Running for Jer a powerful experience

STAR VALLEY, Wyo. — When Jeremy Kunz met or heard about people who impressed or inspired him, he told his wife to put them on the list.

That list, Melinda Kunz said, was the guest list to his birthday party. Sometimes those people were famous. Other times they were just those he met working hard in their daily lives to serve others. Melinda laughed as she admitted that while Jeremy constantly added people to his list, he never actually planned the party.

Three days before what would have been his 35th birthday, Melinda Kunz and Jeremy’s parents, Bart and Denice Kunz, threw him that birthday bash that he jokingly talked about organizing.

And just whom did they invite? Anyone — and everyone — who wanted to run 13.1 miles.

Jeremy Kunz was killed helping others do something he loved — run. It was about 4:35 a.m. on Oct. 10, 2009, when Jeremy hopped out of the van carrying his teammates in the inaugural Las Vegas Ragnar Relay and made his way to the side of the road. He was waiting to give a teammate water and encouragement when a 25-year-old drunken driver hit him, killing the father of three.

Almost immediately, the Kunz family set about honoring Jeremy’s life. Just days after his son’s death, Bart Kunz ran the distance of what would have been his last leg so that he had an official finish to the race. The family continues to run the 200-mile relay races with the same name they had when Jeremy was organizing things — The Wannabes — although now one team always has the same wish, “Wannabe running for Jer.”

Standing at the starting line, which in this case was a clearing in one of the three national forests that surround Star Valley, I watched Melinda welcome the party guests by explaining why a half marathon was the perfect tribute to her husband.

“When you hear our story,” she said, “I hope you remember two things. First, make sure you’re enjoying life. And second, never drink and drive.”

It was an emotional moment that made the start of the Star Valley Half Marathon unlike any other I’ve experienced. That wasn’t the only reason this race was unique.

Every mile was marked with a picture of Jeremy. Some included his wife and children; others just his own triumphant moments. It is the only time I can remember thinking that a race was moving too fast for me. (Notice I did not say that I was moving too fast — only my time as a guest at this party.)

When the Kunz family invited me to Jer’s party, I asked some of my newest friends to make the trip with me. I met Penny Wilson, Dana Carter and Korena Davies during what I now refer to as “my year of Ragnar adventures.”

Not only do I love and adore my SoCal teammates (Go Team CTR: Choose to Run!), but we met doing the relays the Kunz family now run as a tribute to Jer.

Bart Kunz told me that what Jer loved about the Ragnar relays was the camaraderie, the friendship. The relay races require runners to rely on each other, to really know each other and to, in most cases, learn to love each other. It is an experience unlike any other, but it also fit with how Jer saw outdoor activities long before he discovered the races.

Running through the valley that fed the soul of Jeremy Kunz was an emotional experience. We never really talked about it, but all of us decided to wear Ragnar shirts as a way to second his affection for the races. My three friends wore Wasatch Back shirts, while I wore my New England shirt. I chose it because my team, Biofuel, despite being spread all over the country, has taken the camaraderie of the race and formed a community. It is what I imagined Jer experienced as he made new friends and expanded that ever-growing guest list.

For some reason, I feel a kinship, a connection to this man I’ve never met.

In 22 years as a journalist, I have met, and had the privilege of writing about, some remarkable people. In eight years as a crime reporter, I witnessed generosity, grace and fortitude that still inspires me.

But few stories, few people, have lived in my heart like Jeremy Kunz.

I feel his presence at times. It’s usually when I am alone and often when I am struggling. Sometimes I actually ask him for help. Sometimes I just imagine what he might say to me — and it is usually funny.

As I ran through the Star Valley, I was awestruck by its beauty. And I saw Jer everywhere. In the powerful Snake River, in the majestic mountains, in the colorful wildflowers and in the easy energy of a place that can both take your breath away and calm your soul at the same time.

It made me think of one of my favorite movies (and books), “Out of Africa.”

The narrator asks a question that I have often wondered. If you love something well enough, will it tell the world who you were in some small way?

“If I know a song of Africa, of the giraffe and the African new moon lying on her back, of the plows in the fields and the sweaty faces of the coffee pickers, does Africa know a song of me? Will the air over the plain quiver with a color that I have had on, or the children invent a game in which my name is, or the full moon throw a shadow over the gravel of the drive that was like me, or will the eagles of the Ngong Hills look out for me?” — Karen Blixen, Out of Africa

I know this. The Star Valley knows a song of Jeremy Kunz. I felt it when I saw his picture at mile 12. He was standing atop a rock with his hand raised above his head.

My eyes blurred with tears as I looked past the sign at the scenery that is too beautiful to ever be captured in words or pictures. Like a great friendship, to really understand the Star Valley, you have to experience it. It’s almost more a feeling than a place.

As I tried to soak in that final mile, I asked Jer to help me with the cramp that was haunting my hamstring, and I thanked him for loving his family and friends so much that love of a stranger could summon that affection without knowing any of them.

My mom and I often talk about how short life is, how precious every moment is. We recently lamented the fact that the youngest in our family never knew or won’t remember my grandmothers.

“You’re only here for a short time,” she said. “And then you’re gone.”

But Jeremy Kunz and the Star Valley Half Marathon revealed to me a secret.

If you love enough, you can live forever.

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