Powhatan's Russ Holland runs to honor 9/11 firefighters

Russ Holland Jr., who is wearing red shorts, ran 343 laps in honor of 9/11 firefighters who lost their lives and to raise money for local fire and rescue personnel, who he asked to join him on his last lap around the track at Powhatan High School.

POWHATAN – Round and round he went, growing more tired and dealing with increasing aches and pains as each hour passed. Still he carried on.

Even as Russ Holland Jr.’s muscles grew weary from repetitive use, his body became overheated from the punishing afternoon sun, and his feet burned from the impact of hitting the hard surface of the track thousands of times, he carried on.

Holland had set himself a goal, and he was determined to meet it. At 12:01 a.m. on Wednesday, Sept. 11, he started running laps around the track at Powhatan High School. His goal was to run, walk, or crawl, if necessary, around the track 343 times – one lap for each firefighter with the New York Fire Department who lost his life in the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.

In the 19 ½ hours that followed, that purpose was never far from view. As Holland started each successive lap, a volunteer would stand by the track holding a photo of one of those brave men. Nearby, another volunteer announced the lap number and read the name of the firefighter. Along one stretch of fence line, the names of all 343 men were displayed on posters.

Holland, 49, of Powhatan commended local fire and rescue personnel not only for providing excellent support and recognition for the run all day but for making sure the 343 firefighters were remembered in a meaningful way.

“It has been essential. I am walking by and looking really closely at each picture. It is crushing. Some of those guys were so young. It has really turned out to be one of the best parts of what we have come up with,” he said in late morning.

In conjunction with this run, Holland was fundraising for Powhatan Fire and Rescue. In all, the effort raised $5,942. Donations are still being taken online at www.volunteerpowhatan.org through Friday, Sept. 20.

Meant to be

Holland, who graduated from PHS in 1988, is not a first responder and never has been. He is, however, an ultra marathon runner. About two weeks before this run happened, he was listening to an audiobook by David Clark, “Broken Open: Mountains, Demon, Treadmills and a Search for Nirvana,” in which the author described running 343 laps to raise awareness of addiction.

Holland had the thought that he could do something similar but instead raise money for local fire and rescue efforts.

“To be honest with you, I talked myself out of the idea as fast as I talked myself into it. But then I went into work and I was sitting there firing my computer up. I pulled up Facebook to check it on my phone, and there was an ad for the Powhatan Volunteer Fire and Rescue, which I had never seen and don’t follow,” Holand said. “So, I don’t know why it came up other than a sign to say maybe you ought to reconsider this.”

Given the short notice – he thought of the idea two weeks before Sept. 11 – and the fact that it was a work and school day, Holland was expecting pushback. He never saw it.

“What I really got was a ton of people who were really excited about the idea, and rather than shutting it down, they worked really hard to find ways to make it happen and make it a good community event. It’s been a really cool experience to watch how the community pulled together around what sounds like a crazy idea,” Holland said.

Don Houtsma, EMS coordinator, first heard about the proposal at a senior policy group meeting a week before the event and agreed with everyone else there that it was a great idea and they needed to help. He was there at midnight when Holland started running and stopped by other times during the day, including toward the end to see him finish his final laps.

Houtsma, who has been a first responder for 45 years, said it was a sad day because he knew people who died in the Twin Towers on 9/11, including firefighter Dana Hannon from Engine 26, who was 29 when he was killed. Houtsma said he was a volunteer with Hannon’s father in New Jersey and watched Dana grow up.

“It is a sad day but yet it is a great day to see everybody really getting into it. For the last 18 years, it seemed like interest started dropping. But then Russ did this and this is dynamite,” Houtsma said.

T.J. Smith, rescue squad chief, was at the same meeting and agreed they were all taken with Holland’s idea from the first, even with the short amount of time they had to plan. They admired that despite having “no rescue or fire or any kind of first responder background, this gentleman decided to do this grueling, body torturing thing, just because he thought it would be the right thing to do.”

Smith took a vacation day from work to stay at the track almost all day. He saw the community members who came out and the high school students who visited to walk and run at various points. Some of the gym classes came out to do laps and sports teams participated. With few exceptions, the majority of students in K-12 currently were not alive when 9/11 happened, so helping raise awareness of it for them was amazing, he added.

Teacher Jane Brown accompanied about 35 students in Family, Career, and Community Leaders of America (FCCLA) to walk on the track during Indian Time. The group also spent the week fundraising for Powhatan Fire and Rescue in conjunction with Holland’s efforts “in memory of those who perished and in honor of those who serve.” They had a minimum goal of $911.

The students were amazed at Holland’s willingness to give back and to promote this event’s focus on unity, she added. They wanted to do anything they could to do help that effort.

Sheyla Daniels, a PHS sophomore and FCCLA president, said she appreciated that her fellow students gave up time when they could be studying or having free time to walk for a purpose that meant something to them.

The nine students enrolled in PHS Firefighter I and II class also met during Indian Time and came out to walk a few laps. Tyler Cochran, a junior, said it felt good to remember the firefighters, EMTs and civilians who lost their lives. He wants to be a career firefighter and is currently a volunteer with Company 2.

Walking by the gate with the firefighters names displayed on posters, Cochran said it makes him want to “keep their memories alive and honor their sacrifice.”

In addition to first responders and students, other members of the community came out throughout the day to show Holland support and run or walk on the track. Holland’s wife, Anna, was there supporting him all day and several other volunteers were there for many hours.

Carrie Edwards of Powhatan had met Holland a few months ago while running trails and volunteered at his first 100-mile run to cheer him on. Holland referred to her on Sept. 11 as his “pace car,” helping him keep a steady pace. She was there at midnight when he started and completed five hours with him before she had to go take care of her family. When she dropped by in late morning to see how he was doing, she didn’t intend to do another long distance but did and also came back for the last few laps, clocking in a total of 49 miles that day.

Edwards talked about the challenges Holland faced running around a track for so long. Unlike trail running, which might have elevation and terrain changes, track running is very repetitive and leads to the same muscles being worked over and over.

“We ran in the same direction for 200 laps, and I could definitely feel it in my right side. So we switched directions to give that side a break. Even though the track is softer, there is more of a pounding sensation on your joints,” she said, adding that even in the late morning, Holland’s legs and feet were hurting.

And that was before he had to deal with the temperatures rising into the 90s in the afternoon, she said. Despite that pain, she said he was in great spirits because of all of the people who came out to join him.

“He is just such a fantastic, positive person. It is very inspirational. Even for an ultra marathon runner, there are still not that many people coming out and doing something like this to raise awareness of not forgetting that feeling that we had when 9/11 happened – not just the despondency and the horror but also the unity afterward and that feeling we had as a nation,” she said.

Rush to the finish

Holland admitted the day before the run that he wasn’t 100 positive he could finish this task. Usually for an undertaking of this magnitude, he would spend weeks or months training his body to get it ready. This time he was relying on his running skills but letting faith fill in the gap.

“I feel like my mind is ready for it. I don’t really know how my body is going to react. But I have faith that with enough people around I will get distracted and the pain will come the day after,” he said on Sept. 10.

His body did hold out, but as he grew ever closer to that lofty goal, another threat loomed – a storm was moving in and might hit before he could finish his run. If it did, there was always the option of taking a break and going back out after it passed.

Instead, Holland drew on his willpower and the support of a group of runners who surrounded him and picked up the pace. The onlooking crowd watched in amazement. Ten laps to go. Five laps to go. Two laps to go.

On the last lap, Holland asked any fire and rescue personnel there to join him for his last lap around the track. They traveled at a brisk walk, ever mindful of the clouds rolling in and the lightning that wasn’t too far away. But they were also still respectful of the last name he carried with him – that of firefighter Raymond York.

“I cried a little bit looking at the last guy’s picture. It was amazing. It was so worth every bit of effort,” Holland said.

At about 7:30 p.m. – 19.5 hours after he had started – Holland made it back to the starting point and was met with cheers and hugs. Afterward, he said he was on a high from the final push and feeling better than expected.

After the last lap, Holland told the well wishers there that he has learned in the last 10 days what an amazing community Powhatan is and how it is willing to pull together. He also thanked the county’s first responders and said “anything we can do to continue that, it is too small.”

Laura McFarland may be reached at Lmcfarland@powhatantoday.com.

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