When Matthew Woodliff begins to feel mentally or physically fatigued while training for the 47th Marine Corps Marathon, he doesn’t motivate himself to lace up by plotting to set records or improve his pace. Instead, he simply thinks about what his brother Michael would have done.
“In these moments where I feel a little tired, or I’m not feeling it at all, that’s usually when I tap into that memory bank, and just like that, I feel him around me,” Woodliff said after a recent preparatory 16-miler. “I just know he would embrace it. He would love that it’s not easy and it would still put an ear-to-ear smile on his face.”
Army Sgt. Michael Woodliff, a 22-year-old mortar specialist, was killed by a roadside IED in Baghdad, Iraq, in 2004. If he were still alive, Matthew says they would be pounding the pavement together. And in some ways, they still are.
In his honor, Matthew runs wearing a copy of Michael’s dog tags and often names his shoes after divisions he was in — a red, white and blue pair was dubbed “82nd Airborne.”
“Without fail, I’m going to have memories that come across during my runs where I’m thinking about him and growing up with him, and those are the things that get me through,” Matthew said.
Certainly, this will be true on Oct. 30 when he takes part in his second Marine Corps Marathon, participating this year as part of the wear blue: run to remember Gold Star Race Program. The nonprofit has created a running community that allows families of fallen service members to heal in an active way, active-duty members to remember their fallen brothers and sisters, and for communities to support military families through races and regular run groups.
Gold Star family members can apply to be part of special wear blue support teams that run in the Marine Corps Marathon, along with races in San Antonio; Fort Worth, Texas; and San Diego. Jessica Alley, Gold Star Race program director for the Marine Corps Marathon, leads the effort to host 10 Gold Star family members in Washington, D.C., for race weekend. Each athlete receives running shoes, wear blue gear and a training plan that begins in June. Besides the main event, they attend an honorary dinner, shakeout run and wreath-laying ceremony.
“We have had moms and dads who have lost their children, siblings who have lost their brothers and sisters and children who have lost their parents,” said Alley. “I have watched athletes arrive on Thursday with trepidation and leave on Monday with an infectious, renewed strength and resolve. The transformation this experience provides is nothing short of incredible.”
This year’s cohort includes one parent of a fallen service member, one spouse and seven siblings representing the Army, Navy and Marines.
“For the first time in my memory, we have a father/daughter duo, running for their son/brother,” Alley said. “It is a phenomenal group, made up of seasoned runners and first-time marathoners. I am greatly looking forward to October with them.”
Gold Star Race Program brings miles of memories
Matthew looks forward to race weekend with his wear blue Gold Star Program team as well, especially bonding over connections and shared stories.
He remembers Michael, one of four “Army brat” Woodliff brothers, as being born to serve. Matthew said Michael often dressed up in his dad’s uniform, stood up for other children and had an unrelenting interest in all things physical fitness. Matthew said he even tricked their mom into letting him enlist before age 18 by convincing her to sign what he claimed was a “field trip permission form.”
“In service and out, he squeezed every bit out of every day,” said Matthew. “I have no doubt he loved what he did even if he left this world too soon.”
Michael was committed, said Matthew, and so is he — to crossing the finish line. Though his involvement with wear blue started in 2012, this year will truly be a race to remember. His parents will be volunteering along the wear blue mile, a section of the race course lined with placards depicting fallen service members and hundreds of American flags.
Though Matthew plans for it to be a very emotional experience, that doesn’t mean he also won’t try to keep things light, as Michael would have. He plans to stop for selfies with Marines and share hugs with his family.
“The beauty of this is that everybody’s going to find time to share and learn about others, remember and pay homage to these loved ones that we’ve lost,” Matthew said. “I would encourage anyone to do this. I think it’s an incredibly thoughtful way to bring people together.”
Alley said Matthew’s thoughts sum up the wear blue mission.
“We want to know about your fallen service member and watch you take purposeful steps in their honor,” she said. “We want to hear stories and know what your journey has been like. We want to provide a space where you can tackle something big — a marathon — with fellow survivors by your side.”