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At Lake Elkhorn, Stephanie Blades, left, and Marie Vazquez take turns pushing Gabriel Vazquez, Marie's son, in a running stroller. Blades is an employee of the Community Action Council of Howard County and volunteers as a coordinator for Athletes Serving Athletes. She is training with Gabriel and his mom for the Columbia Half Marathon and 5K.
At Lake Elkhorn, Stephanie Blades, left, and Marie Vazquez take turns pushing Gabriel Vazquez, Marie's son, in a running stroller. Blades is an employee of the Community Action Council of Howard County and volunteers as a coordinator for Athletes Serving Athletes. She is training with Gabriel and his mom for the Columbia Half Marathon and 5K. (Algerina Perna, Baltimore Sun)

Some enjoy feeling the wind on their faces as they ride along a race route in a three-wheeled jogger; some are lulled to sleep by the stroller's rhythmic motion. Others are there to compete, begging those pushing them to pick up the pace.

Organizers say that no matter how they respond individually, athletes with disabilities who race with the help of Athletes Serving Athletes — including those who will take part with their able-bodied teams in the Columbia Half-Marathon on Sunday — are thrilled to compete in a mainstream event.

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"Many of them wrestle with the events of daily life" and have little or no mobility, said ASA Howard County coordinator Stephanie Blades. "We want to give them a break from their physical and mental challenges."

Ten ASA athletes are registered for the half-marathon — 13.1 miles — and will compete along with 32 runners known as WingMen, who train and race with specific teams, Blades said. Three Athletes Serving Athletes participants and eight runners will take part in a 5K race.

Teams allow the volunteers to take turns pushing the athletes in joggers and caring for any needs they have, Blades said.

"All of us are there for what we want to give, not for what we get back," Blades said of the volunteers' commitment to train and race with athletes who cannot compete on their own. "It fills your heart."

Sunday's race is a tweaked version of the Iron Girl Half-Marathon. That race was last staged a year ago by the World Triathlon Corp. after the event's founder, the Columbia Triathlon Association, went out of business after 30 years. World Triathlon moved the race to later in the year. It will be held Sept. 12.

Rip It Events, a Howard County-based race organizer, stepped in and rebranded the race the Columbia Marathon and 5K, opening it to men and women but keeping the same date, course and starting point as the Iron Girl event.

"This was a great opportunity for us to fill a void and continue a tradition in the community," said race director Danny Serpico of the event, which has attracted 800 runners. "ASA asked us if they could come and race, and we decided to donate a portion of our proceeds to them."

Runners will be alerted that Athletes Serving Athletes teams will be participating since they require more space on the course, said Serpico, a Columbia resident.

"They'll be making a big splash in a positive way, since they'll be starting in their own specific waves at 8 a.m.," he said. "The foot runners will start two minutes behind them so they will be able to see them [more easily] and navigate through."

Blades, 36, a longtime runner and an employee of the Community Action Council of Howard County, will be part of the team running with Joy Meenan, an 18-year-old student with special needs at Cedar Lane School in Fulton.

Blades started volunteering with the nonprofit ASA three years ago after noticing that her motivation for running in races was "ebbing and flowing." Her husband, David, also volunteers.

A few years before signing on with Athletes Serving Athletes, she had been cheering on her husband as he ran in the Columbia Triathlon. In that race, ASA's first disabled athlete, James Banks, was pulled in a boat, towed in a bike trailer and pushed in a jogger in the swim-bike-run event.

"After I saw James whooping and hollering, I told people, 'I want to race like that kid,'" she said. "He feels the joy."

Another participant in Sunday's race will be Gabriel Vazquez, an 8-year-old with cerebral palsy. Blades has run with Gabriel many times and is impressed by his sunny personality despite his illness and reliance on a walker.

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"Gabriel loves racing," said his mother, Marie Vazquez. She and her husband, Sergio, both 38, began running alongside their son as WingMen two years ago.

On April 18, the day of this year's Sole of the City 10K race in Baltimore, Gabriel awoke his parents at 6:45 a.m.

"He crawled into bed with us and said, 'It's race day!'" his mother said. "He is legally blind and has tunnel vision, but when he's moving he can see more.

"It's a team effort and we're all there for Gabriel," she said.

Athletes Serving Athletes was founded in 2008 by David Slomkowski, who said he was moved to tears eight years ago as he watched a television interview with Dick Hoyt. In 1977, the Massachusetts man began running races while pushing his son, Rick, who uses a wheelchair. Team Hoyt has received numerous awards over the years.

"I just kept thinking, 'Why isn't someone doing this in Baltimore?'" said Slomkowski, ASA's executive director, who grew up playing sports in Laurel and now lives in Baltimore.

He left an entrepreneurial career to start Athletes Serving Athletes to provide people with disabilities the opportunity to reap the benefits an able-bodied athlete enjoys.

"The inclusion piece is huge, especially in the sports arena," Slomkowski said. "The cool thing about what we do is helping [our athletes] feel that competitive adrenaline.

"We want to focus on empowering individuals with limited mobility to train and compete, but we don't turn anyone away," he said. "Being able to spend time around someone who faces real adversity constantly puts your own life into perspective. They are heroes."

Athletes Serving Athletes volunteers take part in all types of endurance races, including full marathons, duathlons and triathlons.

"Our goal for our last fiscal year ... was to have 215 finishes. We ended up with 340 finishes run by 102 athletes," Slomkowski said of the 65 races Athletes Serving Athletes entered.

He said the organization will take part in a similar number of races this year, including the Maryland Half-Marathon and 5K in Maple Lawn on May 9.

The organization is always in need of volunteers and donations.

"You can't help but be struck by the powerful emotions of this work," he said.

Blades compares Athletes Serving Athletes to a church. "It's similar in its sense of community, love and feeling of belonging," she said.

"You build relationships with the athletes, something I wasn't expecting at first," Blades said. "It just smacks you in the face how individual and unique we all are, and it sucks you in."

NOTE: An earlier version of this story erred in information about the World Triathlon Corp.'s Iron Girl Half Marathon and 5k. It has been corrrected here.

If you go

The Columbia Half-Marathon starts Sunday at 8 a.m. and the 5K will follow at 8:30 a.m. Both will start and finish in the parking lot of the Columbia Sheraton Town Center Hotel, 10207 Wincopin Circle. Information: columbiahalf-marathon.com.

For more information on Athletes Serving Athletes, go to athletesservingathletes.org.

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