Human Race: ‘Running has changed all of our lives’

Image by Ramsey Cardy (sportsfile.com)

Running enriches the lives of most who take it up. But for the Kerr family, from County Down in Northern Ireland, it has brought about a transformation – helping them through some dark times and creating many good ones.

David and Sandra Kerr’s 18-year-old son, Aaron, was born with cerebral palsy, epilepsy, renal failure and a rare chromosome disorder. ‘His complex condition means his mobility and opportunities in life are restricted,’ says David. It also required Sandra, 44, to be at home as Aaron’s full-time carer – a tiring and challenging role that often left her feeling isolated.

In October 2010, Aaron, then 13, needed a kidney transplant to save his life. David was a match. ‘I didn’t even have to think about donating my kidney,’ says the father of two. (Aaron’s sister, Holly, is 20.)

Both David’s and Aaron’s operations were a success but it was a traumatic time for the whole family. ‘David and I have been married for 21 years and we have always had each other to lean on in difficult circumstances,’ says Sandra. ‘But this was very different. For the first time, I felt alone, with no-one to support me. I also felt bad that I couldn’t be there for David because Aaron needed me with him.’ (The two were in different hospitals for their operations.)

A year later, with Aaron growing bigger and his needs as great as ever, Sandra suffered what she says was something like post-traumatic stress disorder. ‘It was the lowest point of my life,’ she says. Her GP recommended she try the gym. ‘I found that I loved it, especially the treadmill. I’d put on music and switch off from the stress. I built up the miles quite quickly.’ She and David also swapped roles, with Sandra going back to work and David giving up his job as a courier to become Aaron’s full-time carer.

Within a few months, Sandra’s new running habit had progressed to racing. David and Aaron would cheer her on, but they soon realised it would be better to join in than be on the sidelines. ‘It is physically demanding to look after Aaron, so it’s important I’m in good shape,’ says David, 41. But more importantly, the couple knew Aaron would enjoy coming running with them. ‘He loves going fast, whether that’s in a car with the window down or on a roller-coaster,’ says Sandra. ‘And he loves the feel of the sun on his face and the wind in his hair.’

They first tried accompanying Sandra with Aaron’s existing chair, but it was too bulky and heavy. So David went online to find out more about assisted running. ‘I kept reading about the Team Hoyt Running Chair,’ he says. The chair was originally designed in 2010 for American father-and-son team Dick and Rick Hoyt. Since 1977 they have completed more than 1,000 races, including marathons and Ironman events, with Dick pushing Rick (who has been disabled from birth) in his wheelchair. Following spinal surgery Rick’s chair became uncomfortable, so Dick approached a US company, Southbridge Tool and Manufacturing, to design Rick a new one. The running-specific chair has since become a huge success in the US, where assisted running is a fast-growing sport. ‘I decided we had to make it happen for Aaron,’ says David.

The couple began to raise the funds they needed to buy the £4,000 chair, hitting their target in seven months. The chair arrived in October 2014 – it was the first in Europe – and Aaron took to it instantly. ‘Team Kerr’ completed its first race, the Great South Run in Portsmouth, that same month. ‘We have been out almost every single weekend since we got the chair,’ says Sandra. Initially, David did all the pushing, but they’ve since upgraded to a newer model, which both of them can use. ‘It took me a while to get up to Sandra’s standard of fitness,’ says David.

The whole family is benefitting from a more active lifestyle. ‘Aaron has been a lot healthier since we took up running,’ says David. ‘He sleeps better at night and he’s having less time off school. I love the feeling of being fitter, too. Sometimes it can be a struggle to get out the door, but once we’re out, our heads clear. We train three to four times a week with Aaron, and when he can’t be there we use sandbags weighing 100kg.’

They’ve also notched up an impressive list of races, including the Lilliput Half Marathon, in the Republic of Ireland, where the race organisers adjusted the course to accommodate assisted running, and the Walled City full marathon in Derry, last May. ‘Aaron loves being the centre of attention and high-fiving  eople as he speeds past,’ says David. The Kerrs like the chair so much that they’ve taken on the job of being its UK and Ireland distributor.

‘Running has changed all of our lives for the good,’ says Sandra. ‘It’s given us a way of spending quality time together as a family. And it allows Aaron to be part of a community and feel the buzz of racing. He’s always been a smiler, but since we got the chair his smile has got bigger.’