for these events whenever they could because Theo really enjoyed the stimulation of the race experience. She told me that he liked the breeze in his face, so I promised him I would run fast.
When the starting gun sounded, the angel teams began together. As I picked up steam and became comfortable with the race chariot, though, Theo and I pulled ahead and started passing people. This wasn’t as easy as it might normally be because A. the chariot was pretty large and not too agile, and B. most of the race took place on a relatively narrow greenway. Theo helped, though; as he cooed and squealed, people ahead took notice and made way.
Theo was great; his happy noises and frequent waving of hands and feet attracted a lot of attention from nearby runners. His race chariot was decorated with his name on it, so we elicited many “Go, Theodore”s as we passed people. I wish I had been doing this a long time ago when I was single because I met many attractive young ladies on the course as they told me how cute my “son” was! The net effect was that running with Theo made running a much more social experience than it usually is for me. As a hardcore extrovert, I loved it!
Although people in Raleigh would call the course flat, I’m sure, there were definitely some non-trivial hills. Pushing Theo up those hills (and I should point out that Theo was the smallest captain of the bunch – so I have to give serious props to the other two angels!) was tough – which was great, since the entire reason I run is for a workout! Whenever my body felt like slowing down, I thought about the physical challenges the fragile little boy in front of me was facing and it kind of put the hills in perspective. I talked to Theo as we approached each hill. I don’t know if he understood me, but I liked to think that the sounds he was making were cheering/encouraging me on, and together he and I conquered hill after hill after hill – it really was more like him pulling me along than me pushing him.
My usual 8k time is ~34-35 minutes. Theo and I finished this one in 42:54. Given the help I was able to lend Theo in participating in the race, given the glee in his voice and movements as we sped along the downhills, given the way he inspired me and those around us, given the social experience that running with him was, and given the extra workout I got out of it, I would say this was my best 8k ever! It made running the race so much more meaningful than it would have been otherwise, and I absolutely can’t wait to do it again.