Before the Texas Beast, I told you about my best friend, my brother Riley Stephens who was killed in action serving his country in Afghanistan with the 1/3 Special Forces Group (Airborne) as a senior Medic. One of the last things he did before his deployment was run a Spartan Race. As a tribute, friends and family took on the Spartan Beast in Glen Rose as “Team Riley” to honor him and to reconnect. I’ve been spending lots of time on how to express my feelings from the Spartan Beast race in Glen Rose, TX. I have finally decided to just share those feelings with you. The story will be raw in places, silly in others, and probably a little boring and mundane in the rest of this swirl of emotions.
I was nervous going to support Team Riley as they ran a race to honor SFC Riley Stephens who was killed in Wardak, Afghanistan in September of 2012. I’m not exactly sure why I was nervous. I had my wife and kids with me. I had Hope, my service dog, with me. I knew the people we were going to support and their family that would be there too. I think I also felt a little guilty because I wasn’t running with them. I wasn’t going to sacrifice myself to the team to honor our brother.
Coming into the area where the start/finish line was located we were signing in and I was afraid we’d miss the start of the race. An unnamed worker with Spartan overheard why we were there and who we were there to support and it was like I was a VIP all of the sudden. Ushered in I quickly found the guys in the holding pen waiting on the pep talk and start.
Hugs to my brothers and words of sarcasm and advice to cover what we were all thinking. Or at least I was. We’d rather be talking trash and hanging out with our brother, Riley. I was handed a Team Riley shirt and immediately put it on. Just as the serious looks are exchanged as we all acknowledge the why of being here together the race announcer starts his talk. I am unable to recall the exact words, but I do recall he made a point of letting everyone know exactly who Team Riley was and it was an honor to have them race. I think that’s when the feelings started to change a little for me. Here we all were, Team Riley, Mic (Riley’s father), my wife and kids, all the family members, and probably a couple of hundred strangers trying to stay warm in the blustering North wind. I felt this collective respect given by everyone.
It’s a feeling you can relate to if you’ve ever truly had that physical struggle where you don’t think you can do it anymore and someone stronger gives you that look that says, “well done.” It’s never a spoken thing and I think that’s why is so much more powerful than words could ever convey. It’s almost magical in the sense of brotherhood and respect felt.
The next few hours for me consisted of Hope and I running cross-country observing the race and trying to catch Team Riley at obstacles to cheer them on. Hope and I must have run 6 miles cross country that day. She loved it! She ran beside me like it was the most natural thing on Earth to be doing. At one point of trying to get back to the start/finish to help my wife this calmness came over me. Here I was running through the Hill country in the middle of a huge race course with my service dog Hope happily running beside me. I was breathing the cold fresh air. I would occasionally cross paths with a racer or two and they would all give me a smile when they saw my Team Riley shirt. While I observed the racers at obstacles I felt the same sense of respect and honor hung in the air even while they did burpees as punishment for a failed attempt. This familiar feeling of comfort and safety came over me. That exact feeling I’d felt with Riley while we shot the bull. The feeling I’d shared with my brothers down range between missions back in the day. That feeling of… “Yes, this is hard, but we are here together. And together we will overcome this. Not because it is easy, but because it is hard and worth doing. If not worth it for the thing done, for the kindred spirits of my brothers and sisters who have suffered too. It is worthy simply because of the men and women with whom we conquer it with.”
Team Riley did awesome. Together they conquered the course. The conquered their inner voices. They conquered a little bit of a hurt known only to them. How do I know this? Well, because some of that hurt was conquered during my cross country run with Hope. You see, that sense, that feeling I’ve tried so hard to convey I believe was the spirit of Riley. Not his soul, but that warrior spirit that has inhabited so many of us and is so very close to the ones who choose a warrior lifestyle and path to follow.
Team Riley, and even Hope and I, in a sense got to run with Riley. Holding tight to that spirit of the warrior will keep our brother alive in each of us in our own way. This spirit gives me the courage to be open about the inner turmoil that is me. It gives peace in a way to his family and brothers and sisters of a little town in Texas. We ran together again and I just can’t help but think how our friendship and path together started the same way. We ran together around that football field so many years ago. Only this time everyone ran with him, with us, sharing that warrior spirit no matter who you are or where you’re from. It was simply amazing.
At the end of the race for Team Riley we were there to cheer them on. They collected their breath and what was left of their strength. Proudly and with smiles they charged the Spartans after leaping the fire, taking the pugal sticks away and capturing the moment in a way that Riley would be so proud of. They took what belonged to them. There was no quarter given by either Team Riley or the Spartans as they claimed that true warrior spirit while seizing what was theirs. A message to Riley that they too respect and revere the gift he left us. The gift of knowing him in a way that few did; a man, a warrior, a brother.
Soon after the race the brothers and Mic and family gathered behind Mic’s truck. Shots of Crown Royal were passed out and Mic held one for him and one for Riley. Mic put me on the spot and asked me to do the honor of a toast. We raised our shots and I toasted, “To the brothers who ran a race to honor the one who is no longer able.” Down the hatch our shots went, with a few teary eyes, and Riley’s shot poured out. Not wasted, but given to the Earth, given to the field of battle in his honor.
[Editor's Note: Team Riley took on our Glen Rose, TX Beast race on December 8, 2012. They finished in honor of their brother, son, friend. A big thank you for their gracious willingness to share their story and to Shane for his words that poignantly capture such an emotional journey. Find Shane's non-profit organization Paws 4 PTSD on Facebook and online.]