By Marilyn Sweitzer
In 2016, Jayci and Dwight Smitherman ran the inaugural HEROES Half Marathon in the morning, clad in wedding attire of stretchy lycra, then were married in the afternoon. Rosemary Wilson came all the way from South Africa to participate. In 2017, the National Guard Marathon Team came to run, as well as Tre Breton, a Hollywood producer/actress running 52 marathons in 52 states and territories in 52 weeks.
November 17th will mark the third running of the Honoring our Heroes Marathon/Half Marathon/Relay Marathon/5k (a/k/a HEROES) which starts and ends at Rolla’s Lions Club Park. Local runners and walkers, along with athletes from across the country, will tackle the hilly Ozark course. Each year, the stories of individual runners are inspiring and heartwarming. This year, some “heroes” are closer to home, but their stories are inspiring nonetheless.
Michael Messerschmitt is a 51-year-old civics teacher from Pennsylvania who has run a marathon on each of the seven continents and is running a marathon in each U.S. state. HEROES, his Missouri marathon, will be number 48 in his quest; he will have only Arkansas and North Dakota left. Michael states, “Running Antarctica was the experience of a lifetime!” His Asian marathon, Myanmar, was a favorite. “We ran through beautiful countryside with thousands of ancient temples and pagodas. We were told if we had to leave the course to answer “the call of nature,” to stomp our feet so the vibrations would scare the pit vipers and cobras!” Formerly overweight and a lifelong smoker, Michael started by completing 5Ks, then worked up to a full 26.2 mile marathon. What is the next goal for Michael? To complete the major world marathons, such as London, Berlin, and Tokyo. Michael said, “Running New York City was amazing, over 1.5 million people lined the course. However, I prefer small, local marathons. You get to meet and run with amazing people and really get to know the town.”
The Soldier’s Bride
Amanda Villarreal represents all military spouses who “keep the home fires burning” during long deployments, with the added burden of knowing their loved one may be in harm’s way. An example of some of the challenges and stresses a military spouse faces: in 2011, Amanda’s husband deployed to Afghanistan just two months after they arrived at their new duty station in Alaska. Alone and new to their area, a pregnant Amanda maintained the house, shoveled snow, tirelessly cared for their two daughters, and was still able to complete her undergraduate’s degree. Robert states, “She is my family’s rock, and my guardian angel.” Amanda works as a paraprofessional in special education, and is active in her community. Her husband, Robert, is a veteran and student at Missouri S&T. They currently reside in Waynesville with their three children: Leah (9), Melanie (7), and Robert II (5). The Villarreal family has hosted a HEROES water station two years in a row.
The Seasoned Citizen
On December 21st, Bob Gravley will celebrate his 82nd birthday. Bob is the founder of HEROES Marathon. He came home from his first marathon in Kitty Hawk four years ago with the dream for a marathon to be held in this part of Missouri that would benefit veterans. He took his proposal to the local American Legion, who agreed to sponsor the event, and Bob started training. He has completed each of the first two HEROES marathons and is ready for November 17th; his daughter Kim Vandagriff from Alaska will be speed-walking alongside all 26.2 miles. Bob is well-known in the Salem community. He attends every high school sporting event and was Salem’s “Volunteer of the Year” in 2012.
At the other end of the age spectrum is Salem High School student Denise Stoner. Last year, 13-year-old Denise ran the half marathon in record time to win the race, beating elite athletes and runners of all ages. Now 14, Denise is a straight-A student in school, plays softball, and mows lawns to pay for her race registration fees. Said her former principal, Scott Roberts, “She is passionate about the things she believes in, and an all-around great kid!” She will be competing in the HEROES half marathon again this year.
The Hall of Fame-er
Local runner Melissa Martinez will also be running her third HEROES Marathon. Melissa is not only a marathoner but an ultra-marathoner. In 2017, she ran 100 miles in less than 24 hours, qualifying her for the Kansas Hall of Fame. A running coach, Melissa provided guidance to the Heroes Marathon committee such as course layout. The “HERO of the MILE” signs along the marathon route were Melissa’s idea. She is a wellness educator in Pulaski County and the coordinator for the FROG Fitness Group in Waynesville (motto: Fully Rely On God) that co-sponsors the Frog Hill Half Marathon each October.
“HEROES” Marathon proceeds will go to local veterans emergency funds through the American Legion and VFW’s; the Warrior in Need Fund of the AUSA (Association of United States Army); and Missouri Patriot Paws, a Rolla-based charity that teams a trained therapy dog with a soldier experiencing PTSD or has suffered a TBI (Traumatic Brain Injury).
To learn more or to register to run or walk HEROES, visit website www.heroesmarathon.com or call 573-247-3005. There will be no race day registration, so runners and walkers are encouraged to sign up as soon as possible, and help honor our Heroes.