By Pete Williams
Our team captain gathered us around the bed of his pickup on Sunday morning and unwrapped a bundle of American flags. Then he pulled out a printout listing the names of the 30 U.S. service members killed in Afghanistan on Aug. 6.
“Thirty men, none older than 47,” said our captain, a Marine Corps veteran. “Take a flag, pick a name and let’s honor them as we run.”
Our triathlon group, a dozen or so that ride out of Safety Harbor on Sunday mornings, had just finished our usual 30-mile loop. I’ve been a dropout in recent weeks, opting for a stand-up paddleboard workout, but I still show up for the run, which given the heat this time of year is a modest 2-miler. A few other athletes got word of what we were doing and joined us.
I perused the list, feeling guilty that it was the first time I had done so. Just two of the fallen were older than me. Most were much younger. I’m partial to people with names at the end of the alphabet, so I chose Jason Workman, 32, of Blanding, Utah.
We left from the Safety Harbor Marina, flags in hand, running north past the Safety Harbor Resort & Spa along the water toward Philippe Park. Usually we turn at the entrance, which is about a mile, but I was feeling uncharacteristically good and proceeded into the park.
Three of us ran another half mile. Walkers in the park smiled and waved as we passed. If I turned around at the top of the hill, it would be a three-mile loop. But still I felt great. Weird. I often joke that my strategy for running better is to do little distance running, opting instead for intervals and the residual benefits of swimming, spin classes, and paddleboarding.
Even though I had pushed through a brutal paddleboard workout, I felt like I could run all day. Rarely can I keep up with my two colleagues, but after we turned – just shy of the 2.5-mile mark – I felt another burst of energy.
Back in the 1990s, I worked at USA Today in Arlington, Va., and went on runs that finished with a loop around the outside of Arlington National Cemetery and the Iwo Jima Memorial. This was hardly the first time I considered our fallen heroes during a run, but this time felt different.
Now I was cruising, surging 50 yards ahead. I spotted one of our flags on the ground and scooped it up, running with one in each hand. I picked up the pace. All alone now as I ran through Philippe Park under the canopy of oaks draped with Spanish moss, I thought of Jason Workman of Blanding, Utah. What were his hopes and dreams? Did he have family? What compelled him to become a Navy SEAL?
I thought of how I’m a member of the first generation never to have to worry about mandatory military service. So many Jason Workmans have volunteered to make that possible. I ran faster.
I was not breathing particularly hard. I couldn’t recall the last time I had run more than four miles at once. I’ve done a couple of sprint triathlons in the last month, each with a 5K (3.1 mile) run at the end. Where did this kick come from? There was just a few hundred yards to go now as I came around the Safety Harbor Spa, sprinting for our captain’s truck.
As I came to a stop I looked skyward and thanked Workman for his sacrifice.
I felt like I could have gone another five miles.
When I got home, I looked up Jason Workman. He was the youngest of four brothers, one of whom graduated from West Point when Jason was 14. It was then that Jason vowed to become a Navy SEAL. He had been a Mormon missionary in Brazil before enrolling in Southern Utah University and later enlisting in the Navy.
The Deseret (Utah) News reported that Workman was a three-sport star in high school, playing football, baseball, and basketball.
The paper also noted that he was “also a strong swimmer and competed in triathlons.”
At least three others killed were triathletes: Brian Bill, 31, of Stamford, Connecticut; Matthew Mason, 37, of Kansas City; and Jon Tumlinson, 35, of Rockford, Iowa.
Many of the fallen were Navy SEALS. For them a triathlon is a light workout. For all of the talk in the fitness and endurance world these days about boot camps, obstacle mud runs, iron this and tough that, it’s easy to forget that nothing we do remotely approaches military training, let alone putting your life on the line.
Jason Workman leaves behind a wife and 21-month-old son.
He will be buried in Arlington National Cemetery.