Why do we work out? It’s an easy answer for most of us — to be healthy, lose weight, gain strength, reach fitness goals. But sometimes we want, and need, a bigger reason.
That’s the idea behind I Run 4 Michael, a nonprofit organization inspired by a meme on Facebook in 2013. Tim Boyle started the group with 10 runners and 10 buddies, and it has grown to more than 30,000 participants, and four branches. The I Run 4 Michael (IR4) branch matches runners and other athletes with children (and adults) who physically can’t run.
Maribeth Richards of Estero discovered IR4 when a member of a Facebook group for parents of kids with spina bifida posted about her son’s “runner”. Richards’ son Bennett, now 2, was born with spina bifida, which left him paralyzed from the waist down. She visited the site when Bennett was 6 months old and learned that IR4 pairs children (and a number of adults) with a range of physical and cognitive disabilities with adults willing to run for a buddy.
Bennett was matched quickly with Rachel Ruth, who lives in Marshall, Wisconsin. “Rachel got paired with Bennett the same week she found out she was pregnant,” Richards said. She checks in with Bennett at least once a week. The “runners” often stay in touch with their buddies via Facebook. “The posts are non-stop,” Richards said. “You can’t even keep up with it. People post about buddy’s birthdays, if they are running a race, if they need prayers, etc.” She noted that while buddies typically are matched quickly, getting paired as a runner typically takes up to six months.
Richards decided to become a running buddy herself, even though “I would never classify myself as a runner. I don’t enjoy running. I’d rather go to the gym, or ride a bike, or take a dance class,” she said. So she was pleased to discover that IR4’s definition of “run” included all physical activity. “I like that you don’t necessarily have to run,” Richards said. “You just have to move for someone. You could do a zumba class, you could walk around the block. There aren’t any rules.”
But after Richards was matched with her buddy, Cara, who is 6 years old and lives in Oregon, she bit the bullet and completed two half marathons, along with several shorter races. Cara is nonverbal and unable to walk due to pyruvate dehydrogenase complex deficiency, and Richards felt the need to cover miles in her name.
“When I got matched with Cara, I said that I’m not going to run a marathon every weekend. But I wanted to do something, and dedicate miles to her. A half marathon was on my bucket list, but I’m not really a runner and I’m slow. Cara was a really good motivation. She can’t walk, so I thought, so if I could even walk for 13 miles, it would mean something,” Richards said.
She had completed some 5Ks in the past, but explained that “Running has never been my thing. I like doing races because there are other people, but when I’m running by myself, it’s like ‘Why am I doing this?’.”
The “why” became Cara. “On the days I don’t want to do anything and have a million excuses, Cara motivates me,” she said.
Richards and Cara have not yet met in person, but they maintain a close connection. Richards sends Cara medals from her races and noted that the race organizers for both of her half marathons gave her an extra medal for that purpose. She also sends birthday and Christmas presents (Cara loves books and puzzles), and in return receives videos of Cara’s reaction when packages arrive.
Like Richards, Rayna Overmyer of Bonita Springs has found motivation and more as a runner for her buddy, Logan.
“My buddy’s family and I talk quite a bit, either on Facebook or text. I feel I’ve gained another family member,” she added. “We talk not just about running, but life in general and they will all hold a large piece of my heart forever.”
For Overmyer, who learned of the program through Richards, running for her buddy has helped her push through difficult workouts and races. “I am way more motivated to workout now that I’m dedicating my runs for someone,” she said. “When I’m struggling with training or during a race, I think about the struggles that Logan has trying to communicate and it powers me through. I get angry that children have to deal with illnesses/diseases/disabilities and I tell myself that my pain is only temporary and if these children, such as Logan, have to go through these types of things, the least I can do is push myself. That’s what gets me through.”
It’s been a similar experience for Samantha Senkarik of Naples. “It definitely helps me with my motivation, especially in my longer training runs when I want to dig deep. I think about my running buddy, Tatum. Since I have been running buddies with him I have completed a half marathon and about to do my next half and January,” she said.
“This program is a wonderful way to support runners and their buddies. I find inspiration in seeing all the posts from the runners as well as how our buddies are overcoming obstacles that they face in their lives. I know if they can endure and overcome many of their challenges, I can as well. The last mile of the race doesn’t seem so hard in retrospect,” Senkarik added.
“I feel [a program like this] brings society together,” Overmyer concluded. “Our world has so much negativity and this brings a huge light and a lot of love when we need it the most.”
For details, visit whoirun4.com.
Leigh Ann Newman is the Co-Publisher of Neapolitan Family Magazine.