I remember distinctly sitting on my bed, in a silent stare-down with my folded American flag across my room, perched on a shelf at eye level. I was trying to make a decision that would change my life.
It was a few weeks after the terrorist attack at Brussels Airport that claimed the lives of 32 innocent travelers and injured over 300. Only a few months following a similar event in Paris. Friends, family and fans from all over the world seemed to be collectively clamoring for me not to return to Normandy this June. They knew of my plans to run 100 miles solo along the coastline, carrying my American flag – and were worried with good reason. I knew I would make a perfect target.
Fear is contagious, and I did not want to be afraid. I did not wish to project an image of fear. That is not me. But I felt so alone. I was told, “You’re so young. You have time. Wait,” or “You’ve done so much. You have nothing left to prove.”
But this time, I knew that I did have something to prove. That I, and the World, will not be struck with terror. I wanted to defy those trying to instill fear. I wanted to go and carry my big beautiful American flag over the land that means so much to me, a land where it is quite obvious the price of freedom is not free. I was actually prepared to lay down my life for my belief, for my flag.
I booked my flight.
Time slipped quickly by and June 6 was creeping up on my calendar. Two weeks out, I ran the most peaceful 24 miles of my life, hitting all my pace goals in the summer heat. I remember those miles, cutting through the vibrant green woods of my home trails, stopping to take in the scene as if I were seeing it for the first time, breathing in the sultry air.
I said a silent word of thanks, for my the gift of running and what it has brought me in life. I promised myself I would stay strong and fight for the thrill of every mile on those beaches as if it were my last. I would not take one step for granted.
And just a few short weeks later, there I was, standing on the famous Pegasus Bridge. Just me and my flag. It was overcast and grey. Sickly quiet. All I remember thinking was: 100 miles is a helluva long way to go…can I do it? I swallowed my fears, waved to my crew from across the bridge and started running. It was 0747. June 5, 2016. (PC right: Peter Deprez)
The first 26 miles slipped by in no time on the least technical quarter of this event. I knew I had to inevitably slow my pace, as I clocked through the marathon in 4:36. My crew met me often and resupplied me with food, water and morale. The goal was to keep my calorie intake high and to keep me smiling.
I traversed Sword and Juno beachheads in those first miles, and arrived at the start of Gold and the artificial harbor at Arromanches after getting lost for a brief while.
For a moment, I thought this would be easier than expected. The trail was flat and the breeze was light, with a soft surface underfoot. But as I linked up with my crew in the harbor, my gaze met the first set of cliffs that make Normandy’s coast so dauntingly beautiful. Sheer and rising straight up to overlook the English Channel.
I remember scaling the first of these, realizing that this is where my real work would begin. The trail I entered was marked with warning signs advising against passage due to severe cliff erosion and high winds. In some areas, one false step would lead to a plummeting fall. The weather was warm and overcast as I reached the 55km mark, but when I found my way to the German Battery at Longues sur Mer, it took a turn for the worst.
Normandy, known for its ever-changing weather conditions, had blessed me with the perfect start to my 100 mile journey. But the middle miles were anything but. Thick, bone-chilling fog rolled in as I met my crew. I was cold, damp and tired. Visibility was down to maybe 10 feet. I was in a low point, but with a little food and some encouragement, I was on my way again, albeit reluctantly. I remember looking at the fortifications on the coast, eerily outlined in the fog and thinking how this scene looked 72 years ago: the calm before the storm.
With the fog and relatively untraveled terrain, navigation was terrible. I was lost several times, having to pull out my map and look for directions. The only thing that kept me going was that I knew I would pick up my first and only pacer for the day, Laurent, a few kilometers down trail.
I pushed through and just outside Port en Bessin, I met Laurent and my crew. Having run this section last year during Run For Currahee with him, I knew the importance of having a guide and friend to keep me going. The trail running the length of Omaha Beach is one of the most challenging, technical and down-right scary trails I have ever been on, and that includes high Alpine experience in Berchtesgaden. This part of Normandy worried me.
But these were Laurent’s home trails. He knew them as well as I know mine. He comforted me, encouraged me, and I followed him back out on course with a new sense of confidence and safety. We cut through stinging patches of briars that cut through my skin like knives, golden wheat fields stirred by strong winds, and along the edge of cliffs simply to catch a glimpse of the stunning coastline. I was inspired. Soon, we descended and found ourselves running on the sand of Omaha.
We linked up with a local runner named Sandra who was undergoing chemotherapy for an aggressive form of cancer and simply wanted to run with us, and a group of school children who quickly were enticed by my crazy running attempt, as described by Laurent in French. (PC Left: Laurent Guerin)
What struck me then, running on Omaha Beach at low tide, was the fact that so many people believed in me. I had so many people standing behind me. That was the first time that I thought to myself, I am going to finish this thing. For them. I had to believe in myself. I had to be brave. I made my decision right then to do whatever I needed to do to get to Utah Beach on June 6. I was not going to quit. I was not going to let anyone, or myself, down.
Soon, Laurent and I found ourselves climbing again above Omaha Beach. Our next destination was Point-du-Hoc. As the sun was going down it illuminated the endless wheat fields that grew over the Channel and we skirted the coast. We arrived at Point-du-Hoc a little before sunset and weaved our way through the endless system of bunkers and craters, remnants of the war that tore this region apart not so long ago.
Laurent paced me all the way to the port town of Grandcamp-Maisy. He announced to every single person we passed on our way into the center of the village what I was doing. I was humbled, a little shy, but gracious to everyone who wanted to shake my hand or pose for a picture. Then, with a hug and handshake, Laurent’s job was done. (PC Right: Laurent Guerin)
The sun was going down and darkness started to cloud my vision, the temperature dropped and I quickly changed out of my damp clothes. Long pants and a heavier jacket went on, as well as a headlamp to help me find my way. Hypothermia in the damp conditions was my number one concern, so my goal was to keep moving and stay as dry and warm as possible.
Although the cliffs were gone and the trail was easier than before, the darkness added additional challenges to this final 30 mile portion of my journey. Darkness does terrible things to a tired mind. Although my headlamp illuminated the trail, I was afraid of every little thing that moved in the tall grass, every sound I heard in the dark. My pace quickened.
By the time I reached the town of Isigny-sur-Mer, I had run myself into the ground. My pace was too fast in the last portion, magnified by my apprehension. I felt myself losing control of my body and mind. I was shutting down 83 miles in.
Apparently, I kept asking for hot soup. I do not remember this. But my crew felt sorry for me when they did not have any. I was shivering and cold. Damp all the way through. I wanted to stop. Told them I did not think I could make it. They did not tell me at the time, but they did not think I would make it either.
It was 0030 and all I wanted was something warm to eat. My crew scoured the area for the only the only open restaurant at the time, which also happened to be the only McDonald’s in the region. I have never been so thankful for food in all my life when they met me with French Fries on the road.
I was able to run the next 10km to Carentan by 0230, urged by the familiarity of a place I have run and driven countless times. This was the beginning of the most special part of Normandy for me. Where the Airborne staked their claim on the marshy landscape and inspired my interest in their history. I was uplifted. But on the outskirts of the town, my feet began to burn. My head was foggy. A few times in the darkness I stumbled to the side of the road and had to take a breather. I felt like I was going to pass out, right there and then.
With the last 10km on the road, my crew made the decision to tail me in the darkness with hazard lights on to warn oncoming drivers that I was ahead of them. The wind was picking up and I found myself fighting with my flag as it caught in the wind. I tightened my grip on the pole and held on tight.
Road signs for Sainte-Marie-du-Mont and Sainte-Mere-Eglise disappeared into the night. Around 0430, I knew I had just over 5km to go. I tried to run, but could not. My feet were too bad. Around 0500, I was down to 2.5km to go. I hit a turning point.
Cresting over the last hill on my way to Utah Beach, the fog rolled in so thick I could not see my hand in front of my face. Yet, I knew where I was exactly. I waved my crew down in their car and told them to let me pass in front of them to the other side of the road. I knew that was where the Major Richard D. Winters Leadership Memorial was located, just a few kilometers from the beach.
Major Winters has been my hero since I was a kid. His leadership skills on D-Day and throughout the War inspired me to hold onto this passion for history, our veterans and to create Run For Currahee last year to help preserve the training grounds of his 101st Airborne at Camp Toccoa. One could say, he is the reason I have pursued the crazy life I have taken on.
Major Winters taught me to “Hang Tough,” and that was exactly what I needed to do in this moment. To hang on. To fight.
I touched the foundation of the monument, looked up at his likeness and down into the fog and darkness in the direction of Utah Beach. Then, I crossed back onto the road and tried my best to pick up my pace. I looked down at my watch. It was 0530. At that moment, I knew I would complete my 100 mile distance in far less than 24 hours.
The next thing I remember was my feet hitting sand. The sand of Utah Beach. I struggled through the dunes with my flag catching the wind behind me. I touched the sand and let it run through my fingers. I stopped my watch. 0548. June 6.
22 hours, 1 minute and 35 seconds. The time it took me to honor my heroes, say thanks to those who currently serve and make a little bit of history on the beaches and cliffs who have shaped who I am today. The fastest time in history running on this historic trail.
Thank you to all of you who have believed in me. To my Mom and dear friend Peter for crewing me. And a special thanks to the companies who have supported my training and racing: Altra Running, STOKED Roasters, Skratch Labs and SisuGirls. And to Team Red, White and Blue and the Carbon Fiber Tube Shop for graciously donating a custom made carbon fiber flag pole to carry my flag on my journey.
And a special thanks to WWII veteran of the 501st PIR, 101st Airborne Division Vincent Speranza for presenting me with his unit’s pin prior to this event. I carried it with me the entire 100 miles, and it served as a source of inspiration when the times got tough.
You all have made my dreams come true!