Micah Herndon, 32, pictured at right above, is a retired Marine. He lost three friends when an improvised explosive device (IED) hit their vehicle in Afghanistan almost a decade ago, while he was working as the lead machine gunner in the convoy ahead of them, and he wears their names—Ballard, Hamer, and Juarez—emblazoned across his chest when he runs. And after all that, he says, he is humbled by the marathon.
“I’m an emotional runner,” he said. “If I’m not going hard, I see it as doing my guys wrong.” It took him a few tries, and a life-changing finish line experience at the Boston Marathon in April when his legs gave out on him and he crawled the last 100 yards, but now, he says, he sees the value in mixing hard and easier runs in marathon training.
He credits his NYRR coach, Roberto Mandje, pictured at left above with Herndon, with helping him overcome his desire to run hard all the time. After his Boston finish made him a running celebrity, as well as a visible symbol of the trauma veterans bring home with them, he was offered a spot in the TCS New York City Marathon, along with one-on-one virtual coaching sessions with Mandje.
“Micah is extremely disciplined and committed,” Mandje said of his first impressions of Herndon. “This wasn’t terribly surprising, given his military background coupled with the meaning and purpose behind his reason for running.” Mandje said his hardest job was convincing Herndon that it was okay to slow down and even to take rest days. “So, we came to the understanding that we needed to bring more balance, structure, and purpose toward his training. We had VERY easy days in there as well as long run days in there. We also implemented days off, which is something he hadn’t really ever done before, unless absolutely forced to due to scheduling or injury.”
Coach and runner eventually became close friends. Mandje ran at Herndon’s side during the New York City race. Mandje said that about four miles in, Herndon opened up to him in a “real and raw” way about the circumstances that brought him to running.
On the morning of January 9, 2010, Herndon, a squad leader in charge of six other Marines, got into the lead vehicle of a convoy in Afghanistan. It was his second deployment, and one he had volunteered for after a previous tour of duty in Iraq. That morning, he met Rupert Hamer, a British journalist accompanying the convoy. Hamer got into the last vehicle in the convoy with Mark Juarez, who had been deployed previously with Herndon to Iraq but had served in a different platoon, and Matthew Ballard, Herndon’s best friend. That vehicle was hit by an IED, and Hamer, Juarez, and Ballard were killed.
“When you’re deployed, your number-one goal is to come back the way you left,” Herndon said. He described a process of getting through a deployment by setting small goals, day by day, then week by week. But when he returned and his friends did not, he lost sight of that structure and ran on pure emotion and adrenaline. “Running did save my life,” Herndon said. “It did save my marriage. I don’t consider it as training. To me it’s my therapy, it’s me going to the shrink, it’s my counseling.”
Not even the specter of the Boston Marathon could tame Herndon’s demons. Herndon said he felt a kinship with the people in Boston who had watched a bomb explode near the finish line there in 2013. “I knew what it was like to get hit by an IED. I know what it was like for the people hit by that glass. I could really relate to them,” Herndon said. “It struck me down to the core.” He ran hard and fast last April and paid the price.
With the opportunity to run in New York, however, he said, “I learned a lot about preparation.”
Mandje broke down the New York course and his 22-week training plan for Herndon into sections, much as Herndon himself had once broken down his deployments. “His previous approach to marathons, and running in general, was more of an all-out assault on his demons and a way to work through those feelings of survivor’s guilt that he still carries,” Mandje said. Herndon had a purpose, but needed balance and structure, according to his coach.
During the race itself, Mandje told Herndon that he needed to hold a specific pace until 22 miles in, and then, and only then, if he had gas left in the tank, Mandje would “release” him to run as fast as he could into the finish. Herndon’s response? “Oh c’mon man, live a little!” Mandje retorted, “No! Run slow now, live a lot later!” The two men threw the phrases back and forth for the duration of the race and now use them as hashtags in social media posts to each other.
1 month ago~ Event: 2019 @nycmarathon 👏🏽 Participant: @herndonmicah 🏃🏼♂️ Mission: Honour thy brothers Achievement: UNLOCKED 🙌🏽 Time flies, can’t believe it has been 4~ weeks since I had the honour and privilege to run alongside Micah. Enjoy my in-race footage (and fill free to tag a mate/yourself if you spot them along the vid👀). 26.22 miles to BROTHERHOOD. Danke, Gracias & Thank You, Micah 🙌🏽 🎥 x #GoProHero7Black #TCSNYCMarathon #MarathonStories #MarathonMovie #RunnersHighCombatsPTSD #BallardHamerJuarez #LiveALittle 😏 #BehindTheScenes #MyWorkLife #AmorFati
Herndon crossed the finish line in Central Park in 3:05:50, faster than he had run Boston, despite a slowdown late in the race.
“What’s so beautiful about the running community is that it’s not how fast you run or who you’re sponsored by or what your PRs are—it’s your ‘why,’” Herndon said.
For his part, Herndon runs to increase awareness of what veterans like himself face when they return from deployments.
“It feels like you’re just a number to them,” he said, referring to the United States military. “You signed up, you fulfilled your contract, and they chew you up and spit you out. We’re defending the Constitution, defending the idea of a better life. Our treatment could be a little bit better.”
— Micah herndon (@HerndonMicah) November 26, 2019
Herndon said he had to learn from other veterans about the benefits to which he was entitled. And after leading a squad and operating multimillion-dollar machinery on the battlefield, Herndon applied to more than 30 entry-level jobs upon his return from Afghanistan, “and I couldn’t even get a call back,” he said. He implores employers to take a closer look at veterans. “You don’t get training like that anywhere else,” he said of the military. “We’re a valuable thing for employers. We have a lot to offer.”
Having a “why” when you run, Herndon said, is just as important as learning pacing or any other “how” of running. He tells people he meets who ask him how to get started running to find their drive first, then put one foot in front of the other. “Everyone has to start somewhere,” he said.