At one of my first races, The Lamplighter 5K in a dinky little Carolina town (can't remember if it was in North or South Carolina, as we lived along the border and ran races in both states regularly), I was following the Marathoning for Mortals run/walk training plan, so I'd take walk breaks regularly. I can't tell you how many times my fellow runners encouraged me with "Keep it up!" or "Lookin' good, Red!" There I was, new to the sport, but so openly welcomed. It was there that I also noticed for the first time that most of the runners started and finished their runs with smiles. Even the most serious of runners can't hide their smiles the entire time.
I wish I had discovered running when I was younger. Looking back, I'm surprised that I didn't. A friend of mine in high school was one of the top 5 girls in the state. An even closer friend of mine, John Wilt (or just "Wilt"), was a runner who managed to get in regular runs despite all of the marching band & football practices, guitar lessons, band practices with friends, volunteering and academic competitions he did. Now that I know running isn't something to be feared, I suspect that running may have been the glue that kept it all together for John. Sometimes he ran with friends, but I know that as much as he enjoyed socializing (EVERYBODY loved Wilt), I know he must have basked in the solitude of running from time to time, too.
John never knew me as a runner, though I wish he had. Running has made me a much better person than I ever was during our shared high school days. I like to think that he would have said, "Well, put on your shoes and let's go!" I can only imagine the wisdom I could have gleaned from a run with him - running or life-related, it wouldn't matter. Wilt had a way of just knowing. Knowing the right thing to say, knowing when not to say anything at all, knowing the perfect analogy to help you think more clearly, knowing that he was the perfect person to deliver harsh reality to you instead of sugar coating the truth or dancing around it. He served up Truth better than anyone I've ever known.
The last time I saw John was at my wedding, three years before running got its wonderful hold on me. Though he and I hadn't really seen one another for years (I moved before our Senior year), we stayed in touch some and he made a point to get leave from the U.S. Naval Academy to meet up with his parents for my wedding, for which I will be forever honored. He stayed right up to the very last dance, for which there were only about a dozen of us left in the whole place. Two short years later I returned to our common town for his memorial service.
On Sunday, May 9th I'll be joining runners from all over the world (one of the benefits of being Air Force brats) to honor John's life and raise funds for the John Wilt Scholarship. While the actual run is in O'Fallon, IL, where John's parents still reside, I'll be running it right here in Duvall, WA. While some of his friends still live in the area, and are likely to be there in full force, I bet just as many of us will be taking part in the virtual event. I get chills just thinking about how our love for Wilt and his love of running are uniting us all.
Next time you go for a run, take a minute to think about how the running community has strengthened you and enhanced your life. And on Sunday, May 9th, if you run (make that "WHEN you run"), think of John and his far-reaching circle of family and friends who are running, too. I'll be thinking of John and the other runners who have influenced my path. While Wilt's feet won't be hitting the pavement like ours, he'll be there. Runners are always there for one another. John Wilt was a runner. And I'm proud to be a runner, too.
John Wilt graduated from O’Fallon Township High School in 1996. His interests included music, sports, math and science, literature, international relations and history. He was a member of the Honor Society, the concert and marching bands, the speech team, and Model U.N. He also played varsity football, participated in track and was active in his church. After graduating from the United States Naval Academy with a degree in Physics, he was commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant in the United States Marine Corps.
John died May 8th, 2002 in an aircraft accident while undergoing flight officer training at NAS Pensacola, Florida and was posthumously promoted to 1st Lieutenant in August 2008. In John’s memory, a $1500.00 renewable scholarship has been established to recognize a member of the graduating class who has enthusiastically pursued academic excellence, been involved in athletics and other extracurricular activities, and has displayed exceptional levels of commitment to achieving personal goals. Proceeds from the 5K run will apply directly to the scholarship fund. Visit http://sites.google.com/site/johnwiltscholarship5k for more information.