Why would a U.S. Marine run more than 26 miles wearing a gas mask that restricts up to 30 percent of his oxygen?
To call attention to those who will never be able to run again.
One year ago, Marine Sgt. Jeremy Soles founded Team X-T.R.E.M.E. (Train, Rehabilitate, Empower, Motivate, Endure), a non-profit organization that raises awareness for wounded veterans. The group, which consists of five runners and five volunteer board members, attempts rigorous physical challenges to bring attention to the struggles of disabled service members.
So when Soles met Cpl. John Peck at Walter Reed Army Medical Center last month, the 33-year-old Marine had all the inspiration he needed for this year's challenge.
Peck, 24, had lost his arms and legs to a roadside bomb in Afghanistan in May. But when he met with Soles, his attitude was buoyant, and Soles decided he'd run the 26.2-mile Marine Corps Marathon in his honor.
And he'd do it while wearing a gas mask. The difficulty, he said, served as a symbol of the suffering endured by Peck and hundreds of thousands of other veterans whose lives were forever altered by the trauma of war.
The record run landed Soles in the Guinness Book of World Records, but that's not why he did it.
"I’m no hero by any stretch of the imagination," said Soles, who served two tours in Iraq. "These men and women have made these sacrifices not for themselves … not for any paycheck, but for freedom."
Soles, of Richmond, Va., said he didn't know what to expect when he met Peck, of Antioch Township, Ill., at Walter Reed on Oct. 8.
Lying in his bed while being spoon-fed by an aide, Peck was "lighthearted" and "cracking jokes" about football. He later told Soles that he suffered a traumatic brain injury in 2007 when his convoy was hit by a roadside bomb in Iraq, but that his injury did not force him out of the Marine Corps.
Instead, he said, he remained in his unit -- 3rd Battalion, 1st Marines -- and was redeployed to Afghanistan.
"He embodies everything the military is all about," Soles said.
Soles ran the marathon on Oct. 31 in Washington, D.C., wearing an Avon Protection C50 gas mask -- firmly secured with the filter on -- which creates oxygen resistance by up to 30 percent.
U.S. Marines are trained to use gas masks in possible chemical or biological attacks. Recruits are given an M40 Field Protective Mask and put into a chamber that exposes them to nonlethal CS gas -- a standard riot control agent -- as part of their training, according to the Marine Corps website.
But running more than 26 miles with restricted oxygen proved no easy task for Soles, an Operation Enduring Freedom veteran, who compared the challenge to running while "sucking a straw" or "putting a snorkel to your head."
"Every time that I began to hurt," he said, "I tried to think about the individuals like Cpl. Peck who wish that they could run again."
Guinness World Record regulations did not allow Soles to remove the mask at any time during the race, so he created a homemade "feeding tube" for his run, using a meat baster attached to a backpack containing a nutritional gel supplement.
"We attached some valves, a couple of hoses," he said.
It took Soles 4 hours, 29 minutes and 3 seconds to cross the finish line, where he was awarded the Guinness World Record for the fastest run with a gas mask -- an award he handed over to Peck, who was waiting for him in a wheelchair.
"I never saw anyone in their right mind run 26 miles in a gas mask," Peck quipped in an interview from his recovery room at Walter Reed.
"It was one of the greatest things I experienced in my life."