The running ritual that saved Rik Zortman -- and created a movement

Father turns to running to cope with his son's death (6:20)

Rik Zortman, whose son Armstrong died of brain cancer at the age of 3, uses running to honor his son and other children that are battling cancer. (6:20)

Nov. 20, 2008: The date was etched in Rik Zortman's memory. That was the day Zortman received the call that forever changed his life. He was working 7,000 miles from his home in Avoca, Iowa, when his wife, Lindsay, called.

"Armstrong had a seizure," she said. "We are taking him to the hospital."

He grappled with the news: His 3-year-old son had suffered a seizure.

Soon the doctors found a large tumor on Armstrong's left temporal lobe, Rik said. When Lindsay told him the news, one question rolled around in his mind: How could a 3-year-old get cancer?

Rik took the next flight home. His son was going to fight this disease -- and Rik was going to do everything in his power to help his child.

Armstrong underwent several surgeries to remove the tumor and was on medication. He could no longer walk or talk, and most days, he had only enough energy to lie in his mother's arms.

On April 9, 2009, Armstrong had another seizure, and Rik and Lindsay knew the battle was lost. A nurse walked out of the hospital room and said, "Your son has passed away." They cradled their child and cried for several hours, saying "I love you" and "I am sorry" over and over.

The death created a chasm between Rik and Lindsay, and eventually, the couple divorced. Rik felt lost. He blamed himself for Armstrong's death, regretting that he wasn't home more for him. It took him years to find something that would give him hope again.

Armstrong had loved to run around, so to remember and honor that, Rik, now 45, signed up for a 5K. He didn't have any running experience, but he wanted to do it for his son. Then he ran a half marathon. Each time he ran, he'd play music and try to have a conversation with his son. And each time, he felt closer to Armstrong.

Then in 2017, he stumbled upon an idea that would change his life. He'd been tinkering with his phone's GPS when it hit him: He'd use his daily runs through town to spell out his son's name. He sketched out the name on a map and ran each letter until "Armstrong" was formed. What started as a tribute became a movement. People started reaching out to him and asking if he could run the names of their children and loved ones. Some were battling cancer, some had lost their lives to cancer, some had survived cancer. Other times it was names of people killed in war. He now has run more than 475 names in eight U.S. states in less than a year.

Here are five runs that Rik counts as the most meaningful.

Michelle Mertz reached out to her friend Rik in March 2018 and said, "I'd like to run a name with you." The name was Jace, a child in her neighborhood who was fighting cancer. Rik said to Michelle, "If we run one name, we have to run a second name."

That is one of his rules: He always runs names in even numbers so he can run a name one way and run another on the way back. He'd sketched out the entire route. Mertz had no idea what the second name was; she just followed Rik. At the end of the run, Rik opened up Relive, the app he uses to track his runs.

Tears poured down Mertz's face as she saw the route. Rik broke down as well.

The second name they ran was her son's name: Alec.

Alec died of cancer in 2005.

On April 9, 2018, on the ninth anniversary of Armstrong's death, Rik decided to run his son's name again. The first time he'd ever run a name was his son's name on Sept. 1, 2017, marking Childhood Cancer Awareness Month. With "Armstrong" being such a long name, the distance added up to 7 miles, and it took Rik an hour to finish. The first time he ran the name, he was terrified. He wanted every letter to look perfect, and he didn't want to mess it up. "Messing it up means I am going to be running 7 more miles to create a perfect name," he said. The second time he ran it, he felt confident. This was his time with his son.

Halfway into the 7 miles, the song "1, 2, 3, 4" by the Plain White T's came on.

Rik felt his stomach constrict and his eyes well up. It was his son's favorite song. Every time Armstrong had heard the song, he'd smile and lift his head. But now, it was like a punch to the gut.

Still, it felt as if Armstrong had sent the song to his dad.

Rik felt his son's presence the most on that day.

Rik had enrolled to run the Garmin half marathon in Olathe, Kansas, on April 21, 2018. A few weeks before the run, the race director and another runner reached out to Rik about the Harris family. The family wanted to do something special for their daughter Teig, who had beaten cancer. They asked Rik to run Teig's name.

Rik had an even better idea: He wanted to do a run/walk the day before the race, and he wanted to invite friends, family and other runners.

With more people involved, they decided it would be safer to do the run/walk at Olathe South High School. Rik chalked out "Teig" on the parking lot ahead of time. He wanted the letters to be even and the walk to go smoothly.

The evening before the marathon, 40 to 50 people showed up at the high school, including Teig and her family. Rik started the walk, and the rest followed. Some walked alongside others, some walked in a single file. Some mourned the death of a friend, some celebrated the survival of a loved one.

To each, it was personal.

"I was honored to do this for your girl," Rik said at the end of the walk. "She is an inspiration to many."

Most days, Rik gets requests to run names of children fighting cancer, but every now and then, he gets a unique request. September 14, 2017, was one of those days. He woke up to a message from Danielle Moser, someone he didn't know. "Hello, my husband, [Marine] Sgt. Brad Atwell, was killed in Afghanistan five years ago today. Would you run his name?"

"Absolutely," he replied without missing a beat.

Rik knew this run wouldn't give Danielle closure, but it would give her comfort to know that her husband's name was being honored. It was her way of remembering him, remembering his life.

"It was emotional doing that as well because she had lost a husband, I had lost a son. We were grieving in our own way, and that was important to me," Rik said.

Brad's name lives in the form of a GPS-style printed poster in the Atwell household. Rik made sure a framed copy reached his wife.

On Sept. 11, 2017, Rik woke up and decided he wouldn't run names that day. It was an important day in American history, and he wanted to honor 9/11.

He decided to run the phrase "Never forget." It took him more than an hour to run those words. He captured a screenshot of the GPS run and posted it on Facebook.

Within minutes, hundreds of comments flooded his page. One recalled being in second grade and watching the blasts on TV, terrified. Another commenter remembered a family member who died at the World Trade Center that day. Some people thanked him for honoring the memories of the lives lost, while others shared what that day meant to them.

"It was one of those runs where you do it and it catches people totally off guard, and they're moved," Rik said.

The experience caused an avalanche of emotions, reminding him of the first time he ran Armstrong's name. He didn't know that singular action would become a nationwide movement. He realized then how cathartic the experience felt -- for him, and for thousands around him.