by Tony Moore
“Honor the fallen by challenging the living," is the motto of the Travis Manion Foundation, and Albie Masland '06 took it as his own, running cross-country to benefit the foundation.
You've been running through the desert for weeks in the American Southwest. You've grown a beard. Your feet hurt, and you've already gone through three pairs of shoes. You start talking to yourself, delivering your future Saturday Night Live monologue, and it sounds pretty good. Armadillo corpses are piling up around you on the side of the road. There are so many that you begin to wonder if they are going extinct, if there is a movement to save them. You also wonder if you'll be eaten by a mountain lion as the sun begins to set one night, as the shadows lengthen and begin to follow you.
You're Albie Masland '06. You're running across the country for charity, and things get a little weird out here.
"In early 2010," Masland begins with a deep sigh, "nothing seemed to be working—law school, my grandfather died, the job market was not cooperating, just life in general. So I started running. I'd run one, two, three times a day to deal with the stress and anxiety." After a few months, unable to dig himself out, Masland made a leap into something that would change the course of his life. "One day I just said to my friend Clint, 'I'm going to run across the country.' "
People at a crossroads in their lives do various things, and Masland, who was based in San Diego, chose something very few people have attempted (one comprehensive online list pegs the total number at just 279, dating back to 1909). The undertaking is obviously massive, and taking the first step on that 3,000-mile journey was likely the hardest one of all, so he chewed on the idea for a long time. In October 2011, he decided that it was now or never.
"I always knew that I had to do it for a bigger cause," he explains. "I'd see these troops on the news coming home from Iraq or Afghanistan and think, 'What are my problems compared to coming home from combat, transitioning to being a civilian, leaving this brotherhood behind and trying to find a job and figure out my new life, where life might not be as it used to be?' I knew that this is what I wanted to run for, where I found my perspective."
That new perspective led him to his friend Erik Spalding, a veteran and co-founder of Bullets 2 Bandages, an apparel company and active partner with veteran charities. "I told Erik that I wanted to run cross-country to raise money for soldiers and their families," Masland says, "and he suggested I check out the Travis Manion Foundation, which is based in Pennsylvania, and that made it perfect all around." The foundation provides support to undertakings such as Masland's toward helping veterans and their families, and its motto really spoke to him: "Honor the fallen by challenging the living." Soon the foundation got on board and provided Masland with start-up support (and continuing support throughout). And within a month, Operation Amerithon—the name Masland gave to his mission—was ready to go.
Just south of Santa Monica, Calif., in Dana Point, where the legendary Route 66 begins, Masland took to the road for the first time. It was March 17, 2012. "The streets were crowded with people for St. Patrick's Day, and I had this look on my face like a little kid: 'I'm doing this; it's very much on right now!' " he says, his face lighting up. "I had so much pent-up energy, and then when I started the run through the streets, it was a huge release."
Now there was no turning back. Day to day, it went something like this: Family friend Alex Hyman and Masland's sister Hilary drove four miles ahead of Masland in a car and waited for him. And each night, after he'd run a total of 20 miles (he upped it to 25 per day over the second half of the run), they'd pick him up and drive to the nearest hotel and stay the night. This wasn't as simple as it sounds.
"If hotels were 200 miles apart," Masland explains, "as they were in places in the Southwestern desert, I'd run the 20 miles, drive 50 miles to the nearest motel, sleep and then drive those 50 miles back to where I left off to run another 20 miles the next day."
He shakes his head a little, remembering. "In the end, we drove across the country four times because of the backtracking."
In between the sparsely placed motels, the Southwest proved to be an interesting mix of numbing sameness and eye-opening revelation. "At first you're really interested in the desert," he says, "but by the fourth day it makes you start talking to yourself." When the homogeneity of the desert wasn't lulling him into a trance, Masland saw things that made him buoyant, reveling in his new existence on the road.
"I'd get up and start running for the day, and the dew was covering everything, the sunlight was coming through, and a guy comes riding up on a horse, and you feel like you're in the Shire. Our country is a beautiful place," he says. "And then I'm at the top of a mountain or in the Mojave Desert or in Oklahoma City on the side of a highway, and it would just hit me: 'Yeah, I'm here!' "
Seeing someone running through the searing desert with a long beard is uncommon enough that people often stopped their cars to ask what Masland was up to, if he needed help or, in the case of several policemen, if he could please move his operation off the highway and onto back roads.
"I had a guy pull up and ask, 'You need a ride?' " he begins. "I said, 'No thanks,' and he asked if I was training. I told him what I was doing, and he held his hand out the window and had this Marine tattoo on his arm. He just said, 'Thank you,' and I said, 'No, thank you.' " Masland encountered similar scenes through his trip, often leading to what he calls "spontaneous acts of generosity."
"People would stop and say, 'You look tired. What are you doing?' And I told them and they would just donate on the spot, handing me whatever cash they had in their pockets." Chance encounters like this helped Operation Amerithon raise money, but spreading the word as he ran was even more important. Masland and his team asked anyone they met to go to the Operation Amerithon Web site and donate and to like and share its page on Facebook (more than 3,700 people had done so by the time he had finished his run).
To generate more excitement along the way, Hilary and Alex contacted running groups and the media in cities and towns ahead of Masland's arrival. They organized run-alongs in Flagstaff, Ariz.; Amarillo, Texas; Oklahoma City; St. Louis; Columbus, Ohio; Pittsburgh; and Carlisle, Pa., Masland's hometown. Media coverage often followed.
All along the run, the people Masland encountered were the common thread, the glue that held him together and kept him going. "When I ran into St. Louis, a group of construction workers started yelling, 'Run, Forrest, run!' " which predictably didn't happen just this one time. "I let the beard and hair go to try to make it easy, so people could make the connection," he says with a laugh. In Columbus, people looked on as Masland ran through a torrential downpour, the thunder and lightning chasing him through the streets.
"When you're running in a downpour," he says, "people drive by and look at you like, 'Why the hell are you doing this?' and you think, 'Why the hell am I doing this?' And it makes you remember: The guys I'm doing it for go out in 125-degree heat wearing 60 pounds of gear with bullets ripping past their heads, IEDs everywhere. So when I'm sore and my feet hurt in the heat and rain, I remember that I'm fortunate."
You've run through small towns that look like movie sets. You've stayed in a motel room with a James Dean theme in the Arizona desert and woke up the next day to a half a foot of fresh snow. You've eaten at Subway 70 times in the last 154 days. You've been through eight pairs of running shoes, and you are no longer tired at the end of your daily marathon. You've collected abandoned sunglasses, pool noodles and a neon toy shotgun. You've saved a man's life on the side of the road and thrown pinecones to a lost dog in a concrete-factory parking lot while waiting for the SPCA.
You have now reached the Atlantic Ocean after running a total of 3,025 miles, after raising more than $40,000 for the Travis Manion Foundation. You hope to continue on with Operation Amerithon, developing it as a charity-driven endurance-obstacle organization.
You've kept a diary. Here's what some of it says:
There's no going back. I pushed through pain, because there was no going back. If for one reason or the other I couldn't do it, couldn't finish, I would have been devastated. There are the things you've done, the things you're doing and the things you want to do. This is something I needed to do.
You're Albie Masland, and you did it.
Published September 3, 2012