GRAND RAPIDS, MICH. - This Saturday is the 40th annual Fifth Third River Bank Run. It will be a special race for everyone participating. But for one family, it means the fulfillment of a promise.
In 2011 Jason Kinzler trained to run the 25k in less than two hours, but he collapsed of a heart attack at mile 14.
This year, his son and daughter are running the race in his honor.
It's what will happen during the race that his oldest son Jake has been planning since the day his dad passed away.
Jake, 14, and Hannah Kinzler, 16, are training for their first ever River Bank Run 25k. A process that hasn't been easy for these teenagers. "Being able to find time to run is hard," said Jake. "Just running that far is hard.
"Saturday I had a track meet and then I had to run 14 miles afterwards," explains Hannah.
These siblings are running for much more than to say they did it. They are running to complete the race for someone else. "My dad actually passed away when I was ten years old, one mile from the finish line," explained Hannah.
"He was at mile 14 and he had a heart attack and passed away," said Jason's wife Kristi. "I know that rescue workers tried to save him but they were unable to.
"It was very sudden, very unexpected and not something that I thought would ever happen to us."
Jason was an experienced runner. He had trained to run the 25k in under two hours. "He was the epitome of health," explained Kristi. "He ate right, he exercised everyday, he had just had his physical, he didn't have high cholesterol -- he did everything right," she said.
Kristi never expected to go to the hospital that day. But she didn't want to leave. "Never in a million years can you prepare for something like that. I didn't want to forget what it was like to hold his hand.
"How in the world was I going to find the courage to tell my kids that he is never coming home? Knowing that when I leave here, life as we know it is never going to be the same," she recalled.
"He was like my best friend," said Jake. "We always did everything together. We would always watch the Lions together, even though there weren't very good. Another thing we like to do is fish. I would just spend as much time with him as I could."
"I feel like, as a mom, my kids had to learn at a very young age that life is not always fair. But they did not have to be defined by circumstance or what happened to them," said Kristi. "They are three of the kindest, most compassionate kids you are ever going to meet. And that was their dad, that was Jason."
Now her children are following in their father's footsteps. Jake may train in one pair of shoes, but he will finish the race in a different pair.
"He was 8 years old when Jason passed away and I remember him saying to me, 'someday I am going to run that race in his shoes' and I remember telling him, 'I knew you would say that and that is why have them and I will keep them for that until you are ready'," said Kristi.
Jason wore a size 12. Jake is growing fast, but he's more like a size 10. "So Jake came up with the idea that if I would not allow him to run the 15 and a half miles in shoes that were two sizes too big for him, that he wants his dad's shoes waiting for him at mile 14."
"I just want to finish the race for him, so I am going to put his shoes on at the spot that he couldn't finish," said Jake.
"Right now I can't even think about what that day will be like. I can't even imagine what it is going to be like to see them cross that finish line for him, and knowing that they are putting their whole little heart and souls into doing this for him," said Kristi.
A family who lived through the searing pain of loss, learned compassion that comes with grief, and joy that comes with giving.
"Not only are we doing this for our dad," explained Hannah, "but also we are raising awareness for this foundation that my mom has created to help families who are going through similar things that we have."
The Jason Kinzler Family First Foundation helps families cope financially with the sudden loss of a bread winner.
"Now we are into our fifth year of this incredible foundation that is completely in his honor," said Kristi. "We've helped over 60 families right here in West Michigan with things like funerals and rent payments and mortgage payments and health insurance.
"What has been so amazing is now some of these families are turning around and paying it forward for other families."
"Jason always put family first, so to think that by helping others we could be carrying forward his legacy that way ... I know he is so proud, I know he is so proud," said Kristi.
The Jason Kinzler Family First Foundation has raised more than $200,000 for grieving families. This year the team is hoping to raise $25,000 by race day. Their younger brother Josh is also running the 5k this Saturday.
We're rooting for you Kinzlers!
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