Andrew McMahon has two passions in life: helping children and running. Though McMahon had actively participated in charities before with his wife, they wanted to do more, and he hoped to partner a cause with his passions.
Then McMahon and his wife learned about Team Hoyt, a father-son racing team from Massachusetts. They compete as a team with dad, Dick, pushing son, Rick, in a wheelchair to promote awareness of the physically challenged. They first participated in a five-mile benefit run in 1977 and have since conquered over 1000 races from the Boston Marathon to triathlons. This gave McMahon the idea to do something similar in Utah, and he started Push to the Finish in January 2012.
According to McMahon, Push to the Finish, “combines the ideas of Special Olympics and Big Brothers Big Sisters.” Their mission is to provide an opportunity for children with physical disabilities to experience the enjoyment, competition, and sense of accomplishment of participating in a road race. To do this they team a disabled participant with a runner and compete together in events.
The organization grew quickly, “It was almost like starting our own sports league overnight,” said McMahon. Referrals came from Make-A-Wish, United Way, and the Epilepsy Association of Utah. Push to the Finish pays race fees and matches runners with children. The kids get the medal, shirt, and race swag. For the able-bodied runners, it’s an anonymous experience. They wear Push to the Finish shirt and concentrate on giving an experience to the child. The organization’s catchphrase is, “Our Legs, Their Hearts.”
Brinley Bleyl, a Push to Finish participant, loves being able to race. Her mom Katrina said of the experience, “From the time we tell her to the time that the race ends (and even passed in some instances) she is always saying, ‘Go, go, go!’ She is so excited to be able to go fast and feel the wind in her face. She loves being able to accomplish something that she could not do on her own.”
Other participants, like Antonio Villarreal, partner with a family member to race with the help of Push to the Finish. Antonio’s father can now share his love of running with his son, and both father and son recently completed the Ogden Marathon. Their first race was the most memorable, “Antonio had never experienced the joy of running before. At least not being able to run fast and for a long distance. The freedom in his expression was such an amazing things to witness. It was just pure joy.”
The experience for Push to the Finish runner volunteers is just as powerful. Mathu Crandall is a elementary school teacher who got involved with running to help deal with stress and stay healthy. But when he did his first run with Push to the Finish, it changed everything, “The dynamic of running was suddenly different; there was a renewed excitement and a new meaning for running.”
Even though he works with 5th graders, Mathu was nervous for his second Push to the Finish race about what he was going to talk about with his teammate as they raced. But Mathu found he had nothing to worry about when he met Jonah, “He is just like every other third grader. We had such a good time running together, telling jokes, quizzing each other on 3rd grade curriculum, and talking about music and movies.”
As they reached the end of the 5K course they were met by Jonah’s parents. They helped Jonah from his chair and he walked the final few feet of the race. It was a moving experience for Mathu, “Everything was just how I’d hoped it would be, an amazing experience that was no longer about me—it was about Jonah.”
Another “pusher,” Jolee Henriod, said of the experience, “There is no greater feeling than to cross the finish line with these kids. I may be slow, but we always finish!” For all the participants it’s not about how fast they go, but about finishing the race and enjoying the moment.
There are no limits to the number of races the children can participate in and no age restrictions. McMahon tries to include anyone that wants to join in and would like to expand Push to the Finish to include veterans with disabilities. Since launching in 2012, over 400 children have had the opportunity to race for a total of over 1200 miles.
But more than the miles it’s about the joy. Participant Brinley’s mom said, “She loves crossing that finish line with her arms up as high as she can, knowing that she has accomplished something amazing.”
To sign up as a pusher or to learn more about partnering with this incredible organization visit: pushtothefinish.org.