50 Gifts of Freedom
About 50 Gfits of Freedom
Ainsley’s Angels of America is extremely proud to have Angel Runner Jessica spreading our mission to every state of our amazing Nation! Starting on leap year day 2016 (February 29th) in Oregon, Jessica will begin the journey of joining a different Angel Athlete-rider in a marathon in each of our 50 states!
After each race, Ainsley’s Angels of America will grant a Freedom Push Chair to the Athlete. Jessica aims to not only bestow the gift of mobility and inclusion all over the United States, but also aims to assist with the growth of the Ainsley’s Angels Ambassador program to enable more to “Roll With The Wind”!
Jessica believes that it doesn’t take super athletic abilities to be able to participate, just a love for running and a love for helping others to experience and be included in this wonderful sport.
To help support the mission you can donate HERE.
Getting to know you. Feb 15, 2016
Beginning the journey. Feb 22, 2016
Race 1: Oregon: March 25, 2016
Race 2: Virginia: March 13, 2016
Race 3: Kentucky: May 18, 2016
Race 4: Vermont: June 23, 2016
Race 5: South Dakota: November 8, 2016
Getting to know you. Feb 15, 2016
Hey everyone! Before I start on this new adventure I want to let you all get to know me! My name is Jessica. I am 37 and I am a wife, a mother of 3, Matthew (14), Jackman (8), and Lorelei (6). I work night shift full time as a Nurse on a post operative orthopedic unit and I am in school to finish up my BSN. I Have loved running for a long time and have been a runner on and off since middle school. What I am NOT, is an elite athlete. I am a happy mid to back of the pack runner, who probably spends too much time stopping to see the sights and take selfies and not enough time concentrating on split paces, conditioning and strength training.
I most recently came back to running after the birth of my 3rd child and what started out as a method for losing weight became a passion for running long distances. While running a half marathon two years ago, I ran into a friend who was running with a new team that had just debuted in the Raleigh area, Ainsley’s Angels. She invited me to join them for their next race which I happily accepted and a new love was born! I have run 3 full marathons, 5 half marathons, and countless other distances being pulled along by different athlete riders! I absolutely love the feeling of running behind them and their race chariot! A few months ago my husband Mike and I were chatting about the possibility of me running a marathon in each state with him joining in for a few of them. We saw it as a great excuse to travel and show our kids different parts of the US. I loved the idea but couldn’t imagine running these races without a rider. The first race that I was signed up for happened to be close by so I contacted a few friends and found out that there would be an Ainsley’s Angels team participating. A few conversations later and we have this new goal: 50 gifts of freedom.
I am thrilled to be able to have this opportunity to partner with Ainsley’s Angels for this project! I can’t wait to spread the mission of Ainsley’s Angels, provide gifts of mobility, and meet new Ainsley’s Angels friends along the way! So here is the plan so far…
I’d like run a marathon in each state in the next 5 years. That comes down to about a state/marathon a month. There are a few races that because of location and timing I will run on back to back days but that won’t happen until probably next year.
I would like to gift a chair to an athlete rider in each state. To accomplish this I will need to raise the money to buy the chairs. Our estimate at this time is that we will need to raise around $50,000. I will do this through fundraising and as I learn, hopefully, donations and gifts of chairs will be sponsored. We’ll see where this part of the journey leads me.
I will be relying on Rooster and Ainsley’s Angels of America to match me up with riders to gift the chairs to.
I will have this years race calendar up and ready to share in the next few weeks BUT I can let you all know that I have my first two races set! I will be running the Leap day Marathon on Feb 29th in Beaverton, Oregon and The Shamrock Marathon in Virginia Beach on March 20th. (Which happens to also be my birthday weekend!) PLEASE come out and support Ainsley’s Angels and the Athletes that I will be pushing!
My main goal for this mission is FUN! I want to meet new people, introduce others to the wonderful thing that is this Ainsley’s Angels family! I want to spread the message of INCLUSION, one state and one super athlete at a time! Oh, and I still want to stop and the take a ton of pictures and selfies.
See you all on the road!
Beginning the journey. Feb 22, 2016
50 marathons. When I sit and start to try to wrap my mind around all the numbers it’s a little staggering! The goal is to be able to complete this project in 5 years. That’s 1310 miles of running in races in just 60 months, not to mention the countless miles of training in between. The numbers are big and pushing me well outside of my comfort zone!
I have always enjoyed running. My dad and I used to run together when I was a teenager, and he would track my times over the course of cross country seasons in high school. When I started running, most of the time it was about me. Going out for a run was claimed as my “me time” to be alone outside with my thoughts, my music, my pace. I was not concerned about getting anywhere fast and I enjoyed the feeling of my feet on the pavement and the wind in my face. This focus on “me time” all changed when I met my first athlete rider, John.
Standing in a mass of other angel runners on a brisk spring morning waiting for the start of my first 5k race as an Ainsley’s Angel, I was introduced to John, a seven year old who would be my running partner, and John’s mom who gave me a brief run through on what to do with John’s feeding pump.
When he was younger, John was in a car accident that resulted in traumatic brain injury. He is unable to walk on his own, unable to speak, and he is fed formula through a tube that goes directly into his stomach. He has a twinkle in his eyes that lets you know he is soaking in every moment of the things happening around him and a smile that will melt your heart. John was being fed his breakfast that morning of the race but that feeding would finish while we were out running. Though I am a nurse and am thoroughly familiar with feeding pumps and tubes I was not familiar with John. At the furthest point away on the race course we would be about a mile and a half away from his mom. What if he wasn’t tolerating his feeding well? What if he had a seizure? What if he needed something or was uncomfortable and was unable to let me know? These were all very real things which were racing through my mind about what could happen, yet John’s mom was still trusting me to run with him.
Off we went and I was out on the road with John. I wasn’t quite sure how that would go, just the two of us, but after the first few minutes my apprehensions quickly faded as John smiled and laughed down the race course! I have never seen such enthusiasm on someone’s face. John loved the feeling of running, wheels on the pavement and the wind in his face and the feeling was contagious! At the end of that 3.1 mile race I had fallen in love not only with an excited rider athlete but also the feeling of sharing my love of running with someone who physically cannot run. It was a gift of inclusion, our rider athletes can share in the excitement of race day, the wind in their hair, the accomplishment of teamwork, and the perseverance of an endurance sport.
50 Marathons. 1310 Miles. Those numbers change for me now. This journey is not about “me time”. Instead, I have the honor of working not by myself but as a TEAM of people helping to make this project possible. I have the honor of meeting 50 extraordinary people and their families and together having them pull me across 1310 beautiful miles that most people will never get to see and experience in the ways that we will. I have the privilege of providing 50 people that gift of freedom.
As I set foot on that first race course in a little over a week I expect I will have some butterflies (I do before every race). I also expect that I will think about all the angel riders that have brought me to this point to have the courage to take this leap of faith and complete this journey. Thank you, John, for being there for me for my first race and for pulling me along for some training runs. All great things start somewhere and this great project started with you.
Race 1: Oregon: March 25, 2016
Frustrated, Proud, Uncomfortable, Satisfaction, Overwhelmed, Confident, Defeated, Exhilarated. These are just some of a million different emotions felt when running a 26.2 mile foot race. The Leap Day Marathon in Beaverton, Oregon was no different.
Oregon left me with a flood of feelings, good and bad, and it has been hard to relay them to people who ask me how my first race in the 50 Gifts of Freedom Project went. “Great!” I tell them. But that word isn’t nearly big enough to cover the entirety of what happened along that race course.
The beauty of this race started before we even set foot on the plane to get there. The Leap Day Marathon was discovered by my husband Mike after it was already full to its cap of 100 runners that would be allowed on the race course. With one email to the race director that explained my mission, I was welcomed with open arms, invited to participate and to bring along a rider athlete as well. Oregon does not yet have an Ainsley’s Angels Ambassadorship, so with the help of the Washington State Ambassador I was able to be paired with a very special little 5 year old girl named Kylee. Kylee had a series of unfortunate medical events when she was younger and is now unable to speak or walk unassisted. Even though she has these challenges, she has a spark for life that is evident in her smile and you can see that she is a fighter by the twinkle in her eye.
Race day began dreary, rainy, and cold. I am told that is par for the course in Oregon. The race course was described as having “two substantial climbs in the first and last four miles”. I quickly realized that description was a bit of an understatement from what I would call substantial climbs. When I hit a hilly area in Raleigh, I call that a substantial climb, I stood at the starting line looking across hills that appeared to be more like mountains. Kylee looked on with a huge grin on her face and complete trust that I, being her feet, would carry her through this race.
The race course was challenging at best and painfully defeating at worst. I trained to cover 26.2 miles, I trained to push a rider. Never in a race had I covered the distance without a team of Angels by my side. I had plans to meet with my husband at several times along the race course but being in a new city it was hard for him to track my location and our timing was off more than once. The field of other runners had quickly gained a lead on Kylee and I, leaving us to run alone. Up and down hills, through beautiful moss covered rain forests and wet fields of green grass Kylee and I ticked off the miles. The breeze and the gentle rocking of the race chair put Kylee to sleep for a good part of the afternoon and I was left alone with my thoughts and that can be a dangerous place when you are getting exhausted and alone. I thought about quitting more than once, or at the very least just turning around and heading back towards the finish. This was an unsupported race, no volunteers, no timing mats to cross, so no one would know if I shorted my miles. I thought about how I was weak. My arms and back ached from the effort of pushing, I grunted each time I had to lift the front wheel of the race chair to make a turn. My leg muscles hurt from climbing yet another hill and doubt began to creep in. I thought that there is no way I am going to be able to do this 49 more times and complete this mission that was before me. Then I looked at Kylee. If she had the chance to ache from running I bet she would in a second. Instead she lives each day with pain that she is unable to describe to anyone or maybe even to understand why. She tries so hard for each milestone that she reaches.
Kylee had awoken and gave me a sweet smile as she realized that she was still running like before her nap. That smile put this entire project into perspective. I am running for those who can’t because I can. I ran all the way to the 13.1 turn around, saw Kylee’s smile, and started on my way back. Soon after, I saw Mike. He had finally caught up with us and was there with a word of encouragement, some sports drink, and a moment of rest for my arms. Things were looking up and I was feeling a bit more confident in my race. I began to tell Kylee about Ainsley. Ainsley had just passed away 6 days earlier. I told her that she was watching down on us and smiling because she started this wonderful family that Kylee was now a part of called Ainsley’s Angels and because of Ainsley and her family having a vision of inclusion that we were running down this difficult but beautiful trail together. Then the sun came out.
It took every bit of the seven hour course limit for me to finish this race. I was met in the end by a cheering squad of 4, Mike, Kylee’s father and grandmother, and the race director. I have not celebrated a finish line like I did that day. I proudly, and with happy tears in my eyes presented Kylee’s new running chariot to her and to her family. Kylee and her dad had run when she was younger, but she outgrew conventional jogging strollers so had not had a chance to roll with the wind in quite a while. I welcomed them all into the Ainsley’s Angels family with hugs and with the knowledge that Kylee and her dad would have many more miles to cover together.
The Beaverton Leap Day Marathon was the most perfect race to be #1 of 50. Because I covered those miles I know that I am able to cover the rest. The other 49 will happen. They will each hold their own separate challenges and emotions and they will each hold their own set of lessons and I will embrace each one.
Kylee trusted me that day to be her feet and to take her through those miles with me but what I didn’t entirely know, what she didn’t know, was that I needed her to be my heart and to carry me through the most difficult parts of that race. I needed her to be my wings. This race, this rider and her family will forever be etched into my heart and I will remember and use all the lessons that Kylee taught me along that course as I move forward in this project to share the message of inclusion and to roll with the wind in 49 more states!
Race 2: Virginia: March 13, 2016
Miserable and Wonderful! Those were the first two words that come to mind for marathon #2 of 50 Gifts of Freedom in Virginia Beach, VA.
The road to VA started before the 50 Gifts Project was born. I was signed up to participate in the Whale Challenge for Shamrock race weekend which was a combination of an 8k (about 5 mile) race on Saturday and the marathon on Sunday. Once the project had started is seemed very fitting that I would be in Ainsley’s hometown for race #2, surrounded by several Ainsley’s Angels teammates that I have met through the Ainsley’s Angels organization as well as friends that I ran the Marine Corps Marathon with last October. This race weekend landed on my birthday weekend, and I was just coming back from a very uplifting journey to Oregon where I had learned so much about perseverance and inner strength when it came to marathon running. I was paired up with an amazing Athlete Rider, 19 year old Gage, whom I had met at Marine Corps Marathon. It was set to be a fabulous weekend!
Friday we arrived to Virginia Beach and headed straight to the race expo where we were able to attend a seminar with Bart Yasso from Runner’s World Magazine. Bart is an amazing runner, very humble, and just all around nice guy. After he was finished telling us all about some of his journeys he opened the floor for questions. One of the runners in the crowd asked if he had a “mantra”, a thought or process technique commonly used by distance runners to help keep them focused, especially during difficult parts of a race. Bart answered, “No, I don’t. I let each race speak to me.” He elaborated on that explaining that he has learned through his many races that there is always a different thing which inspires him during a marathon: the thought of an inspirational quote someone shared with him, a song lyric, or a person running alongside and chatting with him during each race. There is always something that comes up which brings him strength during the tough mental times of a race. Little did I know how this answer would impact me during this weekend, but more on that later.
Saturday morning Gage and I lined up for the start of the 8k in the front of the pack. Gage knew it was race day and was ready to roll! The plan was to take it easy Saturday and use it as a warm-up for Sunday’s marathon. It was a cool and windy morning but the sun was shining and we had the wind to our backs for most of the race so between the wind and Gage’s enthusiasm I blew across the finish line with a personal record for an 8k! We had a short time to celebrate as Gage and his family had to go and I had to warm up and start focusing on the next day. Most races may have pizza or bananas after the race, but Virginia had a nice warm pot of beef stew awaiting us at the finish line.
All morning the chatter had been about the weather system that was coming in. The temperature was predicted to be at least 20 degrees colder with stronger winds and rain. I was not prepared. I scraped together what I could which was still not enough, so I made a trip out to see the Rossiter family who were able to provide me with some new (warm) Ainsley’s Angels gear, and I was as ready as I could possibly be.
The rain and wind blew in overnight and I was thinking Gage’s family might would want to opt out of race day. I was afraid of being cold but at least I would be moving! Gage would be stuck in the chair in possibly puddles of cold rain water. His mom assured me early race day morning that they would be there, Gage had a rain suit, they were coming in at the very last minute to stay as warm as they could. I headed out to our meet up place early and the ugly weather was everything they said it would be. Sheets of rain mixed with sleet were pouring from the sky, the wind was so strong you had to lean into it to keep from being blown backwards. This was crazy. I was crazy. No one should be out in this, let alone strapped into a wheelchair for who knows how long. I started to text Gage’s family several times to tell them to just stay home but I figured they knew him best and if they thought that he could handle these conditions then they could make that decision when they arrived. We got all bundled up, tucked Gage into his chair, and lined up on the starting line, already soaked from head to toe.
The first few miles of the race are a blur. I remember running through crowded streets where few people were talking except the random comment of “I still can’t feel my feet”. There was the kindness of a stranger on a bike who had an air pump and was able to fill Gage’s chariot tires after I hit a pot hole pretty hard. As we headed back over a bridge, towards the boardwalk and the beach the wind was so strong that it was pushing the chair back into me despite the effort I was using to push the chair. I was at a mental low point in my race. I was cold, wet, and felt like I was being blown backwards one step for every two steps I ran forward. That is when the words that Bart Yasso spoke earlier that weekend came to realization as from behind a kind hand and a smile, someone saying, “Here, let me help you” and I turned to see the familiar angel wings on an Ainsley’s Angels Marine Corps Marathon team jacket. The smile that went with the helping hand and that team jacket belonged to Mark. Mark was a member of the same Marine Corps Marathon team that I had run in but we had not met during that race. He ran along beside me down the boardwalk where the wind hit us so strong that it took just as much effort to walk as it did to run and our pace was probably the same. He ran along beside me as I passed right by the door to the hotel where I was staying and I was so tempted to veer off course to eat some of the hot breakfast buffet which was still being served. He ran along beside me and we chatted about anything and everything and it took my mind off of the wind and the cold and the self-doubt. Mark was exactly what Bart Yasso had talked about earlier that weekend. He got me through the hardest parts of that race just when I needed some inspiration. There came a point along the run that we had to part ways but by then I had a renewed sense of strength and I knew that Gage and I would make it, Mark told me we would. And we did. Not only did we finish but Gage pulled me to another personal record for pushing in a marathon.
Gage was a rock star the entire day! His smile warmed those around him and he knew to cheer for me just when I needed it! He yelled, “go, go, go!” and kept me laughing the whole way! In Oregon I had to dig deep and learn about my inner strength but in Virginia I learned that strength would come to me, just when I need it, sometimes from unexpected places. My strength that day, it turns out, came from the cheers of a young man in a wheelchair and the kind, helping hand of a teammate that I was meeting for the first time.
Thank you Gage for pulling me through wind, rain, sleet, and for keeping me laughing.
Thank you Mark for being my added strength and for helping me to believe in myself when I was ready to give up.
Race 3: Kentucky: May 18, 2016
Oh Kentucky, beautiful Kentucky! Marathon #3 brought not only me, but my family to Louisville for the Kentucky Derby Festival Marathon! I was able to be joined for this race by a big family support crew which was fun. My three children had not been able to join me for a 50 Gifts of Freedom race yet and they were eager to see mom in action, meet our gift recipient, and be my little helpers. I was lucky to have had a lot of help orchestrating the events of the weekend from the Ainsley’s Angels in Kentucky ambassador Kay. We had put in countless hours of planning before race weekend rolled around and were looking forward to seeing the product of all that planning come together.
The Ainsley’s Angels team in Kentucky is a fairly new and growing team, eager to make a difference and spread the message of inclusion. Kay is so enthusiastic and has a heart of gold. She is so perfectly matched with this mission of Ainsley’s Angels. She quickly came up with a rider for me, her own daughter, Sarah, who would roll along with me in the race. The gift of the Freedom Rider would be going to another Angel Rider, 5 year old Levi, was participating in the half-marathon but has not yet worked his way up to riding for a full marathon.
The actual logistics of this race were a little more complicated compared to the previous two. In Oregon, I asked the Race Director if I could bring an assisted athlete and we were welcomed with open arms. In Virginia we entered into a race with a long standing relationship with Team Hoyt, another assisted athlete team. This particular race specifically stated that there would be “no wheels allowed on the course”, however there was a hand cycle division so I sent the race director an email explaining what PROJECT 50 is all about and requesting permission to be included in the race. I got an email back stating that normally this would not be allowed but she was interested in what we were doing and that she would let us participate, but rather than being allowed to start up front as we are accustomed to doing, she requested that we start in the very back. We also were able to secure a spot for Levi in the “mini Marathon” and we considered this a couple of major victories to be the first assisted athlete teams being allowed on the race course.
All of our hard planning was coming together perfectly! Levi’s family has no idea that he would be receiving the gift on race day morning, all of the Angel support team involved in running and the chair presentation knew where to be race day morning, and the race crew was ready to cheer the first teams of Athlete riders in the Kentucky Derby Festival marathon race course. The day before the race was beautiful, cool temps, sunshine. I was ready to run.
Race day came and there was a familiar sound dancing on the window pane. Rain. Cold, wet rain. Mother Nature are you kidding me? 3 for 3 on the cold, rainy marathons. Maybe instead of selling t-shirts for fundraising we should start offering rain jackets and umbrellas. We made our way to the team’s meeting spot. Luckily we had planned on a large indoor area so we were able to stay dry for a bit and celebrate Levi’s gift! I was able to meet the ambassador Kay and Sarah, my teammate for the day Melanie, and Levi’s runner, P.K. It was like meeting old friends. We all share a common bond and passion through our Ainsley’s Angels family so we quickly found much to talk about. It came time to give Levi his gift and the look of joy on that sweet boy’s face and the look of surprise on his mom’s face made every rain drop falling outside worth it. Levi told us that he was going to roll fast and tell the people “beep, beep!” as he raced in his chair!
After the presentation we all filed out to the starting line of the race. The weather gave us a brief respite so it was not raining, but it felt like we were swimming upstream to get to the back of the pack where the race director wanted us. On the way I was surprised to be stopped by another set of angels who happened to be in town all the way from Florida! Carol and Richard are also working on completing races in all 50 states. It was so good to chat with them! They said they had been following my progress and were eager to help in any way that they could. They are going to be such a great source of support and wisdom for me and hopefully we will be able coordinate to run together in other states!
Our race team finally made it to the back and awaited our turn to start. We had a battle in front of us, not only catching up to our pace group which had gotten several minutes of a head start on us but also weaving a large race chariot through a large group of walkers, all in the soaking rain that was beginning to fall. It took about 5 miles to get through the walkers alone but the energy that it took was already starting to wear on our team. We had a nice break when we got to run through the infield of Churchill Downs, seeing many of the gorgeous horses out practicing for the weeks racing during Derby Week. We were moving along at what we thought was a nice pace but as soon as we exited the horse track and back onto the street we came to the split of the half and the full marathons. We veered off to the right for the full marathon and it became clear that we were the only ones left running the full 26.2 race. Defeat began to overcome us as we saw all the other marathoners on the other side of the divide, headed back toward the finish. Once we got to mile 13 we were advised that the course was closing. We were following the race course through a state park and were told that once we exited the park we could continue but to stay on the sidewalk. We made it out of the park and to see the streets that we were to run on, streets that it seemed only moments ago were filled with cheering supporters, race crew, and runners empty and being cleared of street barriers and water tables was the final blow. We luckily ran into first aid volunteers who graciously called a van to come and to pick up my running partner and rider. They had given it all they had but the struggle of battling our way through tough crowds, fighting our way through the pouring rain, and now being in last place was just too much. I sent the two of them on to dry off and made the decision that I needed to go ahead and run on regardless of the conditions.
I felt terrible. I felt like I had failed the mission. Up to that point it had never entered my mind the thought of what would happen if my rider could not physically make the entire trip of the marathon along with me. I felt like I let down my rider, my running partner, my family and friends who are my support. I had planned out every part of this race. I had gone over every detail. I began to call Rooster to fill him in on what was happening but between my water logged fingers and the constant rain my phone wouldn’t work. I looked around and wondered what on earth I was doing. I was by myself without a phone that would work, in the middle of an unfamiliar city and not quite sure where to go. I remembered from looking at the course map the day before that I would follow the road I was on for some time but after that, unless I somehow caught up to the back of the pack, I had no idea how to get to the finish line. So I ran. I ran the last 11 miles of that race faster than I ever have run the last part of a marathon before. Fueled by my feelings of anger and failure I let my legs and lungs burn and didn’t care. I finally made it to the city work crew who were cleaning up race barriers and they told me to keep on following the piles of stuff that they had to pick up and to keep them behind me. Soon, I made it to the point where there were still course markers and police officers still out stopping traffic. I had not had any water since mile 11 when we were still running on an open race course and my water bottle was left in the race chariot that had been taken back to the finish line but at mile 22, a very nice officer saw that I didn’t have a water bottle with me and asked if I was thirsty. She gave me a bottle of water from her lunch box and told me to keep up the good work. I did not catch up to the back of the pack but did pass a few other marathoners along the way. I caught up to a distressed runner who was running they’re first marathon and was relieved to see me as she thought she was the only runner left. She was not even sure that she was still on the course and it felt good to give her some encouragement and some assurance that she was going in the right direction and would finish. As I got closer to the finish I began to get cheers and hi-fives from other runners who had already finished. They directed me turn by turn until I got to the end. I was able to keep the work crew behind me and cross the finish line, earning a medal and finishing time before the time clock was shut down.
This finish line held many different emotions than any finish of any of my prior races. There was no celebration, just the normal aches and pains that come from running a marathon. The race crew that was still there taking down the finish line was glad that I was not hurt and was able to finish as I shared my story about what had happened. I was cold and wet and it was still raining.
It wasn’t until the next day that I had the chance to begin to process this race. On the long ride home back to NC, Mike and I were able to discuss the details of what happened the day before and I was able to express my feelings of failure. “But what if this race wasn’t a failure at all?” asked Mike.
“What if the ‘mission’ of this race was just to be able to get ‘wheels on the ground’ and break down the obstacles of including assisted athletes in races?” Maybe the mission of this race was not what I had thought, but a different end goal was accomplished in other ways. I had successfully campaigned for and received permission to get wheels onto a course that had previously had written rules forbidding it. We were able to get rider athletes in both the marathon and half marathon which had turned down previous requests for inclusion. We were able to introduce Ainsley’s Angels to tens of thousands of runners and spectators who may be inspired to become an Angel Runner or who probably knows someone who would like to compete as an Athlete Rider. And most importantly, we put a huge smile on the face of a little boy who loves to race and is now able to “roll with the wind” whenever he wants to, with his own set of wheels!
I was able to complete the 26.2 miles even though it didn’t fall into my carefully laid out plans, and what I once thought to be a failure I now consider a complete success as Kentucky is completed as the 3rd state out of 50.
Inclusion won in Louisville at the Kentucky Derby Festival Marathon. It is truly a beautiful race course in a beautiful state. I truly hope that the Kentucky Ambassadorship continues to attend this race in the future. I hope that the race director gets some positive feedback from the many people who we met on the race course that day, the many people who got big smiles on their face when they met Levi and Sarah. And I really, really hope that Mother Nature is done playing games with me for the next few races at least. I could use a break to run without the rain for awhile. Next up – Race #4- VERMONT!!
Race 4: Vermont: June 23, 2016
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.
Race 5: South Dakota: November 8, 2016
84 days. That’s how long of a break that I had between marathons #4 and 5. It was a nice break after running 4 marathons in 4 months but when it came time for my family and I to pack up to head to South Dakota for the Leading Ladies Marathon, I was ready to go!
This marathon is situated in the Black Hills of South Dakota. It winds into Spearfish Gorge from Lead, SD into Spearfish, SD. The race is all female and (almost) all downhill! The race provides spectacular views and for many lucky ladies a Boston Qualifying time. During my time off I trained in anticipation of a PR, or personal record, for pushing an assisted athlete in a marathon. I was excited for the challenge that an all downhill race would provide and couldn’t wait to fly down the hills!
I had the pleasure of speaking to THE leading lady, Race Director, Elaine Doll-Dunn and after discussing a few potential safety concerns, the 50 Gifts of Freedom Project was welcome with open arms. I loved Elaine before I even had the chance to meet her in person. If I had to describe her in one word it would be “sparkly”. She is so enthusiastic and her passion for this race and the runners running is evident in our conversations and even through her emails.
South Dakota is one of the twenty-four states that do not yet have an Ainsley’s Angels ambassadorship. It has been difficult in any state without an Ainsley’s Angels team to locate a rider for the big day. So for this race we used contacts on social media and our different Ainsley’s Angels and running groups to see if anyone on my friends list had a connection out west. I quickly got a response and the #TogetherWeShall spirit that would encompass this race became evident.
Terri, I do believe, is the honorary “helper of all Ainsley’s Angels that will be running in South Dakota”. She was able to assist the Power to Push team of Sean and Shamus as they ran through the Black Hills the summer before and was hugely instrumental in a great deal of the logistics for this race. Terri and her son Daniel welcomed my family into her home, she found some supplies for me before we got there just to make things run smoother, and she was absolutely the best cheerleader on race day!
Marlys is a special needs coordinator and calls herself the “matchmaker”. She introduced us to the Juelfs family and my teammate, Emma. On race day she made a special trip to the starting line just to see us off!
It amazes me each and every time that I have been matched with my teammate that it seems “meant to be”, it doesn’t seem to be random, but perfectly planned, and this was no exception. Each member of this team in South Dakota was the perfect person and had the perfect gifts to help bring this race together for a special little girl and her Ainsley’s Angels teammate.
I found out information about my rider athlete several weeks before I was set to travel up to SD. Emma is a sweet, funny, and energetic 9 year old little girl from Belle Fourche, South Dakota (which she often had to correct my pronunciation “its Belle FOO-che!”) She rocks an extra chromosome (has Downs Syndrome) but doesn’t let anyone slow her down! She is active in Special Olympics with basketball, swimming, track and field, and bowling, and has an older sister who is a runner! She and my daughter, Lorelei, became quick friends when we got together to meet Emma the day before the race. It turns out that Emma has a very competitive spirit and was convinced that she was going to come in first place and win the race.
Race day morning, we met at the top of a mountain! Well, almost the top, we started off with a slight uphill climb to the summit and from there it was all downhill. With the cool august morning and the advantage of a downhill race, that PR that I was looking for seemed within reach! We took off with the rest of the pack and quickly settled into a good pace. Emma was thrilled at the beginning, hi-fiving and waving to the other runners. She was thrilled to hear them all cheering her name. We made it out to the main scenic byway where we would spend the rest of the day running to the finish line and Emma looked up to me and asked, “When am I going to run? Emma, having no physical disabilities holding her back didn’t understand why she wasn’t running. However, running along a curvy mountain road was not the safest place for her to get out and take off. She was not totally happy with the idea of staying in that chair and she let me know it! She and I quickly came up with a game, she had to keep a lookout for water stops which were situated on wider pull off areas and were much safer for her to get out and run, away from the traffic. There, we would unload, have our own race to the water, walk around to stretch our legs, and then Emma would get back into her chariot to ride along for a little while longer.
That PR I had originally thought I was going to get was slipping away, but with each mile and each water stop, Emma and I formed a relationship and grew to understand each other’s needs in this race. This, after all, was Emma’s race, not mine. My PR did not matter when it came down to it, I am there to be the feet for Emma and make sure that she has the best race possible. Terri was our check point throughout race day, surprising us along the race course, patiently waiting for us to make it from one stop to the next, checking on us and providing updates to Emma’s family. My family and constant cheer squad was also there to with snacks and hugs that were much needed throughout the day. Lorelei gave Emma a stuffed animal to hold onto and both girls looked forward to seeing each other.
Finally, Emma spotted the park which was where we would be finishing and was ready to finish on her own two feet. She ran along the trail, searching for the finish line and for her family. We entered the park to wild cheers from the crowd, Emma was truly the star of the moment, and everyone let her feel it. We crossed the finish line, not with a PR, which didn’t even matter anymore, but full of love and joy and that was the best feeling ever. Elaine then came up to Emma with the best gift she could have given her, her award for winning her age group. Emma did get first place after all.
I have a few takeaways from my time in South Dakota.
First of all, if you can get there to visit, go. We were able to visit the Black Hills, see Mount Rushmore and Devil’s Tower, ride through beautiful towns and great prairies, it is gorgeous and may make you feel how small we are in this great big country.
If you are a lady, I highly recommend running the Leading Ladies marathon or half marathon. It is beautiful, well supported, and will make you feel like a star. The race director Elaine is spectacular and caring. She made us feel so special. How many races have you run where the race director remembers your name and makes sure that all of the participants have homemade cookies at the finish line?
This marathon truly embraced Ainsley’s Angels “Together We Shall” motivation. I left South Dakota with such love for my new friends, who all played such a big part in the success of this Fifty Gifts of Freedom Project race. I don’t even think that I could find the right words to show them the Thanks that I owe them. Hopefully, the passion and excitement that surrounded this race is contagious in the South Dakota running and special needs communities. Maybe we will be hearing, in the future, about the great things happening with a South Dakota ambassadorship. That, as in all things, will happen at the perfect moment and with the perfect team to take the lead on that project. Together, We Shall make big things happen, one race at a time, one mile at a time, one small step at a time.