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Freedom's Run: Homage to Sacrifice
October 3, 2016
Imagine running non-stop for fifteen miles and you say to yourself, "I am over halfway to the finish line," when a bend in the course reveals an unforgiving two-hundred-foot hill. Every inch of your body aches and your clothes are drenched, but you ascend the hill into the rolling plains of Antietam National Battlefield because your pains pale in comparison to the agonies endured by 131,000 soldiers who fought on this terrain one hundred and fifty four years ago.
This is the Freedom's Run, a marathon hosted by Shepherd University each October traversing four National Parks within the Heart of the Civil War Heritage Area: Harpers Ferry National Historical Park, Chesapeake & Ohio National Historical Park, the Potomac Heritage Trail, and Antietam National Battlefield. Additionally, the Freedom's Run features a half-marathon, a 10K and 5K, and a one-mile fun run promoting healthy lifestyles and the preservation of our nation's heritage. While testing your physical endurance you are compelled to reflect upon the sacrifices made by generations of Americans in the name of freedom.
The marathon's first miles retrace the 1906 pilgrimage of civil rights leader W.E.B. DuBois and the Second Niagara Movement to the Murphy Farm where John Brown's Fort was reconstructed in 1895. DuBois and the Niagara Movement activists, who eventually formed the NAACP, went barefoot during this pilgrimage, considering the Murphy Farm sacred land in the struggle for racial equality. After the Murphy Farm, the course passes John Brown's Fort, relocated by the Park Service to Lower Town in 1968, where runners reflect upon the five African Americans who fought with abolitionist John Brown in October, 1859, to emancipate their race from the bonds of slavery. Here, Dangerfield Newby died to free his enslaved wife in Virginia and Lewis Sheridan Leary grasped onto life for eight hours after being shot, perhaps thinking of his six-month-old daughter Lois and the injustice she would face coming to age in nineteenth-century America.
After passing John Brown's Fort, the Freedom's Run follows the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal towpath upriver to the Antietam Aqueduct. While dodging the towpath's puddles and mud, you can almost hear the footsteps of runaway slaves using the towpath to reach freedom at the Mason-Dixon Line, or the grunts of German and Irish immigrants who sought freedom in America and found economic opportunity in the canal's construction crews. Climbing from the towpath to the bluffs overlooking the Potomac River, the scenic Antietam National Battlefield provides the course's final miles.
Passing Antietam battlefield's Bloody Lane, The Cornfield, and Dunker Church, one dwells upon the thousands who gave the ultimate sacrifice for their respective cause, and the "new birth of freedom" that followed. Through this terrain runners pass the 130th Pennsylvania monument, where Union soldiers from my hometown of Cumberland County, Pennsylvania, advanced only to be decimated by awaiting Confederates in a sunken road. Shortly after, racers cross where the 3rd North Carolina Infantry, boys from my current town of Wilmington, North Carolina, plunged into The Cornfield and abandoned their dead and wounded on the field of battle following Lee's retreat. Although sore and contemplating quitting, this hallowed ground provides the strength to reach the finish line.
The Freedom's Run is a humbling experience for those seeking to pay tribute to some of the most hallowed ground in America. All races are open for any age or experience level, and hundreds of supporters along the course will not let you lose hope, doubt your abilities, or forget the sacrifices made in the name of freedom. Join us at next year's Freedom's Run!
Interested in running through history before next year's Freedom's Run? Check out the JFK 50 Mile, which takes place in November, or the Friends of Cunningham Falls State Park 5K Fun Run on October 30.
Images, from top: marathon participants at the starting line; John Brown's Fort, Harpers Ferry National Historical Park; 130th Pennsylvania Infantry Regiment Monument at Antietam National Battlefield; Ripley's Brigade, 3rd North Carolina Infantry Regiment War Department Wayside Marker, Antietam National Battlefield. All images taken by Travis Gilbert.