Blurred asphalt and burning lungs remained the constant companions of the runner on a lonely Oklahoma back road as he struggled against a 35 mph headwind.
Halfway into his third day of running 35.5 miles a day, the sound of slapping soles on his running shoes set the cadence that kept him going through rain, heat and wind.
Air Force Senior Airman Brendan Brustad left Altus Air Force Base on April 23 on a personal quest to run 168 miles in memory of the 168 people killed in the 1995 Oklahoma City Murrah Federal Building bombing. His course followed a route to the Oklahoma City Memorial that would cover 141.8 miles over four days. He would then finish the distance in the 26.2-mile Oklahoma City Memorial Marathon on April 27.
His running jersey has the logo "168-4-168" to symbolize why he is going the extra mile.
"I was running the memorial marathon in 2006, my fifth marathon at the time, when I realized that Altus Air Force Base was about 140 miles from Oklahoma City," Brustad, a medical material journeyman, said. "Adding the marathon, the distance was roughly 168 miles."
He mapped a route that would give him the exact distance needed.
"I saw a way that I could honor the lives that were lost in bombing," he said.
He began the long run to a chorus of cheering airmen lining the route to the base's main gate, followed by a number of runners who ran with him to the gate for the send-off.
Mother Nature's contribution to the send-off was two hours of steady rain.
A support crew of four friends followed Brustad, providing sports drinks, water and carbohydrate-rich foods. A medical technician weighed him and checked his temperature.
"We made sure he ate a lot of pasta each evening for carbohydrates. That kept his energy high," said Airman 1st Class Joel Boyd, a medical technician. "During the run, we fed him pretzels and jelly beans, and lava salt pills to maintain hydration. We weighed him every five or six miles to make sure his weight was good. It was the best way to see if he was dehydrating."
"(I ate) lots of pasta, but I still lost some weight, dropping six pounds to 132 pounds," Brustad said. "What surprised me was that each day I ran faster, so my friends kept me healthy. I couldn't have done this without their support."
A member of his crew, Airman 1st Class Stuart Farris, from 97th Operations Support Squadron at Altus, is a nephew of one of the bombing victims.
Brustad arrived in Oklahoma City on schedule and got a good night's rest in preparation for the next day's marathon.
"There were thousands of runners for the event, including a fellow runner from Altus Air Force Base, Master Sergeant Roque Urena," Brustad said. "I got a good start and set a pace that I thought I could maintain to go the distance. At the finish line, I was shocked when I saw the big clock. Despite the long 'warm-up,' I had set my third-fastest marathon time at 4 hours, 12 minutes and 45 seconds."
He finished 776th out of more than 16,000 runners.
While far behind the winning time of 2 hours, 36 minutes, Brustad achieved his goal: renewed focus for the victims of the Murrah Building bombing. Over the five days of running, his tribute was covered by several newspapers and four television networks. At the finish line, he was asked to autograph 168-4-168 jerseys for admiring spectators.
Brustad ran his first marathon two years ago. Then he started looking at ways he could push the envelope even further.
"Running that first marathon was great, but it only benefited me," he said. "I wanted to do more, so for the second marathon I ran, all proceeds went to the Oklahoma Cancer Centers. I started thinking about what I could do next to challenge myself more."
Since then, Brustad has run ultra-marathons to raise money for charities, including St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis, Tenn.
Running is his way of changing the world, one mile at a time.
By Michael Fletcher
Special to American Forces Press Service
Michael Fletcher works at 97th Air Mobility Wing Public Affairs.