Emotionally, this morning was probably the highlight of my now 7 weeks in Iraq. I competed in my first military athletic event, the Run for the Fallen, which I went into thinking only of myself and finished thinking of someone now gone forever. The Run for the Fallen was begun to honor the memory of those who have died in Operation Iraqi Freedom. Starting in the U.S. on June 14 and culminating today in a run at the Arlington National Cemetery participants will run one mile for every fallen soldier. For us in Baghdad, this translated to a 4.2 mile run.
You can learn more here: http://runforthefallen.org
I had decided last week that I wanted to run this race purely for my own motives. I miss my days of competing (collegiate swimming) and I love organized sports and a racing environment. Last Sunday there was a 10k run that I had considered doing but ultimately didn't think I was ready. Not because I wasn't physically fit, but because I was worried about the desert elements, the heat and the sun and the dust, taking their toll. Thus, I was determined to take part in the Run for the Fallen because I knew I could complete the distance and was anxious to jump back into organized competition.
I met my teammate at 5:15am after what could be considered a long day. Because I work the night shift I had been up since 3:00pm the day before, I worked 6pm to midnight and then decided it would be better for me to stay awake until the run rather than nap. So I watched movies, stretched, jammed to my iPod and fired myself up, all the while preparing myself mentally to compete in an event where the environment would be more challenging than the actually activity. We arrived at the starting point with plenty of time to spare and got in line for registration. When I approached the table, the servicewoman explained "If you are running for someone in particular than go ahead and write their name on this badge and pin it to your clothes. If not there are lists up by the stage and you can chose someone to run for."
I have been fortunate enough to not know anyone who has lost their life in Iraq so I made my way to the stage and found myself looking at the equivalent to the Vietnam Memorial. The entire front of the stage was papered with giant lists of names. As I filtered among those studying the lists, I found an opening and focused on the list before me. The first name I looked at was SPC Ross Clevenger, Army Reservist. I thought about perhaps browsing the list some more, but thought to myself, Ross Clevenger was a reservist, he wasn't even a full time member of the military and he had sacrificed his life. He was my choice.
As the run began I reverted to focusing on myself. Pace yourself, don't go out to fast, deep breaths, head up, good posture and so on. I grew increasingly confident as the race went on. My pace was steady, my legs felt strong and I knew I was going to be fine. On that notorious third mile, the one that seems to stretch on forever, the one where others around you drop out to walk and your fight begins to wane, I thought of SPC Clevenger. What would he give to be running this race? To feel the life coursing through you as the pain solidifies that you are more alive now, in this glory, than you can ever be.
When I finished the race, I was on a total high. My performance was everything I hoped it woul be. Once back at my trailer, I promptly showered and fell asleep as my day was finally as its end. When I woke in the evening however, I started thinking of Ross, the man I had run for. Who was he? What had been his experience in Iraq? It seemed inappropriate that I knew nothing about him, so I turned to the internet.
Ross Clevenger was my age. We graduated from high school the same year. We both loved horse back riding, the outdoors and driving. He wanted to go to nursing school. Ross died in February of 2007 when he was hit by an IED in Karmah, Iraq. I cried for Ross when I read his bio and I cried for his family robbed of their loved one. I suddenly felt compelled to let his family know that their son was not forgotten. That just today, their son had made a new friend, a friend who would never forget his sacrifice. I cried as I wrote to his family via a condolence website.
I have rarely felt more alive than I did today. To run for someone who is gone, to juxtapose death and remembrance with physical pain and determination results in an incomparable feeling of life. As I choked on my own parched throat, and the sun burned my face, and my legs screamed at me to stop, that fight in a person, that small voice that just keeps saying "no" was omnipresent. And so long as that voice is there, you don't give in, you don't give up, as small and faint as the voice might be. You keep fighting. And today I fought for Ross...as he had fought for me.