Ellen Brunet wasn’t going to let a government shutdown keep her from honoring fallen Marine Cpl. Kyle Schneider in Washington next Sunday.
Ellen was prepared to go to D.C. and run 26.2 miles with friends if the Marine Corps Marathon had been canceled. But the race is on, and Ellen can once again pay tribute to Cpl. Schneider — and give thanks for the gift she has been given.
I met Ellen last weekend while shopping at my local Fleet Feet store. She noticed my shirt from the 2012 Marine Corps Marathon and introduced herself. She ran it last year, too, and asked if I was running it again.
I’m not, but Ellen is — and it’s going to be even more emotional this time.
Last year, Ellen was so moved when she ran by the “Faces of the Fallen” — a long row of posters of Marines and other military killed in action — that she could barely breathe until a few miles later.
Next Sunday, one of those posters will be of Cpl. Schneider, a Marine from Central New York who was killed in Afghanistan in June 2011. He was 23.
Ellen is a friend of Kyle’s family and part of the Cpl. Kyle Schneider Freedom Team, which takes part in races and other events. The team raises funds for the foundation that bears Cpl. Schneider’s name and provides support to members of the military and their families.
After seeing the Faces of the Fallen display, Ellen felt Kyle should be among them. She contacted race officials, who connected her with Wear Blue, the running group that puts up the posters — about 100 of them this year. Ellen asked Kyle’s mom, Lorie, to choose a photo of Kyle for the display. It will be there when Ellen and about 25,000 others run past it at the 12-mile point.
“My greatest challenge isn’t running 26 miles,” said Ellen, who carries Kyle’s prayer card with her when she runs. “It’s running with a lump in my throat.”
Here’s why Ellen does what she does: “On October 28, 2012, I ran my first marathon. Lorie and Rick (Kyle’s dad) met me at mile 26 and from the finish line we went to Arlington National Cemetery, where Kyle is laid to rest. It was one of the greatest days of my life, and it has nothing to do with a medal or crossing a finish line. It is about the moments and the precious memories this family has shared with me about their son. You can’t imagine what they have come to mean to me. I’ve come to know Kyle through their memories. I know now there is nothing I couldn’t do for them.”
Rick and Lorie Schneider will run the Marine Corps 10-kilometer race next Sunday in D.C., and five Freedom Team members will join Ellen in the marathon. Ellen is also running the New York City Marathon the following weekend. As always, she’ll wear a shirt bearing Kyle’s photo.
It’s common, Ellen said, for people to see the shirt and thank her. A few weeks ago, she was on a 20-mile training run when a man and a woman on bicycles stopped to say thank you, then added, “Our son is in Afghanistan now.”
Encounters like that convince Ellen that what she and the rest of the Freedom Team do to honor Kyle “really does matter.” And knowing very well the depth of grief Kyle’s family deals with every day — and knowing that sadness is shared by thousands of other families — allows Ellen to cherish each day as a gift.
“My heart breaks for all the families and friends of these young men and women,” she said. “They have lost everything so we can live and breathe and enjoy all that life has to offer. It comes at a greater price than I ever imagined. We live our lives, we shop and work and many times don’t even realize what a great gift we’ve been given. I have learned so much from this experience. I hope to be a better person, to be thankful and appreciate every day.”
Runners who have done the Marine Corps Marathon will tell you it’s an emotional experience. Marines are everywhere on the course, handing out water, cheering on every single runner. Many current and former military participate, including wounded warriors in hand cycles or in racing wheelchairs pushed all 26.2 miles by able-bodied runners.
The event is loud, happy and boisterous most of the way, but a palpable quiet descends near the Faces of the Fallen. You basically hear nothing but footsteps as runners absorb the depth of what the photos mean. It’s difficult to look at those faces — some of them photographed with spouses and young children — and not get choked up.
Next Sunday, Ellen will see Kyle Schneider’s face among the far-too-long row of the fallen. She will stop to take a photo of it, catch her breath and keep running.