The Virginia War Memorial’s They Gave All 5K

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I signed up to run in the Virginia War Memorial’s They Gave All 5K on Saturday morning, May 25, 2019.

A clear blue sky and a comfortable temperature were awaiting runners and walkers at the start line. There was even a bit of a breeze at times as I waited for 8 a.m. to arrive.

The race begins in the backyard of the Virginia War Memorial. It is a well maintained piece of property. The course loops out on to Belvidere Street crosses the majestic James River, works into a slice of the Oregon Hill neighborhood, and meanders through Hollywood Cemetery before  looping back toward the War Memorial.

My goal is very simple—finish the race. I’m older and slower. Finishing the race is a reasonable goal.

The Kids Fun Run begins at 7:45. Before this race, the national anthem is sung by a young lady who works for one of the corporate sponsors. This is followed by the Pledge of Allegiance, and some reminders regarding safety while out on the course.

With the Kids Fun Run completed, participants were directed to follow the signage to three holding areas for runners, walkers, and parents who were pushing baby strollers during the race.

I’m ready to push the timing button on my watch. Not sure why I still do this. My bib number 453 has a timing tag on the back of it. This chip knows when I start the race and when if lucky, I finish the race.IMG_0452

Soon, we’re moving. Very slow at first, as runners scramble for foot space hoping not to trip up a fellow runner. Doesn’t take long, and I have room to maneuver. I’m stiff, but with every step, my old body limbers up a bit.

While waiting for the race to start, we were told we would run about 6,000 steps from beginning to end. And an equation had been computed linking those steps to soldiers from Virginia who had been killed serving their country.

I’m not counting my steps as we come upon the James River basking in sunlight.The bridge is named after the Civil War general, Robert E. Lee. As we run across the bridge, I wonder if the name of this bridge might be changed someday. I wonder if the James River has an opinion about that? 

I’m sure the river has endless stories in its memory.  The present, past, and future lie between the banks of the river. Like all of us, the James has good days, and not so good days. Days when it is smiling and days when tear drops fall into its churning rapids.  

Runners are quick to offer opinions about the layout of a course. Hills are quite often a concern. This course has its share of challenging hills. Overcoming a hill is mental. To conquer a hill, a runner must keep moving. The hill isn’t going to surrender.

I make a note to myself—hills in a foot race are nothing compared to military battles fought on hills and mountains. Penned down by enemy fire, explosions all around, friends dying, ammunition running low—I have no right to whine about hills on a race course.

Course marshals along the way offer encouragement and insure that we don’t make a wrong turn. 

Up ahead of me in Hollywood Cemetery, I saw one father put his elementary school age daughter on his back. She had been running pretty well. I guess she needed a break, but her free ride didn’t last too long.

Some runners where wearing a sharp looking purple t-shirt with the words In Memory printed on the back. Under that heading appeared to be a listing of names. 

Shady spots were welcomed as the sections of the course in full sun were starting to warm up. Nothing like a good sweat to get the meanness out of my rapidly aging body.

The three mile marker was good to see. I’m almost there.  Keep moving forward. A few younger runners kicked on their after burners and sprinted past me. I crossed the finish line at 29:19. Goal met—I finished.

I grabbed a bottle of water and found a bit of shade. As I was heading toward the parking lot, I saw one of those purple shirts. 

I noted from the front of the shirt it represented the Virginia National Guard. I was able to get a better look at the back of the shirt that stated In Memory. Under those words were the names of ten individuals who had lost their lives serving their country from the Virginia National Guard.

When I was a youngster, I had no real understanding of Memorial Day. As I became older, the significance of this holiday has more meaning. My father’s oldest brother, Boyd, lost his life in World War II on the destroyer the USS Simms way out in the Coral Sea.

Perhaps like me, you have read the news coverage of Ronnie Sanchez, Jr.  Sadly, Mr. Sanchez died from stab wounds he received while hiking on the Appalachian Trail in Virginia. When I learned that Mr. Sanchez was an Army veteran who had served three tours of duty in Iraq, the pain of his death touched me even more. 

Serving in Iraq had an impact on Mr. Sanchez. After he left the Army, Mr. Sanchez battled depression. He basically stayed in his house, and only went out at night when less people were around. This depression broke up his marriage. (Hernandez, Jackman, Washington Post)

An opportunity from the Department of Veterans Affairs gave Mr. Sanchez the chance to try some special programs in Oklahoma City.  An assortment of recreational programs for Veterans is available there. (Hernandez, Jackman, Washington Post)

For Sanchez, these programs were instrumental in reconnecting him with the outdoors. These recreational programs were well suited for him. He made progress against the depression. This healing was to continue on hiking the Appalachian Trail. (Hernandez, Jackman, Washington Post)

It makes no sense at all to serve three challenging tours of duty in Iraq for your country, only to lose your life while pursuing a worthy goal designed to help your recovery.

Recently, I completed reading Hampton Sides’ book Hellhound On His Trail. This book is an account of the manhunt for the killer of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. 

In a closing chapter, Sides makes the following observation:  “What a sordid tradition of violence we have in our country—and what an alarming record of assassinations and assassination attempts. Perhaps it’s the dark flip side of our extraordinary freedoms.”

Memorial Day is grounded in our “extraordinary freedoms”.

At times, I wonder if I truly understand those freedoms and respect them?

I need not look too far for my understanding.

Three words sum it up:  They Gave All.

On this Memorial Day, as we freely go about our normal routines, hit that pause button. 

Take several quiet minutes to think about those who gave all. 

Their lives were permanently disrupted. 

Our lives in our “extraordinary freedoms” were not.

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