This Saturday, John Rice will get up with the sunrise, put on his pair of athletic shoes and step outside to start running. When he finishes he will have gone 20 miles, the longest single distance he has ever run.
Rice, 62, is nearing the final weeks of his training for the P.F. Chang’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon on Jan. 17. The full marathon will be his first, and he’s summoning his usual reasons for taking to the road: the benefits to his health, the opportunity it provides him to think during those first few easy-going miles and, finally, because he considers himself, by identity, to be a runner. He enjoys doing it.
“I know the roads I run really well,” Rice said. “I know where all the little cracks are.”
But he will also run for a reason that is likely unique to the marathon’s 30,000 other participants: the education of 240 students at Hoang Van Thu Junior High School in Vietnam.
A year ago, Rice was put in touch with John Craven, with whom he served in the “A” Company of the U.S. Army’s 70th Battalion during the Vietnam War. The two hadn’t spoken to each other in 40 years, so Craven and his wife, Gail, flew from their home in Michigan to Phoenix to pay Rice and his family a visit.
Rice learned that Craven had become involved with the DOVE Fund, an organization of veterans that works to construct schools and provide other amenities for the citizens of Vietnam. Through DOVE, Craven had raised enough money to construct a junior high school near a former base camp where he and Rice were stationed in 1969.
Craven made his first return trip to Vietnam in 2007, apprehensive about the effect it would have on him. But the experience turned out to be a positive one.
“I went back there hesitantly because I didn’t know what I was going to come upon,” he said. “What I wasn’t counting on was the amount of healing that happened.’
When he returned home, Craven began traveling to Rotary clubs in the Midwest, petitioning its members for money to build a new school in Vietnam. He would need to raise $50,000 to supplement the $13,000 provided by the local Vietnamese government. Today, Craven estimates he is $5,000 shy of having the school fully paid off.
In April of this year, Craven returned once more to Vietnam for a dedication ceremony and to place a plaque outside of the school that honors three soldiers of “A” Company – George Davenport Jr., Wayne Elkins Sr. and William McLaughlin – who were killed in a bunker accident on Oct. 4, 1969.
Helping build the school encouraged Craven to confront the troubling inner remnants of his time in Vietnam.
“That put me on the process of dealing with the thoughts, emotions and hidden scars that I had to deal with,” he said. “What they call ‘survivor’s guilt’ ate away at me all these years.”
It so happened that Rice had been researching charities for which he could raise money by running. To support Hoang Van Thu Junior High seemed to him the opportune cause.
“I made the decision I would do something to help him,” Rice said.
He set up a Web site to chronicle his training and provide an easy channel for donations. He soon started receiving contributions from people he hadn’t spoken to in years, many attached with notes of encouragement.
As his training became more rigorous, Rice began setting personal milestones for distance almost every weekend. His effort during the latter miles of a long run became almost entirely mental, suppressing the voice in his head that says “quit,” “enough” and “too much.”
“My mentality becomes ‘a mile at a time,’” he said. “I just say to myself ‘I’ve run 16 miles, only one more to go’ and then, ‘I’ve run 17 miles, only one more to go.’” And so on.
Now, with the marathon in three weeks, only two uncertainties remain: the amount of time it will take him to finish – he’ll be satisfied with a total time of four-and-a-half hours – and how he will feel when it’s over. But he will finish, of that he is certain.
During their revived correspondence, Craven said something that deeply affected Rice: that his effort with DOVE was about “finishing the mission that was started in 1969.” The mission is, in his belief, to help the Vietnamese people.
For Rice, it is once again a mission worth lending his time and talents.
“We took care of the kids and worried about them back then, and we still do.”
Ahwatukee Foothills resident Robert Oppermann is interning this semester for the Ahwatukee Foothills News. He is a senior at Michigan State University and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.