Basketball was my thing. But I was short. I was determined, and I made the team even though I wasn’t all that good. I liked the competitiveness. Track and cross country never hit my radar.
Like a lot of people, you get busy with college then quickly move into a career, marriage, then family. There’s not a lot of extra time, or maybe I just wasn’t willing to find the appropriate amount of time to exercise. I went through a divorce and I think that was a motivating factor to get back in shape. You don’t want to be fat and ugly while looking for your next spouse.
I’d been doing a little of the YMCA workout—lift some weights, run some laps, a half mile or whatever. I was staying in San Diego with my nephew and he was going to run a 10k, and I decided to join him. The environment of the race was great—people were healthy and friendly. It was safe.
I loved the environment of that first race. You get motivation from other runners, the aid stations, the view. It’s positive, cooperative, competitive. You get carried with the crowd. I’m never the front guy, so I’m always being pulled by somebody. That’s when I discovered that runners pull each other along. We motivate and inspire each other.
There’s a bond that develops with running. When I ran trail, you never left a guy behind. I have three boys and they’ve all competed in some level of sport. Every ball sport involves coach decisions, personalities, who plays where. In running, you get none of that. It’s you showing up—and you’re either faster than, slower than, or equal to the other guy. For 4–5 years, all I ran was ultras, and all I wore was Brooks Cascadias. The community is so supportive. They want to compete, but no one’s going to trip the other guy to win. People help people in running.
During that time of ultras, I ran the Las Vegas Marathon every year. Out of the blue one year, I wrote Make-A-Wish Foundation and Seattle Children’s Hospital to see if they had kids who wanted to run Vegas with me. They thought it was a dumb idea, and said these kids want to go to Disneyland or whatever. I said maybe you should ask them. That’s how we found our first rider-athlete.
Once I pushed that first rider-athlete, there was no turning back. It was a drug I couldn’t do without.
I can talk for 26 miles. I’m at an aerobic pace where I can talk for that long. It’s like a psychologist chair—strangers run with me, curious about what I’m doing and they often end up sharing their own stories with me. In many cases, my rider-athlete is not verbal but they can hear the story.
I have a routine with my rider-athlete. We have a pre-race meeting where I tell them what to expect, and that we’re a team: I carry motivation for the first ten miles, then I need them to motivate me for next ten miles, and we share it for the home stretch.
If they’re verbal they’ll sing to me, tell me stories, then at mile 20 we both dig in and start motivating each other.
The kids will start singing Bible hymns, tell me about their families, and school. It’s just distraction. We’ll do math problems. It’s wonderful. Math equations about how many more miles before we meet mom, and so on.
I insist upon them being a competitor. They’re athletes, not charities. They get a number and a timing chip, and they keep a record of the marathons that they compete.
Ryan in D.C. was injured in an accident at 11-months old. And we’re running the Marine Corps Marathon. It’s misty, raining, and gray. I ask him if he wants me to put the hood up. He says, “No. It feels good. I like the rain on my face.”
Toward the end of races, neither the kid or I want the race to end. Braden in Denver would drag his foot on my wheel because he didn’t want the event to end. He couldn’t communicate but he knew what mile 22 meant, that the event was about to end, so he started putting his foot on wheel. That’s when I realized every minute was special for them.
It can be bittersweet at the end of the race, but often the rider-athlete or his family will want to keep the jogger so they can be pushed at home. The parents, a sibling, or friend take over my role. All of a sudden, they realize they can do a 5k fun run. They can do a couple miles on a trail. It doesn’t need to be a marathon with everybody.
Story As Told To David Hanson
David Hanson is a freelance writer and producer. His work includes Breaking Through Concrete, a 2011 book about America’s urban farm movement, Who Owns Water, an award-winning 2014 documentary film about water rights and rural life in Georgia and Florida, and dozens of feature articles for national magazines. He lives in Hood River, Ore., with his wife and daughter.