News: Running the Distance and Coping with Tragedy
In May of 2011, a good friend and several members of his team were killed in Kandahar, Afghanistan. It was the most lethal day of the war for American troops since the surge in 2009. 1st Lt. John Runkle and his men were on a mission to interdict and destroy homemade explosive the main ingredient in improvised explosive devices used in Afghanistan. It was supposed to be an easy mission; with very little risk—until it all went terribly wrong.
My history with running is easy to explain -- I had none. I never in my life would have thought to go out and run for fun. Those people were crazy! I had a professor in college who was a distance runner and while she always looked fantastic and happy, I could never imagine wanting to do that to myself. I smoked, drank, never got enough sleep there was simply nothing about me that screamed “athlete”. Then, in 2009, I decided to join the U.S. Army. I'm very competitive, and always have been. So when I finished college and being a soldier became my next goal I figured I'd better start running.
Truth-be-told, I knew very little about what being an officer in the Army would entail, but I wanted to be the best. Like most Americans, I thought of the fearsome basic training as some kind of physical gauntlet for which I would have to be as strong as an ox and as fast as a cheetah just to make it through. Where drill sergeants hover over trainees barking orders creating a world of chaos. My competitive spirit would drive me to succeed, which would lead me to put myself on a crazy regiment of five mile runs in the Texas sweltering summer heat, punctuated with bouts of push-ups and sit-ups until I could barely use my arms or laugh without being in pain--and absolutely no cigarettes. I wanted to be a soldier…not a female soldier…but a soldier.
When I arrived at basic training I was shocked to find out that I wasn't expected to be an iron-woman of any kind. In fact, just being somewhat prepared physically seemed to impress the drill sergeants, as it was so far from the normal trainee, whose first day of exercise seemed to be the day they got off of the bus at Fort Jackson, S.C. That is the sole job of a drill sergeant…to break down the trainees physically and mentally to mold them into soldiers, ready to defend our nation.
After 10 days of training, we prepared to take our first Army Physical Fitness Test. I was prepared to run around a 15:30 2-mile, which is the Army 100-percent mark for a 22-year-old woman. The course consisted of three laps for a total of a two mile distance. The whistle sounded and we took off. By the time that we passed the first round of time keepers, they were visibly staring at me and talking--which only made me wonder if I was doing something wrong. At the beginning of my second lap, the company commander, the scariest person to an Army basic trainee, stepped up and pointed at me so hard that I slowed to a stop with a quick "Yes, Sir?" "No, no, keep running!" was all he said. By the time I hit my third (and final) lap; all of the drill sergeants were cheering me on and calling out my running number. At some point, I noticed that in a class of more than 200 people, there were only about five males in front of me, but honestly, I was not thinking about anything but being able to breathe again once I crossed the finish line. Once I got close enough to see the clock, I could scarcely believe it at all! It said 13:05! That couldn't be right, could it? By the time I crossed the line, my time was 13:17 and my commander was asking me my name … which is unheard of! I have always been competitive, but I never dreamt it would give me this kind of exhilaration. After that test, I was affectionately dubbed as the fast girl, a title which still follows me around today.
A couple years of Army service pass by, and I think of myself simply as good at running, though not as the coveted title of runner. I concentrated on fast, short running, which was what I would be tested on … never running more than about four miles at a time. My theory was that you could endure any misery for a measly two miles, but I would still not have categorized running as “fun.”
Eventually, like most folks in the Army over the last 12 years, my time came to deploy to Afghanistan in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. As a deployed staff officer, I worked 12 or more hours a day, seven days a week … imagine Groundhog Day, but with much more dust and really bad food. Running became my outlet, the only thing that was keeping me sane and helping me pass the time. Once, when a soldier moved my running log, you would have thought they were cuddling a grizzly bear cub and I was its angry mother with the way I snarled at him. I just couldn’t stop running every day without exception; it was my release from the world around me. I felt like I would explode if I didn’t get out on the road…well, out on the mud trail.
In April of 2011, I volunteered for a new initiative that the U.S. military was implementing in the fight in Afghanistan, adding women onto combat teams. This idea arose because Afghanistan is an extremely conservative society where foreign men are not allowed to look at women, let alone touch them while searching them. This created a problem for the military and terrorists quickly learned to use our respect for their cultural norms as a lethal weapon by using women as suicide bombers, front line attacker and any other way terrorist could fathom in order to inflict fatal harm to soldiers. To combat this tactic the Female Engagement Team was born.
A group of six females began training with a great group of guys, led by 1st Lt. John Runkle. Upon arriving I was expecting the guys to be extremely unhappy with being forced to “babysit” females in a combat zone; to the contrary, they were pretty receptive. From the beginning their attitude was “So you think you want to be in the infantry? Alright, let’s see if you have what it takes,” so began the battle drills. By the end of the first day, my knees were black and blue from kneeling on gravel, I had cactus spikes so deeply embedded in my palms I thought they would come out the other side. My competitive spirit began to emerge with my challenge that I can sprint faster in my boots, full body armor and helmet, under cover of darkness than John could wearing only his regular uniform. The male soldiers certainly got a kick out of that and, to his credit, so did John.
John became a good friend in a very short amount of time. We spent time talking about the mission in Afghanistan overall, and what we wanted to accomplish with this new initiative. We were very enthusiastic about our ability to make a difference in this historically war-torn country. He told me about his family and I told him about mine. We shared personal photos, pictures that every deployed soldier carries somewhere on their body at all times to remind them of what they are fighting for. John was there for me when I got promoted and we made plans to run together whenever he found the time free from missions. He was there to encourage me when I thought that I wouldn’t be strong enough to do what we might to be asked to do when we went “outside the wire.” He was always there to listen to anyone who needed him and to provide his quiet, but strong support … that was what everyone loved about him.
Then disaster struck. One “ordinary” mission changed the lives of countless people. By the time I got the news, nine people were dead and counting. We had no names, we had no details, all we knew was they were OUR GUYS. Words cannot possibly describe the feeling of despair when your first thought is “God, I hope it’s not my friends” and then the sickening feeling hits you that everyone on that mission was a friend, or just a good guy, or someone that helped train and encourage you, and who had all been willing to fight beside you and guard your life with theirs on previous missions. Then the waiting set in.
Due to the age of technology in which we live, names of deceased soldiers cannot be released to anyone before the family members are officially informed, as one ill-timed comment on Facebook could cause irreparable harm to a multitude of people. So no one went online, no one made phone calls. After five hours of waiting, I couldn’t take it anymore. I changed into my workout uniform and I walked out. Some people looked at me as if I were crazy, others eyed me with disdain—how could you think about running at a time like this. All I knew was that it was the only thing that made sense, the only thing that I could possibly imagine doing. I started running with no plan or direction, and didn’t stop till my phone buzzed, three hours later with four ominous words: we have the names.
Hearing the list of names was like nothing more than being repeatedly punched in the face … hard. Not only were the guys from our platoon, they were from our team, all six of the guys that we had worked most closely with, who had personally trained us and taken us out on our first mission. My friend, John, took a wrong step while radioing for help for his already wounded men. Words cannot describe the devastation, the un-realness of it all, nothing could…so I just kept running. I ran two more hours that night, before finally breaking down in the sand and crying till I ached.
By the time that the Internet blackout was lifted and I logged back into Facebook to talk to my family, I saw a post on my wall from John. The day before he died had been my birthday, which no one pays much attention to in Afghanistan and the last thing he had done as he was going to bed before his final mission was to leave a note on my wall. I never even saw it till after his memorial service. Several weeks passed, and I still couldn’t heal. I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t sleep. People kept telling me that they were so happy that none of us females had been on that mission … and I wanted to slap them. What made my life worth any more than those who had sacrificed theirs? Why did it have to be them, and why was I still standing here? There were no answers for any of these questions to be found. So, anytime I felt the tears coming on, I would run—dark glasses would hide the tears and as far as the red face, well, I was running ten miles in 110-plus-degree heat and dust, no questions would be asked.
As time passed, things began to become okay again. When I couldn’t make sense of the senseless tragedy, running helped me to not have to think of it for hours, and then mercifully pass out when I hit the pillow. Running helped me to realize that it was okay to go on living after your friends died, it became therapeutic.
I started off small by signing up for small 5k races that the USO put on for the troops. These are great events that help boost morale and allow us to “escape” mentally for a while. I began to smile again when I received my first gold medal. Five weeks later was the Fourth of July 10k race that my unit put on to boost morale. We all showed up, decked out in red, white and blue and began running to extremely patriotic music being blasted out over the desert.
Realization that I was now a runner complete, I began to look for longer runs to compete. On October 11, our brigade ran a ‘shadow’ Chicago Marathon, a really great event sponsored by the Chi-town marathon and volunteers. People who had run in August of that year donated their T-shirts and even their hard-earned medals so that deployed soldiers could have the chance to feel a part of the ever-coveted ‘running community’. If any of you are reading this, know that it meant the WORLD to us. In 40 days, I went from someone who had never voluntarily run more than five miles in a stretch to taking third place in my gender in a 13.1-mile event. I was ecstatic. I hung my medal in my room, I begged someone to send me their old Runner’s World magazines, and I knew that I was permanently hooked.
It has been a little over a year-and-a-half since that day, and I have competed in 22 registered races, medalling in some and just being happy to be a part of others. I have run in Tennessee, Arizona, Georgia, Texas, Chicago, DC, New York, Indiana, Miami, Brazil, Australia and Afghanistan. In May 2012 I ran my first 10 mile race—a tryout for the Fort Campbell Army Ten Miler Team—placing second and making the team. After six months of training, I represented the 101st Airborne Division in the famed Army Ten-Miler in Washington, D.C. finishing with a time of 68:48—I was shooting for 70 flat. Four days later, I took an Army Physical Fitness Test and finally achieved my goal: running the Army two mile in under 13 minutes (12:29)—scoring 100-percent on the Army’s male score board. A week and a half later, I ran my first marathon in Savannah, Georgia, with a time of 3:30—qualifying for Boston on my first try.
In such a short time, I have learned so much about running—and ultimately, about myself. I’ve learned that I can run a 7:30 mile until I choose to stop. I’ve learned that going downhill can injure far more than going up one. More importantly, I’ve learned how to cope with disaster. I’ve learned that life extremely short and you better make every step count—as I know all too well how each one might be my last. I’ve learned that, while non-runners think we are crazy because we run, some of us are running to literally keep from going crazy. I’ve learned that I never want to stop racing. I’ve learned that I can be injured.
Through running, I have met so many people … people who have become my friends and confidants, but whom I never would have met otherwise. I’ve learned from them to admire running in all its forms, from the 18-year old guys who can sprint an eight minute two mile, to my 43-year-old colleague who was so in love with running that she wouldn’t give it up even when doctors were begging her too slow down due to injuries.
Most of all I’ve learned that we all run for one reason or another and to never judge. Some run for the exhilaration, some to forget their overwhelming pain and some to remember those we love who have fallen. It was a long road… but now I can say I am a runner.