Face of Defense: Major Runs to Honor Fallen Troops
By Meredith March
66th Air Base Wing
HANSCOM AIR FORCE BASE, Mass., Jun. 23, 2010 On Feb. 14, 2007, three victims of a roadside-bomb explosion were rushed into the hospital where Air Force Maj. (Dr.) Derek Speten, the 66th Medical Group Diagnostics and Therapeutics flight commander, worked.
Air Force Col. Mary McRae, left, and Air Force Maj. (Dr.) Derek Speten run in the Summer Thunder 10K race at Hanscom Air Force Base, Mass., June 16, 2010. U.S. Air Force photo by Mark Wyatt
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
Speten's patient, while severely burned, initially appeared to be in better condition than his two friends, one of whom arrived with a tourniquet on each leg. However, as the doctor commenced his examination, it was quickly apparent that his patient's internal injuries were grave.
After Speten made the man as comfortable as possible, he sat with him for a moment in the critical care unit, where another of the victims was recovering.
The servicemember who had arrived in the trauma bay with tourniquets on his legs told the doctor that the burned man, who was the one who had applied the tourniquets while they waited for help, had been an avid runner who dreamed of running in the Boston Marathon.
Two hours later, Speten's patient died. "I thought some of his dreams died as well," the doctor said.
As he thought about this servicemember and his friends throughout the rest of his deployment, Speten said, he began reprioritizing some of his own goals.
"When I came back, I wanted to start running for anyone who’d had that desire and no longer had the opportunity to do it," he said. He and his wife bought a jogging stroller so he could take their children, ages 7 and 4, with him while he trained.
"That was really difficult,” he said, “because when you're not conditioned to run with a stroller, not only are you slow, but your heart rate goes up faster. It's definitely more challenging."
Most people think he’s crazy for pushing a 100-pound stroller, the doctor said, but it allowed him to spend time with his children, time he had missed during his deployment.
Speten ran his first marathon in December 2008. He said that beyond the physical accomplishment of finishing the race was the healing he felt by allowing himself, uninterrupted, to reflect on his deployment and think of those who couldn't be there with him.
"When I wondered if I could finish, I had my jersey that said, 'In honor of all our fallen soldiers,' so I couldn't quit," he said.
"While I ran, it was like a three-hour personal therapy," he added. "I felt free, and I thought about accomplishing something not just for myself, but for others that couldn't be there that day. Toward the end, when my body started to shut down, I would think of those people that I was running for. It was challenging physically, but mentally, you have to have a strategy for when your body wants to quit. I kept thinking, 'I can do this,' because what I was asking of my body was nothing compared to the heroic acts those servicemembers had performed to save each other before they got to that trauma bay."
Over the next year, Speten completed six additional marathons, among other races, and he qualified for the Boston Marathon, which he ran alongside another Hanscom airman who was running his first marathon.
Finishing that race was an incredible personal accomplishment for a number of reasons, Speten said.
"Not only had I accomplished something for someone that I had set in motion years ago, but suddenly I was also able to help support another airman and friend," he said.
Doctor Speten said he subsequently mailed his Boston Marathon jersey, T-shirt and medal to the parents of the servicemember who had inspired him to run it.
"He accomplished this through me," the doctor said. "I've learned from these experiences not to drop your dreams, and if someone else can't accomplish theirs, you can accomplish them in their place."
While he's achieved his Boston Marathon goal, Speten continues to race competitively. He and his brother, Shane, participated in an Ironman 70.3 event in New Found Lake, N.H., on June 6. He also recently ran alongside his wife during her first marathon, and his training and competitions often include pushing his children in the jog stroller.
Involving his family has made the experience not only possible, but more enjoyable, Speten said.
"When you deploy, you really wish you had spent more time with your family," he said. "You will always have personal goals you want to accomplish, but involving your family and receiving their support is what keeps you going."