From patrolling the race route to ensuring that all runners are able to make it to the finish line, members of the WPI community are regulars at the Boston Marathon, and this year will be no different as 25 members of the WPI ROTC, including 19 cadets led by Master Sergeant Thomas Blair, don their rucksacks to participate in the Tough Ruck, an annual event that gives active military members, veterans, first responders, and civilians the opportunity to march 26.2 miles the Saturday before the Marathon (April 16) in honor of fallen service members, first responders, and Gold Star families.
“Ruckers,” as they’re called, are recognized by the Boston Athletic Association and are the first recipients of the Boston Marathon medals each year.
This is MSG Blair’s third time participating in the event; his medal hangs in his office.
“To represent the people I served with who are no longer here and their families, to try to give everything I can because they gave everything for their country," he says.
“It’s tough. Those emotions come back to you [during the ruck], but it’s ultimately for a good cause. The soldiers aren’t here, but maybe their parents are. You’ve got people cheering you on, parents who are part of Gold Star families crying at the finish line … I don’t care how hard you are, you get touched by that.” -Master Sergeant Thomas Blair
Since the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013, backpacks and rucksacks are no longer allowed on the course, so Blair and the rest of his team will be walking the route along the Battle of Lexington and Concord.
Participants’ packs will be weighed before and at random checkpoints throughout the ruck to ensure that each pack falls into one of three different divisions: a 10-pound backpack in the lightweight division; a 20-pound backpack in the heavyweight division; or a pack that weighs 35 pounds or more in the military division. Blair and the cadets are training with 50-pound rucks, and while the trail will be more or less flat and even, they’re practicing on neighborhood hilly roads to be better prepared.
As if carrying so much physical baggage wasn’t enough, MSG Blair and the rest of the WPI team will have emotional baggage with them as well. Families across the country are able to submit names of fallen service members, police officers, firefighters, and EMTs; each group is represented by a specific ribbon color, and ruckers will attach the ribbons to their rucksacks, effectively carrying fallen service members across the finish line.
“It’s tough,” Blair says. “Those emotions come back to you [during the ruck], but it’s ultimately for a good cause. The soldiers aren’t here, but maybe their parents are. You’ve got people cheering you on, parents who are part of Gold Star families crying at the finish line … I don’t care how hard you are, you get touched by that.”
“[The Ruck] is a chance for the cadets to get that first introduction to the camaraderie, the brother- and sisterhood of the military. There’ll be a task, they were doubting themselves, but the camaraderie helps support them and show that they can accomplish something they believed they couldn’t.” -MSG Thomas Blair
Some participants complete the course to challenge themselves, others are doing so in honor of service members and their families, and while Blair is participating for those reasons, he has another important incentive.
“[The Ruck] is a chance for the cadets to get that first introduction to the camaraderie, the brother- and sisterhood of the military,” he explains. “There’ll be a task, they were doubting themselves, but the camaraderie helps support them and show that they can accomplish something they believed they couldn’t.”
Last year, members of the WPI team took fourth and fifth places, and had seven individuals place in the top 15; they’re looking to take the top three positions this year. The Tough Ruck also involves fundraising for disabled veterans and Gold Star families; so far, they’ve reached just over $16,000. Anyone interested in donating can still do so through the team’s fundraising page.
Besides a poignant way to honor fallen service members, the Tough Ruck sets the tone for the rest of Patriots' Day weekend, a time full of festivities and moments to look forward to. For Blair, though, there’s one thing in particular he’s excited to see.
“Almost none of [the cadets] have ever done anything like this, or marched this distance in their lives,” he says. “To see their smiles when they cross the finish line is going to be awesome.”
- By Allison Racicot