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Marine Corps Marathon will be full of reminders for Seamus Donahue

Maj. Michael Donahue encouraged his son, Seamus, to take up running, and the two found a bond through their shared passion. Courtesy of Seamus Donahue

Sherri Donahue has plenty of photos of her husband, Michael, running with their son, Seamus. But one is special.

Michael and Seamus are crossing the finish line of a race together, stride for stride. Each is stopping his watch at the same moment, with the same expression. Neither is noticing the other is a mirror image.

"They were in sync," she says.

It was that kind of relationship. They shared the same sense of humor and a passion for running. When Michael, a major with the Army's 82nd Airborne Division, was home, the two were training partners. They pushed each other, made fun of each other, laughed and entered countless races, from 5Ks to 10-milers.

"He was my best friend, my running buddy. I loved it," says Seamus, 18. "We did everything together."

Michael was a fountain of positive energy who adored his three children. He liked to say, "Every day is a good day."

"Michael prioritized his children, all of his children," says Sherri. "He wanted each and every one of them to know every day they were loved."

But on Sept. 16, 2014, Seamus and his sisters Victoria and Bailey lost their dad. Maj. Michael Donahue, just 41, was killed when a Taliban suicide bomber attacked his convoy in Afghanistan. For a while, Seamus couldn't run. It was the last thing on his mind.

But after three weeks he participated in a slow two-mile jog-and-talk with a good friend around his Sanford, North Carolina, neighborhood. It made him feel better. Soon, Seamus was back running cross country for his high school team. Now the college freshman says he feels a connection with his dad every time he puts on his running shoes and heads out onto a trail or road.

This Sunday, Seamus will make his 26.2-mile debut in the Marine Corps Marathon in Washington, D.C., in memory of his father. He'll be part of a group of runners wearing the bright blue shirts of the wear blue: run to remember organization that honors fallen military members. From Miles 12-13, he'll run past volunteers holding American flags and hundreds of photos of men and women killed in Afghanistan and Iraq. One of those photos will be of Michael.

Then, when the race is over and he catches his breath, Seamus will make the walk from the finish line at the Marine Corps War Memorial at the edge of Arlington National Cemetery, to Section 60 to visit his dad. He's been there so often he says he could find his father's grave while blindfolded.

As race day approaches, he's eager to run for his father and for all the others who've been killed. But he's a bit apprehensive, too.

"I know I'm probably going to cry," says Seamus. "It's moving ... I think it's going to be the most inspiring thing I'm ever going to do."

A shared passion

The two became running buddies when Seamus was in the sixth grade. Michael, inspired by his friends to try road racing, entered a 5K with his son.

"I literally cried in pain my first mile," recalls Seamus.

But they completed the race and entered another. Soon, running was their thing. Over the years, they ran 10-milers together at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, where Michael was stationed, and the annual Army Ten-Miler in Washington, D.C.

By high school, Seamus was running cross country and track, and also swimming. He liked the distance races best in track: 1,600 and 3,200 meters (mile and 2-mile). His father, too, enjoyed the longer runs, eventually running ultra marathons. Seamus says his dad's fascination with races up to 100 miles "was insane."

When they ran together, Michael would usually stay with his son. He was a strong, 6-foot-5 paratrooper with endurance to burn, but for him it wasn't about streaking ahead. He'd take off occasionally, but mostly he wanted to be with Seamus.

"My husband would not leave him behind on races," says Sherri.

The last time they would run together was in late July and August of 2014, when Michael came home for two weeks of R&R.

He and Sherri took Seamus and his two sisters on a road trip along the East Coast, from North Carolina through Virginia and Maryland to New York and Massachusetts, where Michael was raised. It was sightseeing and barbecues and family reunions and father-son runs. In a Facebook post -- a selfie with his family upon arrival from Afghanistan -- Michael wrote, "Back with the band."

"It was the best two weeks of my life, to be honest," says Seamus.

Before hitting the road, Michael helped Seamus complete his project for Eagle Scout. Every moment Michael could be with his family, he was. Sherri says she and her husband were starting to talk, too, about him submitting his retirement papers.

"We just dropped all our stuff and traveled," says Seamus. "I'm grateful for that."

Along the way, the family stopped at Arlington National Cemetery to visit the grave of Michael's cousin, John Kilkus, a Marine sergeant who was killed in the Middle East in 1990 during the lead-up to the first Gulf War. They also visited the graves of several of Michael's friends in Section 60.

"Literally six weeks -- six weeks -- after being there with him, we were there burying him," says Sherri. "So, yeah, Arlington has a connection with our family and always will."

Honoring his father

Today, Seamus' profile photo on his Facebook page is of him and his dad from that last road trip. The two are smiling, their arms around each other's shoulders. Seamus' bright, red hair -- "I'm just the random redhead in the family," he jokes -- and Michael's youthful features stand out.

Weeks after the trip, when Seamus learned his father had been killed, he was stunned. His friend Matthew Calvelo, who often ran with Seamus and Michael, was the first person he called.

"We probably walked five or six miles around his neighborhood (that day)," says Calvelo. "Just over and over again, talking about his dad. Afterward he pulled out all the letters his dad sent to him over the years, over all his childhood pretty much, and read them all out loud. It was pretty emotional. Seamus was hit really hard."

Yet in many ways, Michael is still by his son's side. In the year-plus since his death, he's continued to lead his son into new running adventures.

While he was overseas, Michael signed up for the Harbison 50K in Columbia, South Carolina, scheduled for January of this year. A couple of months before the race, Seamus says he received a Facebook message from David Nance, the race director and his father's good friend.

"He was like, 'Hey, would you take his spot?'" Seamus recalls. He jumped at the chance. He admits now he "never really mentally accepted the fact it was 31 miles. I just wanted to fill in my dad's steps and run that race."

It rained that day, and the hilly course was rugged. He calls it "a beast." But Seamus finished in 5 hours, 58 minutes, beating his father's time from the previous year by about two minutes.

The race opened his eyes to ultras, and now he says he can see they might be his future, just as they were his father's favorites.

On July 4, Seamus also ran a 10K in Augusta, Georgia, near where his father had once served at Fort Gordon and been active in the running community. The Augusta Striders running club raised nearly $7,000 to erect a bronze memorial to Michael along the route.

And now, Seamus -- at 6-2, who has grown into a long strider -- will run the Marine Corps Marathon, a race with deep military connections. It's organized by the Marine Corps and finishers receive their medals from a Marine. In 2014, both the men's and women's winners were active-duty Army soldiers.

When Seamus was contacted by wear blue: run to remember to participate in this year's race and run his first marathon, he eagerly accepted.

"You can't beat it," he says. "Big city, military support, support through running. Two things I love are the military and running, and those combined is just a wonderful thing."

He's not making any predictions about what time he might post. He's never run a marathon, is unfamiliar with the course and likely will stop between Miles 12-13 to honor his father in some way.

"I never want to put in a number," Seamus says. "I just put on my shoes and finish. When I come across is what I get."

Seamus says he'd love to have a time good enough to qualify for the Boston Marathon (3:05 for his age group). That accomplishment would connect him in another way to his dad, a lifelong New England sports fan who ran the Boston Marathon-concurrent "Shadow Run" in Afghanistan in 2014.

But that's secondary to the main purpose of this weekend's run: to honor his father and others.

"I run to remember," he says. "I've met a lot of people in the past who have lost family members. I don't want to be selfish and do just my dad. I just want to be a good image to those who have fallen."

One of those who have fallen is the son of a woman he met recently. Her son was killed last year on the day of the marathon. After they had talked awhile and she learned he would be running this year's race, she asked Seamus to take some of her son's ashes with him during the race. He agreed.

"She said, 'When you're at the marathon ... wherever you are, just put him where your heart places him,'" Seamus says. He's proud to do it.

One thing is certain: This won't be Seamus' last marathon. Running will always be part of his life, thanks to his dad. It's a link so strong he has trouble explaining it.

After Michael was killed and Seamus returned to the cross country team, he had a breakthrough. He'd been stuck right around 18:00 flat in the 5K, but quickly dropped to 17:20.

"I dropped like 40 seconds in three weeks," he says. "I just felt, honestly felt, like my dad was literally in me, moving my legs instead of me. It's really weird. I felt like it was actually happening."