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For Cathy Powers, a journey to complete 1,000 miles began with an improbable first step: running for a cause.
“I was the person who never got picked for a team. I was the mom who drove to get the mail,” says Powers, who was 140 pounds heavier only two years ago. “I was the person who would rather sit than stand.”
In April 2013, she was crippled by grief and debilitated by sadness upon the death of her son, Senior Airman Bryce Kenneth Powers, U.S. Air Force. He died after a motor vehicle accident in Japan, which placed him into a coma for more than six months.
During that traumatic time, the Gold Star mother, based in Charlotte, North Carolina, sought comfort in her longtime drug of choice: food. Convinced that her life would never be “good” again, Powers, now 52 years old, ate until she reached nearly 300 pounds.
Health and healing came through an unlikely form. In April 2018, after four years of honoring her son by attending the Mountain Man Memorial March—one of the nation’s largest events to celebrate and honor service members—Powers had a revelation. She needed to give back; she no longer wanted to be a spectator, she wanted to be a participant.
Powers initially registered for the race’s 10K, but as the event drew closer, she made a bold decision. She upgraded to the half marathon—her first race would be 13.1 miles for her son. Her racing strategy was simple: walk up the hills and run the downhill portions. With Bryce’s name displayed on her shirt, Powers crossed the finish line, snagging first in her age group. Encouraged by her performance, when she got home she purchased a timer and continued running, going a bit farther and a little longer each time. By watching YouTube videos, Powers learned all of the running essentials—like how to fuel and what to wear—and registered for her second race, the Marine Corps Marathon, in October 2018.
“Because it took me four years to realize our son lost his life, and I was wasting my life, my healing has truly been a marathon healing. I really gave up and felt sorry for myself for a long time. Then finally I found my pace and started pulling ahead,” says Powers, who will tackle 26.2 miles again in October at the Marine Corps Marathon.
Through running, Powers is raising awareness and funds to sponsor veterans’ wreaths to be placed at Arlington National Cemetery in December as part of Wreaths Across America. During various events throughout the year, Wreaths Across America ensures that veterans and their families are recognized and remembered. Its largest event takes place each December when they coordinate wreath-laying ceremonies at Arlington National Cemetery and 1,640 additional locations worldwide.
“This is not about decorating graves, it is about honoring and remembering veterans’ lives, and my son’s life. I learned so much from the mission of Wreaths Across America: Remember, honor, and teach. Remember our fallen, honor those serving now and their families, and teach the next generation,” Powers says.
“Running Fir Wreaths” is Powers’ initiative to run 1,000 miles in 2019—a portion of which she wants to log in each state—and sponsor 7,777 veterans’ wreaths, one for each day her son was alive. At the beginning of the year, Powers posted about her goal on Facebook, requesting volunteers to host her in their respective states. Very quickly, she received hundreds of offers to come and run.
Already halfway to her goal, Powers just needs to average 22 miles each week to complete her journey. Powers has logged runs of varying distances in more than 30 states, including Hawaii and Alaska, and even the North Pole, where she got to meet Santa. She runs with groups of different sizes – from three to three hundred people – at a wide range of locations including veteran homes, Navy bases and Air Force bases. She was even invited to run at the Dover Air Force base, where the remains of U.S. military killed overseas are brought before being transported to their families.
“When they asked me to come they said, ‘We need your resilience and that story of not giving up. We need that here because of what we deal with,’” says Powers.
By her account, the mission is already a success.
“I have seen so much healing. I have met POWs who were locked in rail cars in Normandy. They told their stories with no tears in their eyes. But, when they asked me why I was there, and I told them, ‘I am here to run, because I want you to know I love you and you have not been forgotten, and to thank you for your service,’ I’ve seen them break right down and cry and hug and thank me for caring,” Powers says.
Her year-long expedition will culminate on December 14, with a final run up to the gates of the Arlington Cemetery, where her son is buried. There she will place the last wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
“Knowing Cathy’s journey, and now watching her take on this incredible challenge… it gives me hope that this mission is making an impact on people’s lives,” says Karen Worcester, volunteer executive director at Wreaths Across America. “She has motivated me in so many ways and we are so proud to be supporting her as she sets and reaches this amazing goal.”
In 2018, 1.8 million wreaths were placed on veterans’ headstones through Wreaths Across America. At Arlington National Cemetery alone, 253,000 wreaths were placed by more than 60,000 volunteers, including Powers.
“I’m so blown away by everything that has happened—this is going to be a really cool movement,” Powers says. “Maybe next year there will be a lot of people running, doing the same thing, for hope.”