Mark Whitlock was a first-time Tomato 5K participant in 2019. However, he is no stranger to racing. Mark, his stepdaughter Zoë, and their family are involved with a volunteer organization called Ainsley’s Angels, which pairs runners with disabled kids who can’t normally participate in athletic events.
Zoë, 18, has endured five open-heart surgeries with occasional seizures. “She has trouble walking across a parking lot,” Mark says, “let alone complete a 5K.” But she loves to race. For the Tomato 5K in East Nashville, hosted by the Margaret Maddox Family YMCA, Mark and Zoë were paired with two teenage cross-country runners that had joined their Ainsley’s Angels team. Mark and the teens took turns pushing Zoë’s brand-new racing chair.
When they hit the mile mark, one of the teenagers stopped running and started to walk. He said to his friend, “You said this was only one mile!” They finished as a team, helping one another stay motivated through the rest of the race. “We ran all the downhills,” Mark said. “A good time was had by all!”
Zoë wouldn’t have the opportunity to participate in races like the Tomato 5K without the help of Ainsley’s Angels, Mark says. “She loves waving and smiling at others. Many runners try to encourage us, but most find themselves encouraged by her instead.” The dynamic duo listens to music on a Bluetooth speaker, and Zoë likes to sing along. After every race, they have a dance party! Mark says that their Tomato 5K dancing was “extra boogalicious.”
“For me, running and pushing the racing stroller is a good reminder of life,” Mark says. “I’ve had many people in my life who have cheered me on, encouraged me, and kicked me in my caboose. Without them, I couldn’t cross the finish line. Pushing Zoë gives me joy and allows me to pass on the encouragement I’ve received.”
This past year, one of the children in their network of Ainsley’s Angels passed away, which really amplified the importance of giving kids incredible opportunities—like completing a race in which they’d ordinarily not get to participate. “One of the patches on Zoë’s helmet is a tribute to this precious little girl,” Mark says. “We remember her each and every time we get ready to race.”
And every time they cross the finish line together, he says it’s a thrill.
This year’s Tomato 5K is virtual for the safety of our community—which means that even more friends can join in the fun. On August 7-9, grab your best tomato-themed outfit, map your run, and cheer on the other runners you see as you take on the Tomato 5K in your very own neighborhood. Your race registration includes the annual Tomato 5K race shirt, a discount to the 2021 race, and an exclusive medal for the first 200 registrants! Learn more here.