“Together we shall labor as one.”
That’s the motto of Ainsley’s Angels, a nationwide program that pairs runners with differently abled athletes for endurance races. Tampa is one of nearly 70 cities with an Ainsley’s Angels chapter.
The organization started when Ainsley ran a local road race is 2008. Her family saw her joy and knew that it would help them all deal with the terminal illness that ultimately took her life in 2016. Her father, Kim Rossiter, is still the President of the Ainsley’s Angels organization.
In bright pink racing wheelchairs they call chariots, the runner-athletes and the rider-athletes make their way from the starting line to the finish line and all the joy in between in races across the country. One of those runner-athletes is Susie Lee from Tampa. In fact, she even started running to help others. In 2007, her son’s school sent home a note about one of his classmates.
“About a little girl who had Leukemia, and they were starting a little group to run the Gasparilla, the half marathon,” remembers Lee. At the time, she didn’t even know how long a half marathon was. (It’s 13.1 miles.) She knew that if that little girl could go through Leukemia treatments, she could lace up and start running.
Several years later, Lee ran her first full marathon. Once again, she was running to help others. She ran the Marine Corps Marathon in Washington, DC to raise money for an organization called “Run For The Fallen” in Tampa. It was along this course that she first noticed those bright pink chariots.
She and her running partner discussed them the whole way back home. “Did you see these people being pushed in chariots at the race? It was amazing. I wonder who they are,” she recalled.
She reached out to the organization and Ainlsey’s dad himself invited her to the Louisiana Half Marathon to run with her first rider-athlete. She was paired with a young lady named Carley. “I did not know that the rider I was matched with that it was her first race as well,” said Lee. Lee has since been part of Team Carley for other races as well.
The rider-athletes are special needs or otherwise medically-fragile. They can be adults or children, and the runners and riders are matched based on how quickly the rider needs to be finished with the race and back to their caregivers.
“I’m a parent, so it’s amazing to think that another parent would trust me to take their child and go run with them. That must take a lot for them to take that risk and have that trust in a group of people to take their medically-fragile children to run a race, but they do it, and it’s amazing, and I’m so thankful for them,” said Lee.
Lee explains that a bond is formed between the runner and the rider on the course. “I feel like I’ve gained so many family members over the years of running with these rider-athletes,” said Lee. Not just the rider, but the families of the rider. Lee finds joy in the smiles and excitement she sees in the faces of these family members as they finish the course.
She also explains that pushing the chariot adds an extra element of difficulty to running a race that’s already a difficult distance. “It can be challenging. Depends on the size of your chariot, how much it weighs, how much your rider weighs, the hills, bridges, all those things,” she explained. Often, two or three runner-athletes will be paired with a rider-athlete, so the runners can take turns pushing.
Lee also continues to run the Publix Gasparilla Distance Classic every year. You can still register for this year’s virtual race. Remember, Bayshore Blvd in Tampa will be closed to vehicle traffic the mornings of May 8 and 9, so registered runners can put on their bib and have a safe place to run.