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  • Photos by Rachel Von | The Journal Gazette Runners of the 4-mile run/walk cross through the start line during Fort4Fitness on Saturday. The day included several other events and an expo and party at Parkview Field.

  • Participants in the 10K race cross the finish line together during Fort4Fitness on Saturday.

Sunday, October 01, 2017 1:00 am

Fitness and caring get exercise at yearly race

ROSA SALTER RODRIGUEZ | The Journal Gazette

It took Jason Norris “all of five seconds” after reading a Facebook post to decide to run the half marathon carrying an American flag during Saturday’s 10th annual Fort4Fitness.

“I run a lot of races, and I thought, ‘I could do that,’” the 36-year-old auto mechanic from Fort Wayne said.

Norris was just one of thousands of people finishing under blue skies and the colorful inflatable arch near home plate at Parkview Field. But he was the only one who brought tears to the eyes of Jeff Gebert, 58, of Fort Wayne, father of the late U.S.  Army Sgt. Chris Gebert, a Fort Wayne native in whose honor Norris ran.

“He didn’t even know him. We’re just meeting right now,” Jeff Gebert said right after Norris crossed the finish line as a Fort4Fitness participant with Flags 4 Fallen, a group of runners who honor members of the military, public servants and anyone whose life ends too soon.

“There really are no words to describe it. These people are so loving and so caring,” Gebert said. “Our family has grown by one because of this, what he did. He’s just a fantastic human being.”

That’s the way it often goes at the running festival that has become more than just another road race. As its organizers strive to get more area residents to live more active lives, Fort4Fitness races have taken on causes far beyond fitness and led people to goals they only dreamed they might accomplish.

As in other years, the races drew people running to raise money for charities or awareness for causes – breast cancer, lymphatic cancer and Parkinson’s disease.

The latter brought out a team of four caregivers from Lutheran Life Villages to run and walk to honor patients they know. Parkinson’s patients often have trouble walking because of their illness, said Tracy Justus, who finished the 10K along with Linda Magee, Ashley Wilson and Whitney Thompson, all of Fort Wayne.

About one in three participants registered to run for one of the more than 30 charities the event helps support, organizers said.

And, there were stories of personal triumph – of weight loss and recovery from addiction or illness. Andrew Van Veld, 55, diagnosed two years ago with chronic lymphocytic leukemia, a blood cancer, participated last year after undergoing treatment.

I’m probably not going to run the race the whole way. I’ll be forced to walk a bit. It’s kind of out of my hands. But I’ll do my best,” the Fort Wayne man said before the start of the marathon. 

Long-time runner Denise Conrad, 56, of Decatur, had a different personal goal.

She started 2017 with the aim of running 2,017 miles this year – and to run all 10 years of  Fort4Fitness in the top 10 female finishers.

The dental hygienist accomplished that with a completed half marathon. “It’s amazing. It feels great. I really had to work hard this year, and I had an injury earlier in the month, an overuse injury. But I’m so excited,” she said, after earning a big hug from runner friends.

Chris Fairchild, 50, of Wolf Lake, another 10-year participant, said she had a double reason to be happy. “Today is my birthday!” she said while waiting for the 10K to start.  “This is my best birthday ever!”

She looks forward to the race all year. “I just get filled with the spirit of it,” Fairchild said. “I just love it. I wouldn’t miss it.” 

Race organizers created special commemorative shirts and lapel pins for 10-year participants, whom organizers dubbed the Extra Innings Club, a reference to baseball teams who go the extra mile.

Among the Flags 4 Fallen contingent were participants who honored U.S. Marine Lance Cpl. David Grames Sanchez of Fort Wayne, who died in 2006 at age 22 in Iraq, and Capt. Eric J. Balliet of the Fort Wayne Fire Department, who died last week.

Gebert’s dad, attending the race with several other relatives, said his son, with 14 years in the military, succumbed in August to suicide brought on by a struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder. 

Norris, wearing a picture of the fallen solider on his back, said he’d never run with a flag before. “This is really cool, one of the coolest things I’ve done,” he said.

“I saw a lot of people out on the course cheering for the flag,” he added. “I’m glad I could help them (Gebert’s family), help them remember him.”    

rsalter@jg.net