“Four hundred fifty miles. That's really far.”
“Yeah, it's like four full days of running.”
As we walked up to the Minute Man statue, there wasn’t much to talk about but the bare facts of what lay before us: a 450-mile relay run that would take us down the east coast, ending at the United States Marine Corps War Memorial in Arlington, Virginia.
In September of 2013, I sat in a New York City breakfast spot with John Coogan, Executive Director of Children of Fallen Patriots Foundation. “So here is my idea...” I said and went on to explain a relay run and how we could raise money for the foundation. From the moment I had heard about Fallen Patriots, I knew I wanted to be a part of what they were doing. For over 10 years, they have been raising money for children whose parents were killed in military service. They use it to pay for the college education of those children. Completely.
Fallen Patriots was founded by David and Cynthia Kim. David served as an artillery officer in the U.S. Army. In 1989, he participated in Operation Just Cause in Panama with the 7th Infantry Division. David served with a man named Sgt. Delaney Gibbs. Five days before Christmas, Sgt. Gibbs was killed. His baby daughter was due to be born in March. This event impacted David greatly. As a result, he and his wife started the “Children of Fallen Patriots Foundation” in 2002. Many years later, the Foundation tracked down Sgt. Gibbs’ daughter and helped pay for her college education.
This 450-mile run was dedicated to Sgt Gibbs. The dog tags that traveled all 450 miles bore his name.
Our send-off for the 450 mile journey had no fanfare. Todd and I stood alone beneath the Minute Man. We prayed over the journey we were about to start, thanking God in advance for safety and stamina. Todd and I are runners, but we had never done anything like this. The good thing about a relay run is there are multiple stages and different people to run them. The bad thing about this relay run is that not every stage was full. We would each have to cover the three legs we were signed up for, plus the other six that were unfilled. Prayer for stamina seemed appropriate.
Before we took off, a man stopped and told us the history of the Minute Man statue and asked if he could sing “Concord Hymn” by Ralph Waldo Emerson, which is inscribed at the base of the Minute Man. That seemed like a fitting score for our departure. Plus, how often does a random person offer to sing for you? We happily said yes. He sang:
By the rude bridge that arched the flood,
Their flag to April's breeze unfurled,
Here once the embattled farmers stood,
And fired the shot heard round the world.
With that, we were off. The first leg was a nine-miler. It didn't make sense for Todd and I to run the whole nine together because we had a lot of miles to cover over the next five days. We did it anyway. We were just enjoying it all too much. Emotion would wash over us every time people would cheer from across the street or yell "America!" as they drove by. The best was when cars would stop for us as we were waiting to cross the street, no matter where or when we were crossing it. We joked, “When you run across the street wherever you want, you're a jerk. But add a flag and you're a patriot!”
Each of the 53 stages either started at, passed by, or ended at something of military significance. Some were statues or monuments, many were cemeteries, and a few bridges and battlefields were sprinkled throughout. I did my best to make sure we passed as many as possible throughout the 450-mile route. We allotted a 12-minute pace throughout the entire stretch. That's quite slow for running, but just the right pace so that people could enjoy the handoffs and have moments of reflection as they journeyed.
We ran with friends, with strangers, and with fellow countrymen. We carried that flag high. We ran where generals fell, militiamen rose, and we definitely limped, but one way or another, those miles were going to be run.
I was checking out the RunAnyway website as I often do to keep up on things and came across the 450 relay. Without knowing too much about it at that point, I knew it had to be good as it was something Lance, Todd, and RunAnyway were involved with. I initially signed up to run the Bronx leg, but then also signed up to run the Holyoke to Springfield leg after finding out we were short on runners in the area. The morning of the Holyoke leg, I checked in with the local authorities who wanted to provide me a police escort for the first mile. I stood across from the War Memorial Building waiting for Lance, who I would be taking the flag and dog tags from, like a kid waiting for Santa. I remember thinking as I first spotted him, “Oh boy, that’s a REAL flag, on a REAL pole, not some little dinky thing!” Knowing I NEVER run with so much as a tissue in my hand, how in the world would I be able to run and carry that flag? But there was no turning back, the flag had to be carried and with no time to think, I left it up to the “Big Guy Upstairs” to help me with it! Turned out, my police escort did not end after a mile as I ended up being passed from police cruiser to police cruiser for nearly the entire route. What a rush that was, traffic being stopped at every intersection along the way, people stopping to take pictures, waiving, and cheering as they saw the flag. The only little glitch along the way was when I reached the last couple of miles, at the point where the police were out of their jurisdiction and could not escort me any farther, I realized they had led me in the wrong direction! I didn’t care about doing extra miles; I just didn’t know how far I was to my hand off. So the last few miles turned out to be a bit stressful. After stopping a couple of times to ask directions, I saw someone who I quickly realized was Lance and was so happy to see him! We had the ceremonial hand off of the flag to my new friend Jenifer and away I went to drive to the train to get to NYC.
“Todd! In a few months we’re going to take the week off and me, you, Cris, and Pat are going to pile into an Audi, and we’re going to take turns running 450 miles from Concord, Massachusetts, to Arlington National Cemetery on Memorial Day. We’re going to honor America’s fallen patriots, raise a lot of money, meet lots of people, give a lot of good, and run like crazy. There’ll be other people too. You in?!”
Lance’s idea was perfect. We planned to use our foundation, RunAnyway, and coordinate with Children of Fallen Patriots, an organization which raises college funds for the children of fallen soldiers. We were going to run 450 miles, relay-style, to raise money and awareness for an organization we believe in. I’m not sure I could say yes quickly enough.
Somehow though, as a runner, the actual distance of a run doesn’t hit me the way it might hit most other people. Four hundred and fifty miles is a distance that many people might think twice about driving, but in my little runner’s mind, I was just going to cruise down half of the East Coast and never lose stride, limp a step, or break a real sweat. Seriously.
I’ve been known to run a marathon or two on no training, and given my initial 18-mile commitment to this run, a continuation of no training was right in line with those numbers. Lance and I ran the first stage of the event together, and although we cruised at a good pace, I definitely ran those first 9 miles like there wasn’t another 441 behind it. I believe the four of us in that Audi -- Pat, Lance, Cris and I -- had all committed to running a total of between eight and twenty-five miles apiece for the duration of this run, and I should have known better than to assume that would be all the miles we would end up running. Sure enough, due to a few overnight stages, several late sign-ups, and one no-show, we all ran multiple times more than our original number. For me, that meant what began as an 18-mile measurable commitment on no training, turned into a grueling 66-mile outpouring of blood, pain, sweat, tears, and a surprising sense of absolute fulfillment.
A decision had been made early on that there would be a single combat-flown American flag and a pair of dog tags that would be passed along the entire route and carried by each member of each relay team. This single flag and pair of dog tags would see every mile, touch every runner, and finish the relay. At the time, this was an easy decision of commemoration and respect, and I considered them both to be good choices. I just didn’t realize the incredible impact both of those would have on me during this run.
Typically when I run I carry as little as possible aside from fuel or a bit of water to keep me going. For this trip, however, I’d be carrying an eight-pound American Flag that I needed to keep upright and 100% away from the ground. It was light at first, but two miles into any run and you certainly knew the weight of what you were carrying. It would proudly fly behind me in the wind but with each step the flag’s pole would press deeper into my skin. Halfway through the trip, my shoulders were black and blue, and the signs of carrying such a consistent burden were visible amongst many of us. It became clear to me that it was a burden I sought out. That American flag and set of dog tags was the clearest representation of what truly brought us all together and what made this run bigger and more important than any of us as individuals.
During a 450-mile relay run, you don’t just strap on your shoes and go. Well, you do, but you also learn to carry the miles together. Soon my individual effort of running each mile alone was replaced with the mentality that each mile I run is one fewer mile you have to run. During the entire trip I didn’t see a single person who wasn’t eager to step up and volunteer to carry the flag or wear the dog tags for much the same reason. It was a small, but very real tribute to those veterans who are still so far away from home, and a true representation of the spirit and pride it invoked within each of us during this run.
I’ve learned that whatever your mood, there’s nothing more uplifting than a kind word or a happy car horn during a long run! So it definitely helped that the flag was big enough to be spotted easily. When I ran across an intersection, it often delivered a stranger’s smile and kept me from being run over. I worked hard to get the trucks involved, and I swear there’s no better feeling than getting blown off the road by a honking 18-wheeler as it passes you putting in mile number 34 of 18. You just can’t help but run the next mile with a huge smile and a happy pace!
During my rest time I’d often keep an eye out in the distance, full of anticipation that we might see the tip of that flag crest the length of the horizon and signal my turn to carry it again. The route wound south from Concord, Massachusetts, and we ran our way through historical towns and beautiful countryside. We ran six, seven, and eight miles at a time. Then we ran two miles at a time. We ran past monuments, statues, heroes, buried veterans, and alongside roads that helped shape America. We ran until the brink of failure only to pick it back up again a few exhausting miles later. We ran along eating mouthfuls of peeled oranges and gulps of water from half-used bottles. We laughed at sleep. We ran under the microscope of a harsh sun, through sheets of fat rain, and amidst the swallowing darkness of night. We ran when we were hot, when we were dirty, and when we weren’t ready to step another inch.