††††††††††† It had started out as an off comment. Luke Finney and I been not much more than acquaintances, but once we each found out that the other had applied and was accepted to the Arrowhead 135, we got serious. We knew that there would be a lot of paperwork and we knew there would be many obstacles to overcome before we even set foot on the trail. But that didnít matter. We were determined. We were going to make it work, and if it didnít, we were going to find a way.
be honest, this whole thing started out with selfish reasons. It was all about
pushing OUR limits and seeing what WE could do. It never had anything to do
with recognition or glory, but it was very much about personal pride. The pride
never left, it just changed forms. Now it was the pride of using a simple run
to do some good in the world. We choose to run for the Special Operations
Warrior Foundation just for that reason Ė to make a difference; to give respect
where respect was due. So many people, especially here at the
††††††††††† The fundraising started with our family and friends. Soon, they had networked so much that the support we were getting was overwhelming. After talking to the Foundation, we had set up a website where we described the race, the SOWF, and the reasons we were doing this. As everything started to come together, the reasons became all that more clear. They werenít just words anymore. The fact that we could honor the memories of true American heroes and their families became our purpose for running the race. It wasnít about us anymore. It was all about them. What these guys had gone through it, how they had chosen to go through it, even how they had to live their lives Ė to live in such a way that requires an explanation Ė all that was absolutely nothing compared to running a little race. The fact that we could do something so small for the warriors and their families who had done so much allowed us to hit the ground running when we returned from Christmas leave.
††††††††††† The to-do list was long. We had to balance our academic life with training and our military and professional duties. We would have work constantly on our equipment, logistics, training weekends, academic excusals, making up class work, fundraising locally and back at home, and other commitments. The Academy had always been a good environment to practice time management, but this would truly test our balancing skills. The fact is, however, that very little of it was us. We had it easy. The ones who had it hard were all those who had been pulling for us and supporting us. The commandant, Captain Klunder, USN, the Adventure Racing Team Officer-Rep, Major Weis, USMC, and fellow midshipman and Adventure Racing Team Captain, MIDN 1/C Talmadge, had all put their name on the line for us. They had been working their butt off, sticking up for us, and encouraging us every step of the way. Luke and I are also blessed with great families. They were doing a lot of the grunt work on the home front. They had extended their networks for our fundraising efforts tremendously. Our $10,000 goal was met by the time we started the race, and by the time we were back at the Academy, we had raised over $15,000! Unbelievable. They had gotten local newspapers to publish articles raising awareness of what was going on. Random phone calls from journalists were not all that uncommon. And of course they were always there to support us one-hundred percent. With everyone behind us, preparing was easy. We simply went through our day-to-day routine, staying active, traveling to New York and Pennsylvania on the weekends to do long training runs with our gear and sleds, and tried to contain our excitement.
††††††††††† When we arrived at the race, we were so amped up we could hardly sleep. Well, at least I was. Luke slept like a baby. I stayed up at night going through the motions in my head. Even though I didnít know exactly what to expect, I felt like Luke and I had run it 100 times. We had intense training sessions over the weekends leading up to the race. Luke and I each had experience in endurance events from ironmans and adventure races to marathons and ultra marathons, though 135 miles on foot would be a record for us both. In any case, we were confident. We knew what we had to do, we knew why we were there, and we knew each other. I knew what Luke was made of. I knew what kind of man he was, and he the same of me. We were all about transparency. You have to be able to trust the guy next to you and never have a doubt in your mind if he has it in his head and in his heart. If we were feeling bad, weíd tell each other. There was no macho b.s. It was about being true with yourself, about being true with each other, and despite what might be holding you down, realizing that all that pain and suffering made no difference. It was not conducive to mission accomplishment. You canít deny all that pain and pretend like itís not happening; you simply have to embrace it. Once you accept it, nothing will hold you back. We knew that about each other Ė that the other one would literally do whatever it took to accomplish the mission. Of course there were highs and lows during the race. Sometimes we would be able to pull each other out of it, and sometimes we would both be low, and we would remind ourselves to listen to our head and our heart, not our body. The times when we were both high, we would sing songs. I think I even did a couple of cartwheels some point during the race.
††††††††††† It had been about 42 hours, almost non stop. We had stopped for two hours to sleep and an hour here and there to prepare some food or work with our clothes and equipment. We had just left the last checkpoint at mile 105 and were now roughly around mile 115. The race had definitely taken its toll. Our joints were swollen and hard to bend, our noses, toes, and ears were frostbitten, and I had been going on a foot that I had broken a few weeks before. The 40 lb sled, a 30 mile section of steep hills, and temperatures reaching -40 degrees Fahrenheit had been in our minds for the majority of the race. Luke was definitely dealing with the sleep deprivation better than I was this night. I had started to fall asleep while moving and running of the trail, so I followed the blinking light on the back of Lukeís sled, sometimes waking up and realizing I had been sleeping for ten minutes and had kept on moving. At those temperatures, it is very important that you donít sweat too much so you donít get hypothermia, and I had started to sweat. I took the mask and bandana off my face which had been warming the air I was breathing in so my lungs wouldnít freeze. After this point, I only remember tiny segments until I opened my eyes and was in the hospital.
††††††††††† After the race, Luke and I pieced together what had happened. When I took my mask off, I began to have trouble breathing. I was weezing, and my lungs were freezing. I took a knee, and I remember the top layer of my vision had gone to black and white, while the bottom half had remained in color. Luke was getting scared, especially when I fail to respond to him. He even punched me in the head three times and yelled at the top of his lungs, only inches from my face, but my confused look told him everything. I had gotten severe hypothermia and was starting to go unconscious. Luke took off some of my wet outer layers and put me in my sleeping bag. He fed me jello for sugar, but at this point, I was completely gone. Even though we were in the wilderness on a trail littered with wolf prints, he had cell phone reception. He made a few calls and after running to nearby road intersection, flagging down a trucker, and putting me on a snowmobile, I was on the ambulance. I remember him asking me if I wanted him to come, or if he should keep going. I wanted him to finish. In the ambulance I had been shaking so bad that they had to hold me to the gurney. After 3 liters of IV fluid, 2 hours on a breathing machine, and sleeping in electronic blankets that wrapped my body, my temperature had gone from hypothermic to 100 degrees. My body was trying so hard to product body heat that when the outside of my body had been warmed, the inside had not stopped. I stayed in the hospital for about 10 hours until I had gotten word that Luke had finished the race in 53 hours and 27 minutes. There were 28 starters on foot and 8 finishers. Luke was fourth.
††††††††††† Looking back, I view it as a great lesson on life. Sometimes thing are simply out of your control. I knew for a fact I was going to finish that race, or I would die trying. Not even being conscious to make that decision is very frustrating, but it all comes down to your attitude. I initially felt a huge wave of guilt for having had made Luke go through that alone. I felt that I had brought dishonor to the men we were fighting for and their families. How could they have gone through so much and been so strong and here my flesh was so weak I couldnít even finish a little race? But then I realized that you have to look at it a different way. We had fought for them, from day one. We were still able to raise the money, to race in their honor, and we had never given up. Of course the temptation was there, but we had physically gone to the point where we could absolutely go no more. Were mistakes made? Of course. Itís always easy looking back to see what you could have done better. Maybe we should have slept more, maybe I should have drank more and done a better job on keeping myself dry. Thereís always going to be those ďwhat ifís.Ē But we did the best we could with the information and knowledge we had at the time. The lessons we learn from looking back should definitely be taken seriously. They need to be dissected and analyzed so next time, the experience and wisdom we have gained can be put to use. Iím not afraid of making mistakes. Iím afraid of not learning from them, of doing the same thing next time.
It was extremely hard for me to leave Luke, and I know it was even harder for him. We had already grown close, but when you go through something like that with someone, that bond that youíve created is drastically strengthened. In the end, itís all about how you choose to look at it. Iím extremely grateful for the opportunity that we had to actually test ourselves, to experience true pain. So many people live their lives without ever knowing what it is to embrace true pain. This race was a chance to experience the essence of life, in its truest, rawest form. The fact that we could actually make it purposeful and meaningful makes it that much sweeter. You learn a lot about yourself doing something like this, and self-knowledge is something I believe is necessary to be successful at anything in life, whether leading men into battle or running a race. Iím thankful for the opportunity that the Academy has given us, the absolutely overwhelming support weíve received from our friends, family, the Foundation, and even complete strangers, but most of all, for the example brave men have set by living in such a way that requires an explanation. I know Luke agrees with me when I say that this has honestly been one of the best experiences of my life and a challenge that I will not leave unanswered.