BellRunner History


The story behind the Mercedes Marathon and its partnership with The Service Guild and The Bell Center goes back to 1992. That was the year that Paul and Cinna Sotherland welcomed their baby boy into the family and named him Matt. But Matt’s entry into the world was not an easy one.


Born with Down syndrome, Matt also had the heart defect that often accompanies the diagnosis. He required open heart surgery, and the whole idea of their baby boy undergoing such major surgery naturally frightened his parents.

Cinna recalls being at UAB with Paul and baby Matt just before Matt was to have his surgery. The family was standing at one of the big windows at the end of the hallway that looked out over the streets of downtown. Runners, competing in the Vulcan Marathon, were racing by, and Paul—who was a recreational runner but not much of a competitive one—looked down at his tiny son and made one promise. “You pull through this, Matt, and next year, Daddy will run a marathon for you,” he pledged.


Thankfully Matt kept his end of the bargain, so Paul soon began training. Together, father and son faced many challenges: Matt’s challenges came as a part of the Down syndrome diagnosis, and Paul’s challenges came as part of his training to run 26.2 miles in honor of his son. During his training, Paul looked for guidance and motivation—and even good running shoes—from Valerie McLean, the owner of the Trak Shak in Homewood. And Paul did run the Vulcan Marathon the next year.


But he didn’t stop there. He has since completed 19 marathons and more half-marathons than he can even remember. But it was really Valerie McLean who took the inspiration from Paul and Matt to even greater heights.

Valerie helped organize a half-marathon to benefit The Early Intervention Program (now The Bell Center), the place where Cinna and Paul brought Matt to receive critical therapies. Over the next five years, the “Freeze Your Half Off” Half-Marathon grew into a first-class event. At that point, Valerie knew it was time to take the event to the next level, and in 2002 she transformed the “Freeze Your Half Off” into the Mercedes Marathon and Half-Marathon. Proceeds from the event are given annually to just two charities that provide services to children, one of which is The Bell Center for Early Intervention Programs.


That same year, The Service Guild organized its first Partners in Training (PIT) group, now called BellRunners, as a means of fundraising for The Bell Center. The program provided experienced coaching for runners and walkers who agreed to raise funds for the Center. In its first year, PIT included 45 runners and walkers who raised more than $80,000 for The Bell Center. In 2003 and again in 2004, more than 120 participants raised more than $200,000 for the Center, allowing the program to add more staff and to serve more children in need of critical early intervention therapies. By 2008, the PIT program had grown to 256 participants, and the money raised by the marathon for the Bell Center was more than $307,000. And in 2009, there were 262 PIT runners, and more than $258,000 was raised for The Bell Center. In 2011, the name was changed to BellRunners to more effectively brand the group with The Bell Center.


And as the Mercedes Marathon has grown, so has Matt. Now he is over 20 years old, and he attended Homewood High School. He is still non-verbal, but he uses sign language and his communication board (also known as a “Go-Talk” board) to communicate.


Recently, his PE teacher has even begun working with Matt on walking long distances with a student partner, with the idea that he could eventually walk in the race with his family.


Meanwhile, Paul has had to sit out the Mercedes Marathon for the past couple of years due to knee problems. But the goal is for the whole family to be healthy enough to walk together or to form a relay team for this year’s race.

It began with one man’s promise to his newborn son many years ago; it has evolved into a phenomenal running event that provides such great promise for the children of The Bell Center every year. And we will be cheering for this year’s BellRunners—and the Sotherlands—each February at the annual Mercedes Marathon as we work diligently to keep Paul’s promise alive.