Miles to go before he sleeps:

How an ultrarunner honored 9/11 First Responders

running on a track

By Halie Dalton

“OK Russ – Lap: 148. Dedicated to Chief Willia…”

As I walked onto the football field at Powhatan High School just outside of Richmond, Va., this announcement came booming through the loudspeaker. Rounding the corner of the track with a proud smile was Russell Holland, Jr.

Although technically colleagues at Dominion Energy, Russ and I had never met. I’d only heard of him the day before, when I saw his email land in my inbox.

“On 9/11 I will be taking a day of vacation to run in a fundraiser for First Responders,” read the first line. “I will run 343 laps around the Powhatan High School Track starting at 12:01AM tomorrow morning.”

343 laps. I made a feeble attempt at wrapping my head around that distance by counting on my fingers: four laps equals one mile. 343 divided by four. Carry the one…I ran out of fingers pretty quickly, but the simple math I do know told me that’s a lot of running (nearly 86 miles). I called Russ.

man runningBetween his day job as an IT specialist and recording interviews with local news stations, Russ was able to carve out fifteen minutes. But I only needed one; I could feel his passion and enthusiasm through the phone, and I knew it was going to be a good story.

He went on to tell me that he was first inspired by famous runner David Clark, who completed a similar 343-lap trek in 2015. I’d imagine that the reaction of most (myself included) would be “good for him, definitely not for me,” but that’s not Russ. He’s an ultrarunner (someone who runs any distance longer than a full 26.2-mile marathon), and couldn’t shake this wild idea.

He was going to run 343 laps around the track of his alma mater in honor of the 343 fallen 9/11 First Responders, and would donate all of the funds he raised to the Powhatan County Fire Association.

But wild ideas typically come when we least expect them, don’t they? And time was of the essence – Russ had a little over a week to pull it all together. The tight-knit Powhatan community rallied firmly behind him, however, and at 12:01 a.m. on September 11, 2019, Russ took off.

“It’s really amazing,” Russ said. “I’m happy to be the person nuts enough to get people to come watch, but it’s really the community coming together.”

Thirty-five miles and eight hours in, it was surprisingly quiet and grey when I got to the school that morning. But Russ’ determination and sheer excitement cut through the foggy silence with ease. I could tell at first glance that no matter the conditions, he was there for the long haul.

The “long haul,” as it turned out, brought plenty of company. EMTs, firefighters, and police officers ran several laps with Russ throughout the day, along with elected officials, high school students, friends, family, and complete strangers. Russ guessed that at its peak, there were over one thousand members of the community there with him.

“I can’t say I’m a huge fan of the limelight,” Russ admitted when I asked about all of the attention he was receiving. “You don’t really become an ultrarunner because you like being the center of attention – I’d rather be alone on a mountaintop somewhere.” 

The most impactful and welcome of Russ’ running partners, however, were the 343 First Responders themselves. As Russ carefully began each new lap, he paused briefly to look at a photo of one of the brave individuals that lost their lives 18 years ago, to the day.

Lap: 160. You’ve got it Russ,” would boom over the loudspeaker time and again, as the volunteer announcer would call out the name of another fallen First Responder. These simple reminders of why  Russ was out there in the first place kept one foot moving in front of the other, and they motivated him through to the very end.

Around 7:15 p.m. that night, the end did come. And not at all unlike the planning of the event itself, it ended in a perfect storm. Russ was urged to speed things up for the last three miles to get ahead of the rain and wind that were quickly approaching. He ran his final and toughest laps with five minutes to spare before the sky opened up to a torrential downpour.  

“It felt like the storm was meant to be,” Russ said. “It was so beautiful.”

When I asked Russ to define how he felt in those moments, I expected to hear words like “exhausted,” or “delirious,” or maybe even “done.” But the word that came to mind for Russ? “Blessed.”

“To live in a community that would rally behind something like that,” Russ began. “To work for a company that supports me in my mission, and to live in a country where the people that we are celebrating are absolute heroes…” he trailed.

“Well, it made me proud to be an American.”