On the winding 5-mile road through Central Park in New York City, a veteran who lost both his legs, an autistic boy guided along by his volunteer, a blind man who ran with the trust of another’s eyes, and a man with one arm and one eye waved and thanked the other nearly 5,000 runners as they passed by. The emotional Sunday morning that brought together athletes from all walks of life was made possible by Achilles International, which held its 12th annual Hope & Possibility 5-Miler sold-out race.

“This is the 12th year that we’ve had this race, and it’s the largest field that we’ve ever had, and it’s really a great event because it’s all of our Achilles programs at one race,” Megan Lombardo, the director of development and director of Achilles Kids Running Program, told Medical Daily. “We have our Freedom Team of veterans, our Achilles Kids who have disabilities, our New York chapter, our international, and national chapters. So it’s an exciting day.”

Achilles International is a nonprofit organization that has chapters and members in over 65 locations in the United States and throughout the world, with the goal of providing support to athletes with disabilities. Over the years, Achilles has developed specialized programs for children with autism, known as Achilles Kids, as well as war veterans, known as the Freedom Team of Wounded Veterans. The organization partners with Cigna in order to help people with disabilities get their lives back on track.

Jon Stewart, political television host of The Daily Show and philanthropist, also showed up for the event to encourage runners and cyclists with disabilities. A few days before the race, he sent a surprise video to Achilles International to show his support. Stewart, who lives nearby, attended and ran in the event last year.

Achilles International Hope & Possibility 5 Miler
Achilles International Hope & Possibility 5-Miler Achilles International Hope & Possibility 5 Miler

“I actually planned on running this year, but I hadn’t progressed enough to get there so I ended up hand cycling. Next year, I hope to actually run the 5 miles,” Army Sgt. Maj. Jeremy Bruns, a first time Achilles race participant and double amputee told Medical Daily.

After 23 years and nine tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, Army veteran Bruns safely made it home only to later be struck by a drunk driver in his front lawn one sunny Saturday morning in November. His wife Jenny blinked back tears as she watched him explain the tragedy.

Then, she smiled as she looked up at him and said, “I ran separate. This was my first time running in any race. I felt exhilarated. It was beautiful.”

Jeremy is currently recovering at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washing D.C. and was recruited by the Achilles Recovery Team to perform in Sunday’s race. He plans on racing in the Walt Disney Half Marathon in Florida next year, another event sponsored by Achilles.

“We’re thankful for Achilles for putting this on and their message is obviously a positive one of hope and possibility. It just shows what people can do with limited abilities as a means, to no abilities,” Jeremy said.

Achilles International’s commitment to instill a sense of inclusiveness in their athletes and to inspire them over and over again through the power of running creates comradery and breathtaking support. I was fortunate enough to have ran with the thousands of other runners and to experience the mission first hand by the time I reached the finish line alongside wheelchairs, hand cyclists, autistic children between 4 and 17 years old, and even the blind.

“Blind runner to your left!” a Cigna guide yelled from behind me. The two men ran ahead in bright green shirts, each of them holding a tether as one shouted his way to a safe path for the other. Several feet later, I caught up to a boy with autism laughing as he ran alongside a female guide who spoke to him encouragingly.

One in 68 children has autism spectrum disorder, a developmental disability that significantly affects socialization, behavior, and language ability, according to the Centers for Disease and Prevention. However, there is evidence that running and physical activity subdues the symptoms of autism and rounds the behavioral issues that so many parents and teachers struggle with as they try to teach life and academic skills.

New York City native Aaron Ginsburg ran as a second-year Achilles volunteer with Jeremy Delgado, a second-year Achilles Kid. “Go Achilles! It’s a great program, I found it through New York Cares,” Ginsburg said. “We did good. A little bit over an hour, an hour and eight minutes.”

Volunteers had been meeting with the Achilles kids every other week since March for a training program. They were paired up with different children in Central Park to train from 1 mile to 3 miles, and then up to the 5 miles in order to be ready for the big race day, Ginsburg explained.

“Getting through it is just amazing. It’s amazing to be here," said autism spectrum participant Gonzalez, as his mother Mildred smiled at him.

“For their parents it’s such an amazing thing to see them accomplish so much in a mainstream setting. That’s the most important aspect for us, that it’s mainstream. They’re not doing something just among their peers that have similar disabilities, they’re conquering the same distance that everyone else is and that’s really important for their confidence, for their self-esteem, and for their future,” Lombardo said.

When Lombardo started working with Achilles as the director of development, she saw the children with autism and wondered why they couldn’t run just as she had when she was a kid. As an avid runner, Lombardo wanted to share her love for it with others, which is exactly how Achilles Kids Running Program took off.

Cigna Partners With Achilles International For Autism Research

Achilles International has collected a wealth of anecdotal evidence from running the program over the past several years and, Lombardo says, there are a lot of indicators that autism symptoms improve as a result of running. They have less self-injurious behavior and are able to focus better, make better eye contact, and make healthier choices throughout the days after the run. After realizing this, Achilles International reached out to Cigna for support in order to find scientific evidence with quantitative measures to prove that running can help curb autism symptoms.

The Cigna foundation has since partnered up with Achilles International to study the effects of running for children with autism. Through Cigna’s “World of Difference” grant program that works to improve children’s wellness, senior care, and women’s health, they awarded $100,000 to Achilles' research efforts.

“We’re expanding our philanthropic arm,” David Figliuzzi, the executive director of Cigna, told Medical Daily. “Cigna’s mission is to improve the health, well-being, and sense of security in people, and this grant will do just that. This will hopefully open doors for other Achilles chapters. The difference will translate into the community.”

More than 50 of their Cigna employees ran the race on Sunday. For the employees who ran as guides for the children with autism, which enabled them to see up-close where the funds were going to make an impact, it created a rare relationship.

“Many of the kids are on so many medications at such a young age and if we can find something natural, free, and easy that the whole family can do, and if there’s a therapy waiting for you right outside your door, we really think it could be transformative for the millions of families who are dealing with this,” Lombardo said.

The study will look at how children with autism are affected by long-term running, which they hope to see will improve their engagement and classroom behavior. They will start recruiting in the fall and create their baseline measurements, which will record each child’s spectrum disorder. The numbers will be compared to the running program's results they will launch in the spring of 2015.

“Cigna has had a long relationship with Achilles and we’re passionate about the work they do. They help people get to back to life,” Figliuzzi said. “Achilles is all about celebrating life. You see all different types of people overcoming disabilities and struggles in their lives at the race.”