Todd (Koka) Kelley's Experience in the 500 For The Fallen


“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.