Photo courtesy of The University of Tennessee Knoxville/Military Science-Army ROTC
On your mark
Racers get ready to head out on the 26.2-mile Mountain Man March held in and around Gatlinburg, Tenn. The race weaves through town and up into the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Whether uniformed and booted, as with the military teams and individual military competitors, or more comfortably dressed and shod, as with the civilian competitors, the Mountain Man Memorial March is a true test of mountain man (and woman) spirit, and prospective participants are already in training.
“We start ROTC training in September five times a week, running a lot, building our leg muscles up,” says University of Tennessee Army Ranger Reserve Officers’ Training Corps Cadet Steven Cronin, captain of the UT Ranger team that won last year’s Mountain Man Memorial March military team “heavy full” category. “We train up hard for Mountain Man starting in early February with ruck marches several times a week, increasing the distance and with twice as much weight as we’d normally be marching with. We’ll train then with about 75 pounds while at the actual event it’ll be 35 to 40 pounds.”
Cronin says last year the UT Ranger team also spent time running its way up and down the formidable steps of Thompson Boling Arena with 75-pound rucksacks. “That helped a lot, but it sucks,” he candidly admits.
Conducted by the University of Tennessee Department of Military Science-Army ROTC program, Mountain Man Memorial March competitors traverse sidewalks, highways, and rugged mountain terrain between downtown Gatlinburg and the picturesque mountain community of Pittman Center during the march. Imagine walking or jogging miles and miles for hours and hours carrying 35 pounds in a backpack in hilly terrain on a warm spring day, hitting a 9-percent grade that rises for a mile or more, and doing it all in full military uniform—with boots—for 26.2 miles.
The memorial march was originally conducted to honor U.S. Army 1st Lt. Frank Walkup, a UT ROTC alumnus who was killed in action in Iraq in 2007. Each year’s race continues that individual honor and spreads it to other fallen comrades and families that received a Gold Star Lapel Button after losing a family member in service.
“It started out as a way for students and cadre members who actually knew Lt. Walkup to honor his memory and his family,” explains 1st Sergeant Retired A. L. Dalton, Training Non-Commissioned Officer and Military Science Instructor at the University of Tennessee Department of Military Science-Army ROTC. “They went out and did it when there was absolutely no gain or recognition for them with 40 or more other cadets from East Tennessee. Then, as the event has grown, it’s become a recognition for Gold Star families, not just mothers as in the beginning but the whole family. Last year we honored 37 Gold Star families. Right now we’re the largest Gold Star family event of this type in the Southeast.”
The event now has 16 separate competitions including various categories based on military and civilian status, team and individual status, backpack and non-backpack, age range, and race distances ranging from the full 26.2-mile marathon to a half marathon and 10K. The competition, despite its title, also includes females.
“It takes a highly competitive individual to decide to do this because you can’t just throw on a rucksack and go run 26 miles,” says Dalton. “There’s a lot of personal time and sacrifice to prepare for the event. It’s not just the distance. It’s the hills around Gatlinburg. The elevation at one point is a 9 percent grade for about a mile or so. That’s the make-or-break point for a lot of people. If they get to the top of that hill, they’ve had enough.”
Mountain Man Memorial March participants have come from as far north as Michigan and as far south as Alabama, but the vast majority are from the Mountain South—East Tennessee, Western North Carolina, Eastern Kentucky, Western Virginia, West Virginia. UT’s Rocky Top Battalion naturally fields the most competitors.
Among next year’s Mountain Man Memorial honorees will be 1st Lt. Thomas Williams Jr. and Chief Warrant Officer 4 Daniel Cole, both of whom died in a helicopter crash during a routine military exercise over Campbell County Tennessee this past summer. The Tennessee Army National Guard pilots had been with Troop C of the 1/230th Air Cavalry Squadron based at McGhee Tyson Airport. Williams had been, according to Cronin, with the UT ROTC program and worked as a part-time ROTC instructor at UT the past summer.
“It’s really cool to see these families experience something positive, even if it’s just one day out of the year,” says 21-year-old UT senior and ROTC cadet Cronin of the Gold Star families. “It’s pretty awesome. That makes everything worth it.”
It’s that kind of perspective that makes one worthy of being a true mountain man.
The 5th annual Mountain Man Memorial March is scheduled for April 20-21, 2012 in Gatlinburg, Tenn. For more information, visit mountainmanmemorialmarch.com.