When Matthew Woodliff starts to feel mentally or physically fatigued as he trains for the 47th Marine Corps Marathon, he doesn’t motivate himself to string together by plotting to set records or improve his pace. Instead, he just thinks about what his brother Michael would have done.
“In those times when I feel a little tired, or I don’t feel it at all, it’s usually when I tap into that memory bank, and just like that, I feel it around me,” Woodliff said. after a recent 16-miler prep. “I just know he would accept it. He would love it if it wasn’t easy and it would still put an ear-to-ear smile on his face.
Army Sergeant. Michael Woodliff, a 22-year-old mortar specialist, was killed by a roadside IED in Baghdad, Iraq, in 2004. If he were still alive, Matthew says they would pound the pavement together. And in some ways they still are.
In his honour, Matthew runs wearing a copy of Michael’s dog tags and often names his shoes after the divisions he was in – a red, white and blue pair was dubbed “82nd Airborne”.
“Without fail, I’m going to have memories coming back to me during my races where I think of him and grow with him, and those are the things that get me through,” Matthew said.
Surely that will be true on Oct. 30 when he takes part in his second Marine Corps Marathon, participating this year as part of the wear blue: run to remember Gold Star Race Program. The nonprofit has created a running community that empowers families of fallen military members to actively heal, active-duty members to remember their fallen siblings, and communities to support military families through through regular races and running groups.
Gold Star family members can apply to be part of wear blue support teams running in the Marine Corps Marathon, as well as races in San Antonio; Fort Worth, TX; and San Diego. Jessica Alley, Director of the Gold Star Race program for the Marine Corps Marathon, leads the effort to welcome 10 members of the Gold Star family to Washington, DC, for race weekend. Each athlete receives running shoes, wear blueequipment and a training plan starting in June. Besides the main event, they attend an honorary dinner, a deconfinement race and a wreath laying ceremony.
“We’ve had moms and dads who lost their kids, siblings who lost their siblings, and kids who lost their parents,” Alley said. “I’ve seen athletes arrive Thursday with trepidation and leave Monday with infectious, renewed strength and determination. The transformation this experience brings is nothing short of amazing.
This year’s cohort includes a parent of a deceased service member, a spouse and seven siblings representing the Army, Navy and Marines.
“For the first time in my memory, we have a father/daughter duo, racing for their son/brother,” Alley said. “It’s a phenomenal group, made up of seasoned runners and first-time marathon runners. I can’t wait to be in October with them.
The Gold Star Race program brings miles of memories
Matthew is looking forward to the race weekend with his wear blue The Gold Star program team as well, especially the links on the connections and shared stories.
He remembers Michael, one of four Woodliff “Army brat” brothers, as being born to serve. Matthew said Michael often wore his dad’s uniform, stood up for the other kids and had a relentless interest in all things fitness. Matthew said he even tricked their mother into letting him enlist before he turned 18 by convincing her to sign what he claimed was a ‘field release form’ .
“On duty and off he made the most of every day,” said Matthew. “I have no doubt he loved what he was doing even though he left this world too soon.”
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Michael is committed, Matthew said, and so is he – to cross the finish line. Although his involvement with wear blue started in 2012, this year will truly be a memorable race. Her parents will volunteer along the wear blue mile, a section of the racetrack lined with signs depicting fallen service members and hundreds of American flags.
While Matthew anticipates this to be a very emotional experience, that doesn’t mean he won’t try to keep things light-hearted as Michael would have done either. He plans to stop for selfies with the Marines and share hugs with his family.
“The beauty of it all is that everyone is going to find the time to share and learn about each other, to remember and honor those loved ones we’ve lost,” Matthew said. “I encourage everyone to do so. I think it’s an incredibly thoughtful way of bringing people together.
Alley said Matthew’s thoughts sum up wear blue assignment.
“We want to learn more about your fallen serviceman and see you take deliberate action in his honor,” she said. “We want to hear stories and know what your trip was like. We want to provide a space where you can tackle something big – a marathon – with other survivors by your side.