44 miles for 44 vets

| November 4, 2014 | 0 Comments

Former Navy nurse dedicates birthday run to fallen Minnesota soldiers

Pam Baker ran her age on her birthday Sept. 8, completing a run of 44 miles to honor military personnel from Minnesota who died in the line of duty. She herself is a veteran, having served as a nurse in the Navy. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

Pam Baker ran her age on her birthday Sept. 8, completing a run of 44 miles to honor military personnel from Minnesota who died in the line of duty. She herself is a veteran, having served as a nurse in the Navy. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

On Sept. 8, the day of her 44th birthday, Pam Baker of St. Vincent de Paul in Brooklyn Park did something many might call crazy:

She ran her age — 44 miles.

By the grace of God, she says, she finished the journey. It ended at about 10 p.m., right where it started — in the driveway of her Maple Grove home.

The amazing part for her was simply this — she did it with no training beforehand, and without a single sore muscle afterward.

She takes that as a sign that her prayer intention for the race was divinely inspired, that inspiration coming just three days before her 44-mile run.

“Literally, the Friday before my birthday — my birthday was on a Monday — I decided, ‘I’m going to do this and I’m going to dedicate it to those in Minnesota who had fallen — Minnesota veterans, Minnesota military members who had been killed in combat,” said Baker, a veteran who served as a nurse in the Navy from 1991 to 1998. “So, I found a [web]site where it identified the military members [killed]. I believe that there were 99 Minnesota individuals who have been killed since 2001, since the 9/11 attacks. So, I dedicated [to] the most recent 44. Each of them got a mile.”

Fueling her hope that she could finish were two things: 1. She has been a runner most of her life, and 2. She had run her age three times before.

“This was my fourth year doing the run. I started when I was 40,” said Baker, who is married with four children, two of whom attend St. Vincent de Paul School. “Two weeks before I turned 40, I decided that I wanted to do something that epitomized who I am, which was not about going out and doing crazy things and staying up all night drinking. That wasn’t me. So, I decided I wanted to run. I thought, ‘Why don’t I try running my age in miles?’”

She then chose to dedicate each mile to someone important in her life. Her parents got miles 1 and 2, and her husband John got mile 23, which was her age when they met.

At age 41 and 43, she did the same thing, again coming up with a list of people to honor with one mile each. At 42, she missed it because of back surgery to repair spinal damage from a fall she suffered when she was 2.

But, she got back at it on her 43rd birthday, successfully completing the journey for a third time, though doing more walking than running to make it easy on her back.

This year was special because she had extra inspiration from the veterans she was running for, plus the many Facebook connections who posted inspiring messages before the race — and agreed to run part of the race with her.

Here’s how it worked. She kicked it off at about 7:30 a.m. with people who had agreed to start the run with her. She ran a few miles, then looped back to her house. The rest of the day featured similar loops ranging from 1 to 12 miles. She included a run with students on the St. Vincent’s cross country team she coaches.

“I stopped at every mile and whoever I was with, we prayed a Hail Mary out loud,” she said. “Then, we prayed for the repose of the souls of the faithfully departed. And, we moved on to the next mile. We lifted these [deceased soldiers] up, prayerfully thinking about their families and the loss that they encountered.”

The most memorable mile came during the second half of the run. She had an encounter with one of her supporters that she will never forget. And, it came at the best possible time — with her close to the brink of quitting at mile 27.

“I was totally and completely overwhelmed,” she said. “I was completely fatigued, tired, thinking, ‘I can’t continue. I don’t have the energy. I’m hungry, I’m tired, my head hurts, I’m by myself, this is a lonely stretch of road. I don’t know what I’m going to do.’”

All of that distress melted away in the parking lot of a senior high-rise when an elderly friend came out to greet her.

“His name is Mike Cullen,” she said. “He came out with his walker — his ‘fast walker’ — so he could jog with me. We just went maybe 100 yards. He jogged about 15 feet. I said, ‘You need to stop. You’re making me nervous.’ I was really, really tired at mile 27. And, he brought out two gentlemen who were veterans.”

The symbolism of that simple gesture was not lost on Baker, who said she was rejuvenated by that encounter and cruised the rest of the way.

Not bad for someone whose only preparation for the run was a 5-mile jog several days before. What’s more, there were none of the after effects from her 44-mile journey that runners often suffer.

“God gave me the strength to finish. He also gave me the will to start,” she said. “I didn’t have a sore joint, a sore muscle, a blister. I had nothing that was sore, nothing that ached — nothing. I didn’t train. I didn’t eat right the night before. And, I did it. There is no other way that I believe that that was possible without the grace of God, without the prayers that were supporting me, without the prayers that were part of that run, and by the grace of the angels of those young men who perished.”

As many folks prepare to honor Veterans Day Nov. 11, Baker can simply look back and smile at what she did to honor those in Minnesota who made the ultimate sacrifice.

Baker received feedback from someone who knows the family of the fallen soldier mile 27 was dedicated to — Benjamin Kopp, who was only 21 when he died. That person then promised to send word to Kopp’s family about Baker’s run.

Connections like this confirm her decision to run for the fallen vets, and help her remember what they died for.

“I have the freedom to run,” she said. “I have the freedom to choose when and where and how. I have the freedom to be able to pray when I’m running. And, I was praying for the individuals who sacrificed their freedom for mine.”

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