By Pete Williams
Dianne Villano will mark the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks this weekend by competing in the Tarpon Springs Triathlon in her usual race outfit: combat fatigues, boots, and a Kevlar helmet.
She’ll think of the fiancé she lost that day because he happened to be on a business trip to New York and eating breakfast at the Windows on the World restaurant in the World Trade Center. But mostly she’ll think of those serving in Afghanistan and Iraq who have inspired her ongoing endurance sports tribute.
“The biggest heroes are those who continue to go into harm’s way so that what happened on 9/11 doesn’t happen again,” says Villano, who owns a fitness company that provides personal training and nutrition consulting in St. Petersburg. “It took me a long time to take what happened that day and bring my own special brand of craziness to supporting our troops.”
Villano, 43, had never run more than mile when she decided to do the Top Gun sprint triathlon in St. Petersburg in 2008, just six weeks before the race. That’s a tall order for anyone, let alone someone who intended to compete on the bike and run in full combat gear, which adds 20 pounds to her 5-foot-4, 110-pound frame.
Like many Americans, Villano felt distanced from the ongoing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, even after losing a fiance. In 2005, she stumbled upon a Web site where U.S. Marines wrote about their experiences in the war and how simple things like a fresh pair of socks or bag of candy sent from home mean a lot.
Soon Villano was communicating with Marines and sending care packages. These days, she spends 30 hours a week running Support Our Marines Inc., not counting the 20-plus races she participates in each year to draw awareness to their efforts.
To date, the organization has sent 5,321 packages to U.S. soldiers. We spoke to Villano about her journey and lining up for her 60th race in honor of the troops this weekend.
EnduranceSportsFlorida: How did this begin?
Villano: I had lost my fiancé on 9/11 and had always supported the troops but it wasn’t my reality. I didn’t know anyone active duty. The war was an abstract concept. Then I found a Web site where Marines could post how they were living in those conditions. Who knew that a pair of socks, a bag of Skittles or simply a letter could make such a difference? I began sending to certain units, certain individuals and at one point I read an email saying a corporal had just died and the last act of kindness he received was something I had sent. He still had a picture of me with some Cub Scouts holding the U.S. flag. I had been sending him boxes of Fruit Loops with little messages and they found the empty boxes and notes when he died. I realized that you never know when an act of kindness you provide could be the last for someone. I had just purchased a new Audi A4 as a reward to myself for 15 years of hard work. I took it back and now I have a 1996 VW Jetta with 253,000 miles. I figured I can always make money but I can’t always make this kind of impact. We sometimes joke that my new Audi is in the Middle East.
ESF: How did this translate into running races in gear?
Villano: I got a call from a Marine three days after he lost a foot in Afghanistan. His first words were “Thank you for the boxes while we were in country.” He stressed that he was planning to go back in a support capacity to help his brothers as soon as he got his prosthetic. That was the first time I had spoken to anyone we had sent packages to and I was humbled and totally in awe. I got off the phone and wondered how I could possibly recognize that kind of heroism and character. We had a fireman here in Clearwater who did marathons to raise money for cancer research. I figured I could do a triathlon in gear.
ESF: How hard was that?
Villano: I bought a bike, trained, got in a pool for the first time in 25 years and learned to run more than a mile. My boyfriend had been doing triathlons for three years but I had never even gotten up to watch him. I sent pictures to the Marines and the response I got was overwhelming. They couldn’t believe I would do that to honor them. Then I started clipping photos of fallen Marines to my gear while I raced. I’m up to 214 now. One mother said she saw a picture of me racing with a picture of her son and was deeply touched. It puts things in perspective. Triathletes are pretty myopic. Their biggest problem is that are not enough bananas or ice towels but when they see me in long pants and sleeves and a Kevlar helmet, it makes them stop and think. There are guys in this gear who have to put in water purification tablets just to get a drink of water.
ESF: How tough is it to race in the gear?
Villano: Your body will acclimate. I do a lot of heat training. I run at noon, bike with long sleeves. I run in boots on the beach. I wear a regular bike helmet to comply with (USA Triathlon) rules and my goal is never to be in the bottom five of my age group. I’m doing this to honor these Marines. I don’t race for time, I race for honor and I race for pride because I’m wearing the same authentic Marine Corps gear that thousands of them die in.