Humans are all about community. By connecting with others, we find support, meaning, reassurance, and joy. Even the healthiest among us feels lonely and isolated at times. For those who struggle with physical or mental disabilities, the isolation can feel even greater.
How to people do it?
For one incredible online community, the answer is connecting to others.
And the connection is not about people who share similar interests or commonalities.
The connection is between people who run, and children and adults with disabilities who can’t.
It’s called IRUN4, and was started by Tim Boyle, who continues as the founder and director.
The basics of it are this: disabled children (buddies) and able-bodied runners (or swimmers, bikers, or any other type of athlete) sign up and are linked together.
The two people, and often their families, share a great deal– their struggles, their inspirations, their hopes and fears. Some teams send gifts back and forth; runners will often send the medals they’ve earned to their buddies.
Stephanie has two boys with severe physical impairments. Ben is 1 1/2 and Zach is 2 1/2. Ben will always need a walker and a wheelchair. Zach can walk but tires easily.
Neither boy will ever run a 5k.
But IRUN4 has connected them both up with runners. This connection isn’t about sending occasional photos and emails. Stephanie says this:
They are invested in my children and in our family. We take pictures to encourage them and get pumped up for their runs, and they get super pumped too! We have t-shirts and medals in our home now from runs I don’t think our boys will ever do, but they “did” them with a buddy! Our runners let us know that they care and they help us spread awareness for the boys diseases and conditions.
Ben’s runner is Linda, a phenomenal woman who supports him in many ways, even getting a tattoo with his name on it! Ben and his family have become a part of her life.
When I asked runners why they are involved in IRUN4, they say:
I run because I can. I’m a former couch potato and cancer survivor. I’ll never be fast, but every single step I take is a blessing. (Cayce) I run to show my daughter the importance of taking care of myself (Jaune). My father is paralyzed; I run because he cannot. (Jennifer). People who can’t run for themselves are my motivation. And when I’m running and I want to give up I think “what if me finishing this run means ending autism or downs syndrome?” And I always finish! (Melissa)
People run because they want to prove that their body is strong or because they’ve beaten cancer are fighting MS. Everyone has their own reason, but for the men and women in this group, running is an important and vital part of their lives.
The children who have people running for them work and fight harder to manage their disability. Katherine is a great example of this.
Katherine is a strong, vibrant girl who happens to use a wheelchair. She recently had a hard time staying in school.
When she made it through a tough school day, her mom reports this: “She told me ‘I did it for Kelly! She runs for me, so I stayed in school for her!’ She says she just kept repeating ‘do it for Kelly’ to herself all day.”
What IRUN4 has taught me is that when strength is shared, it is multiplied beyond measure.
No one has to dedicate their run to a child or adult with a disability.But take that mile and dedicate it to a 20 year named Andrew who has cerebral palsy, send him pictures and describe how you were tired on that last hill, but you thought of him and it made you stronger, and that mile has formed a connection with another human being.
Andrew’s runner explains:
My buddy Andrew and his mom, Christina are truly HEROES to me and inspire me daily, not only in running, but in life. Being part of this organization has truly changed the way I think about my life and my reason for running. Yes, I run for my health. Yes, I run because I enjoy it. Yes, I run for sanity. But the MOST IMPORTANT reason I run is FOR ANDREW! This year, he will be beside me (virtually!) as I complete all of the races on my schedule and HE WILL be the reason I earn my medals and HE WILL be the recipient. Giving them to my buddy is far more meaningful to me than keeping them!
The internet can be a harsh place, with online bullies, cruel comments, and derogatory remarks. But it can also facilitate the kind of connections that change lives.
We each have our own unique struggles in this world. Some people have differences that make their journey more strenuous and difficult than others. The 5,429 members (at last count) of IRUN4 have proven beyond measure that two people with very different abilities, hopes and dreams can make a huge difference in the lives of each other.
Life is not meant to be lived in isolation. We need one another. With connections come healing, and with healing comes strength, joy, and the knowledge that we’re not alone in our struggles.
My thanks to the runners and buddies who shared their stories, pictures, and thoughts with me, and to Tim Boyle of IRUN4, who works so hard to make IRUN4 a great place for so many. Run on, roll on, love and live on.