To say it felt good would be an understatement . . . and a lie.
Of course it felt good! I conquered a milestone! I was also supporting a good cause: the 8th Annual Pat’s Run in support of the Pat Tillman Foundation, which provides scholarships to veterans and military spouses.
The run also felt like crap. It was hot outside, and though my knee was surprisingly pain-free, the rest of my body protested the entire 4.2 miles.
Every year, to remember the man behind the media storm, Pat’s Run is held in Tempe, AZ, finishing at the 42 yard line of the ASU Sun Devils Stadium. The race draws more than 30,000 people annually and has spawned 25 “shadow runs” across the country, including here in Boston, where yesterday nearly 100 participants – veterans, ASU alumni and supporters – came together. To remember.
I used to run to forget.
I ran to drain my mind of my stressors and worries, to get lost in the rhythm of my feet. In my job as an Air Force public affairs officer, where a ringing phone could signal an emergency at any minute, where nothing was predictable, I relished the consistency of running. Left, right, left, right, left, right. Breathe in, two, three, four; breathe out, two, three, four . . .
A part of me wishes I could still run this way. I wish I could run faster, because my demons are closer now. I wish I could run longer, to try to outpace them.
In a lot of ways, running still feels good – mentally, if not physically. But when I run now, I can’t help remembering how it used to be. My easy stride, my breath flowing deep and natural. So powerful. Now my legs and my lungs strain with every step.
I remember maintaining a 7:27 pace for a 4-mile race in my prime. I held steady at just over nine minutes for 26.2 miles around Houston in 2009. Yesterday, just under nine minutes for 4.2 would have to do.
When I run, I remember dawn in Indiana during pre-deployment training: the scatter of loose gravel as my unit started our morning run, the swish-swish-swish of my Air Force warm-up pants, and the first stabbing pain in my knee. I didn’t wonder how I would make it through a nine-month deployment with an injury. I wondered how I would make it through nine months without running.
I remember falling into a jagged rhythm on the loose, sticky belt of the treadmill in our Forward Operating Base’s gym. Staring into the white tent wall dripping with condensation, my iPod transported me back to the beach in Florida, or to the 1990s, or any time or any place that wasn’t a rickety treadmill in Afghanistan where my knee wouldn’t let me run any further.
Yesterday, after about a mile, I didn’t want to run further. But then I remembered that I could – it was a beautiful day in AMERICA and my body was working, at least for the moment. And I remembered those who could no longer enjoy beautiful days in America:
Maj. Randy Voas, Killed in Action, April 8, 2010
Capt. Ryan Hall, Killed in Action, Feb 18, 2012
Lt. Col. JD Loftis, Killed in Action, Feb. 25, 2012
So I kept running, for them.
My breath was ragged. My muscles pulsed with the effort of each footfall. Left . . . right . . . left . . . right . . . I’m sure my face was contorted into a sweaty, tortured expression that could scare small children.
But watching the line of red t-shirts – #42 on the back – snake along the Charles River; knowing I was part of something bigger than myself, I felt powerful again.