A Soldier’s Story of Running and Redemption
When the alarm goes off around 4:40 a.m., I wonder why I do this. I’m old. My joints are stiff. I’ve had this nagging pain in my left heel for going on a year now. Mostly, I’m just really, really tired; but I know I won’t fall back to sleep anyway, because old people don’t sleep, apparently, so I get out of bed. I get dressed, lace up my shoes, and walk back and forth across the living room a few times to loosen up a bit; and sometimes I post some random comment on Facebook, like It’s cold out! Let’s go for a run! just to make sure people know I got up this damn early. Because I’m going to get credit for this, goddammit.
And then I head out the door.
I’ve been running more or less consistently since May 1995, a year after my father died of a heart attack at the unreasonably young age of 72. Which was roughly the same age at which his father died, also of a heart attack, not long before I was born. And so I run, as I like to say, not because I enjoy it, but to stave off the icy cold hand of death for as long as humanly possible. What with the whole family history of heart attacks and all.
Along the way, though, I discovered something else. Aside from whatever staving-off-icy-cold-death qualities running may have, there are few things in this life that can help you battle your demons quite like a brisk, cold run before the sun comes up. I mean, there’s that first cup of scalding hot coffee in the morning – black, as God intended – and there’s a good strong belt of high quality distilled spirits every now and then; but other than that, very few things indeed prepare you for demon-wrestling like pounding the pavement, rain, snow, sleet, or shine, till you’ve beaten them out of you.
So, this story appealed to me greatly (thanks to Paul Rieckhoff of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, who posted the link on Facebook). It’s about an Army veteran from Potsdam, New York, who was seriously injured in Iraq, and who found solace and redemption not simply in running, but in training for and competing in what might be the most hellacious triathlon you’ve ever heard of:
Ten years after military doctors told him a sprint triathlon would be impossible, James J. Wilkes, Potsdam, completed the Triple Anvil Triathlon at Lake Anna State Park in Virginia, swimming 7.2 miles, biking 336 miles and running 78.6 miles, all within 60 hours.
“It hurt,” he said. “It rained all three days.”
Years ago, when I had all but given up on the idea of running marathons due to various and sundry injuries, I used to do the Olympic-distance event at the Chicago Triathlon every so often. That’s a 1500 meter swim (just shy of a mile), a 40-kilometer bike ride (24.8 miles), and a 10-kilometer run (6.2 miles). It’s an arduous task, but, if you train properly, it’s manageable. But this – this three-day cornucopia of triathlon-related masochism … I. Can’t. Even.
It would be enough to kill an ordinary man. But Mr. Wilkes? Get this:
When Mr. Wilkes was deployed to Iraq in 2003, he took a grenade to the neck, causing a traumatic brain injury. He now suffers from a constant migraine, and sporadically loses his sight and function in his left arm.
While the grenade took a physical toll on him, Mr. Wilkes also suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. One of the most difficult memories for him is knowing that he lost a soldier during that mission.
The weight of his injuries led to a severe depression that included several suicide attempts in 2006, one of which was almost successful.
“I was so far down the hole that nobody had faith in me,” he said.
Mr. Wilkes said he had two options: to live or to die.
He chose life, and despite doctors telling him he would never be able to, he started training for triathlons.
Holy hell. He suffers from constant migraine and sporadically loses sight and function in his left arm . . . yet he completed a grueling, 60-hour, 421.8-mile triathlon?! Yes. Yes, he did:
Although the symptoms of his injuries often kick in while he’s en route, he doesn’t let them come between him and his goals.
If he is swimming when his arm gives out, he tucks it into a belt that he wears and swims with one arm.
Occasionally, he also has had to stop bicycling and wait for his eyesight to return before continuing a race.
I’m not, and I’ll never be, that kind of athlete, but I’ve run some marathons and triathlons over the years, and I’ve caught, I think, a glimpse of what Mr. Wilkes experiences when he does these utterly insane things. There’s a redemptive power that comes from challenging your own limitations, pushing yourself to endure things no sane person would think to attempt, not because you know you can but because you refuse to accept that you can’t.
Mr. Wilkes says he hates the word “impossible,” but I disagree. As a fat, slow, middle-aged lump, I can attest to the fact that there are all sorts of impossible things in this world. But I can also attest to the fact that most of us are capable of doing far more than we give ourselves credit for. We assume we have limitations we don’t have, and sometimes the best thing you can do for yourself, physically and mentally, is to smash those assumptions to bits.
I guess I’d better go set the alarm clock for 4:40 tomorrow morning.
Meanwhile, you can learn more about the organization Mr. Wilkes is involved in, Team Red, White & Blue, by going to its website.
[Photo credit: Watertown Daily Times]
David von Ebers
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