Run across America honors soldiers killed in Iraq
MONTE VISTA Its only 7:30 a.m., but the sun is already blazing in southern Colorados San Luis Valley, as 24-year-old Taylor Janes runs by curious cattle and alarmed prairie dogs on the shoulder of the quiet two-lane highway.With his aching shin-splints taped, the former Summit County resident jogs up to the next mile marker on U.S. Hwy. 160 and ties an American flag with an attached laminated card reading Jeremy Christensen, age 27, Nov. 27, 2004 to the post. Christensen, a U.S. Army Specialist from Albuquerque, N.M., was the 1,247th American soldier to be killed in Iraq when a roadside bomb outside Baghdad destroyed his tank. Janes will run the upcoming mile in his honor as part of Run for the Fallen a 4,000-mile, 10-week trek across the heartland where every mile commemorates a different American soldier who served in Iraq but didnt return.The Christensen mile starts on the western edge of the valley not far from Wolf Creek Pass. This segment of Hwy. 160 extends straight as an arrow through brown pastures checker-boarded with green irrigated fields. Im not much of a runner, Janes admitted before he set off on his first mile of the day.Runner or not, the Vail Mountain School graduate dons his bandanna and starts jogging toward the next mile marker his moving figure gradually disappearing into the vast Colorado horizon. And although they never met, Janes will spend the next 10 minutes or so contemplating the service and sacrifice of Spc. Christensen.The idea is to think about the soldier whose mile youre running, he explained.
Conceived by Jon Bellona, a New Jersey recording engineer whose roommate at Hamilton college in upstate New York 1st Lt. Michael Cleary lost his life in Iraq eight days before the scheduled end of his tour, the original Run for the Fallen plan included just two or three runners and one van. When Bellona publicized the project through his college alumni network, however, its scope expanded.I wasnt really sure what I was going to do this summer, said Eric Janes, who, like his older brother, Taylor, graduated from Hamilton College.An art and Chinese-language major, the younger Janes committed to the 10-week journey without much of a pre-conceived idea.I guess Id never really thought about the soldiers, he said during the southern Colorado segment. You just think: The war its so messed up. Its about oil.Running through small towns like Blanding, Utah, and meeting local residents such as Terri and Tom Winder who lost their son in Iraq has changed Erics perspective profoundly, however.Its a lot more real, said 22-year-old Eric. These soldiers are real people. And the thing that probably freaks me out the most when I put up their flags is that theyre almost all younger than me.Having started on June 14 in Fort Irwin, Calif., the Run for the Fallen team covers about 60 miles a day. The miles are rotated, so no individual runs every single mile, but the distance still adds up. With a core group of only a handful of runners, team members take turns driving support vehicles including an equipment truck donated by U-Haul and pounding the pavement. Former non-runner Taylor Janes figures hes averaging about seven or eight miles a day.Sometimes locals joining in lighten the running load. On one segment in the desert Southwest, a Marine in full combat gear covered more than 10 miles in the hot sun. Others have walked segments as short as a mile.Because of Taylor and Eric, Summit County orthopedist Peter Janes, his wife, Patti, and daughter, Rebekah, have overcome their aversion to running and joined the team whenever possible. A teenager during the height of the Vietnam War, the senior Janes admitted hed never given much thought to the human impact of the conflict in Iraq.Im learning from my sons, he said. Patti and Rebekah even flew to St. Louis two weeks after the Colorado segment to run the single mile on the route dedicated to honoring Cleary.
Dubbed apolitical by its organizers, the run is a pure commemoration designed to raise awareness, not money. While the group has received some donations such as discounted hotel rooms, the runners have sunk their own savings into the endeavor.For Washington, D.C., professional statistician Shauna Sweet, its been more than worth it. Also a graduate of Hamilton College, Sweet, 26, first heard about the run through Facebook. Even though shed been looking for a way to honor those who serve in Iraq, the first 1,200 miles exceeded her expectations.All along the way, you meet people that are so kind, and their generosity it so apparent, she said at the end of day 22. And youre running for thousands of men and women who gave everything. How do you say to somebody: Its the least I can do to put on a pair of sneakers? How do you honor all these people?A lifelong runner, Bellona agrees that the actual process of crossing America on foot has taught him more than hed anticipated.It has a spiritual nature to it, he said. Although he initially thought of the project as a way to honor his friends life, meeting other soldiers families along the way continues to inspire him.Its truly humbling and very inspirational, he said. It reaffirms what were doing.Run for the Fallen will end at Arlington National Cemetery outside Washington on Aug. 24 with an organized 10K run. And up until the final mile, the motley team of 20-somethings will tape up their injuries early every morning and head out on the highway to honor the sacrifice of those they never met like Jeremy Christensen, whose Oregon gravestone reads, Beloved son, brother and hero.
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