Vermont is an AAmazing story of teamwork, of new friends that seem like we have known each other forever, of a fantastic race and new adventures and the old story of yet another battle with Mother Nature.
I am not a planner by nature. I am happy to sit in the back seat and let someone else take the reins. I am still getting used to being put into a role of coordinating my races for #Project50.
I have never been to Vermont and there is also no Ainsley’s Angels chapter located there. My planning for this race got off to a great start when I was able to quickly get in touch with Joe Connelly, Director of Race Operations for Run Vermont. Joe and I began emailing soon after I had chosen this race to run for Vermont and he was quick to give me permission to run with an assisted athlete. He was familiar with the concept of what we do with Ainsley’s Angels because he has worked with the duo team of Ted Painter and Nick Draper from Team Hoyt who have run this race for the past few years.
With the official welcome from Joe, we set out to find a rider. So, where do you go when you need help like that? Well of course I turned to my Ainsley’s Angels of America family! I put a call for action out on the Ainsley’s Angels Facebook page and within a day had a few leads. I wound up with a message from Bridget, a runner who lives in Texas but grew up in Burlington, VT. She has many connections in Vermont, so after a few days, many e-mails, texts and phone calls she was able to introduce me to the Minter family.
Sue Minter is the mother to the two amazing young men, Adam and Sam. Adam is a fun and active 27 year old with cognitive and physical disabilities. He is able to walk with a walker and has limited speech but is learning new words and short phrases all the time. Sammy is a fun and active 23 year old with both cognitive and physical disabilities. He is mostly wheelchair bound and has very few words. You can tell by his smile that he understands most of what is going on around him, he just usually lets his brother do the talking. The boy’s mom, Sue, is the program coordinator for Adventures in Granola which employs several young adults with disabilities who make homemade granola, package it, and distribute it around Vermont (seriously some of the best granola I have ever had). She is also the Director of Socials for Partners in Adventure, a camp whose goal is to include those with cognitive and physical activities in outdoor adventures. This match was meant to be! When I found out there could be 2 riders, my simple plan was to start the race in my pace group, run about half of the marathon, and switch out brothers half way so that they would each get a chance to enjoy race day!
I wanted to let the race director Joe know about the brothers so that there would be a finishers medal for available for both of them. I sent an email explaining this little match made in heaven and got a quick response back that said no. Joe simply said that it was too close to race day to be trying to coordinate changing brothers in chairs, the original plan was for one runner and one rider and it was too late in the game to be switching things up. I was devastated. I could not think about telling Bridget, who had worked so hard to pull this together and I really could not bring myself to tell Sue. She had already expressed how excited she was about the boys being able to participate, how would I ask her to choose which one would finally get to ride in the chair while the other one waited on the sidelines?
I finally broke down and sent Bridget an email. She fortunately did not see this as an obstacle but as an opportunity. Bridget was getting ready to attend Hoytapalooza, an annual weekend to celebrate different assisted teams from all over the US. It was there that Bridget was able to get the ball rolling on the awesomeness that would take place over race weekend. She was able to see that a second race chair would be donated to the 50 Gifts of Freedom Project by Rooster Rossiter, so that if we could find a second runner, both young men could roll. It was there that leaders from Ainsley’s Angels and Team Hoyt stepped in to start asking their runners if anyone was willing to help out. An anonymous donor stepped forward to pay the entry fee for whoever could come in to help out last minute – this was a week before the race! So many people were coming together and networking to make this to happen.
A quick email to Joe gave us the OK, we could include a second Ainsley’s Angels team so that both boys could participate. He was even excited that we had found a solution. We had until Tuesday at 6:00 to have confirmation on the second runner. That was the time given to us by Fed Ex as the last guaranteed time to be able to have the chair shipped so that it would be in Vermont by race day. That gave me only 2 days to find someone who was trained and ready to run a marathon, willing to push a full grown man in a wheelchair for that marathon, and be able to be in Vermont that weekend. That is a tall order to fill! Once again I hit the Ainsley’s Angels of America Family. People were sharing my request and tagging friends who they thought may be interested. Finally, through a shared post in I Run 4, on Tuesday at 5:09pm, I found two angels, Jessica and Brendan.
Jessica lives in New Hampshire and was already planning on being in Burlington for this race. She was planning on running it alone in honor of a friend but when she heard through someone that we needed help she decided to step in and try flying with team Minter. She had never pushed a race chariot before but was eager to try it out. Brendan lives in Boston. He had not planned on running this race but had just run a marathon a few weeks before and was willing to step in and help. He had also never pushed a race chariot. Both Jessica and Brendan are much faster, more disciplined runners than I am so I spent the rest of the week worrying about how we would configure ourselves. I hate asking anyone to slow down for me, but I knew that it would be too hard for me to keep up with them and it was probably the safest bet for the three of us to stick together, in case either of them had questions about the chairs. My anxiety was quickly put at ease after talking to each of them. Their hearts were in this for the experience. They were there for the team and each of them expressed to me that they felt, somehow, that they were supposed to be in Vermont for this purpose.
AAmazing. Humbling. Honored. All that was left to do was to run the race.
Team Minter, a team of 5 strangers, who were brought together in a most remarkable fashion, was set to run the Vermont City Marathon. If you have been following my journey then you know that every race so far has been rainy. As I checked the weather report, it of course was calling for rain. All I could do was laugh. It really is getting to be a great joke. 50 Gifts of Freedom is coming, get your umbrellas! Friends who have been following my journey were tracking the weather and I was getting text messages daily suggesting I change my t-shirts to a ponchos, or I try to plan my races for states who are in a drought. I really don’t even worry about running in the rain anymore, been there, done that. I do, however, worry about the riders who are sitting in the rain.
I made my way up to Vermont early on Friday morning. Vermont is spectacular. The views are breathtaking and the town of Burlington is quaint and friendly. I flew into the tiny airport in Burlington that was close enough to town that I thought about walking. Instead I took a taxi, the driver told me on the drive that it was a good thing, I wouldn’t want to be out walking so far (2 miles) on such a hot day (it was about 72 degrees). I didn’t tell him that I was in town to run a marathon and the short 2 mile walk would have felt good. I checked in to where I was staying and easily found the race expo, right down the street. The Race organizers recognized my pink Ainsley’s Angels t-shirt and knew why I was there and what I would be doing on Sunday at the race. I talked to so many people who wanted to be sure that I had everything that I needed for Sunday’s race and that the boys would be well taken care of. It was so nice to meet race organizers who in the midst of hundreds of other runners with their questions took time for me, knew who I was and that I would be there, and had everything ready to accommodate us. I even got to meet Joe. After all of the emails it was nice to put a face to the person who had helped make this race happen. He was excited to meet me and welcomed me to Vermont and to the Race. He told me how happy he was that things had worked out for us.
Saturday I started to meet our team! Brendan got into town at lunch time and we headed out to meet the Minter boys! We were welcomed into a Partners in Adventure social were the boys were having a luau with their friends. We got to meet so many outstanding young men and women who were eager to tell us all about their granola business, and their parents who were eager to hear about the Ainsley’s Angels mission! There was an entire potential Ainsley’s Angels team sitting right there in that church fellowship hall. An entire team that could be ready to roll if given the equipment. Oh how I wish we could have given 12 chairs instead of just 2! We left the social with a plan in place and hugs all around. Brendan and I put the chairs together, checked the tire pressure, and we were ready for tomorrow’s race.
Sunday morning I awoke to a bright sunny blue sky. Wait, What?! That’s not how this story is supposed to go! But yes, It was gorgeous out! Brendan and I met up with Jessica who woke up early to drive in that morning. We walked the mile to the race start where we met the Minters and got Adam and Sammy all loaded into their chariots. We headed out to the Starting line, through crowds of cheering people, and got set to go. I quickly learned why Joe thought it was a bad idea to switch riders out mid race. The racecourse is set up like a shamrock with three separate loops all going out and back to the center of town. This gave us a great tour of Burlington, allowed us to see spectacular mountain views, but was a tight squeeze in the center of town where we would have had to meet up with our support team and change things up. The marathon atmosphere was spectacular! Almost the entire race course was lined with cheering race supporters.
Jessica, Brendan and I were 6 miles into the race and had found a really comfortable rhythm running together. Brendan and Adam quickly bonded and paired up for the run while Jessica and I teamed up with Sammy. It was about that time that we started getting messages about the weather. It was hot. The sun was beating down on us and we were in a totally exposed section of the race course, running down and then back up a mountain highway. One water station had already run out of water and they were calling in volunteers to bring more for the overheated runners. Team Minter had slowed down a bit as I was really feeling the heat. We began to get worried about Sammy as he wouldn't take any water or juice from us. He is not able to tell us so the decision was made to get him back to his parents who were waiting for us at the end of this loop. I knew I couldn’t go so fast but Brendan could. He was able to take Sammy up the mountain to his parents while Jessica and I hung back with Adam and slowly made our way up to our meeting spot. While they were waiting for us, Sammy ate some and drank two juice boxes and we were reassured that the way he was behaving was the totally relaxed Sammy. Jessica and I got our hands on some Coke and that gave me the pep that I needed to go on. We were able to pick our pace up at that point that I was going to possibly get a PR in this race! The heat was becoming more and more of a factor but once we headed back into the neighborhoods on the next loop the race turned into more of a block party! All the neighborhood was out to welcome the runners. People had sprinklers set up to cool us of, watermelon and popsicles were being passed out, we ran from one refreshing treat to the next, I have never seen anything like how this community came together to support us! Sam and Adam were local celebrities. So many people knew the boys and were eager to talk to them about their first race! We were running well until we got to mile 21.
“The race is closed. Please come off the course and you will be given further instructions.”
Due to weather conditions race officials had to make the difficult decision to stop the race 4 hours into the day. We sought out a race official to find out what we needed to do. We explained that unless they had accommodations for the boys to be able to be transported safely back to the finish line, along with the wheelchairs, we would have to continue. We were given the go ahead to continue to the finish. We loaded our race chariots with fresh water and promised to take it slow to avoid overheating. We weren't the only ones to decide to carry on. There were several other runners who were doing the same and although we were warned that if we continued on the course it would be unsupported, they had to get the race volunteers out of the heat as well, the volunteers would not leave. We had volunteers in golf carts patrolling the course checking on us, volunteers that refused to leave their water stations until all the runners were accounted for, safely off the racecourse, and volunteers going out to purchase more water to keep us hydrated. And then we saw it. The finish line had not been taken down. We pulled the boys in their chairs over to the side, assisted them out so that they could finish on their own two feet. Adam, who is a much steadier walker than Sam crossed with Brendan to the loudest cheers. Jessica and I were helping Sammy who was feeling unsteady. He looked over to Jessica and hugged her neck, that's when we scooped him up to carry him to his finish line, together. It was then I heard the announcer, “Everyone stop what you are doing right now, turn your attention please to the finish line. This, folks is Ainsley’s Angels. This is how they do it folks. If you have never had the honor of meeting an Angel this is your chance!” The cheering was overwhelming. It was so humbling.
We finished Vermont! We were able to give away two chairs, meet a family that will stay with me for the rest of my life, and make many new friends.
Thank you Joe, staff and the city of Burlington for being so welcoming. This is one of the best supported races that I have ever run.
Thank you Minter family for being my amazing team base! Thanks for trusting me to get those two awesome boys across the finish line. Adams smile, conversation, and enthusiasm is unforgettable. Sammy’s calm and laid back nature is so sweet. One of the highlights of the day was when we asked him if he liked racing and he gave us a huge smile and told us yes!
And Thank You Brendan and Jessica, from the bottom of my heart. Thank you for following your gut and putting yourselves out there to help me out. Thank you for putting your hearts and your feet out there to assist others.
The whole process of this race was put together by strangers who are now friends, some who I have yet to meet in person but when I do I owe you a huge hug - Bridget, much of this wouldn’t have happened without your help, your belief in the project, and your prayers.
So, I am finished joking about the rain or the heat, or cold or wind. Whatever the weather is going to be, I will be able to run through it. The weather is not my focus for this project. Project 50 is about inclusion, teamwork, perseverance, and togetherness. I am truly blessed that so many people came together for this marathon #4 of 50 Gifts of Freedom Project. I am humbled and awed at the amount of teamwork that came together for this race to happen. The Ainsley’s Angels slogan of “Together We Shall” has a whole new meaning for me after Vermont. Truly – Together, We Shall.