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Positive pushes: Program pairs runners with disabled children for unique racing experience

Published: Sunday, Aug. 30 2015 12:25 p.m. MDT

Natalie Green cheers as she is pushed by Charles Stoddard. Marissa Green runs to the side of her sister. Runners helped kids with disabilities Saturday, June 29, 2013 by taking part in a new program that allows children with disabilities to get marathon/10K/5K experience by being pushed around a course at Sugar House Park. (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News) Natalie Green cheers as she is pushed by Charles Stoddard. Marissa Green runs to the side of her sister. Runners helped kids with disabilities Saturday, June 29, 2013 by taking part in a new program that allows children with disabilities to get marathon/10K/5K experience by being pushed around a course at Sugar House Park. (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News)

Reese Thorne cannot walk or talk, but he loves to race.

“When you say, ‘Do you want to go racing?’ he gets so excited his whole body starts moving and shaking,” said Carla Thorne of her 9-year-old son. “He loves to go fast. What little boy doesn’t want to go fast?”

Thorne is able to race because of runners like Charles Stoddard. The 37-year-old heard about an organization called Push to the Finish from a friend and fellow runner, Angela Green. Push to the Finish, an 18-month-old nonprofit, was started by Andrew McMahon, who was simply looking for a way to bring the joy of running to those who otherwise might never experience it.

“I’ve been a runner my entire life,” said McMahon, a 37-year-old father of two. “I thought, ‘What if we could take different charities for the disabled in Utah and mix them with different running groups? It would give them the chance to experience running, and it gives runners a different running experience.' It’s different running for someone else, which is why our motto is ‘Our legs, their hearts.’”

Runners help kids with disabilities Saturday, June 29, 2013 by taking part in a new program that allows children with disabilities to get marathon/10K/5K experience by being pushed around a course at Sugar House Park. (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News) Runners help kids with disabilities Saturday, June 29, 2013 by taking part in a new program that allows children with disabilities to get marathon/10K/5K experience by being pushed around a course at Sugar House Park. (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News)

McMahon started recruiting runners, while charities like the Make-A-Wish Foundation found him people willing to be pushed. He recruited faster runners (6:30- to 8-minute milers) so that the people they pushed would experience the same success elite runners do.

“We try to get runners who will finish under the 30-minute mark,” said McMahon, adding that some aren’t able to handle racing longer than that. “The kids do appreciate the speed. ... Some will even sign or say, “Faster! Faster!’”

The duos race in the name of the child or disabled adult and in their age category.

“When you run for somebody else, it’s a whole different experience,” said McMahon. “For me, it’s always been about trying to beat my previous time or some other goal. When you run for someone else, it’s about giving someone else the chance to run who never would have that chance otherwise.”

Runners help kids with disabilities Saturday, June 29, 2013 by taking part in a new program that allows children with disabilities to get marathon/10K/5K experience by being pushed around a course at Sugar House Park. (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News) Runners help kids with disabilities Saturday, June 29, 2013 by taking part in a new program that allows children with disabilities to get marathon/10K/5K experience by being pushed around a course at Sugar House Park. (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News)

Carla Thorne never suspected her son wanted to run.

She received an email from the Make-A-Wish Foundation letting her know this opportunity existed. Like many parents, she believes it’s beneficial for her son to be active and busy, despite the fact that he has several issues that prevent him from walking or talking. Reese was a twin born at 24 weeks. He has cerebral palsy, a genetic disorder called PCH type 2, and recently had a tracheotomy because he had a respiratory arrest at home. He is able to communicate with technology that allows him to make choices using his eyes.

Thorne was intrigued by Push to the Finish, but also a little wary of turning her youngest child over to complete strangers.

“I didn’t know if I could do it,” she said. “As the parent of a disabled child, I think it’s good for him to be out in society, but putting your child out there isn’t always the best experience.”

Runners help kids with disabilities Saturday, June 29, 2013 by taking part in a new program that allows children with disabilities to get marathon/10K/5K experience by being pushed around a course at Sugar House Park. (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News) Runners help kids with disabilities Saturday, June 29, 2013 by taking part in a new program that allows children with disabilities to get marathon/10K/5K experience by being pushed around a course at Sugar House Park. (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News)

She said it was a “gut feeling” and meeting the McMahons that put her mind at ease. She said it was the permanent smile on her son’s face that convinced her this was something special.

“We were hooked because he was so happy,” she said. “When you talk to him about racing, he gets all smiley and happy.”

She said he cherishes his race bibs, T-shirts and awards. He also loves to look up his race results on the computer long after the race has ended.

McMahon chooses to participate mostly in 5K races that benefit other charities. He relies on donations to his organization so that he can pay for children to participate in the 5Ks, while not placing a burden on race organizers who are also trying to raise money for charities.

The fact that the children are running in charity races makes it even more meaningful for families.

Zoey Buerkle and Kimmie Hansen get very excited when Cinderella stops to talk with them. Runners helped kids with disabilities Saturday, June 29, 2013 by taking part in a new program that allows children with disabilities to get marathon/10K/5K experience by being pushed around a course at Sugar House Park. (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News) Zoey Buerkle and Kimmie Hansen get very excited when Cinderella stops to talk with them. Runners helped kids with disabilities Saturday, June 29, 2013 by taking part in a new program that allows children with disabilities to get marathon/10K/5K experience by being pushed around a course at Sugar House Park. (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News)

“We feel like we’re giving back to another organization,” said Thorne.

Just about everything involved in Push to the Finish inspires the runners who volunteer their time — and their legs. Stoddard showed up at his first race — a 5K in Sandy — and was asked to push a disabled adult named Joe.

“They said he didn’t have a running wheelchair and asked if I was cool with that,” said Stoddard. “I’m game for pretty much anything, so I said yes.”

Joe turned out to be Stoddard’s size (5 foot 7 and 200 pounds), and pushing the regular wheelchair for 3.1 miles wasn’t easy.

“Joe was having a blast,” said Stoddard. “He was saying, 'Hi' to everyone, high-fiving them, and I just fell in love with it after that.”

Runners help kids with disabilities Saturday, June 29, 2013 by taking part in a new program that allows children with disabilities to get marathon/10K/5K experience by being pushed around a course at Sugar House Park. (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News) Runners help kids with disabilities Saturday, June 29, 2013 by taking part in a new program that allows children with disabilities to get marathon/10K/5K experience by being pushed around a course at Sugar House Park. (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News)

Green got involved because she and her husband are co-race directors of the Purple Days 5K, a run that raises funds for and awareness about epilepsy. Their 12-year-old daughter Natalie had brain surgery two years ago to prevent epilepsy seizures, and she’s been seizure-free ever since. She has limited mobility due to a stroke she suffered in utero.

“To be able to push someone in that capacity, it’s amazing,” she said.

Green said one can’t help but feel gratitude, even when the pushing is difficult, because not only are runners bringing joy to others, they are reminded that even when it’s painful, they’re still blessed to be able to run.

Green has the unique experience of having her daughter participate, as well as running with someone else’s child. Natalie Green was pushed by Stoddard in a 5K at Sugarhouse Park a couple of weeks ago.

“She was able to run the last little bit, and she just loved it,” said Green. “I think she will probably do it again.”

Angela Green gives a thumbs up as she and Elsha Stockseth approach the finish line. Runners helped kids with disabilities Saturday, June 29, 2013 by taking part in a new program that allows children with disabilities to get marathon/10K/5K experience by being pushed around a course at Sugar House Park. (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News) Angela Green gives a thumbs up as she and Elsha Stockseth approach the finish line. Runners helped kids with disabilities Saturday, June 29, 2013 by taking part in a new program that allows children with disabilities to get marathon/10K/5K experience by being pushed around a course at Sugar House Park. (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News)

Stoddard said his real passion is distance racing.

“I seek out marathons,” he said laughing. Unfortunately, most of the Push to the Finish races are 5Ks because most of the children can’t handle the longer distances. Thorne is an exception, which is why he volunteered to train with Stoddard to represent Push to the Finish in the new Deseret News Half Marathon (registration is available until July 23).

“We did a 10K in Riverton, and later that day, his mom texted me and said she still couldn’t wipe the smile off his face,” said Stoddard. “I thought finishing on the parade route would be a cool venue for Reese to experience.”

The duo will wear Push to the Finish gear hoping to raise money for the nonprofit, which covers the entry fees of other duos participating in other races. Donations can be made on the group’s website at pushtothefinish.org, McMahon said. It is also where runners and children sign up to participate in races.

Runners help kids with disabilities Saturday, June 29, 2013 by taking part in a new program that allows children with disabilities to get marathon/10K/5K experience by being pushed around a course at Sugar House Park. (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News) Runners help kids with disabilities Saturday, June 29, 2013 by taking part in a new program that allows children with disabilities to get marathon/10K/5K experience by being pushed around a course at Sugar House Park. (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News)

“The thing that really gets me,” said Stoddard, “is that I have run a ton. I go out and run all the time. I’m a really social runner. I like to share my runs, and to be able to share the run with these kids and with people who enjoy the run on their own, that’s the thing that really gives me satisfaction. It’s the reason I keep doing it. I love being outside and giving them the chance to be outside, let them feel the wind in their face. It’s just a great feeling.”

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