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Patriotic Article
By USAF MSgt. Mike Sanders

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Wingman Helps Cancer Survivor Meet Air Force Half Marathon Goal
(October 5, 2009)

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2nd Lt. Evan McNichols (left) and Master Sgt. Mike Sanders run for the finish line during the Air Force Half Marathon Sept. 19, 2009, at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio. Sergeant Sanders ran the event one year and eight months after beating cancer. Sergeant Sanders had served as an instructor with the University of Oregon's Air Force ROTC program, and Lieutenant McNichols was a cadet there and they have been each other's wingman since.
2nd Lt. Evan McNichols (left) and Master Sgt. Mike Sanders run for the finish line during the Air Force Half Marathon Sept. 19, 2009, at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio. Sergeant Sanders ran the event one year and eight months after beating cancer. Sergeant Sanders had served as an instructor with the University of Oregon's Air Force ROTC program, and Lieutenant McNichols was a cadet there and they have been each other's wingman
  10/20/2009 - SCOTT AIR FORCE BASE, Ill. (AFNS)

A day may come and a day may go, but in each day a memory can be made. For me, the days leading up to the Air Force Half-Marathon were a mixture of both. Some were relaxing and some were stressful, and each had moments of joy and anxiety as the day of the race came closer. The best part was that on one of those days a fellow Airman and a long-time wingman decided to run with me on the half marathon.

2nd Lt. Evan McNichols and I have been each other's wingman for a while now. You see, Lieutenant McNichols was Cadet McNichols when we first met at the University of Portland and I was his enlisted instructor and assistant commandant of cadets. I remember during his freshman year he told me he would be running cross country and track for the university. That's how our wingman relationship started. I shared with him the possibilities and stresses he could encounter with such an endeavor. He ran very well competing for the university, but there was one moment that he surprised me.

Lieutenant McNichols shared with me that he was departing the cross country and track team and wanted to focus more on his Air Force career. We talked more about his decision and how he could still influence others and be competitive in his running if he desired. However, the key element that I realized at that moment was that this young cadet was demonstrating our Air Force core values and becoming a better wingman for the other cadets.

Fast forward a few years. I wanted to run the Air Force Half-Marathon and several of my running mates were very convincing in getting me to go this year. It's a race I have always enjoyed. Back in 1997, I served as the team captain for 11th Wing team that ran together. It was the first year for the marathon and we wanted to represent the 11th Wing and the Washington, D.C., area. As wingmen, we trained together and prepared together making us very strong. That year, the marathon team competition entailed all members of the team to complete the full marathon and we felt fairly prepared not knowing who would really be competing. We all encouraged each other to do our best no matter what the outcome. We did and in doing so, we also won first place honors in the military division.

This year; however, was of a different nature.

As of September 2009, I am one year and eight months cancer-free! As I headed to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, with a few running friends to participate in this year's Air Force premier running event, I reflected on the times I had been there before. It had special meaning to me and this time was to be even more special. I was going to attempt to have another victory run over cancer while also remembering those who couldn't make it who are serving so well for our armed services. The one thing I was missing was a pacer, so I thought I would just run with whoever is around me. That's when I was surprised again.

Lieutenant McNichols sent me an e-mail and shared that he would run with me. My realization of his wingman capabilities was coming to fruition. I told him that I secretly wanted to run under 1 hour and 40 minutes, but wasn't sure of my fitness. As he encouraged me, I knew I had a wingman at my side.

The morning of the race came and we got there early to partake of the opening ceremonies. There was so much energy flowing. By the time we started our race, we were ready to go. We lined up on the start together and prayed a prayer of thanks. As we cruised through the first mile in 8 minutes and 4 seconds, we were right with the 1:40:00 pace group. At that moment, I told my wingman to hold tight, no need to push it yet.

Coming on the downhill off the first mile and into the second, we entered the tree covering that is also the 18-mile mark of the marathon. It was very pleasant and cool temps. Some of the runners started to feel some of the effects of going out too fast. My wingman and I kept it steady and noticed that the second mile went by in around 7 minutes and 25 seconds. That put us right on top of the pace group, so we agreed to back off.

Our next couple of miles went by fairly uneventful. We popped out of the tree-lined course and started the backside area of the race course by the golf course. It was pretty flat, so we picked it up a little. I started feeling a little tired at this point, so we again agreed to back off the pace a little as we picked it up some without realizing it. Sometimes running in a crowd will do that to you.

As we made our way to the farthest end of the route, we made almost a 180-degree turn about and found ourselves running through the housing area. As far as my wingman and I, we passed the halfway mark and we were on target. Our accountability to each other was working. Now, the challenge: the climb over the overpass and then the rolling hills to the finish. We passed 10 miles in 76 minutes and 19 seconds, and the hunt was truly on to reaking the 1:40:00 barrier.

My wingman kept me in check and when we accelerated, he got me to back down, thankfully. As we approached 11 miles, we realize we reeled in the 1:40:00 pace group and the pacesetter had to really pick up the pace to get her group in at 1:40:00. We picked up the pace again, but this time it was for real. This is the point where we recognize that the quickened pace is going to hurt.

I remember falling apart back in April when I ran the Go! St Louis Half-Marathon, crashing to 9:30 per mile pace for the remaining two at the end of that one and finishing in 1 hour, 43 minutes and change. I did not want to do that on this day. This day was about running strong and claiming victory over cancer.

I started pushing the pace and my wingman let me go as we worked together. We felt pretty comfortable and I was extremely thankful that God had placed a wingman to escort me. He was doing a fantastic job. Then it hit: calf cramps. I've never experienced these before and it was amazing. It felt like someone stabbed me in the calf each time it cramped. It started slow, but by 11.5 miles it felt like every step was worse. Grunting and little screams slipped from my mouth. I didn't know what to expect.

My wingman kept pushing me. He was always encouraging me, telling me that I'd gone through worse things than this eluding to my cancer treatments and surgery. He was right and we held on.

We hit 12 miles and a couple of other guys came alongside and encouraged me. The wingman concept was alive and well with many others that I didn't even know. One shared that I should bite my lip. He said his coach always told him to do this to divert the pain. At this point, I tried anything. It seemed to help, but I didn't want to draw blood, so I kept the biting to a minimum.

Only one mile to go. Come on legs. Keep working.

At 12.5 miles, my fellow road warrior, Lori Vest, pulled up alongside us and shared that she had followed us for 8.5 miles and wanted to finish with us. I was a little wobbly at this point and the calf cramps were extremely intense. We agreed that we just needed to finish, but I really wanted to crack that 1:40:00 barrier. I believed we could as long as the 1:40:00 pace setter didn't catch us.

With about a 10th of a mile to go, I tried to hang on and my wingman had not left my side. He pushed me hard at this point and we kicked with all that we had left to the end. We crossed the finish line and my legs buckled. As I gave thanks to God for his strength and grace, I could hardly stand. The medics grabbed me and Lieutenant McNichols informed them of my condition. As I was rushed to the medical tent, my calves were in major spasms and my wingman stayed with me. I was loaded with fluids and monitored.

As I started to regain my senses, my wingman shared with me that we did it. I looked at my watch -- it read 1:39:42. What a moment.

I was then transported to the physical therapists and they loaded me with fluids and massaged my calves for more than 20 minutes. Our day was not over yet as this is the Air Force Marathon and we've got friends still on the course that we wanted to see and encourage. As I muster the legs to walk (and they really hurt), we connected with some friends, took some pictures and prepared for the celebration later that evening.

Most importantly, I came back to this Air Force celebration to claim a victory, to run with and for fellow Airmen, and to share an event with a wingman. During this journey I encountered so much more: the encouragement and support made this day special.

This day came and this day went and my wingman gave me a memory that I will never forget.

By USAF MSgt. Mike Sanders
618th Tanker Airlift Control Center
Copyright 2009

Reprinted from Air Force News Service

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