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The Inspiring Reason This Man Ran 343 Laps Around a Track on September 11

Runner’s World logo Runner’s World 9/19/2019 Hailey Middlebrook
a group of people in uniform: Supported by community members and local first responders in Powhatan, Virginia, Russ Holland Jr. began running at midnight and finished 85 miles by sundown. © Courtesy of Russ Holland Jr. Supported by community members and local first responders in Powhatan, Virginia, Russ Holland Jr. began running at midnight and finished 85 miles by sundown.

Around mid-morning on September 11, Russell Holland Jr., 49, started to think he made a bad decision. He was only halfway done after running for around 10 hours straight on a high school track in Powhatan, Virginia. Holland was losing steam during his quest to complete 343 laps on the track—a little more than 85 miles—by sundown.

“The heat index in Virginia was supposed to hit 100 degrees that day, and I was definitely wearing down under the sun,” Holland told Runner’s World. “But when you’re surrounded by fire trucks and flags, plus 70 people on the track participating and cheering, you can’t just quit.”

Holland’s ultra-long run had a heartfelt reason behind it: the 343 laps were a tribute to the 343 New York City first responders who died during the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001.

“This year, there are high school seniors who were born after 9/11,” Holland said. “I think it’s important for all of us to remember that day and to educate kids who weren’t alive when it happened. I’m not a firefighter or first responder myself, but I respect all of those men and women who protect us.”

Each of the 343 laps Holland ran was dedicated to one of the 343 first responders who were killed during the 9/11 terrorist attacks. © Courtesy of Russell Holland Jr. Each of the 343 laps Holland ran was dedicated to one of the 343 first responders who were killed during the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

The 85-mile distance wasn’t too daunting for Holland, who began training for ultramarathons five years ago and completed his first 100-mile race in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley this past spring. He works as an IT specialist by day, but spends his free time training and volunteering with the high school cross-country team.

“Still, I was very under-trained going into this,” he said. Holland let his training slide for most of the summer, he explained, and hadn’t done a run longer than 10 miles for a month and a half. To prepare for the September 11 event, he ran a marathon the weekend before.

“My legs felt fine after that, so I figured I could make it 85 miles as long as I kept a slow pace,” he said. “We ended up doing around 14-minute mile pace.”

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Putting on the event was easy, thanks to overwhelming support from the community, Holland said. The Powhatan Fire Department managed fundraising—all donations made at the event went toward the supporting local first responders—the Powhatan High School provided the venue, and food and drinks were donated by community members.

When Holland arrived at the track a little before midnight on September 11, “it was like a Fourth of July picnic,” he said. Even at the late hour, dozens of teens and adults had shown up carrying flags, including a high school student who is planning to join the Army after graduation. Though the teen had never run more than two miles, he finished 10 miles alongside Holland.

a group of people on a grass court: Throughout the day on September 11, sports teams and students from Powhatan High School came out to run a few laps with Holland. © Courtesy of Russ Holland Jr. Throughout the day on September 11, sports teams and students from Powhatan High School came out to run a few laps with Holland.

At the start of every lap, a photo of a 9/11 first responder was displayed on the scoreboard. When the sun came up and the screen was no longer visible, photos of the victims were printed out and carried by the runners.

“Each lap, we thanked that individual for his or her service,” Holland said. “It was emotional. I think it meant a lot to our local first responders who were there.”

Throughout the day, Holland was joined by upwards of 70 people at once on the track, which buoyed him through the rough patches of the run. “It’s nice to have a huge group of EMS workers around at an event like this,” Holland said. “At one point, they pulled me off to take my blood pressure, just to make sure I was doing alright.”

At the end of the evening, around a dozen local firemen dressed in full firefighter gear flooded onto the track as Holland finished his final laps. After he completed number 343—in a little over 19 hours—the crowd whooped. The first responders gave Holland an IV drip to rehydrate afterward, plus a potassium-rich shake. Holland wasn’t sure how much money was raised that day, but he said that all the proceeds went toward helping fund Powhatan’s volunteer fire and rescue departments.

“It was an incredible community effort,” he said. “I’d do it again in a heartbeat.”

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