For a Friend Off to War
I retired a pair of running shoes today. Not just any old pair of running shoes, either. They were the best pair of running shoes that have ever graced my feet in over 20 years of this beloved sport. They ran me for 100 miles at Olander Park last September, and for 50 miles at Wakulla in December and for another 41 miles in Wartrace, TN a mere three weeks ago. They had a ton of miles on them – an unhealthy amount of miles, one might say. They were just a pair of Mizuno Wave Creation VIs, but there was something special about this pair. They became a part of me. For the last month I have done every run in them without socks. They were just an extension of my foot. Perhaps because of the amount of wear that they had endured, they gave me the freedom of running barefoot. But, they got put on the shelf this afternoon – they’re not finished with their duties mind you – they’ve got at least one more run in them. But that one is a year away.
You see, the runs I’ve mentioned were just regular, full-of-joy, runs. The run I took today – fittingly, Memorial Day 2006 – was the last for those shoes, for awhile. Why? Because today those shoes had the pleasure of stepping onto the trail right next to the footprints of Fred Johnson. I think those shoes knew they were treading on hallowed ground.
It has been said many times that the Gulf Winds family is made of special people. Running may be what draws us near, but there is another dimension that makes us one at heart. You know full well of what I speak. Those we encounter in the GWTC community have made us all better than what we would ever have been had we not wandered down this path.
Several years ago now, Dana Stetson was running solo on the St. Marks Trail. It was there that he first encountered Fred Johnson, and a friendship began. Soon, others had the same opportunity — to meet, and run beside, and grow to love Fred Johnson. Army Lt. Col. Fred Johnson. The never-quit-until-you-can’t-go-any-further Fred Johnson. The “I am an American solider” Fred Johnson.
I had never known a “military man.” I grew up six miles from Homestead Air Force Base and my Dad had served in World War II, and my Mom was a USO volunteer and my wife’s Dad and three of her brothers were career military, and yet I never knew a military man until Fred. Running and sweating and seeing just how much your body can yield alongside another for an extended period will enable you to know that person in the purest of ways. You get to see their soul. Seeing Fred Johnson’s soul has been one of my life’s greatest gifts.
Fred Johnson didn’t fit my definition of a “military man.” He is kind, gentle, humble, wise, and extremely intelligent. With a Master’s in Philosophy, he – often prompted by Dana – would wander off into realms that were very alien to this science and math major. The fact that my brain was often far too depleted of oxygen to enable any deep retention of such things is a tragedy. The lesson: if the running trail is also to be a classroom, choose an instructor who is slow. Fred knows no such gear.
He came to us with bold running credentials. At age 41 he had several sub-3 hour marathons in his recent past. Having lived in upstate New York, he was a veteran of the gnarly, rocky trails of the Adirondacks. The nastier the challenge, the more he revels in it. He loves Torreya and the St. Marks Refuge and Old Centerville Road. He also loves the venues that usually follow such jaunts: Momo’s, and Bradley’s and Posey’s. I’ll never forget (though he says he would like to!) his first 50 miler at Wakulla in 2002. Dana and I had never seen him is such great shape. We told him for months that he was going to win it. We also shared with him our supposed “wisdom” and instructed him in the ultrarunning mantra of “pace and patience.” Instead of running 7 minutes per mile as he was capable of doing, we convinced him to run 8s. His rhythm was upset and he never had the chance to do what he was capable of. The next year he ran his own race and won it – knocking a full hour and a half off the prior year’s time by running 7:11:53. The following day he ran the first 20 miles of the Tallahassee Marathon just to work out the soreness. Two months later, in the 2004 edition of the Tallahassee Marathon, he ran 3:02:19 to finish second, and gave this race director one of his happiest moments. That Fall he went to the Croom Trail 50K and beat Raymond Bell, the former state master’s 10K record holder and the winner of the Trans-America Footrace. Shortly thereafter, the Army called him to a 2-year tour at Ft. Jackson in Columbia, SC and his appearances around here became infrequent.
Running in Tallahassee has always been a source of great joy for Fred, but preparing young men for lives of service to mankind is of a higher calling. Nonetheless, he showed up at the starting line of the 50K at Wakulla in December of last year and won that, in a sterling 3:55:07 (a win that he insists never would have occurred if not for the absence of Bill Hillison – a typical Fred Johnson response to a superior performance). In February of this year he was back again for the marathon, and provided me with another memorable experience by pushing me to my second fastest effort at that distance in 14 years. Like I said, the GWTC family is made of those who make us better than what we would be without them. Fred not only has shared that with us, but for years has been sharing it with America’s young men and women who have chosen military service.
Fred’s two-year term at Ft. Jackson will end next week, and he will have 21 years of service to his country. He could walk away. With a wife Laura (a 2005 Wakulla Ultra finisher, a marathoner, a veteran of her own military service and now an FSU Ph.D. candidate in Psychology) and an 8-year old daughter, Maddie, he no doubt heard a strong calling to do just that. But Fred, a veteran of prior combat in the Middle East, felt that he had seen too many young Americans go to war with his teachings still fresh in their minds. He felt a need to be there alongside them. There was a higher calling. Such things are hard to understand until you meet Fred Johnson. As much as I wish he hadn’t heard this call, I am proud and honored and humbled by the fact that he did and that I can call him my friend. He leaves next week for Ft. Lewis, WA and in early August will deploy to Mosul, Iraq to serve for a year as a Battalion Commander.
Fred, Dana and I ran 10 miles together this morning and the heaviness went beyond my legs. A friend is going to war. As a Christian, and as one who knows Fred, I know that God is going with him. That does not assure his safe return, but it does assure him that his purpose is just, and that he is being guided by One who wants only the best for all humanity. Fred is going with that in mind. Many times over the past few weeks I have heard him say that he hopes he brings all of the troops home with him, and that this war will end.
A friend left to go off to war today and my favorite pair of shoes went on the shelf. I will treasure the day they are reunited.