The heart-warming story behind this viral race photo from the New York Marathon

father carries son over finish line NYC marathon

We spoke to the man behind the photograph:

I was one of the scientists who worked on Nike’s Breaking2 project to help a runner break two hours in the marathon. I’ve run a lot of trail races and ultramarathons, like the 100-mile Leadville Marathon. But this year’s New York City marathon was my first road marathon.

Related: The man running marathons to keep his friend’s memory alive 

Earlier this year, on 12 March, my wife gave birth to our son, Wyatt. He was born with Down syndrome. I wanted a way to honour him and everyone else affected by the syndrome. So I decided to run New York in his honour, to raise funds for others with the same circumstances. 

This year has been hard. After Wyatt was born premature, we spent 67 days with him in the [hospital]. He left on a feeding tube, and we fight every day to keep him from having to go back on one. There’s so much involved with keeping him healthy—early intervention, physical therapy, occupational therapy. It’s been a tough journey.

Everyone with Down syndrome is unique because they have a third copy of the 21st chromosome in all the cells in their body, so it can affect so many things, and the effects can be moderate to severe. That makes the research hard to apply across the spectrum. Heart defects are one of the biggest issues kids born with Down syndrome face. Wyatt will have open heart surgery in April. He also struggles with eating because he has really low muscle tone and the anatomy of his mouth is different. There’s not a lot of research on how to improve that, so it’s important to fund further interventions and resources that can help him and others.

I connected with LuMind Research, a charity for people who run to raise money for research on Down syndrome, and came up with the idea of breaking 3 hours and 21 minutes at the NYC Marathon, to represent Wyatt’s three copies of his 21st chromosome. My fundraising goal was $3,210. Symbolic, right? We ended up raising more than $11,000.

Last year, I was running 50 to 70 miles a week to train for trail races. But this year, I was fighting to find the time for 35 miles a week consistently. When we were in the hospital, there was no time for that. And to be honest, I showed up on the start line injured, with plantar fasciitis in both feet.

Related: What is plantar fasciitis? 

The main thing I want to do is to remind people that it’s not about setting limits on yourself—it’s about pushing past them. That’s a big thing for anyone who has Down syndrome. We struggle with this every day, as people try to limit Wyatt or just see him as a diagnosis. For me, running a 3:21 was a big deal. I had to really work for it, and as you can see I didn’t make it. But I went all-out pushing for it.

By mile 8 I knew I was in trouble. At mile 17 I had to make a decision: Back off my 7:30 pace enough to finish in 3:40, or continue to go all in and see what happens. From 17 to 20, I knew it was over, but I just wanted to break myself. My mechanics were so bad. I was slapping the pavement, but I was doing 7:30’s and getting it done. At mile 20ish, I got down on my knees. My legs felt like they were about to break. That was it. I knew I could walk it in at that point, but I had wanted to give it my all.

I always wanted to carry Wyatt across the finish line, but I knew if I was going to break 3:21, it was going to be close and there wouldn’t be enough time for that. After mile 20, when I was hiking it in, I texted my wife to tell her what happened and that I was coming for Wyatt. She had to fight to get near the finish line because the marathon is so big, about 50,000 competitors and so many spectators. She handed him over to me right at mile 26. And then I carried him across the line.

To me, it was almost better than breaking 3:21. I had pushed my limits, which was the point. I couldn’t go any farther. And we got to share the moment of going across the finish line together.

I’m not really a crier, but tears were definitely starting to come. People around us were crying—even people who didn’t know the story, who just saw me carrying my son across the line. Usually when you run a marathon, you put your name on your bib so everyone will cheer for you. I had put Wyatt’s name on mine so people were screaming for Wyatt the whole time. That made things emotional from mile 1.

Related: Why everyone cries during a marathon 

When I was walking with him toward the finish line, everyone was still cheering his name. I told everyone, “This is Wyatt,” and that made it so special.

I woke to this photo this morning and was shocked at how fast someone could find me over social media. My wife connected to the photographer through Instagram, where she tells Wyatt’s story at @tour_de_wyatt.

Having a son with Down syndrome has changed us in the best way and given us a different perspective on life. The amount of love and connection and the journey we’ve been through is just incredible.

I know I’ll come back next year and break 3:21.

A version of this article originally appeared on Runner’s World US