Over four thousand kids with disabilities are going back to New York City schools this week, wearing running shoes they won for having run a virtual marathon 26.2 miles over the course of the last school year.
They suffer from partial paralysis, cerebral palsy, are on the autism spectrum, or as Dick Traum, founder and leader of Achilles International, a group that supports disabled athletes says, "They have any disability you can think of."
In addition, 63-year-old ultra-marathoner Tom "Running Man" McGrath will run six marathons in five boroughs in six days starting Sept. 29 to support Achilles Kids.
That's a lot of pavement to pound. Achilles International is best known for its squadrons of yellow t-shirted volunteers who escort approximately 300 disabled athletes over the length of the New York City marathon course each November.
Achilles has also been working with children with disabilities for the past 17 years. As their funding has increased, the number of children they are able to serve has gone up accordingly. You can now find Achilles kids chapters at 180 schools nationwide.
Achilles Kids recently won a grant from Cigna Health Care for $100,000 to study the effects of running for children on the autism spectrum. Cigna awarded Achilles Kids the grant after evidence from Achilles kids that running provided children on the autism spectrum with a profoundly changed feeling about life.
"The frowns become smiles," Traum says. "Autism is not a disability in terms of your ability to run. Even severely autistic children have been able to complete 5Ks with us. It gives those kids a feeling of, 'I really found something I can do that I'm better and faster at than my non-disabled peers.'"
"They come out on Saturday mornings," Traum adds, "and they experience the applause, the bonding, and the community. There's great excitement for them about finishing a lap in Central Park. They experience the high-fives, the handshakes, the smiles, and the applause that non-disabled kids take for granted."
Achilles Kids range in age from 4 and 5-year-olds all the way up to their early to mid-20s.
"One of our kids is now six foot four," Traum says. "We have to order special shoes for him."
Achilles International has chapters around the world. Perhaps one of the greatest successes for an Achilles runner was that of a young black female amputee who had joined the Soweto, South Africa chapter of Achilles International. She ran the New York City marathon on a prosthetic leg, donated to Achilles International.
A physician at Harlem Hospital donated the fitting of the prosthetic leg on the young woman, who returned to Soweto, along with 60 used computers, donated to Achilles. There, she taught people in her home town how to access the internet.
"In South Africa," Traum says, "females, and especially black and disabled females, are seldom thought of as teachers and leaders. She touched a lot of lives."
Back home in New York, some 18-year-olds with autism, who got their start in Achilles Kids, have completed the New York City Marathon.
"They have a few special challenges," Traum says. "When the crowds are very intense, as they are at the start, crossing the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, they can get a little uncomfortable. And sometimes they outrun their volunteers! It's incredibly exciting to see a young person with autism crossing the finish line."
McGrath, who'll run six marathons in six days, held a Guinness Book World Record for running from San Francisco to New York in just over 53 days. He's reprising his six-marathon-in-six-day fundraising jag from last year, during which he survived taxis, buses, bicyclists, potholes, and, perhaps, his own insanity. He's running to raise money to buy more running shoes for Achilles Kids Traum likes to tell the story of a mother he overheard talking with her son as they spectated at the New York City marathon. Within the span of 10 minutes, they saw a dozen disabled athletes go by -- one in a wheelchair, another blind, several with artificial legs, a couple more on crutches, and so on.
"Gee," the mother said to the son, Traum recounts, "This must be a very dangerous sport!"
Achilles Kids demonstrates that quite the contrary is true. If kids with autism, partial paralysis, cerebral palsy, and the like, can lace up their running shoes and run a virtual 26.2, then what about the rest of us?