Trail Running Helps Returning Veterans

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Military veterans and elite trail runners descend on Rockridge, Texas, for Team Red White and Blue’s trail-running camp

Team RWB Camp and Special Programs Director Andrew Hutchinson. Photo by Don Hauk.

The runner in front of me is missing his left leg from the hip down. To run uphill, 23-year-old Army combat engineer veteran Edward Lychik has to swing his unhinging appendage around and forward (imagine running while keeping one leg locked out and straight). His $30,000 prosthetic provides an over-return of energy that sends him a bit higher off the ground than the return from his remaining Achilles. What his stride lacks in grace, it more than makes up for in improbability.

Lychik is one of the 150 runners in attendance on Memorial Day weekend in Rockridge, Texas, for Team Red White and Blue’s trail-running camp. Mike Erwin, a U.S. Army major and veteran of three Afghanistan deployments, started the non-profit organization in 2010. Its mission is to help veterans transition back to civilian life, since many return from active duty despondent. Feeling isolated by their combat experiences, they turn to alcohol, drugs and suicide in alarming numbers. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs stopped releasing statistics on such indirect war casualties in March 2013, but a 2010 Army Times study found that each day, on average, 18 veterans commit suicide.

Team Red White and Blue encourages veterans to embrace running instead. Says Erwin, “We want to keep veterans active and build a community of them who connect with civilians, and create lasting friendships.”

The organization now counts chapters in 66 cities, and has grown from an initial operating budget of $110,000 to $2.5 million in 2013, with funding coming from three major streams—foundations, races (which donate event proceeds) and corporate partners. Since its beginning, Team Red White and Blue has been involved with road running, but recently has expanded to yoga, rock climbing, Crossfit and—thanks to professional ultrarunner Liza Howard—trail running.

“Running is inherently selfish,” says Howard, 42, of San Antonio, Texas. In 2011, while searching for a meaningful way to give back, she heard an interview with Erwin and immediately contacted him. Shortly after, she was appointed to the Team Red White and Blue board, and got to work creating the trail-running camps.

Joining Lychik at the four-day camp were 80 other veterans, 45 non-military civilians and 30 elite runners, the latter acting as coaches. “We try to have a four-to-one ratio of veterans to elite coaches,” says Howard. The 2013 camp was likely the single biggest gathering of trail-running talent of the year, including stars like Sage Canaday, Darcy Piceu-Africa, Meghan Arbogast, Jason Schlarb and Pam Smith.

Each day of camp is filled with trail runs and workshops on a wide range of trail-running-related topics, including nutrition, running form, trail etiquette, first aid, injury prevention and hydration management. “I’ve been a part of Team Red White and Blue since the beginning, and it’s great to see how the camp has grown,” says professional ultrarunner Dominic Grossman, 27, of Los Angeles, California.

This year’s camp had twice the attendance of the previous year’s, but lost none of its casual, social feel. If our days were about running and learning, then our nights were about sharing, socializing and connecting with one another. Where else could you run intervals with Sage Canaday in the morning, attend an afternoon presentation by Nikki Kimball on depression among athletes and finish the day sharing moonshine by a bonfire with Max King?

Lychik told me he learned a lot that weekend about nutrition and on-trail first aid, among other topics—but, what made the camp special for him was being able to run and spend time with the elite runners.

“With a disability like mine,” he says, “you can let it fuel you or destroy you—I let it fuel me.”

This article originally appeared in our June 2014 issue.

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