BOURNE — Cyndy Jones, co-founder of Heroes In Transition, is worried. Moments before the 12:30 a.m. start of the 36-hour, 205-mile fund-raising run, she addresses the 10 teams.
“Please be careful,” she pleads. “The greatest gift I ever had in my life was being a mother, and that remains with me. I feel like a mother to all of you. I won’t sleep until you’re all back.”
The relay run through all 15 Cape Cod towns is challenging and exhausting. Especially when the runners — which include veterans, active servicemen, police, and locals — lug rucksacks on their backs that weight up to 30 pounds. The rucksacks symbolize the heavy burdens carried by troops and their families.
Jones is a Gold Star Mother who lost her only son, Marine Capt. Eric A. Jones, in a helicopter collision while he was supporting a combat mission in Afghanistan in 2009. Now, through Heroes in Transition, she’s helping to raise money for military members and their families who suffer from physical and emotional injuries.
This year’s Cape Cod event, a relay race known as “Ruck4HIT,” raised $115,000 to provide home modifications, transitional support group therapy, and assistance dogs for veterans. The organizers and participants want to support innovative programs that go beyond what governmental agencies provide.
“We ruck for those who can’t, ” says Ruck4HIT co-director Steve Spencer.
The race is unusual. Each team is made up of seven runners and two drivers. Athletes run a 2-to-4-mile relay leg, then fist bump teammates who continue down the road. The support van leapfrogs the runners, providing rest and camaraderie for team members. Runners hit the road again in intervals of approximately 90 minutes.
This is repeated 10 times as they travel from Bourne to Provincetown, then back to Mashpee over the course of two nights.
Several runners quote the late, great Tom Petty to describe the experience.
The waiting, they say, is the hardest part.
“I’ve done marathons before, and they are easier, simply because you go all the way through and you’re done,” says Drew Caplin, an Army veteran currently stationed at Fort Campbell, Ky.
“Here, you are sleep-deprived, you run and then stiffen up in the support van, and then run again.”
Many of the runners are treated for nasty chafing from lugging the rucksacks. They are quickly bandaged by one of the physical therapists who hopscotch the course, sometimes setting up massage tables lit by car headlights.
At 4:30 a.m., Jones serves 180 of her famous fresh baked scones to the runners. Her house is food and PT stop No. 10 — 27.3 miles down, 177 more to go.
On the breakfast table is a portrait of her smiling son Eric in his camouflage uniform.
“I feel like he’s still looking over us,” she says. “I’ve seen signs of that.”
She pauses a moment, then continues.
“He was a special guy, very mild-mannered. After he died, I received a lot of letters from people saying, ‘Eric saved my life,’ and ‘Eric helped me get through things.’ He was always trying to make everything OK.”
She glances out over the bay, which is showing the promise of dawn. Eric loved the Cape, especially boating. They used to stroll the beaches together and collect shells and sea glass.
From the time he was 4, he wanted to be a Marine. By the age of 9, he wanted to be a helicopter pilot. He graduated from Northeastern with a business degree in May 2004, but within a month he was attending Officer Training School in Quantico, Va.
His mother worried about him going to war, but Eric believed there wasn’t a more honorable way to serve, even if it meant your life. She said he was killed instantly on a moonless night in Afghanistan. He was just 29 years old.
As the runners stream in, they give Jones hugs. She doesn’t mind that they are sweaty.
“This group has filled a void for me,” she says.
The camaraderie is infectious, and the 36 hours are a blur of beauty and blisters.
Some runners change in outhouses at Chatham Light. Barnstable County sheriffs brush their teeth in beach parking lots. And sponsors pull all-nighters, providing food and brewing extra coffee.
There are secluded runs through the spooky oak and pine woods of Wellfleet at night, the runners’ miner lamps jiggling up and down, drifting into the darkness. Runners cross paths with coyotes, turkeys, and foxes, who yield, and bad drivers who don’t.
There are also team challenges. Each group scales the 116 steps and 60 ramps of the Pilgrim Monument together. They take selfies and peer all the way to Plymouth. At the Chatham Light Coast Guard Station, they lug a dummy in a gurney around the perimeter. In Sandwich, they walk together using hand ropes attached to planks.
Amazingly, no one quits, despite New England weather that ranges from cold gale winds to temperatures in the mid 80s.
And as Jones said, there seem to be signs from above. Jennifer Edwards of Falmouth, the start- and finish-line coordinator, took a break and happened to gather some sea glass on the Outer Cape. Later, she found out that sea glass collecting was a favorite activity of Cyndy and her son. She pulled out a smooth pastel piece of sea glass shaped like a heart and fought back tears.
“I’m going to give this to Cyndy,” she says.
There were other gestures of the heart.
This year, part of the proceeds will go to acquire a new police dog for the Yarmouth Police Department. Last month, Sgt. Sean Gannon was shot and killed attempting to serve a warrant in Marstons Mills, and his faithful canine, Nero, was wounded.
“All 15 police departments are supporting us, and watching over our runners,” says Jones. “We suffered with them and we wanted to show our support.”
Heroes In Transition has provided 48 service dogs to veterans since 2010.
At the finish line in Mashpee, a service dog named Jeremy watches patiently as each team crosses. Jeremy’s owner, Col. Tony Dingmann, cheers them on. He did three tours of duty in Iraq. For the last 4½ years, Jeremy has been his constant companion.
“He means everything to me,” says Dingmann.
Dingmann, a Veterans Administration psychiatrist, says the support Jeremy provides is invaluable to veterans who have traumatic brain injury, PTSD, depression, anxiety, or any reactive illness.
“Jeremy does a lot for me personally, but he also does a lot for the veterans I take care of at the VA,” says Dingmann. “Many patients tell me they come to see him and not me.”
All of a sudden, Jeremy’s tail starts moving faster than the exhausted runners. The golden retriever greets Cyndy Jones by standing on his hind legs and leaning his soft paws on her shoulders.
For a moment they stand as one. Two old friends, together, committed to doing the right thing.