26 November 2011

Team Daren

I ran a marathon.  But this is not a marathon blog.  While yes, mile 18 was my big fat brick wall and by mile 20 my knees were screaming noooooooooo, stop the horror!  Nonethless, I ran, I walked, and I ran and with my sister’s encouragement, lots of water, and lots of sports beans later we crossed the finish line.  But, like I promised that is not what this is about.  This is about a boy, like many great writings have been.  A boy who through his passion for life inspired couch potatoes and military super athletes alike to run a race in his honor.  This blog is about Team Daren.

Have you ever met someone’s family and thought to yourself, okay that explains it.  I’d be a wackjob too if they were responsible for my raising.  Well upon meeting Daren's family, it was the exact opposite experience.  Daren Hidalgo’s parents, brothers and sister are exactly the reason why we all loved that boy.  I had spoken with friends and family of Daren’s in the months after his death, but had never met any of them face to face.  Well minus the one time in a DFAC I saw Miles across the room and recognized him from Daren’s Facebook but didn’t want to be a creeper so instead I chose to just awkwardly stare at him while whispering and pointing to my friends that I thought that was Daren’s brother.  (because just introducing myself and saying hi would’ve been the embarrassing alternative, riiiiiight).  Miles later told me, he definitely did notice the table of girls in civys that said USO and knew it was me. 

Anyway, first time meeting Jorge, Daren’s father, and upon seeing me he says, “SARAH!” and embraces me in one of those awesome bear hugs!  You can literally feel the love this family exudes.  In Jorge, Andrea, Jared, Miles and Carmen, you can see his radiant smile in theirs.  

The day before the race there was a marathon expo  and you picked up your registration packets from The National Infantry Museum.  You could choose to run in memory of a fallen hero.  They had small bibs to place under your race bib with the fallen hero's name.  We already had ours, 1LT Daren M. Hidalgo, but they had a table set up if you didn’t personally know a fallen hero, so you could pick one to honor.  As I perused the table one name jumped out at me, “PFC Jesse Dietrich.”  I attended his ramp ceremony.  I was there when he was loaded into a plane in Afghanistan to start his final journey home.  I read the brief synopsis and he was 20 years old from Venus, Texas and killed August 25th in Kandahar Province, Afghanistan by small arms fire.  I thought about how this race was bigger than me, bigger than one girl hoping to finish 26.2 miles.  It was a race to honor those men and women who fight a war, so we don’t have to.  It was the Soldier Marathon.

People came from all across the country to run in Daren’s honor.  Some knew Daren from Pennsylvania or Wisconsin, others from West Point or 3/2SCR, others were there as friends of one of Daren’s family.  While waiting in line for the spaghetti dinner I overheard an older gentleman behind me say, “Well look at that, they know my grandson.”  My sister and I had the race bibs with Daren's name attached to our bags.  We turned around to introduce ourselves to Daren's grandparents.  It seems it doesn’t matter who you meet through Daren, every single person is going to be overwhelmingly nice.  

Overall there were more than 50 runners gathered on a FREEZING 40 degree morning huddled together in heather gray shirts emblazoned with “TEAM DAREN” across the front to run for our fallen hero.  Some ran the marathon relay, the half marathon, or the full.  My sister and I chose the full.  By mile 15 I was saying, “Okay Daren, why couldn’t you have sponsored a 5K, really?!”  But his motto was always, “You only have one life to live, so go big!” and that we did.  I just tried to stay focused and remember who I was running for.  I remembered messaging Daren while he was back at the COP about one of his soldiers telling me a story that he had to wake Daren up one morning so he looked for the smallest dude in a sleeping bag and told him to wake up.  Daren immediately woke up and karate chopped his way out of his sleeping bag.  Daren’s response to this story was, “F yeah I karate chopped my way out of the sleeping bag, I hate those people that don’t start moving.”  So I kept moving!

At mile 6 there was a hill with Drill Sergeants "encouraging" us.  "YOU THINK THIS IS A HILL?!  YOU HAVEN'T SEEN A HILL!  OH YOU BEST NOT BE SLOWING DOWN NOW, KEEP IT UP, KEEP IT UP!"  It was hilarious and helped push us to the top.  Also thankfully, it was the last of the hills.  The scenery was gorgeous and people were sweet along the route yelling, "Go Team Daren!"  The route also looped around itself so we got to see other Team Daren runners and yell at them along the way too.  There were soldiers stationed all along the route to support us.  I did feel a little out of my element, wait a minute, I'm the one supposed to be supporting you.  At mile 25 we passed a man waving a Steelers "Terrible Towel" announcing to each of us, “You’re a marathoner!”  Those are words I never planned on hearing in my life, but was ecstatic to hear.  Because of one boy's presence in my life, I’m completing something I never dreamed I could.  Before this marathon I had ran one 5K.  ONE!  Now I’m running 26.2 miles.  Gretchen and I came around the bend toward the Avenue of Flags at Fort Benning 5 ½ hours after the race began.  I knew we’d see our parents waiting at the finish line.  What I didn’t plan on seeing was an entire crew of Team Daren fans shouting and clapping for us - probably the last Team Daren team members to cross the finish line.  As we neared the finish, the announcer said, “And now crossing the line are Number 255 Gretchen Kemp from Martinsburg, WV and Number 256 Sarah Kemp who took leave from Afghanistan to come here and run this race.”  (Turns out Daren's father, Jorge, had told the announcer the last bit as we were jogging up the avenue.)  I swelled with pride and jogged through the pain as Gretchen and I lept across the finish line in full cheesy fashion.  Then soldiers coined us and placed a dog tag medal around our neck.  Free beers and massages followed.

We returned to our hotel room with the lovely Sarah Brahm and Megan Pringle who were our roommates for the weekend.  I had never met either of them before, but knowing that they were Daren's friends was good enough reason for me to believe they wouldn't drug me and steal my belongings while we slept.  They, of course, turned out to be absolutely lovely ladies.  We all slathered ourselves in icy hot, placed ice bags on our legs, knocked back some pain killers and lamented about our sore muscles.  Later that evening we all went to Fudd Ruckers for a Team Daren reunion.

I was mingling with friends and family of Daren when it finally hit me how I recognized one particular man who ran for Team Daren.  All weekend I tried to place him.  He was Captain Garcia from 3/2SCR, G Co,  Daren’s unit in Afghanistan.  It was the first time I had recognized someone in the states from meeting them in Afghanistan.  We immediately began swapping G Co stories and USO tales.  It was nice to make a connection with someone who had been there for all of it too.

It was also a chance for my parents and sister to meet Daren.  Although they can’t meet him in the physical sense of the word, they got to meet him that weekend in the smiles, laughs, ridiculous and heartfelt stories that everyone who knew him shared.  They got a glimpse at the boy who everyone loved.

Through it all I think about the way Daren has changed my life and somehow finds ways to continue to do so.  A year ago this month I spent some time with Daren in Afghanistan.  He happened to be at KAF, and it was my day off so I needed to do some laundry.  There were plenty of washers available, but upon our return after gathering my stuff there were none.  I was pissed.  So I gave up on the laundry and instead we just talked.  He asked me about what I wanted to do after this.  I told him that I loved writing, but always got nervous that it wasn't good enough.  He shared with me his journaling so I wouldn't feel as self conscious about my blog.  Then he told me something I will never forget, “Don’t worry about what to write, don’t worry if you think it’s stupid or inconsequential.  If you thought it, it’s worthy.  Write it, even if it’s just that you got pissed today because there were no washers available. “  Well Daren, I write, and I run for you.

Please visit www.rememberdaren.com to learn more about Team Daren and how you can honor our fallen hero.

My sister Gretchen and I running down the Avenue of Flags.  I have a look of determination to get to the finish, hers is  a look of joy that the finish is so near!
We're marathoners!  The medals looked like dogtags.

Toward the end of the race soldiers were running with the racers to encourage them to finish strong.
Virtually everyone in this picture is part of Team Daren.  My mom, sister, Sarah Brahm and Megan Pringle at the foreground.

09 November 2011

I'm running a marathon. Yep, still sounds weird.

I'm running a marathon...on Saturday.  On a scale of 1-10, I'd give my nervousness about an 8.  I mean I'm not near the "about to vomit in anxiety" stage, but I'm way past the "oh I'll be fine" stage.

Now I'm prepared as much as I think I should be.  I didn't go plotting out water points or thinking up my peeing strategy (apparently some pros suggest this), but I'm pretty well stocked up.

1. I have my awesome/amazing Team Daren shirt.  Now mine is actually of the moisture wicking variety, but because I am getting SO prepared, it is in the washing machine (so as to not irritate my sensitive skin by giving it an ol' wash before the wear), so I borrowed my mother's for this pictorial.  The shirt serves two purposes, one it makes me feel like a badass like Superman with the big S on my chest.  It signifies I'm part of something bigger, a group of people that through their loss they want to do some good.  Two, when I'm hurting, and Lord knows I will be, I can look down and think this 26.2 mile sacrifice is nothing compared to what Daren and many others have sacrificed.  (And if he were here, he would mercilessly make fun of me for not finishing).

2. I have my Nike watch, which is one of the coolest inventions in the world!  It helps me keep my pace and says encouraging things at the end like, "Good effort!" or "Record Time!"  I'm thinking this time it will say, "What were you thinking?  Start ingesting painkillers now."

3. Which brings us to #3 - Drugs.  (Okay so actually they are some anti-inflammatories, and maybe some Flintstone vitamins thrown in, hey they make a body strong!)

4. My Wounded Warrior Project wristband.  I'm running a 5K to benefit them on Christmas Eve, well assuming my legs still function by then.  Each band says a different word, I picked the one that says, "Country."

5. Sports beans!  They are delicious, nutritious and my friend JD gave them to me.  He is a runner extraordinaire and has helped me train every step of the way by politely encouraging me to run 5Ks at 5 am.

6. My green shoes!  They're purty.  I do need to wipe some of the dust off though.

7. Knee band, because I tweeked my knee a couple weeks back running on these uneven surfaces they call "roads" out here that are just dirt with some rocks thrown in that twist your knee.

8. My Camelbak Randy got me!  She even had them embroider a nametape for me!

So I have all my necessary accouterments, well minus one sister, but I'm meeting her down there.  I read the reviews and they said there are drill instructors on the hills to "gently encourage" the runners, and soldiers at all the water points, so I figure it will be just like "home!"  Also I did the math, okay Google did it for me, and there is 3,000 feet of elevation difference between Kandahar, Afghanistan and Ft Benning, Georgia, so I figure that has to give my endurance an extra ehhhhhhh 6 to 10 miles, right?

My cousin, Michelle, completed a marathon last weekend, in a wicked fast time, but at least it shows me I can do it!  Also I have the motivation that my sweet boss told me before I left, "If you don't finish, don't bother coming back."  (Of course he was kidding...I hope.)  Then there's the excitement of meeting all of Daren's friends and family that are just as stoked about running this race in memory of him.

I couldn't resist sharing that because a year and half ago that was my life.  A lil Law and Order SVU Marathon on Sunday while doing laundry in my apartment in WV.  Now I'm running 18 miles, doing laundry next to a Bulgarian and living in Afghanistan.

Happy Veterans Day to every man and woman who has served our country!  I try every day to live a life that is worthy of the sacrifices for our freedom made by our Wounded Warriors and our Fallen Heroes.


Out here it seems that death is tragic, but it is something to be “handled.”  Last September one of my friend/roommate/coworker/Afghanistan family lost a close friend to war.  I had only been in country for a day or two.  It was like being slapped in the face by reality. 

Then in December another soldier killed, another friend’s close friend lost.  Then in February, Daren was killed.  The moments I spent holding a weeping friend were now being returned.  It was my turn.  The love I outpoured was in the most literal way being given back to me.  I can still remember vividly, the morning after I had attended Daren’s ramp ceremony and found out he died.  I was lying in bed not sleeping, but just staring, when my roommate just walked into my area, said nothing, and climbed in my bed and held me.  She was a good friend of Daren’s too.  She lost him too.  It was the sweetest, most selfless act of not needing or wanting anything in return, but just being there for me.

Now another friend has lost another loved one.  It is painful to watch her knowing all too well that pain myself.

Sympathy is an act of kindness, empathy is an act of understanding.

Knowing how strong she is and being on the other side of it, I am certain she’ll get through it, but knowing the outcome doesn’t mean her path will be any easier.  Out here we are literally thousands of miles away from all our friends and family.  These are the people you desperately wish weren’t just a voice on the other side of the phone, but an arm around your back and comfort in your soul.  So we form our own bonds and try our hardest to be a proxy, a stand in, a poor man’s whomever.  We’ve made an Afghanistan family that is there when nothing makes sense at all.

Pain throws your heart to the ground
Love turns the whole thing around
No it won’t all go the way it should
But I know the heart of life is good
-The Heart of Life by John Mayer

To all those who we weren’t ready to have taken so soon…