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.|