When Kristin Burke found herself at mile 20 of the Leadville Marathon in Colorado, her body was running out of fuel. Over 13,000 feet of elevation was taking its toll, and the seasoned long-distance runner felt like she couldn’t go another step further.
She had 6 more miles to reach the finish line. But there was one number that seemed much more important; a number she’d heard on a radio show about veteran suicide.
The number was 22.
Kristin Burke is running 12 marathons in 12 months to raise awareness for veteran suicide because the number 22 is the average number of veterans who commit suicide each day according to the VA’s 2012 Suicide Data Report. (That number has since been scrutinized for the study’s sample size, but it remains evident that post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and suicide are painfully prevalent in the lives of those who have served in our armed forces.)
This issue hits close to home for Burke, whose boyfriend and father are both veterans. Her boyfriend, Marine Capt. Matthew LaFontaine, doesn’t talk much about what he went through in his two tours in Afghanistan. But he does tell Burke that it feels like “no one cares.”
Always the competitive runner, Burke had already made a New Year’s resolution to compete in one race each month for the following year. But after learning of this sobering statistic, her personal challenge took on a greater significance.
She saw an opportunity and a need to bring awareness to an issue that not enough people were talking about. Burke committed herself to run 12 marathons in one year to raise money for Active Heroes, a 501c3 charity that strives to reduce veteran suicide through peer support and resources.
Active Heroes is currently constructing a Military Family Retreat Center in Shepherdsville, Kentucky, which will be free of charge to veterans and their families. This retreat center will be the first of its kind, with a focus on helping military families through nature therapy, fitness and family activities. It will give veterans and their families a needed escape, the resources to cope with trauma and the skills to assimilate into daily life.
There’s a sense of relief when a soldier returns home from war. Gone is the fear of losing a loved one on the battlefield. But it turns out the risk of losing that loved one continues beyond their homecoming. Ten to 18 percent of returning soldiers (specifically from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan) will be plagued by PTSD, and many of them struggle to get the help they need.
Active Heroes is working to give more and more veterans that help, and Burke’s fundraising efforts will go directly toward the construction of this much-needed retreat center.
Running 12 marathons in 12 months is an astonishing physical challenge. But Burke wants people to remember that no matter how hard this may look, the experiences of so many military men and women are much more physically and emotionally challenging.
Sitting at the aid station at mile 20 of that second marathon in Leadville, Burke thought to herself, I’m doing this for people who have sacrificed so much and gone through things I’ll never understand.
After resting for 30 minutes, she got up and finished.
“It took me forever. I never thought I’d run a marathon that slow, but I was so proud.”
This past weekend, Burke was the fifth female finisher and the second in her age group at the Aspen Backcountry Marathon. Despite the grueling schedule she’s set for herself, Burke is still making it look easy. Her fundraising has been a success so far as well. She had raised $4,000 just before her fourth marathon. As she continues with the remaining eight, she hopes to raise an additional $1,000 for each race.
Burke’s competitive streak may contribute to her ability to press forward, but it’s the attention she’s drawing to veterans who need help that motivates her more than anything.
“The end of a marathon is so mental. [Previously] I’d think, I’ll qualify for the Boston Marathon, or I’ll get a [personal record]. Now, it’s not about any of that. I’m doing this for a reason. If I have to walk or crawl or have someone carry me, I’m going to cross each finish line.”
If you’d like to help Burke in her commitment to raising $12,000 to support veterans and their families through Active Heroes, you can donate here.