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Veterans Find Peace Through Running

Posted by: on November, 10 2014

Found on RunnersWorld.com and written by Lisa Jhung

Trail running, with its difficult terrain and obstacles, requires stamina and grit–something service members know a thing or two about. In November, in honor of Veterans Day, Team Red, White & Blue (TRWB), an organization that helps military members transition back into civilian life, will host its third-annual Trail Running Camp in Rocksprings, Texas. The three-day experience, led by ultrarunning elites, gives vets the opportunity to exercise their muscles and exorcise their demons while bonding with fellow runners (and bunkmates) over daytime hills and nighttime bonfires.team rwb trail running

The camp is the brainchild of ultrarunner and self-described “Army brat” Liza Howard, a mother of two who won the Leadville Trail 100 Run in 2010 and the Rocky Raccoon 100-miler in 2011. “I was starting to do well in races and was looking to do something useful with the attention I received,” says the 42-year-old National Outdoor Leadership School instructor who lives in San Antonio. She heard an interview with Mike Erwin, founder of TRWB, who uses the sport to help veterans recover and reassimilate. “Building a running community is the perfect way to help vets,” says Erwin, an Army major who has a masters degree in psychology. “There is something very symbolic about running–putting one foot in front of the other–that can be carried over to life.”

Howard contacted Erwin, became part of the advisory board of TRWB (which has 110 chapters and almost 50,000 members nationwide), and started planning the camp. Why the focus on trails? “For a lot of these veterans who have been deployed, being in the wilderness has not been safe,” she says. “We try to make the wilderness a healing place; a place to find peace rather than a place to find fear.” All abilities and paces are welcome, and distances covered can range from five to 18 miles. The camp debuted in 2012, with an even match-up of 50 service members and 50 civilians. “A one-to-one veteran/civilian ratio is key; we want to integrate the groups and help them build a connection that might not otherwise be there,” says Howard, who is hosting 110 participants this year.

Some of those civilians have been star ultrarunners, including Nikki Kimball, Darcy Africa, Max King, and Sage Canaday, who have participated in group runs and led seminars on topics like injury preventionhydration, trail etiquette, and first aid. But there’s more to the experience than just the nuts and bolts of training. Conversations out on the trails might initially center around stride or form, but after a few miles of shared sweat and fatigue, the talks often evolve.

Indeed, last year, Kimball, three-time winner of the Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run, shared how running has helped her battle depression. The ultrarunner’s candor made an impression on Air Force vet Kara Welte, who attended camp with her service dog, Tank, a German shorthaired pointer who helps Welte cope with PTSD. “She put a tear in my eye,” says the 28-year-old who took up running while serving in Afghanistan, but struggled to find the motivation to lace up once returning stateside. “Hearing her story made me feel like I could open up more.”

It also fueled her running. After returning home to Washington, D.C., Welte, a nursing student, set a goal she’s closing in on: to run 2,301 miles in 2014–one mile for every service member killed during Operation Enduring Freedom through December 31, 2013. “Running and Tank saved my life,” she says. “I wouldn’t have joined Team Red, White & Blue or have gone to the camp without him. Now, I feel like I have my life back.”