Last weekend over 120 American and Italian supporters took part in the 100-mile Magredi Mountain Trail Run in honor of Lucas. We would like to thank all the supporters at the run to honor Lucas in this way. We miss him every day. The following article about the run was posted at the Aviano AB website.
by 2nd. Lt Allie Delury
31st Fighter Wing Public Affairs
10/8/2013 - AVIANO AIR BASE, ITALY – With less than five minutes until the start of the race, a pilot from the 555th Fighter Squadron and his wife began warming up and eyeing the 100-mile journey that laid before them.
He briefly adjusted the memorial bracelet on his arm, silently paying tribute to a friend who would not be able to join them.
“Gaza loved the outdoors,” said Captain Kevin Sweeney, 31st Operations Support Squadron Weapons and Tactics Flight Commander. “He would never turn down a challenge; he would always at least try to do it.”
Sweeney and his wife, Holley, were among 120 Americans and Italians who participated in the Magredi 100-mile Ultra Trail Run in honor of Major Lucas ‘Gaza’ Gruenther, an F-16 pilot who lost his life January 28 during a training mission at Aviano Air Base The race began at 6 p.m. on Oct. 4 and went through various local communes including: Vivaro, Montereale Valcellina, Fanna, and Meduno.
A banner in honor of Gruenther was held at the forty-one-mile mark in the town of Maniago, where Gruenther lived, to pay tribute to the pilot’s participation in last year’s 40-mile race.
“After Luc’s crash, some local Italians came to us and said: ‘Hey we want to dedicate this next race to Luc,’” said Sweeney. “The Italians were really touched because Luc was really fluent and really involved in the Italian community.”
Gruenther took after his grandfather, Bob Mathias, who was an American decathlete and two-time Olympic gold medalist. After arriving at Aviano Air Base, Gruenther started to increase the amount of trail running he did, and eventually participated in his first ultra-marathon in 2012: the Magredi 40-mile Ultra Trail Run. Once he finished, he set a new goal for the following year’s race.
“He had heard about this run and he had it on the calendar,” said Gruenther’s wife, Cassy. “He was like, ‘I want to do this run; I want to do 100 miles.”
On January 28, Gruenther lost contact with Aviano Air Base during a nighttime training mission when his F-16 crashed into the Adriatic Sea. His body was found January 31 after days of a combined U.S. and Italian search and rescue effort.
Following the accident, both squadrons and other organizations on base came together to help support the Gruenther family. Donations from around the world came to Aviano, along with countless stories of how Lucas Gruenther had impacted the lives of people he had met throughout his life.
In the spring of 2013, the Sweeney’s began training for the Magredi 100-mile Ultra Trail Run and started coordinating a 10-person 100 mile relay to help the fighter squadrons get involved in running it. Cassy ran the last leg of the race and crossed the finish line with her daughter, Serene, who was born eight days after Gruenther’s body was found.
“['Gaza'] definitely touched a lot of people’s hearts,” said Holley. “I know a lot of people run, but this is a different level of running. Some people doing this relay would never do it if it weren’t for him.”
Pilots, spouses, and others who knew Gruenther each took different shifts throughout the race to complete the relay, while the Sweeney’s committed to the 100-mile trek. Despite inclement weather, runners trudged onward through mountainous terrain and frigid temperatures, motivated by Gruenther’s wish to do the same.
“Many people who were involved in the crash are already gone, but his memory needs to live on,” said Sweeney. “That’s one thing that I take as a personal responsibility: getting the word out on how good of a guy he was and not letting him be forgotten.”
Running to Remember
On January 29, before news of a missing pilot had reached Maniago, Dr. Andrea Carli sat in his office watching the clock.
“The next morning after the accident, Lucas and I had an appointment at the municipal building and he didn’t show up,” said Carli, Mayor of Maniago. “He had a lot of ideas for projects and activities to integrate the Americans into the Maniago community.”
Despite the contrasting cultures, Gruenther and Carli spoke the same language when it came to long-distance running. Prior to the accident, he and Gruenther had planned to run a marathon together in Vienna, Austria.
“When you’re’ running you think about a lot of things,” said Cali. “You have a lot of time to think about a person, a situation, and during that marathon I thought about Lucas many, many times.”
As a way to commemorate Gruenther nearly 8 months after his accident, a large banner with the words “In Memory of Lucas Gruenther” was displayed in the city center, serving as a subtle reminder for runners to continue moving forward. Maniago marked the near-halfway point during the race: a pivotal moment for all runners, regardless of nationality, experience, their relationship to Gruenther.
“Like life, any goal you have long-range requires smaller goals,” said Carli. “I love running, and I think that running is a metaphor for life: the fatigue, the mental and physical healing, everything.
Sweeney and Holley passed the memorial banner Oct 6. at around 5 a.m.
“I actually got a little teary-eyed,” said Sweeney. “It was pretty emotional going through Gaza’s hometown. Seeing the squadron patch on there was pretty awesome, pretty moving.”
After entering Maniago, the two runners dedicated a moment to Gruenther, a silent thought distracting them from the physical pain of the race.
“I don’t think about the night he died, I think about how much he loved the outdoors, how much he would have loved to be running with us,” said Sweeney.
And so they continued on, inspired by memories, motivated by a familiar presence to keep going.
The Home Stretch
Nearly 24 hours after the start of the race, bystanders returned to the community of Vivaro Oct. 5 to welcome the runners completing the 100-mile course. Carli, alongside other municipality members, awarded the top three finishers before giving a personal tribute to Gruenther.
“Lucas Gruenther was a person who knew the meaning of the word ‘friendship’ and had a deep passion for running and the outdoors,” he said. “We will remember Luc anytime we run.”
Hours later, Cassy Gruenther began the final 10-mile stretch of the 10-person, 100-mile relay.
“You suffered a little, it was hard, but you were proud of yourself for finishing and you will never forget that experience…and that was the way he lived,” said Cassy. “Even if I got a little tired, I know he’s with me and I know I can do it for him. The fact that he brought all these people together for this event–that motivated me.”
Finishing the race alongside Cassy were the Sweeney’s, who had ran roughly 36 hours to complete the 100-mile journey and honor their departed friend.
“When I would hurt in that race, I would think: ‘At least I’m able to do something this amazing,’” said Holley. “A couple of times we said: ‘What do you think Gaza would say about this part of the race?’”
The closer the three got to the finish line, the more emotional the race became.
“Even the night [Luc's] jet went down; I don’t feel like he ever left me. A lot of people say that their heart drops but I never felt it,” said Cassy. “I feel him all the time, especially when I’m outside, especially when I see a sunset or am on the top of a mountain. Something that I know he would love–I know he’s there.
Moments before crossing the finish line at 5 a.m. on Oct 7, Cassy was seen pushing her daughter in a stroller, followed by the Sweeney’s and other friends of Gruenther.
“This whole group running with me and me pushing [Serene], it’s all because of Luc,” said Cassy through glistening eyes. “He was that inspiring to get these people out there.”
Hugs and cheering were met by tears and laughter as the accomplishment of running 100 miles set in for the Sweeney’s.
“The pain during the last ten miles was excruciating,” said Sweeney. “But every time I would get real down, I would think about ‘Gaza’ and that really helped me through a lot of the pain that I was feeling.”
And so the group left, sharing stories of the race as the crowd slowly shuffled home and the music died down. Although the race was over, crossing the finish line symbolized an optimistic step forward on the road to recovery.
“I think crossing the finish line more or less closed a chapter on what ‘Gaza’ stood for here in Italy, being as adventurous as he was,” said Sweeney. “It was pretty emotional.”