Thousands of runners and walkers would have been winding through the streets of Tempe on April 18, in celebration of the legacy left behind by Pat Tillman. Though due to COVID-19 concerns, the event became virtual and invited people from all over to participate.
The annual Pat Tillman run is a large fundraising event in support of the Pat Tillman Foundation's scholarship program, which provides scholarships to undergraduate leaders and veterans.
Pat Tillman was a linebacker on the ASU football team from 1994–1997 and was selected in the seventh round of the 1998 NFL Draft to play for the Arizona Cardinals. After the tragic events of September 11, 2001, Tillman announced in the spring of 2002 that he would be putting his NFL career on hold to enlist in the United States Army. According to the Pat Tillman Foundation, Tillman committed to a three-year term serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. He was killed in action on April 22, 2004.
As Pat's Run continued to grow to thousands of participants, and even more outside of Tempe, Tillman Honor Runs were created for individuals outside of Tempe who wanted to celebrate Tillman's legacy. Due to safety concerns regarding COVID-19, runners participated in honor runs on their own, but the purpose and meaning of community remained the same. Paul Kent, the main owner of the Flagstaff Extreme Adventure Course, was asked to organize this year's Tillman Honor Run in Flagstaff.
“Pat’s Run is the Tillman Foundation’s major event in Tempe at the ASU campus,” Kent said. “It attracts tens of thousands of people. It’s so popular that they started honor runs that happen in other locations around the country like New York and Chicago. There’s been one in Flagstaff for a number of years.”
With uncertainties due to COVID-19, the event itself was canceled. Though the sense of community remained through alternatives to the in-person event.
Instead, participants were encouraged to take part in the first virtual run. Rather than gathering together in public places, they were encouraged to run their 4.2 miles on their own. Tillman's jersey number during his college football career was 42, which now reflects the distance of the run — 4.2 miles.
“The point of the Honor Run this year is to do it on your own,” Kent said. “In your home, neighborhoods, park or even on a treadmill. Whatever it is, run your 4.2.”
Kent said the Pat Tillman Foundation was created to help fund leadership programs at ASU. Once the foundation grew, a military scholar’s program was created, which supports military service members, veterans and their spouses by providing educational tools as a way to pass on Tillman’s legacy, according to the foundation’s website. Kent said the charity embodies the legacy of an individual who gave up his fame and notoriety to defend his country.
Chrissy Mott, a doctorate student in the School of Forestry, was a recipient of the Tillman Scholarship in 2017 and participated in both Pat’s Run and Honor Run in 2018.
This year, Mott ran her 4.2 miles in her neighborhood and a trail on the Flagstaff Urban Trails System. Pat’s Run is one of her favorite days of the year because it provides an opportunity to engage with the community and share the energy and fun with those who come to run.
Some participants would make the event more energetic, Mott said they would wearing jerseys, face paint and group costumes to name a few. A favorite moment for Mott in previous Pat's Runs and Honor Runs was the energy she felt at the starting line. She said she will miss the positive energy, and she hoped it can still be present across the country as people participated from home this year.
"I thoroughly enjoyed participating in the run on Saturday," Mott said. "We had a great network of Tillman Scholars across the country running a virtual relay for the full 24 hours, so it didn't feel like I was completely alone. We had a Zoom meeting open all day where we were able to log in and say hello to the rest of the Tillman Scholars and Pat Tillman Foundation staff when we finished our runs. It's always great to reconnect with everyone, whether virtual or in-person."
Mott said the Tillman Foundation's choice to go virtual during this time was a responsible decision. Doing so enabled the event to carry on in a different form, while maintaining the guidelines set forth by the government.
Because of the changes to this year’s event, Mott said going virtual may have allowed people who wouldn’t otherwise be able to participate due to other obligations to participate from home.
Participants were able to take advantage of technology and post on social media and map their route on Strava. Strava enabled users to post the results of completing their 4.2 miles wherever they were. The Strava website stated users could then connect with other participants around the nation and compare results. As of April 17, Strava had 10,587 participants registered for the run.
“Technology has played a huge role in all of the Pat’s Run events throughout the years, but I think it is even more important this year,” Mott said. “The Tillman Scholars decided as a group to do a 24-hour version of the run, so for the entire day, one Tillman Scholar will start every half hour to run 4.2 miles in their community and share that via chat or video clips with the rest of the group.”
The group has at least one Tillman Scholar who planned to complete 42 miles and Mott said one also planned to complete 42 kilometers that day.
Whether it’s a text or photo sent to a loved one as they participated in the run, Mott said she hopes people around the country would be able to connect one way or another on the day of the event.
Mott and Kent both said that during these times it can be hard to maintain a normal routine but doing outdoor activities responsibly and with appropriate distancing can help to clear the mind. Kent said now would be the time to read a book or watch a video about Pat Tillman and what his legacy stands for.
“I know it feels to a lot of people that they are stuck at home right now, but I look at it as protecting my neighbors,” Mott said. “So I would say take this opportunity to just be outside, responsibly and know that you are helping us to carry Pat’s legacy of passion and learning into the future.”
After every Pat’s Run and Tillman Honor Run, Kent said participants receive a T-shirt to commemorate their achievement. Kent said this year participants will receive their t-shirts in the mail with the address used for registration.
The Tillman Honor Run is an example of how plans can change and events can be canceled, but it won’t stop bringing a community together. As the foundation stated, the mission will go on.