Meet the running charity whoIR4.com and the amazing work they do

Tim Boyle ran for many things when he first started in September 2012.

First, there was the girl. They had recently broken up. She was a runner and while they were seeing each other he never quite understood why she'd lace up her running shoes and go outside to brave the frigid winter mornings. But after the breakup he decided that proving to her that he could run a half marathon might take the sting out of their ended relationship. He gave himself six months to train for a race that she had already signed up for, hoping he'd bump into her at the finish line to show her that, yes, he could run, too.

Also, there were his lungs. They'd been abused for 17 years by a two-and-a-half-packet-a-day smoking habit that started after he finished school. He couldn't sit through a movie without having to go out to light up. His first packet was nearly empty by 5am, when he arrived at a dairy distribution plant to start his job delivering milk.

‘I was tired of having tobacco consume every aspect of my life,’ says Tim. So he gave up, on August 7, 2012. The next month, he took the $300 (£230) he normally used for cigarettes and went to a running store to buy shoes and clothes.

He ran for fresh-cut grass. He could smell it on his first three-miler near his home in Crookston, Minnesota, a town of 8,000 in the northern United States. In the middle of the loop, while crossing a bypass, he remembers seeing mowers trimming the lawn. He breathed deeply. ‘It’s one of my favourite smells,’ he says. ‘That’s when I fell in love with running.’

And he started running for his mental health, too. He was diagnosed with depression in 2007, after attempting suicide. He swallowed 51 pills and then he called the ambulance himself, but not to save his life. ‘I was worried that what I had taken wasn't enough,’ he says. ‘I wanted to get my stomach pumped so I could put a gun to my head.’

Instead, doctors convinced him to go to therapy. Five years later, he hoped running could help him cope with the demons that sometimes still surfaced.

Finding inspiration

There are a thousand little things we choose to run for: the smell of a fresh-cut lawn, to prove something to an ex, to earn a medal. And a thousand more big things: to fight an addiction, to lose weight, to cope with depression. Find the right combination of motivators, and running becomes a habit, a necessity. It can change your life.

But then it starts to rain, or snow and the thermometer dips below freezing. Nobody is mowing their lawn and your knees ache. All you really want, desperately, is to light up and order a takeaway. All of a sudden, one of the things in your life, big or small, can convince you to get out the door.

In November 2012, Tim Boyle ran out of things to run for. Desperate for motivation, he started googling inspirational quotes. He found a dark grey image with a silhouette of a tree behind a poem in white letters. It read: ‘I run because I can. When I get tired, I remember those who can’t run, what they would give to have this simple gift I take for granted and I run harder for them. I know they would do the same for me.’

Tim reposted the photo to his Facebook profile. The first person to comment was a man named Michael Wasserman, who wrote, ‘You can run for me anytime.’

Mary Wasserman will never forget the day she visited a state mental institution as a high school volunteer in the late 1950s. She remembers the noxious smells, the sights and sounds of suffering. More than half a century later, she finds the scene difficult to describe. 'It was one of the most horrible things I've ever seen,' she says.

Mary gave birth to a boy, Michael Wasserman, on November 7, 1961. Back then, there were no in utero tests to determine if your baby had Down's syndrome, and Michael was diagnosed after he was born. He weighed just four pounds and had hazel eyes.

'He was just beautiful,' says Mary.

When the doctors recommended that she give Michael up to institutional state care, she refused. Despite knowing Michael would need a lifetime of support, she was adamant that she was not going to send her son away. She brought him home on Christmas Eve that year.

Michael had challenges with verbal communication, but he smiled a lot – a grin so broad and bright that it seemed to consume his entire face. He smiled when he got a glass of water or when he met new people or when he danced, which was often.

Seven years after Michael was born, Eunice Shriver Kennedy founded the Special Olympics. Michael signed up, competing in the softball throw and swimming. And he ran. The 50- and 100-yard dashes. He made friends with everyone he met, graduated from a special-education school and reminded Mary every day why she'd brought him home.

His smile didn't fade, but Michael slowed down in 1983. He told his mother he could no longer walk. After visiting a range of specialists, he was diagnosed with bilateral bone-on-bone hip dysplasia – a debilitating condition that painfully forces the hip joints out of alignment.

To treat it, doctors had to experiment. The surgery Michael needed was new. They re-broke his bones in several places, rebuilding the joints so he could walk again. Which he did, in 1986. His recovery is literally a textbook case. Surgeons around the world still consult his procedure when studying the condition.

But he wasn't just able to walk. After several surgeries and 17 months of daily physiotherapy, he could dance and he could run again. He competed in the 50-yard dash at the Special Olympics in 1987 and won a medal. He attended an orthopaedic conference, where, in front of hundreds of surgeons, he ascended and descended 28 steep steps in the amphitheatre. He received a standing ovation.

'I still have trouble getting through that story without tears,' says Mary.

He was mobile for 24 years and 24 days. But in 2009, he sat down and once again told his mother he could no longer walk. He was living with Mary and her husband, Albert, in Aptos, California. Unfortunately this time, surgery was not an option.

Three years later, Michael and Mary browsed through the Facebook page they had made to share his story and auction his art for charity – Michael's latest passion, self-expression via bright, abstract canvases.

It's there that they stumbled on a post from a man who was looking for some new motivation to run. Mary helped Michael type the message.

You can run for me anytime.'

Man, that's brilliant, that is exactly what I will do, thought Tim. So he contacted Michael and Mary through a Facebook message.

'I want to be your legs,' he wrote. 'I am going to dedicate all of my training miles and my next race to you.'

Mary seemed wary at first. The special needs community is very tight-knit, and she is naturally cautious when people who don't directly know Michael want to get involved with his life. Plus, she didn't really know what this all meant – dedicating miles to her son.

'It means, when I get tired and want to quit, I think about him in his wheelchair and the fact that he is not able to get up and run,' says Tim. 'It is no longer about me.'

The challenges that Michael faces put Tim's pain in perspective. It wasn't the smell of fresh-cut grass or fighting his nicotine addiction or even coping with depression that got him to the finish line of his very first race – a 5K in February 2013 – it was completing the miles for Michael.

The whole concept appears, at first, to be somewhat tenuous, the more cynically minded might even say exploitative. This is, after all, a man with perfectly functioning legs using a stranger with Down's syndrome, who, in the real world, lives nearly 2,000 miles away, as a sort of totem to achieve his own personal goals.

But Tim and Mary insist this is not the case. Tim sent weekly, sometimes daily, updates about his training to Michael (Mary would help Michael read and respond to the messages). Michael would send Tim updates about his pain management and painting. They became fast friends, albeit very long distance ones.

Tim sent Michael the finisher's medal from his first 5K. And he has sent most of his race medals to Michael since.

During several low points in Tim's life, when the depression creeps back to the fringes of his brain, he has turned to Facebook to cope. After his diagnosis in 2007, he discovered a Facebook page about Down's syndrome. Seeing the stories from thousands of people with the condition put his own life in perspective. Their joy over the smallest things boosted Tim's own mood.

After the experience of completing a race for – and then building a relationship with – someone who couldn't run, Tim started thinking that there may be other people who might want to do the same. So he once again turned to Facebook. With Mary's permission, he created the page ‘I Run for Michael.’

Starting a movement

He invited fellow runners to join the group, and Mary helped him invite people from the special needs community. Tim started a not-for-profit organistaion with the same name as the Facebook group, but they did not want the attention to focus only on Michael. They decided to match each runner with a different person with special needs.

Runners posted updates to their ‘buddy’, filling them in on their training. Buddies posted back, updating their runners on surgeries and life accomplishments.

More than 500 people joined in the first month, and more than 15,000 in the first year.

'This group could be 40 people or it could be 40,000 people, Michael doesn't care,' says his mother. 'What he cares about is that people are motivated, encouraged and happy.'

And that is exactly the point of the group, says Tim: Bring strangers together who would have never met otherwise, to motivate and encourage each other, whether they are training for a marathon, undergoing surgery, finishing an Ironman or learning how to use a wheelchair.

In less than five years, the I Run for Michael organisation has matched more than 20,000 runners with 20,000 buddies – most of them children, all of them with a disability that prohibits them from running or, often, even walking.

Scrolling through the Facebook page is therapeutic – an instant mood booster. Your smile can't help but grow with every new post. They are all displayed to the main feed in the group, so every member can read them. The posts are personal. Genuine. It's like having access to the letters from 40,000 pen pals.

Tim is a strict moderator. He bans people if they discuss politics or post anything hateful. And he does not allow links. Though many runners have created fundraisers for a charity that helps their buddy, Tim does not want the group to be inundated with posts asking for money. He wants them to be uplifting and motivating. There are a lot of exclamation marks.

'Hi Avery! I had a killer headache today, but I was still able to get our workout done. How was speech on Tuesday? I hope you did well?'

'Hi Daniel! The baby and I ran 3 miles for you this morning. How has your week been? Mine's been crazy hectic, as always!'

'Hey Gavin! I just saw your mom posted about you getting a swing! That's awesome buddy…even at my age I enjoy a good swing! We got 12 miles in this morning!'

Most of the buddies are children, so their parents respond – posting pictures of a medal they just received from their runner, updating the group on a doctor's visit or sharing photos of a new life milestone.

'When you have a child with disabilities, your world is isolated,' says group member Sue Allen. Her six-year-old son, River, has spina bifida and uses a wheelchair. 'You are constantly going to the doctor.'

Allen, like Mary Wasserman, was initially skeptical of the concept behind I Run for Michael. But she signed up River after seeing the encouraging posts. Her son matched with a runner called Jodi Stoner in 2014.

'I love it because you make this connection where you give and they give, and it is just a beautiful thing,' says Allen. The community, she says, has expanded her and her son's world outside of just the context of special needs.

Stoner has actually visited River multiple times, and pushed him in a specialised wheelchair during races. Tim says that's common. He intentionally makes matches random, and does not allow requests, because he wants strangers to develop a relationship and learn about each other without previous knowledge. But, he says, many of the pairings take their newfound digital friendship off Facebook through in-person visits, attending races together and sending each other birthday gifts or finisher's medals. A few runners have even got tattoos of their buddy's name.

'This is so much more than running: It's mental, it's emotional, it's an attachment,' says Tim. 'Running is just a catalyst to form a relationship."

He and Michael now keep in touch about once a week. They've met twice.

'I can't begin to quantify or even qualify what this has done for me,' says Tim. Five years ago, he was desperate to find something to run for. Fresh-cut grass wasn't doing it. Neither was his desire to get healthier.

Instead, he ended up finding someone to run for. And that might be the paradox at the heart of the whole idea, says Mary. Michael didn't actually need someone to run for him. Instead, he wanted to encourage someone, motivate them. To make their life happier.

He's ended up doing exactly that – for Tim Boylr and for more than 40,000 others.

In Michael's bedroom, on a wall near his bathroom, he's posted a photo of Boyle after a race. Mary says that each time he passes it, he touches Tim's face. He smiles. 'Buddy,' he says.

WHO THEY RUN FOR

ALICIA JENKINS

29-year-old physiotherapist assistant

RUNS FOR: Evelyn (Evi) Pemberton, a seven-year-old with cystic fibrosis

MATCHED: September 19, 2016

'When I go to races, I write 'I run 4 Evi ' on my leg,' says Jenkins, who posts Pemberton a medal, T-shirt and other goodie bag swag after every race. 'We haven't met in person yet, but I already feel like she is family.'

'The light in Evelyn's eyes when she talks about Alicia is magical,' says Pemberton's mother, Samantha. 'Knowing Alicia is running for Evelyn helps her push forward.'

SCOTT MAYES

45-year-old sales rep

RUNS FOR: Maya Owens, an 18-year-old with mitochondrial disease

MATCHED: October 7, 2013

'When I run longer distances, I think, Why am I out here?' says Mayes. 'But no matter how much this hurts, Maya goes through so much more than I'll ever go through. That inspires me to keep going no matter what.'

'It was such a huge moment for her – feeling the wind as he ran, feeling like she was part of the race and crossing the finish line,' says Holly, Maya's mother, about the day Mayes pushed Maya in a race in 2014. 'She says it was the best day ever.'

JEN FRANCIS

43-year-old school cross-country coach

RUNS FOR: Jackson Fox, a seven-year-old with cerebral palsy

MATCHED: May 2, 2013

'It's something that's bigger than me. There is so much more to running for somebody,' says Francis.

'The programme is not just affecting Jackson and it's not just affecting Jen – it's affecting our whole family and making us more active,' said Jackson's mother, Angela. Witnessing Francis' love for running inspired Jackson, who doctors once said would never walk or talk, to compete in two triathlons. And the family of four has completed several 5Ks together.

It takes roughly six months for a runner to match with a buddy. To sign up, visit whoirun4.com.