CROSS CITY, Fla. – As I watched my 70-year-old dad run down the sidewalk of Perry, Florida’s Main Street holding a flag that thousands of other people helped move across the country, I felt an almost indescribable feeling.
It was some mixture of joy and pride and love that made me feel both powerful and vulnerable.
We cheered for him.
We teased him.
We took a TON of pictures of him.
This was a moment I’d dreamed about for four years, when I experienced my first Old Glory Relay with Team Red, White and Blue in 2014.
That year, I ran for him.
I ran to honor him and his service to this country as a U.S. Marine who earned a Bronze Star and Purple Heart in Vietnam.
This year I ran with him.
Last week, he was able to carry a flag that traveled from Seattle, Washington, to Tampa, Florida, in an effort to raise awareness about veterans issues and money for Team RWB’s efforts to enrich their lives through physical, social and service activities. Next year the relay will travel East to West for the first time, and it will likely come through Utah.
This year, however, I recruited my younger sister’s help in persuading my parents to form a team that would carry the flag 46 miles on Day 58 of the 62-day relay.
As Nov. 7 approached, we started to get nervous about the realities of four of us covering 46 miles.
We both reached out to other Team RWB members, and, to our relief, Myrtle Beach Chapter Captain Cecilia Finch and Gainesville Chapter Captain Tyler Laborde agreed to join us.
We met Team RWB’s logistical support crew at 6:30 a.m. Tuesday at the Veteran’s Memorial Park in Perry, a beautiful and fitting place to start a journey that I thought would be slow and difficult but rewarding.
Turns out, I was only right about how rewarding it would be.
My dad ran our first mile, with my sister taking over for him and covering about two miles.
Because my estimates had us finishing after dark, I decided we’d only run a mile or two at a time, which I hoped would keep our legs fresher and our pace faster.
Our safety net was that if we fell too far behind schedule, I’d hop on a bike and ride for an hour or so to get us to our destination that day — Cross City — before dark.
And while we joked about what the support personnel must have thought when they saw our small and not-particularly athletic looking crew, it turned out we exceeded everyone’s expectations.
Not only didn’t we need the bike, we made it to Cross City around 4 p.m. — about two and a half hours faster than our estimates.
I didn’t know it until we were on the course, but the theme for this year’s relay was unity. It felt like serendipity because there is nothing I feel more committed to than my family and my Team RWB friends. And it would be our care and concern for each other that not only helped us move the flag faster than anyone expected, but also made for some memorable moments.
When it was my mom’s turn to run, my dad volunteered to run with her. Seeing them jogging down a Florida Highway with the flag is an image I will never forget.
My mother didn’t get any medals for the sacrifices she made so my dad could pursue anything and everything he’s ever wanted. From enlisting in the Marine Corps to owning his own construction company to moving to Alaska to becoming an Alaska State Trooper, she’s created the stability, safety and spirituality that allowed my dad to chase adventure and take risks.
Despite putting herself last just about every day of her life, she still found time to pursue her own dreams of a master’s degree. There is very little of value that I’ve learned that isn’t evident in the daily lives of those two people.
My 13-year-old niece was a bit of a reluctant participant. After running a mile with her mom in the morning, Hayley told me she didn’t want to run another leg. I coaxed her back out onto the highway in the afternoon by promising that we would walk.
We began our mile after I ran a mile with my mom and Nita Pennardt from the Old Glory logistical crew. As I listened to my mom tell Nita about our family, I was reminded of all the miles I’ve walked or run alongside my mom. I thought about the friendships I’ve made in Team RWB and how our bond has been forged on roadsides and trails as we suffered, struggled and shared our lives over countless miles.
It was on training runs or weekly walks that I learned to feel a family of a different kind.
My sister ran a mile with her 13-year-old daughter, and then she, Cecilia and Tyler covered nine miles one 5k at a time.
My sister and I ran with my dad, even singing “The Marine’s Hymn” and a few other childhood favorites. After convincing my niece, Hayley Grigg, into her second mile of the day, we made our way through the mile by singing songs, as well, including two loud and sometimes off-key renditions of “God Bless America.”
While the team made a gas, ice and lunch run, I ran by myself for about 45 minutes. It was during that time that I realized how lucky I am to have such a vast network of love and support.
And it is through experiences like the Old Glory Relay that my network continues to grow. Our little family band was committed to the goal, but we couldn’t have done it unexpectedly fast without Cecilia and Tyler. Not only did they each cover about 10 miles at a pace that allowed us some breathing room, they meshed so seamlessly into our family dynamic, it was hard to believe they were strangers the day before.
I’m not sure if those who came up with this idea of running the flag from one side of the country to the other each year understood all the tiny, beautiful ways the relay would enrich the lives of each participant. But it goes far beyond raising money or awareness about the issues veterans face when they transition from military service to civilian life.
As I watched our group, led by my dad, walk into Cross City, past the white crosses and flags that lined the highway honoring soldiers lost, I was again filled with that odd but wonderful mixture of pride and joy and love.
It included the immense gratitude I felt about being able to participate in this relay with the man who inspired me to join Team RWB, but now it encompassed the realization that any task is made easier, even delightful, with the help of friends, whether they're old or new.