by Zane Holscher (RD)
To Afghanistan and Back
The distance from Florida to Afghanistan is about 7,700 miles, but in many ways they were much closer this weekend. As our runners enjoyed an amazing weekend on the white sand beaches of Destin raising funds for the Special Operations Warrior Foundation (SOWF), many of our special operations forces were literally fighting for their lives.
On Saturday afternoon, ten 24 hour runners began their grueling journey of putting in one day running in the sand. World record holder for 24hr sand running, Joe Fejes, led this small group containing two runners who brought in $21,000 of the total $33,000 raised for the SOWF. Theirs would be a long but very meaningful quest.
The rest of the ultra runners arrived early Sunday morning to a night lit by a full moon and calmed by the steady lapping of a peaceful ocean. As we shared a moment of silence, looking at the twin American flags silhouetted against the moon, there was a tangible feeling that our runners' purpose for this day was greater than personal achievement. The three time defending 50 mile champion, Joe Czabaranek, again led this group into the moonlight. His wife, former female champion Eileen, returned to retake her crown but faced a stiff challenge from US 24hr team member, Traci Falbo. The 50K field was littered with potential winners as the course record holder, Troy Howard, lined up next to the always fast Mitchel Pless, National Champion Connie Gardner, and many other contenders.
As the runners raced into the night, special operations families across the country were receiving a knock on their door and being delivered news that every military family fears, their loved one will be making his final flight home lying under our nation's flag. During race weekend, US Marine MSGT Aaron Torian, assigned to Marine Corps Special Operations Command, was overcome by wounds received in an IED attack on his convoy. Special Forces soldiers, Sgt 1st Class Roberto Skelt, Jr and Spc John Pelham, were killed on a mission to train Afghan forces. While SF solider, Spc Christopher Landis, gave his life during a dismounted patrol in Kapisa, Afghanistan. Together these men left behind 4 children that the SOWF will put through college. Also during race weekend, 4 other special operations members were severely wounded and the SOWF provided funds for their families to join them in the hospital.
As always, our runners paid homage to heroes like these with great performances. First time ultra runner, Rob Marens, topped the 50K field by nearly breaking Troy Howard's course record. Connie Gardner added a shiny, engraved AC-130 Gunship 105mm shell to her mantle by shaving 15 minutes off the female course record.
Joe Czabaranek's mantle is probably getting pretty full of those 105mm shells as he took home his 4th consecutive Destin Beach Ultra 50 mile title. Grand slam finisher, Traci Falbo, showed off her leg speed by taking over 30 minutes off the female 50 mile course record (including the time it took her to eat a fresh grilled cheese sandwich and vanilla milkshake at one of the restaurant aid stations).
Joe Fejes again took home the men's title in the 24hr with 110 miles, 24 miles shy of his world record. First time 24hr runner, Jean Hofschulte, put in a full day's work enroute to bringing home her first place hardware.
Although all of our runners embody the principles of the special operations heroes mentioned above, one truly tells the story of this race. Long after the sun had gone down, 5 minutes before cutoff, a battered man appeared out of the darkness. His movement was labored as his weary legs attempted to move his body across the uneven sand to the finish. While putting the finisher's medal around his neck, a plastic bag gripped firmly in his hand became visible. Through the plastic one could see a SOWF patch. Fifty seven year old Michael Longoria had spent the last 50 miles handing out SOWF patches, pins, and flyers to the area beach goers and explaining the mission of the SOWF. For Michael and the rest of those involved with the Destin Beach Ultra, the mission is always much more than a run.