Each year, I run many miles. Some on the road, some are on the trails. I have my preferred routes. For example, Hot Springs National Park just up the road from my house, a full loop around the park can get me up to 17 miles with roughly 3,300 feet of elevation gain. I can zigzag around the trails and get many more if needed.
My neighborhood has several subdivisions that I loop around. I know the distance of each loop off the top of my head. I know that if I have “x” miles left that I can go to this loop or that one. I have even made Strava segments for these loops, just to keep an eye on my progress.
Still other times, I will go out to the Ouachita National Forest and run different routes there. Usually I will run on part of the Arkansas Traveller 100 course, just to get more familiar with it. The views there are amazing and there is camping nearby.
Out of all of these miles, though, there is one that stands out for me each and every year. At mile 16 of the Arkansas Run for the Fallen, we take a small detour off of the main highway to the front of an elementary school.
Several years ago, we decided to start the run on Friday and run through the weekend. Until then we had just ran on Saturday and Sunday. Word got to an elementary school on our route that we would be going by during school hours. To our surprise, the teachers, faculty and students were all outside as we came by, cheering for us while waving signs and flags.
Part of our mission is to teach others about the fallen heroes that we honor, so it was a natural progression of our mission to move the hero marker to the front of this school. This would allow the children to take part in honoring the fallen and learn about the costs of freedom. While it does make for a long mile, the reward is the greatest experience. With motorcycles and police cars in front and behind us, we turn off of the main highway and go several blocks up a small hill and then make a right.
As we come up the hill, you can hear something faint in the distance, over the sound of the roaring motorcycle escorts. If you have never ran this mile, you might not be able to distinguish what it is, but you can hear a distinct rhythm. We draw close to the school and it becomes clearer, the sound is children chanting -U-S-A!-U-S-A!-U-S-A! The chants drive our cadence as we push up the hill. We can feel the energy and excitement as we near the small turnaround in front of the school.
As we approach the flag pole, the chanting stops, slowly fading as we assemble. These 85 children, all in the 5th and 6th grades know what we are doing. They have adopted this hero as their own and are there to honor him with us. This hero is SFC Kevin P. Jessen.
With children this age, silence is often lacking. Some how these kids all remain silent as the name and brief biography of SFC Jessen is read. We then come to attention and salute this hero and the chanting starts again.
We then make a loop around the front of the school and high five all of the kids that we can. We are made to feel like star athletes, not because we are fast or that we are running ridiculous miles, but because we are honoring the heroes of this state.