A few years ago, Naperville's Brian Merkle would have crossed the finish line at the Run For the Stars 5K race in Wheaton and immediately checked his time to see if he ran his personal best. At the finish line for Saturday's race, Merkle gets instant confirmation of having done his personal best simply by glancing down at the smile on Becca Tally's face.
The 30-year-old Hanover Park woman with multiple disabilities couldn't have experienced the thrill of competing in this race without Merkle pushing her large wheelchair stroller around the course.
"I run for the stars," Tally says excitedly and repeatedly after crossing the finish line with the help of Merkle and other volunteer runners, called "angels," from myTeam Triumph, a charitable group that helps people with disabilities compete in races, marathons and even triathlons. Merkle and his wife, Wendy, started the local chapter a couple of years ago and have lined up about 60 volunteers available to push strollers. For Saturday's race, 21 myTeam Triumph runners push seven "captains," which is the term for people with disabilities.
"I got tired of just running for my personal times," says Merkle, who used to run in local races with his wife. "So we decided to find something that gave me more of a sense of purpose."
A half-hour before the 8 a.m. start, Alex Brescia of Hoffman Estates, straps into his stroller and declares himself ready to race.
"I'm so excited," says the 21-year-old who was born with tuberous sclerosis, a rare genetic disease that gives Brescia multiple disabilities.
At the finish line, Brescia tells his parents, Tony and Joelle, 17-year-old brother, Jason, and everyone else who asks, that the race is "awesome."
"He made a lot of friends during the race," says Trevor O'Malley, 44, of Naperville, who pushes Brescia with the help of fellow myTeam Triumph volunteers Joel Summers, 31, of Bolingbrook and Lester Giedrojc, 33, of Oak Lawn. "We didn't run for time, we ran for our captains."
Pushing the heavy strollers puts an extra strain on the runners' forearms and challenges their endurance.
"I'm used to pushing a jogger stroller. This is heavier," says Nicole Blau, 33, a special-education teacher at Bartlett Elementary School and veteran runner who competed Saturday for the first time since giving birth to her daughter, Alessandra, six months ago.
"But he motivates us," Blau says, exchanging a high-five after the race with her captain, Jeremy Johnson, a 9-year-old Streamwood boy who has Down syndrome and competes in much shorter runs and other athletic events through the Special Olympics. Jeremy's cheering supporters include his parents, Cheryl and Todd, brother, David, 15, and sister, Cara, 13.
Even those captains unable to speak still are able to express their joy, says Scott Ehling, who with his brother Mike pushes his son Brendan, who is 12 and stricken with a neurological disorder called Angleman syndrome.
"It's the best you can imagine," the Plainfield dad says of Brendan's ride around the course. "He's laughing. He's high-fiving everyone. It's such a great thing."
The myTeam Triumph volunteers fit perfectly with the Race For The Stars, hosted by College Church in Wheaton, which started the race in 2003 as a way to raise money to fund the nondenominational, evangelical Christian church's programs for people with disabilities. The inaugural race drew about 200 runners and raised $10,000, says Dawn Clark, the church's director of disability ministries. This year's event registered a record 829 runners, says Chris Tews, the race's marketing director. Clark says the church hopes that helps them raise $40,000.
"College Church has a long history of commitment to people with disabilities," Clark says. The program was started in the late 1960s by member Jean Hooten. By the 1980s, the group added Friday Night Fun events to give parents and caregivers a few hours of respite. After another decade or so as "The Seekers," the group adopted the name STARS, which stands for Seeking To Always Reflect the Savior.
That charity sprouted another charitable branch through STARS Family Services, which operates a house in Wheaton where four men with developmental disabilities live with the help of overseers. Today, the group breaks ground on two more homes.
"Talk about a blessing," says Nancy Tally, mother of captain Becca Tally, who has been disabled since a variety of life-threatening illnesses as a baby. Nancy Tally and her husband, Roland, drive from their home in Hanover Park to attend College Church and take part in the STARS programs. Thanking Merkle for serving as their daughter's running angel, the mom adds, "Becca has lots of angels beside her."
The entire Merkle family helps with the myTeam Triumph effort as the Merkles' son Brennan, 14, and 11-year-old daughter, Avery, don't yet run but do pitch in with all the off-track duties. Maureen Lue, a school nurse with Elgin Area School District U-46 who oversees that district's Special Olympics program, recruits several of the volunteer runners for Saturday's race.
"We all love to run," says Wendy Merkle. "But for us, this is so much more fulfilling than running for myself."
She notes that she never was fast enough to win a race, but she's certainly able to put winning smiles on those faces of the people they help.
"If you are a runner and get that runner's high, this gives you that and more," Brian Merkle says. "This far exceeds that because you are doing something for others."
Best: 'We didn't run for time, we ran for our captains'