Originally published in the Northwest Florida Daily News on June 1st, 2012
EGLIN AFB – The All Veterans Memorial and the surrounding grove of trees cast a long shadow out across the asphalt and grass of Eglin Boulevard. For runners in the May 28, 30th Annual Gate to Gate run, it is the last shelter from sun for miles.
The memorial comes at a point in the course when the crowd is just beginning to disperse. The lead runners are already strung out in a mostly single file line of 20. Farther back the pack thickens, but it is at this point, just over half a mile into the race, that the realities of the event will begin to take hold.
The trumpets and horns and the carnival atmosphere of the starting area begins to fade away. Muted conversation between the more enthusiastic or outgoing runners dies off as the attenuated effort of stride after stride begins to take its toll.
Other, more seasoned runners may begin to understand what sort of day it will be: good, bad, horrible. Those that started too fast – there are many – are swallowed by the more conservative pack, just like the clouds of flies swallowed by the massed body of sweat.
As runners pass the memorial, they drop a flower onto the dark grass at its foot. Each symbolizes a service member to whom they are paying tribute, past or present. Some swerve off the road and place their token directly on the memorial. Others blow extravagant kisses with sweaty fingertips before momentum relinquishes them into the Florida sunshine.
Now silence comes, far away from glory. No fans line the muggy and mosquito-bitten prairies and bogs which the course cleaves. At the few intersections, uniformed and armed military members stand at dispassion- ate attention. With the long road snaking miles into the muggy distance, there will be no runners deluding themselves into thinking they have already come very far.
In a crowd like Monday’s, with 1,663 finishers and many more starters, all but one man is both the hunter and the hunted. The sound of shoes slapping the cement rises in the ear of each runner as a group or individual prepares to slip by. With such a large crowd, a passing always seems imminent to most, and the little sounds: the gasping breath, coughing spit, rhythmic footfalls, can be maddening to the runner’s mind already frantic to reach the finish.
At the front of the pack, some 400 meters ahead of second place, Fort Walton Beach resident Ben Payne, 30, is the first person across the line. He has been running alone since the memorial.
At the finish, volunteers hand out American flags. Music pumps and conversation returns. For this runner at least, the silence of the road is just far enough away to begin to appreciate the purpose of the holiday.