Wearing heavy backpacks, more than 70 soldiers, veterans, and their friends set off from Hopkinton before sunrise on Saturday.
They marched past the Framingham train depot and Wellesley College. They marched over Heartbreak Hill. They marched all the way to Boston on the Marathon route — 26.2 miles — to raise money for a veterans charity and awareness about the alarming rate of suicides among US military veterans.
According to some estimates, 22 veterans a day commit suicide — more than 8,000 a year — a rate that is disproportionately higher than the average.
“There is so much help out there — they just don’t know how to get to it,” said Michelle Lyons, 34, of Plainfield, Conn, a veteran who along with her husband served in Afghanistan. “Hopefully we can bring that number down to zero.”
In addition to the marchers, hundreds of runners also ran much of the route Saturday to prepare for the Boston Marathon in three weeks. For instance, the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston alone said 200 of its 700 charity runners ran 20 to 22 miles along the course.
“This was by far the biggest training run in our 25 seasons,” said Jan Ross, director of running programs at Dana-Farber.
And many other charities and running groups organized water stops, transportation, and other support for countless other runners Saturday. Altogether, it’s possible that more than 1,000 runners were on the roads, Ross said.
“There were tons of people out there today,” said Lori Busch, 31, of Brookline, who ran just over 21 miles from Hopkinton, her longest training run before the race. “It was like a mini-marathon. There were water stops every mile or two. People were holding signs.”
Busch said she normally runs alone on Saturday mornings, but on this day she felt “much less lonely” with the crowds of other runners, spectators, and police helping to direct traffic.
The route is popular with runners training for the Marathon, but this year has been particularly busy, because the Boston Athletic Association, which runs the event, expanded the usual field by 9,000 spots to 36,000 after last year’s race was halted by the bombing.
The organization decided to allow runners like Busch, who were stopped before the finish last year, to run again this year, and it made room for others personally affected by the bombing.
Carlos Arredondo, one of the heroes of the Marathon bombing aftermath, and his wife, Malida, were in Hopkinton at 6 a.m. to see the veterans set off from the starting line in Hopkinton, and pledged to meet them at the finish line near Copley Square. Arredondo, who has long supported efforts to address military-related suicides, noted that one of his sons died in the Iraq war, while another committed suicide.
“It’s very close to our hearts and our family,” said Arredondo, wearing his signature cowboy hat.
In addition to the backpacks, marchers wore everything from jeans to military uniforms to rainbow-colored tutus. An accountant from New Hampshire wore a gas mask to add an additional challenge to the walk.
Marchers were hoping to raise a total of $75,000 to support Active Heroes, a national charity based in Lousville, Ky. that helps struggling military families with financial and emotional support. The group is developing a $4 million retreat for veterans and family members in Shepherdsville, Ky.
The Boston event was just one many “ruck marches” — military-style long walks with heavy packs — held Saturday in a Carry the Fallen effort to raise money and awareness for the charity’s efforts to fight suicides among veterans.
“It’s super important,” said US Army Captain Justin Fitch, who helped organize the walk.
Fitch, who has been battling advanced colon cancer, started the march with his own 50-pound pack and a sign commemorating a veteran who killed himself last year. But he soon felt abdominal pain and was unable to walk the entire route.
Kathleen White, 39, said she suffered a traumatic brain injury in the Iraq War that makes it difficult for her to walk long distances. But she pedaled the route with a US flag. Like many participating in the march, she said she has known veterans who took their lives.
“Oh, yes,” she said. “A lot of veterans come back and don’t feel like they fit.”