Vivian White would do just about anything for her son, but this was asking a lot. Take up running? She hated running. Had ever since grade school. Besides, at 47, she was set in her ways.
But he persisted. This was 2005, and Brian Bales was a junior on the Charleston (Ill.) High track team. Every week in the off-season Vivian would drive him to a nearby college and time him in the 200 and the 400. In turn, Brian would try to get her out on the track. Eventually she gave in. At first she was gassed after one lap. Then it was two, then four. If she faltered, there was Brian, backpedaling in front of her like a cornerback and shouting, "Come on, Mom, you can do it!" Or he'd trail her, a hand in the small of her back, saying, "I know it hurts, but you'll thank me one day." He taught her how to create a rhythm for her breathing by bouncing a tennis ball as she ran, how to block out pain.
Most 16-year-olds would consider it horrifyingly uncool to train with their mom. Brian loved it. "It made us a lot closer," he says. "And as soon as she got an iPod, it was like she could outrun a horse."
As the months passed, Vivian dropped weight and gained stamina. Within a year she was entering half-marathons. When she flagged at the 10-mile mark during one of them, she texted Brian. Within a minute her cellphone pinged. "Close your eyes and feel the road beneath your feet and the air against your head and think about the little things," came Brian's message, which he followed with another, and another. Vivian finished strong and has now completed 10 half-marathons. She'd reinvented herself as a runner, thanks to her son.
Then in January 2008 Brian left home to join the Army, training as a radio communication systems security repair specialist and stationed at Fort Hood, Texas. Seven months later Vivian got the call she dreaded: Brian would serve a one-year deployment in Iraq starting in January 2009, at a forward operating base near Kirkuk. He would carry an M4 carbine rifle, wear body armor and strap on a Kevlar helmet capable of stopping 9-mm rounds. He'd ride in convoys to neighboring bases, go on recovery missions after trucks on patrol had been attacked. Vivian was scared out of her mind.
Feeling helpless, searching for a connection to her 20-year-old son, Vivian turned to the gift he had given her: She ran. Vivian wanted to cover the equivalent distance from Charleston to Kirkuk—to run to Brian. But after her calculations revealed the gap between them to be 6,436 miles, she recruited her husband, Matt (Vivian and Brian's father, Michael Bales, split in 2004), her two daughters and assorted family members to contribute, setting up a spreadsheet to track their combined progress. Some jogged, others walked, and all donated their miles, though none as many as Vivian. Four to five days a week she headed out—in the rain, in the gray morning chill and even when she didn't much feel like it because, she says, "I think about him and realize you don't get days off in Iraq." She wore a gray Army training shirt that Brian had given her and listened to call-and-response marching chants on her iPod. The way she planned it, she'd finish her mission at the same time Brian finished his. So in a way every mile did bring him closer. "It helps me get through each day," Vivian says. "It's my way of supporting him."
Then in February the Charleston Times-Courier wrote about Vivian's run. Suddenly, everybody wanted to donate miles—hospital employees, a writer at the paper, people she'd never met. A woman from a running club in Davenport, Iowa, called: "Can we help too?" Of course, Vivian said, and so she started a second spreadsheet. By June there were more than 2,000 miles logged on it.
Know what it feels like to have a whole community running for you? Every week Brian receives an updated Charleston-to-Kirkuk map, with a graphic of tiny footprints marching toward him, and he posts it above his bunk, next to the newspaper clipping. Fellow soldiers come by to follow the progress. "It makes me feel like I'm not forgotten and that people still care about us over here," he says via e-mail, adding that it's hard to overstate the value of such support.
Brian has lost friends in Iraq, seen things that can't be unseen. Just last week, he says, "a 10-year-old kid" threw a grenade at one of the convoy trucks and blew the back doors off. (No one was injured.) At times like these he fondles the replica dog tag around his neck, the one his stepdad got him, the one he vowed not to take off until he gets home. On one side there's an American flag and on the other an inscription: MILES MAY SEPARATE US BUT KNOW I AM ALWAYS BY YOUR SIDE. I LOVE YOU. Vivian has an identical tag. Sometimes when she's running she reaches for it, like a lifeline ringing her neck.
Last week Vivian and her crew passed 2,100 miles. The little footprints are now in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean—a bit behind schedule, but Vivian will draw on the community miles as needed to catch up. After putting in more than 700 miles, she is on her second pair of Asics and figures she'll go through two or three more before January. Then, if all goes as planned, Brian will return to run the final mile with her. Not in front or behind or a world away, but side by side.