Tom's Run Participants Go the Extra Mile for Team Fun, Not the Fastest Win

By David Montgomery
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 1, 2009

Strange doings after midnight in downtown Cumberland, Md.: Dozens of people in shorts and sneakers with little lights strapped to their foreheads pop out of the Holiday Inn. They look like fireflies in the night. They pose for the obligatory goofy picture beside the statue of the mule that marks the beginning of the C&O Canal towpath. And they're off!

One is carrying a rubber chicken. One has a T-shirt that says "Run. Bike. Don't Sleep. Run." Destination: Bethesda.

What a wonderful night for a 200-mile relay called Tom's Run. Actually it takes a night, a day and a morning.

"See you at mile 54!" Jason Briggs, a chief warrant officer in the Coast Guard, shouts after his teammates, one of whom is towing a cooler of supplies behind his bike. "I'm gonna sleep in the parking lot a little bit."

Stamped on Tom's Run Relay T-shirts is the whimsical logo of a pair of thick glasses, a nose and a mustache. That's Tom.

All that's left of him.

Plus, this seemingly masochistic folly that is at once a living, sweating legacy and a meditation on community.

Tom, are you out there somewhere? Can you freaking believe it?

Tom Brooks was an obscure but beloved chief warrant officer in the Coast Guard. In 2004, at 49, he died of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis -- Lou Gehrig's disease -- six years after his diagnosis.

A few months before his disease was diagnosed, he helped organize a bike-run relay down the towpath to encourage fitness and team-building. It was small, just a few teams. The next year, his colleagues dubbed the event Tom's Run Relay, and Brooks did a turn in his motorized wheelchair.

This year, Tom's Run has grown to 29 teams and almost 500 participants, the most ever. The course follows the towpath from Cumberland to Fletcher's Cove, then veers off to finish on the campus of the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences on Jones Bridge Road.

But here's the thing: A decade later, hardly anyone on the trail, including the Coasties, knew Brooks. Tom's Run has floated like a red balloon across many degrees of separation from its original inspiration, expanding and adapting to include other military services, civilians, even several children and a newspaper reporter.

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