Josh France has Angelman Syndrome. He is non-verbal. He has excessive hyper-activity and has trouble resting. He has a difficult time walking and with all motor skills. But his smile and his laughter are infectious. He is a gift of God to the world. As of Sunday, he is also a marathoner.
Josh’s journey to the 2019 Marine Corps Marathon in Washington DC began early this year with our fundraising campaign. Thanks to some amazing people with generous hearts, we were among the first Duo Teams to meet our fundraising goal to be an Ainsley’s Angels Charity Partner by raising $1,750 in just a few weeks. Having experienced the incredible joy Josh receives participating in local races, and understanding the powerful symbol of inclusion that Josh’s participation in what is called “The People’s Marathon” conveys, members of the Western Arkansas running community and members of Josh’s family did not hesitate to give generously.
Inspired by Josh’s love for racing with Ainsley’s Angels, Josh’s father, Mike, recently became a runner himself. To prepare Josh to cover the 26.2-mile distance, Mike trained with Josh all summer by pushing him several times each week. Mike also pushed Josh in the weekly Fort Smith Pub Run and in every local race in which Ainsley’s Angels participated.
During last week’s Pub Run, the local running community came together again for a $5 5k to raise money to help the France’s travel expenses to Washington. The previous week, at a group run sponsored by True Grit Running Company (our local running store), runners and storeowner Melissa Vitale surprised me with a generous gift of a new Garmin running watch, a pair of Mizuno running shorts and Balega running socks. The love that Josh and I have received from Western Arkansas has been humbling and something that I will forever cherish.
One week before I planned to depart for Washington DC, as I was on one of my final training runs, I badly injured my left knee. The next day, it hurt to walk. I was unable to run one step. The day before I boarded the plane, I was still unable to run a step; however, several of my running friends assured me that they were praying for me and had faith I was going to be able to run on Sunday. I responded: “That will take a miracle! If I can run the first mile, I will be surprised.” I boarded the plane on Thursday with my running shoes packed, hoping for such a miracle.
Athlete Riders, Angel Runners, Guardian Angels, Caregivers and Local Ambassadors from all over the country began gathering at our host hotel in Crystal City shortly after I arrived. The place was exploding with pure positivity, as I was surrounded some of the most selfless, most giving and most dedicated people in the world. Ambassadors Michelle Smith and Bethann Wilkie, who first introduced me to Ainsley’s Angels, were there. Rob Cass, who swam across the Chesapeake Bay earlier this year, was there. Maggie Seymore, who ran from San Diego to Virginia and donated two of Arkansas’ first three chairs and helped light a fire of inclusion in Arkansas, was there. Shaun Evans, who pushed his son Shamus, who has Cerebral Palsy 3,200 miles from Seattle to New York City was there. And Ainsley’s Angels Vice President Joe Orth, who pours all he has into this event every year, and Ainsley’s Angels President and founder Kim “Rooster “Rossiter were there. And many others, too many to name. It soon became very obvious that nothing in heaven or on earth was going to be able to tell any of us, “No you can’t.” Not the forecast of torrential rain, not the warmer than average temperatures, not the increased World Series traffic, and not the bursitis that had inflamed my left knee. On Thursday night, Joe Orth asked me how I thought I was going to be able to run on Sunday. Although it hurt to pick up my left leg, I responded: “Like a gazelle!”
After picking up our race bibs on Friday, Ainsley’s Angels Ambassador Caitlin Espy from Raleigh, who is a physical therapist, massaged the ligaments around my knee. Ainsley’s Angels Vice President Chris Wood bought me a beer or three. On Saturday, Peggy Wolfe, who was Ainsley’s therapist, taped my knee up. Ambassador Kristy High and Angel Runner Sharon Wood supplied me with plenty of ibuprofen. I received texts from friends in Fort Smith telling me that I was going to be fine and assuring me they were praying for me. Josh continually blew me kisses all weekend as if to say: “Jarrett, I am going to love you no matter what.” And although the pain in my knee was so intense that it prevented me from falling asleep on Saturday night, I got up on Sunday morning at 3:30 am and laced my running shoes up to attempt to run a marathon. As I experienced pain in my knee while putting my shoes on, I thought: “If my knee hurts this bad before the marathon, I wonder what is it going to feel like afterwards, even if I only run part of it? And I wonder how am I going to sleep tonight!”
There are so many miraculous images in my mind from Sunday; however, the image I know I will never forget is the parade of 100 positive souls, including caregivers, Ambassadors, Angel Runners, Guardian Angels and Athlete Riders, making the half mile journey from the Ainsley’s Angels equipment trailers to the marathon starting line. It was 6 am. We had already been up for hours. It was pouring rain. It was dark. And it was very wet. But together, we marched and rolled to the starting line with joy, excitement and confidence. No one was complaining. No one contemplated turning back, and no one even thought about sitting it out. Not one ounce of negativity anywhere. It was miraculous.
I should not have been surprised. The dedication I witnessed overcoming the chilly rain before dawn on Sunday morning in that parade of positivity was really nothing compared to the dedication that our Athlete Riders and caregivers possess to overcome greater obstacles every day of their lives. Of course no one was complaining. Of course there was no giving up or giving in. Of course no negativity was present. This was nothing. This was just a little inconvenience. This was just a little annoyance. This was just a little water, a little early.
And I was only experiencing a little pain. How inconsequential is the pain in my knee compared to what caregivers like Mike and Hong France and Athlete Riders like Josh endure 24/7? Pain, by the way, that was caused by running, by doing something that Josh will never be able to do on his own.
I then thought about where we were standing. We were standing just a few feet from Arlington Cemetery, where the bodies men and women were laid to rest after sacrificing life itself, so we could be free. A little rain; a little pain— Inconsequential.
It was not an easy race. No marathon is. But we ran every mile of it. At times, the rain was blinding. But Josh kept smiling. Josh kept laughing. Josh kept giving spectators high fives and blowing them kisses. The sun came out at mile 20 transforming the nation’s capital into an 80-degree sauna, but it didn’t phase Josh. He kept waving to the crowds that were lining the streets. So, I kept running.
I would have never finished the race without my new friend for life and Angel Runner Steve Ruggles, who helped push Josh, alternating with me after every mile. This was not only Steve’s first time pushing an Athlete Rider, this was Steve’s first marathon! He also hurt his knee during one of his final training runs, and like me, he was unsure if he could finish the race. But as we like to say: Together, we shall.” And together, we did.
This was also Josh’s first marathon, but this was certainly not his first race. During the last two years, Josh has completed over 50 races with Ainsley’s Angels. Each time a medal is placed around his neck at the finish line, he immediately takes it off and throws it to the ground. And then he laughs out loud. Every single time. It has gotten to the point where we have almost stopped putting the medal around his neck. However, when the Marine placed the beautiful Marine Corps Eagle, Globe and Anchor medal around Josh’s neck, as I was prepared to pick it up off the ground and to apologize to anyone that might get hit with it, Josh grabbed the medal, held it to his face and kissed it repeatedly. MCM photographers took several pictures that should be available soon.
I spent Sunday night at Rooster and Lori’s house in Virginia Beach. It was good to see Lori and Cameron. I knew this was always a very emotional weekend for this special family. I had the privilege to sleep in Ainsley’s room. I closed my eyes thinking about Ainsley, how the Marine Corps Marathon was her last race. I thought about Rooster and Lori’s dedication to her, and now, to her amazing legacy. Unlike the night before, the pain in my left knee did not prevent me from falling sound asleep. As I slept, I dreamed of Josh and the other Athlete Riders I am blessed to know. I dreamed about the privilege of being pulled by them in races. I can’t recall every detail of my dreams, but I know I dreamed pure joy, goodness and positivity.
I awoke refreshed. I was a little sore, like I had run a marathon. However, my left knee felt like it had never been injured.
It was a miracle. But I am not surprised.