Veteran's epic journey honors fallen brothers
Ever wonder what it would be like to run a marathon every day? Mike Ehredt can tell you.
But he’d rather tell you why he runs.
Since May 1, the 49-year-old Army veteran has run more than 800 miles across the Northwest, alone and unsupported. His journey won’t be complete for another 3,500 miles, but the number that really matters to Mike is one.
Every mile Mike runs represents one life — the life of a U.S. soldier killed in Iraq. At each mile marker, Mike slows to a halt, plants in the ground a small American flag bearing a yellow ribbon with the soldier’s name, rank, age and hometown, snaps to attention and salutes.
Then he steps back on the pavement, grips the handlebar of his jogging stroller and pushes on for another mile. Mike repeats the process for eight hours a day, sometimes stopping to chat with other travelers or curious passers-by, sometimes taking time to document the trip on his camcorder. When he’s gone about 30 miles — an average day on his meticulously-planned route — one of 157 hosts Mike has lined up throughout his trip picks him up for a shower, dinner and much-needed rest.
It all begins again at 7:30 the next morning. After nearly a month on the road, Mike can attest that the days started running together a long time ago.
“I can’t comprehend 4,400 miles. I can’t comprehend the distance,” the soft-spoken man explained. “Every day I do an intention, and my intention is just to focus on the next mile, and then one day you wake up and you’re done.
“I try to just get through the day.”
Although Mike spent three years planning all the details of his cross-country run — from where he spends each night to where he picks up 300 more flags every 10 days — his explanation for why he’s doing it is simple.
“It’s just something I had to do to say thanks,” he said.
A reason to run
Mike’s a veteran himself, having served in Germany during the Cold War. In civilian life, he was a mail carrier and postal clerk for 28 years, moving from his native Illinois to various places around the country until he ended up in Driggs, Idaho, which he now calls home. Three years ago, Mike was flipping through a newspaper while on break at a post office in Colorado when he noticed several Iraq War casualties among the obituaries. That got him thinking what he could do to honor their sacrifice, and he decided to do what he does best: run.
As a young soldier, Mike won the Army Cross Country Championship. In 2006, he completed a 250-mile Trans-Himalayan run in Nepal.
He’s crossed the Sahara Desert on foot twice in a six-day race called the Marathon des Sables, both times finishing in the top 150. In 2008, he became one of only 34 people to finish the Rocky Mountain Slam — comprised of the Bighorn, Hardrock, Wasatch and Bear 100-mile ultra-marathons.
And his titles don’t end with running. As a cyclist, Mike qualified for the National Time Trial Championships twice, won the Illinois Championship for Veterans mountain biking race twice, and in 1996, he rode 474 miles in 24 hours to raise more than $12,000 for muscular dystrophy. Mike’s also completed two Eco Challenge adventure races in Borneo and Fiji, finished New Zealand's Southern Traverse and done Primal Quest in California. He also holds a national championship in downriver canoe racing.
But none of Mike’s awards mean as much to him as the flags he puts in the ground after every mile. He hopes that people will notice the small markers and be reminded that their freedom came at a dear price.
“If people see a flag, and they stop and reflect, that’s a good thing,” he said.
The open road
On May 26, Mike’s journey took him to Ravalli via Hwy. 200. There he was picked up by host Eldon White of Pablo, given a carton of chocolate milk — his favorite post-run treat — and taken to a potluck dinner at the American Legion Post 106 in St. Ignatius. While eating a slice of homemade chocolate cake, Mike joked that the food is the real reason he’s running across the country.
“Actually, I catch a ride and just go to dinner,” he said, smiling.
But he quickly got serious as he started to reminisce about the poignant experiences he’s already had along the way. On his fourth day in Washington, Mike’s route took him by a high school that had lost a student to the Iraq War in 2007. All 700 students lined up for a quarter mile on the sidewalk to cheer Mike on and remember their fallen classmate — Mike was overwhelmed.
From old veterans to young schoolchildren, many have joined Mike to walk or run a mile or a few, and he always makes sure his temporary companions get to fully experience what he’s doing.
“Whenever someone goes with me, they carry a flag … they plant a flag, actually,” he said.
No one can fully grasp the solitude, the repetition, the weariness that comes with each day, but Mike’s not complaining. It’s enough for him to hear an occasional word of thanks or see tears fill a mother’s eyes when she tells him that her son is serving in Iraq. If Mike could tell people one thing, he said it would be, “We are who we are, and we are where we are, and we have what we have because of the sacrifices of the military.”
For Mike, a transcontinental run doesn’t even begin to compare to laying down one’s life in defense of American freedoms. That’s why he doesn’t get discouraged when he pulls off his shoes to discover a horde of new blisters or flinch when a tractor-trailer rig roars past him at an arm’s length.
“You can’t avoid an accident,” Mike said. “If I was to think about every car behind me, I wouldn’t be out there.”
Dealing with the inherent dangers of tackling the open road on foot and coping with the physical stress isn’t easy, but Mike couldn’t think of anything that he would say is the hardest part of his project.
“I like to think I haven’t hit it yet,” Mike said.
Last Thursday, Mike left Ravalli and headed south to Missoula on U.S. Highway 93. From there, he continued south through Stevensville and Darby into Idaho, where he spent Memorial Day in Salmon. Every three weeks Mike gets a day off, and his next will be in Leadore, Idaho, where he’ll camp for a night with a friend — the one night he plans to spend under the stars before his journey ends.
From there, Mike’s route will take him through the northern states until Oct. 14, when he’s scheduled to reach Rockland, Maine.
There Mike will plant his last flag, bearing the name of Marine Maj. Jay Thomas Aubin, of nearby Waterville, Maine, the first American to die in Iraq. You see, Mike’s planting his 4,400 flags in reverse chronological order by the soldier’s date of death — just one more detail that shows his commitment to the project.
Over the next four and a half months, Mike has a lot to look forward to. He’ll have stories to last a lifetime and doubtless will touch countless lives with his quiet, sincere dedication to honoring our military dead.
What’s he not looking forward to? Nebraska.
When you’re running across rural America, there’s rarely a public restroom at your immediate disposal, and Mike expects such places to grow even scarcer in the Cornhusker State.
“That’s like my worst fear: getting arrested for public indecency,” Mike said, chuckling. “There’s no trees in Nebraska.”
To follow Mike’s progress, read his blog or find a flag, visit his website at www.projectamericarun.com.