How a Fla. boy keeps the memory of fallen first responders alive, 1 mile at a time
Zechariah Cartledge is recognized by cops and firefighters across the US who know him from his videos that capture him running a mile for each first responder killed on duty
Zechariah Cartledge, 13, has always had a love for long-distance running. At just seven years old, when he wasn’t busy with homework or playing saxophone with the school band, he began participating in 5Ks every couple of weeks in his hometown of Winter Springs, Florida.
What started as a hobby has developed into a full-fledged non-profit 501(c)(3) for fallen first responders – Running 4 Heroes – launched when Zechariah was 10. He’s now recognized by police and fire departments all over the country, who know him from his Facebook videos that capture him running one mile for each public safety worker who made the ultimate sacrifice in the line of duty.
A tribute on the track
Zechariah’s path to viral stardom as the founder of a charity aimed at keeping the memory of the fallen alive and supporting the injured who are still here was somewhat of a happy accident.
Though he has a distant relative who is a cop, for the most part, Zechariah didn’t really grow up around first responders. Nor is it a career aspiration; his dream is to become a pilot.
Running 4 Heroes was born when one of the 5Ks he ran in nearby Orlando happened to be for Tunnels to Towers (T2T), a foundation that honors first responders killed during the 9/11 attacks. Zechariah, who was provided the name of one fallen officer to run in memory of during the 5K, was inspired to use his talent for good as he participated in T2T alongside police officers and firefighters in their full gear and learned more about the events of September 11, 2001.
“I thought it was ideal to use running to help out first responders because I already had a passion for it,” Zechariah said. “And in my opinion, running is a simple way to help spread a message to a community.”
That message is the stories of hundreds of cops – as well as firefighters, corrections officers and EMTs – who were tragically killed during the course of their duties. Since Running 4 Heroes began, Zechariah has run 1,060 miles in honor of every officer who has died since 2018 and every firefighter since 2019. Most of his runs take place at night at his school’s track, sometimes accompanied by lights and sirens. Before each run, which is filmed and posted to social media, Zechariah shares the details of the line of duty death. He carries a flag as he runs, which is delivered to the family of the fallen upon completion of the mile.
“We do so many of these, I want to make sure that every single run is just as powerful to the family of the fallen who’s watching as the other ones were,” Zechariah said. “So, I make sure that I’m doing my best each time. I’m thinking about the family and the department – what this may mean to them when they watch this. And that ultimately gives me the mentality and the courage to give it my all on the run, give my all on the speech, and just make it the best run possible. Because at the end of the day, it’s a tribute and we want to make sure that it brings the most positive impact possible to those who are going through a difficult time.”
“They consider him a hero”
Zechariah has also traveled to 21 states to do runs in person with affected families and departments. A chief in one of the states he visited, Darryl Barton of the West Police Department in Texas, first became aware of Zechariah’s work through his videos. His admiration eventually led him to participate in an honor run for a Texas state trooper who had been killed in the line of duty and become a volunteer for the organization.
“This young man calls himself ‘Running 4 Heroes,’ but the families and departments of the heroes that he runs for look up to him,” Barton said. “They consider him the hero for doing what he does.”
In September, Zechariah’s mission became even closer to Barton’s heart when one of his officers was lost to COVID-19.
“It was like a punch in the gut, you know, it hit us,” Barton said. “After Zechariah did his tribute run, I presented the flag to the widow. And it just meant the world to her and their youngest daughter. His actions tell these families that they don’t just have support from brothers and sisters in law enforcement, but also from a kid in Florida that takes his time to make it his mission to honor those that we’ve lost.”
With each flag, Zechariah also includes a personalized letter to the recipient – words of encouragement that the deceased won’t be forgotten.
“It’s really humbling to be able to meet with the families personally and just hear from them what that one mile meant to them,” Zechariah’s father, Chad Cartledge, who serves as President & CEO of Running 4 Heroes, said. “And we’re very proud that this was something Zechariah wanted to do. Just to know that Running 4 Heroes was his vision, and he’s stayed true to it, it’s pretty remarkable.”
Expanding the mission
Over the years, Running 4 Heroes has expanded its mission and personnel to include tribute runs to fallen K-9s and members of the military, as well as police officers lost to suicide. Funded predominantly through small donors, the non-profit now runs a monthly grant program for injured first responders and a second grant program that provides agencies with protective K-9 equipment.
They’ve handed out $217,500 in grant money thus far to 26 injured first responders all over the U.S., which has gone toward whatever specific aid the impacted family needs at the time – ranging from medical bills to therapy to a prosthetic arm to home repairs.
“We’ve even told families that if you want to use it to go on vacation, go for it,” Chad said. “Because sometimes getting away is the best medicine.”
Even with all the travel and work Zechariah puts into Running 4 Heroes, he’s still had time to just be a kid – keeping up with his grades, playing sports, continuing with the school band and enjoying his flight simulator. And despite the seriousness of the subject that Zechariah has dedicated so much of his time to, he’s been able to keep a healthy outlook.
“I really think a lot of the strength that he has to be able to deal with this topic as strongly as he does centers around the values here at home,” Chad said. “We’re a big faith family, so he does believe that this was a calling put on him. And while he knows the severity of what it is he’s doing, it hasn’t impacted his mental state. We as a family don’t believe that death is the end. We believe that it’s the beginning of something better and that it’s never a goodbye.”
“When you’re interacting with him in person, it’s clear he’s more than what you see on his Facebook or Instagram or YouTube,” Barton said. “He’s just a boy. He enjoys playing with the other kids that are there at the events and seeing him behind the scenes, it’s clear that he’s not getting lost in the heaviness of all this. He’s still able to be the young boy that he needs to be.”
A lasting legacy
Between presenting grants in person and traveling for tribute runs, Zechariah has made it his goal to eventually visit all 50 states. With college on the horizon, he’s also considering the legacy of his non-profit – planning for a future that sees him taking a step back from the day-to-day activity of Running 4 Heroes to become a board member and pass the baton to other kids who are interested in hitting the track to honor the fallen. Ultimately, whatever evolution Running 4 Heroes undergoes in the future, what matters most to Zechariah is to continue to tell the stories of these first responders taken too soon.
“It’s been a hard, challenging last few years,” Zechariah said. “So, we want them to know that we recognize them, we will never leave them or their family’s side and we will be with them every single step of the moment. We appreciate them giving their own lives for others, and we will continue to appreciate the service and impact they’re making on our community.”