On Saturday morning, Deb Batista will head to the starting line of the Rocky Point 5K, and it won’t be hard to pick her out of the crowd of more than 250 runners.
Batista will be dressed like Spider-Man.
Alongside her will be Sue Henderson dressed as Batman and a number of others, dressed like Ironman, the Incredible Hulk, Wonder Woman and many more, ready to push through the 3.1-mile course.
It’s not for any sort of comic book convention, and Batista, Henderson and their friends aren’t just devout superhero fans either. They’re not doing it for attention.
They’re doing it for a special cause, one that has children all over the county – and many other parts of the world – smiling and taking pride in running.
Not one of these children can run for themselves. So people like Batista and Henderson are running for them.
The organization is called “Who I Run 4,” and its purpose is to represent children with illnesses or conditions that leave them unable to run.
The concept is simple. Able-bodied runners sign up on one end, and parents of children – or the children themselves – sign up on the other end. The two sides are then paired up, and the runner dedicates his or her efforts to the new companion, known as a “buddy.”
The new team of buddy and runner keep in touch, with the runner doing whatever they can think of to help bring awareness to their buddy’s condition.
Batista and Henderson are part of a local group of 14 runners who take part in the organization. Most of them are from Rhode Island and Massachusetts, with two from Connecticut, and they’ll all be running for their buddies at Rocky Point this weekend.
Traditionally, running is the extent of the connection on race day, but the local group decided to take it a step further for this race. They asked their buddies who their favorite superhero is, and in honor of the kids, they’ll be out there for the race dressed up in full costume, just to make the day of a child they have never met, in another part of the country or world, who was dealt a rough hand.
“We said, ‘Our buddies are superheroes, let’s dress up as their superhero,’” Batista said.
Batista’s buddy is a 3-year-old boy named Michael James who lives in Des Moines, Iowa with spina bifida. Since November, Batista – a Marion, Mass., resident – has run for Michael. Every time she completes a race, she packages up the medal she wins and sends it Iowa, for Michael to wear around his neck and feel something he would otherwise never feel.
“He likes putting them on and running around the house,” Batista said with a laugh. “I don’t think his parents appreciate the ‘clang, clang, clang,’ but he likes it.”
Henderson, a Cranston native, runs for Brayden, a 12-year-old child in New Zealand with Multiple Sclerosis. She’s been running for Brayden since just after Christmas and has run roughly eight races with him in mind.
She talks with him and his mother about three times a week, and has sent him over her medals, as well as some of his favorite toys and other gifts that she’s been able to acquire at the various races she’s run.
There’s an 18-hour time difference between Rhode Island and New Zealand, but the connection between Henderson and her buddy will transcend time zones. While Henderson is out running, dressed as Batman, Brayden will be at home, also dressed as Batman. He’ll be in bed during the race, but that won’t stop him from putting on the mask and cape.
Thousands of miles apart, they’ll be sharing the moment together.
“He’ll be able to go to bed in his batman outfit and wake-up and know that once he sees the picture of me dressed the same way,” Henderson said. “He’ll probably wear the batman costume all week.”
Henderson’s husband Robert is also involved, and he’ll be dressed like The Incredible Hulk, representing Tanis, from South Dakota, who has autism.
“They’re amazing kids,” Batista said.
The organization itself was founded about a year-and-a-half ago by a man named Tim Boyle in Minnesota. He posted on social media that he needed a little inspiration to go out and run in the cold weather and one of his Facebook friends commented “You can run for me anytime.”
That friend, named Michael Wasserman, has Down syndrome and was also diagnosed with bilateral hip dyspasia. He spent a year in a body cast after experimental surgery to give him the chance to walk again – which he eventually did – but is now in a wheelchair.
The Facebook comment made an impact on Boyle. Since then, he runs for Michael – and a dedicated organization was born. It has since expanded into all 50 states and 12 countries, and the waiting list has over 2,600 runners on it, hoping to be paired up with buddies who they can represent while running all over the world.
On a local level, the Rocky Point event will be one of the most exciting. Not only will the superhero theme take center stage, but all the group members are coming and people are making the trip from different states to be a part of the movement.
“This has a purpose,” Henderson said. “To actually get a good amount of people, and people coming in from another state for this purpose, to get together to run for a bunch of children who can’t really run for themselves is special.”
At 10 a.m. Saturday, when the race begins, 14 of the runners might not be dressed perfectly for the part, and they probably won’t be crossing the finish line before everybody else.
But even if Batman or Spider-Man or Iron Man don’t come in first place, there will be 14 kids who feel like the real winners. They’ll feel like superheroes. And that’s the idea.
“When (Michael) got my last medal – he’s in leg braces – his mom said he kind of ran around the house,” Batista said. “That’s kind of sweet. He may never run a road race, but he’s still being represented.”
For more information on the organization, visit www.whoirun4.com.