MOUNT WASHINGTON, N.H. — Dreams sometimes begin above the clouds at the top of New England.
At 5:20 a.m. last Thursday, under the cover of fog, four active-duty Navy SEALs and a Coast Guardsman stood at attention as a flag was unfurled and the national anthem played. Then they stretched and took off down the Mount Washington Auto Road. Within minutes, the sun burned through the mist and they could see all the way to Maine.
But this was no secret mission. The “Summit to Sunshine Challenge” is a 95-mile triathlon geared to raise money for Camp Sunshine, a retreat for children stricken with life-threatening diseases.
After running down the mountain, the men bicycled 83.4 miles across into Maine and then swam nearly 4 miles across Sebago Lake to a hero’s welcome at Camp Sunshine.
There is an unspoken bond between the SEALs and the children in that they both routinely face possible death. But SEALs Commander Mike W. (last names are withheld for security reasons) says the kids are the real heroes.
“They are amazing,” said the 18-year SEAL veteran. “We chose our lifestyle. They had to deal with the hand that they’ve been given. They didn’t get to have a good childhood.
“At Camp Sunshine, they’re trying to be happy, they’re trying to be kids, and I never hear any complaints from them. I love them.”
Mike W., of Windham, Maine, founded “SEALs for Sunshine” in 2014 and was one of a handful of SEALs to swim across Sebago Lake to raise funds and awareness last summer. This year, the SEALs upped the ante by doing a reverse triathlon.
They start by running downhill on the 7.6-mile Auto Road, sometimes backpedaling and running side-to-side to ease muscle stress. They did better than a support vehicle that had to stop three times for overheated brakes that stunk up the sweet mountain air as they descended 4,700 vertical feet.
It took the runners just 72 minutes to get to the base.
While they unpacked their bicycles for the next segment, a park ranger playfully scolded them.
“That was a really bad idea,” said the ranger. “Nobody ever does that. It’s harder going down than up. It’s much harder on the knees and the quads.”
Some SEALs barely broke a sweat.
“It wasn’t cardio taxing, it was muscular/skeletal taxing,” said one. “If that makes sense.”
The SEALs made it crystal clear that they want no credit for doing this. They paid their own airfare. They spent part of the previous day playing games with the kids at Camp Sunshine. They told no war stories about Iraq and Afghanistan or other hellholes around the world. But they expressed some satisfaction that a magazine boasted that the No. 1 bar pickup line is, “I was a US Navy SEAL.”
The night before the triathlon and a 4 a.m. wake-up call, they had dinner with Camp Sunshine sponsors in Jackson, N.H.
“I learned they are really human,” said Dean Williams, one of the sponsors. “We think of Navy SEALs as being these robots, and they’re not. They’re well-trained, intelligent, humorous, wonderful personalities. They’re no different than us, they’re just in a hell of a lot better shape.”
During the 11-hour triathlon, temperatures soared into the 90s while the SEALs rooted for clouds.
Along the roads, people with flags and smiles and even hastily scribbled-out checks buoyed their spirits. The SEALs even laughed off a wrong turn that added an extra mile and another godforsaken hill to the journey.
Halfway through the trip, they stopped in South Paris, Maine, where members of the Maine Veterans Home cheered them.
Justin Legg, 37, a retired Navy SEAL and cancer and double lung transplant survivor, greeted them warmly. Legg was injured in the Iraq desert when he kicked down a door during a mission and was exposed to gases. Two years later, he was diagnosed with leukemia.
He said that Camp Sunshine, where kids and their families are given free 24-hour medical and psycho-social support, plus private family suites, is unique.
“I’ve been to a lot of support facilities and hospitals,” he said. “I’ve never seen anything like Camp Sunshine, where everyone can talk to each other about all the experiences they are going through.
“For people to get together with people experiencing the same thing is just the greatest healing thing imaginable.”
Legg introduced the SEALs who got off their bikes and thanked the veterans, many of whom now use wheelchairs.
“You guys did the watch,” said Mike W. “It’s our turn now. We’ll make sure we do you guys proud.”
Legg said the compassionate side of the SEALs often goes under the radar.
“We don’t want people to know we have a heart,” he said. “We don’t want people to know we have feelings too. We’re supposed to be big and tough, just like the movies show, right?”
Back on the road, temperatures reached 110 degrees on the black asphalt.
Mike W. faded and ended up in the back of an ambulance taking IV fluids. But he refused to remotely entertain thoughts of quitting. His return to the road lifted his team’s spirits.
At Camp Mataponi, a camp for girls on Sebago Lake, the team was greeted like rock stars as they changed into wetsuits and dived into the clear Maine waters for the final 3.9-mile swim.
While many SEALs treated the swim like a dip in the pool, one got queasy and climbed aboard a support boat. He received IV fluids before insisting on returning to finish.
Kids onshore waved bananas at the swimmers, and a woman in a kayak delivered them to the wet warriors, who devoured them in the water.
At the finish at Point Sebago Resort, a patriotic crowd that included flag ladies, weeping parents, and kids chanting “USA! USA!” cheered as the SEALs finished together and hugged.
The endeavor surpassed its goal, raising more than $125,000 for Camp Sunshine. Commander Mike W., who finished strong, told his fans he was “a little bit delirious.”
“This is our calling, what we were put on earth to do,” said the 40-year-old.
Before signing autographs for kids, he said that the youngsters’ courage kept him from quitting.
“It made all the difference in the world,” he said. “You couldn’t let them down.”
Stan Grossfeld can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.