by Kenneth Posner, courtesy of The Long Brown Path. First re-posted on Havok Journal on 13 June 2015.
Just a few minutes before the start of the race, eight members of Team Red White & Blue posed for the camera, dressed in red shirts emblazoned with white eagles, smiling shyly in the pre-dawn light. For most of the team, it would be their first attempt at 50 miles — a distance nearly double that of the marathon and sixteen times the 5k. 50 miles is not easy to get your head around, even if you’ve run it before.
I was both a member of the team and one of the organizers of this race, called Rock The Ridge, which takes place in New York’s Hudson Valley. The race had been created to showcase the beauty of the Shawangunk Mountains, raise funds for a nature preservethat safeguards this wilderness, and encourage people to take on an endurance challenge that would be epic yet achievable.
In 2013, the first year of the event, I was putting some extra markings out on the course, just as dusk was falling, when I encountered an older woman hiking up the trail, a determined look on her face.
“What are you doing here?” I asked, surprised and a little curious. Her name was Myriam Bouchard, and she was running the 50 miles of Rock The Ridge to celebrate her 50th birthday. Then she mentioned something else: her son had enlisted in the Army and volunteered for the Special Forces, and she wanted to set an example for him.
I served in the Army many years ago and experienced my fair share of runs, road marches, and cross-country movements. Indeed the idea for Rock The Ridge came in part from military-style endurance challenges, like the Hong Kong Trailwalker. We modeled the event specifically after President John F. Kennedy’s 1963 challenge to the US Marines: could they still march 50 miles in 20 hours, as once required by Teddy Roosevelt?
JFK believed that physical and moral strength were linked. In 1960 he had written an article for Sports Illustrated entitled, “The Soft American”.
The knowledge that the physical well-being of the citizen is an important foundation for the vigor and vitality of all the activities of the nation, is as old as Western civilization itself. But it is a knowledge which today, in American, we are in danger ofphysical fitness is not only one of the most important keys to a healthy body; it is the basis of dynamic and creative intellectual activity. The relationship between the soundness of the body and the activities of the mind is subtle and complex. Much is not yet understood. But we do know what the Greeks knew: that intelligence and skill can only function at the peak of their capacity when the body is healthy and strong; that hardy spirits and tough minds usually inhabit sound bodies.
He ended the article by warning, “We do not want our children to become a generation of spectators. Rather, we want each of them to be a participant in the vigorous life.”
After the Marines successfully responded to the Kennedy Challenge, JFK’s brother, attorney general Robert Kennedy decided that anyone should be able to do this – even if they had no training. He gathered his staff and headed out on a snowy morning wearing a pair of scuffed oxfords. His staff gradually dropped out. At mile 35, Bobby told the last departing aid, “You’re lucky your brother isn’t president of the United States.”
Nonetheless, he finished the 50 miles, in 17 hours and 50 minutes.
The Kennedy Challenge attracted enormous publicity, and soon a fad for 50 mile hikes was sweeping the nation. Life Magazine devoted an entire issue to the phenomenon. Popular musicians wrote songs. The young, the old, even high school kids were on the march.
Unfortunately, the mass enthusiasm for endurance challenges faded with Kennedy’s untimely death.
Every calamity is to be overcome by endurance.— Virgil
In 2013, fifty years after Kennedy’s challenge to the Marines, Myriam Bouchard signed up for Rock The Ridge. She wrote in her blog about the motivation for participating in such a grueling event, referring to her son who had recently enlisted:
In my deep love for him, I felt if I succeeded in this 50-mile endurance race, I could pass along my determination – something to take with him when things got rough during his multiple assessments where he might be tempted to give up. If I finished, I wanted him to remember that once you set your mind on something, it’s possible to reach your goal by sticking to it. That was my hope anyhow: that I’d make it to the end so I could inspire him to move beyond his own limitations, or what he perceived as such.
After reading Myriam’s words, I had a sudden vision of military personnel and civilians moving together along the mountainous trails, celebrating the spirit of endurance that is so necessary for all of life’s difficult missions.
A quick internet search led me to Mike Erwin, founder of Team Red White & Blue, a not-for-profit organization whose mission is to enhance veterans’ lives through physical and social activities. After meeting Mike, I started running with a Team Red White & Blue group in Central Park on Wednesday evenings. There I met a retired military policeman named Joseph Coureur who carried the US flag during our evening runs.
“Why don’t you carry the flag at Rock The Ridge?” I asked innocently.
An experienced marathoner, Joseph wrote in his blog that “lately my running is less running and more exploring and accomplishing.” I kept asking until the idea of running 50 miles finally hooked him.
And so it came to pass that one fine morning in May 2015, among two hundred other participants, Joseph, myself, and six other members from Team Red White & Blue were standing at the start of Rock The Ridge. The sun was just peeking over the horizon. It was going to be a beautiful day.
Endurance is nobler than strength, and patience than beauty
— John Ruskin
As soon as the starter’s gun went off, Team Red White & Blue members Nina DiPinto and Julie Daigle joined up with Joseph, and the three of them headed out together. They moved as a team, vigorously hiking the hills, running the flats, taking in the views across the valleys, and braving the afternoon heat. At mile 37, they pulled into one of the aid stations to regroup. Nina was suffering from bronchitis and a sinus infection, and she worried that to keep going would unfairly slow the others and potentially jeopardize them finishing. She made the difficult decision to drop out. Joseph unlaced his shoes for a few minutes and ate some soup and crackers. During the day, his emotions had ranged from denial to suffering to acceptance. Now he and Julie decided it was time to run.
Just after dark, Joseph and Julie crossed the finish, the US flag held high. Joseph sat down heavily, momentarily dizzy. He had never run 50 miles before, and the hills and warm temperatures had taken a toll. Later he explained to me that he perceived himself to have “no choice.” As long as he was carrying the colors, “quitting was not an option.”
Adam Freed and Phillip McIntire, who had served together with New York’s 69th Infantry Regiment, arrived at the finish line a couple of hours later. They were in high spirits, although they sheepishly admitted they needn’t have carried 30-pound packs. It’s just that as infantrymen, they were used to 50gear or more.
Along the way, they found the blisters agonizing, and Phillip nearly dropped out at mile 43, when he felt himself “completed exhaustedmentally.” But he persevered, thanks in part to Adam’s companionship and another racer who fell in with them and suddenly they found themselves exhilarated to be running on the ridge under the moonlit sky.
They had plenty of experience moving on foot, but had never covered anything near to 50 miles, and certainly not on such varied terrain. This was an enormous accomplishment which Phillip reports has “redefined” his goals.
Bob Harris, an experienced trail runner and former Marine, covered the distance in 9 hours 55 minutes, setting a new personal record, despite coming off a lingering injury. He credits his military training for instilling mental perseverance, flexibility to overcome unexpected setbacks, and commitment to high expectations. Bob ran much of the race with a friend; he felt “a great sense of humbleness” at his friend’s compassion and unselfishness for keeping him company at the expense of his own goals.
Serving on active duty with the Army in Maryland, Jenni Hollenbeck had signed up for Rock The Ridge because she’s passionate about fitness, loves trail running, and was eager to experience the Shawangunk Mountains. One of her goals is to spread awareness for preservation our environment at the Mohonk Preserve and areas all across the U.S. She finished the event in just under 12 hours, a model of steadiness and consistency.
I managed to complete the 50 miles and was pleased with my time, although I’m an old hand at long-distance running. This year’s Rock The Ridge was my 62nd race of marathon distance or longer.
Heroism is endurance for one moment more.— George F. Kennan
For each of us, the race had been a different mix of highs and lows and included lessons in focus, determination, and teamwork that we might be able to apply to important real-world goals. I’d like to think JFK would have approved of our performance.
A few days after the race was over, I re-read Myriam’s blog. Her words reminded me that the real world can pose challenges much tougher than running 50 miles.
Perhaps joining the Special Forces, providing he did make it through the selection process, could be the best thing that happened to him. Perhaps, it could be the worst. I couldn’t fathom losing my son to battle. Every cell of my body, as a mother and pacifist, screamed “No!” The fear of loss was unbearable. So, I’d go work out and I’d cry.
Before Rock The Ridge, Myriam had never run more than 10 miles. She trained intensely for three months and completed the 50 miles in just over 15 hours. She tells me her son has made it through the first level of Special Forces training although he still faces a long road. To make it this far, he must be a determined young man.
I think I know where he gets his spirit.