Runners in the April 16 Boston Marathon sped past as Alicia Oliveira of Oak Bluffs and members of Providence College’s Army ROTC Battalion determinedly marched the 26.2-mile route. Dressed in full uniform with 35-pound rucksacks on their backs, they started at 5 am and crossed the finish line almost eight hours later, enduring temperatures in the high 80s.
Their participation was not a training exercise. The 23 students from Providence College’s Army ROTC Battalion volunteered to march in the marathon as part of a 32-member team to raise money for the Wounded Warrior Project. The team included six Navy ROTC students from Boston University, one University of Maine student, and two Rhode Island National Guardsmen. They raised $20,500 in donations as of April 20.
“I never felt this good about myself,” Ms. Oliveira said in a phone call with The Times a week later. “It’s one of the biggest things I’ve ever accomplished, physically and mentally. It took a lot to suck it up and do it, especially when I’d have to wake up at 5 am on a Saturday — my only day to sleep in — and go train for it.”
Ms. Oliveira, a 2011 graduate of Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School (MVRHS), is a freshman at Providence College. She and the ROTC team started training on weekends about eight weeks ago.
“We started with five-mile marches, then increased five miles each time,” she said. “Our final ruck march was probably 22 miles. We trained with 40 pounds of weight in our rucksacks and did the marathon with 35.”
Grueling day with triumphant finish
The team loaded up on carbohydrates at a restaurant featuring an all-you-can-eat chicken dinner the night before. They left on a bus about 3 am to start their march at 5 am, in order to finish up about the same time as the runners.
Alicia’s parents, Dave and Margaret Oliveira of Oak Bluffs, surprised her by showing up along the marathon route in Wellesley to cheer her on.
“She marched by real fast and I could see the sweat on her brow,” Mr. Oliveira told The Times in a recent phone call. “I was very happy, and then all of a sudden, I became very concerned about her for the next couple of hours, worrying about how she would hold up the rest of the way in the heat.”
A text message from his daughter after she crossed the finish line put his fears at rest.
Ms. Oliveira shared her memories of those last moments with The Times.
“I would say for about seven miles from the finish line, we were high-fiving people in the crowd the whole way down,” she recalled. “I didn’t think I could go any further, and as soon as we turned the corner, towards the last mile, we just sprinted. My buddy pulled out an American flag and we just ran it out to the very end. Originally we were going to stay in formation and walk the rest of the way down, but with crowd screaming so loud, we had all of that adrenaline kick in.”
Despite the heat, none of the team got sick or had to drop out of the march.
The ruck march tradition
Providence College started the tradition of the marathon ruck march seven years ago, after Staff Sergeant Christopher Potts, a Rhode Island National Guard soldier, was killed in Iraq in 2004.
“Many of our alumni joined the Rhode Island National Guard, so out of that connection sprang the idea to honor his memory with the Staff Sergeant Potts Memorial Ruck March,” ROTC director Major Tucker Shosh, U.S. Army, said. “They still do it in his honor, but now it’s also become a fundraiser for the Wounded Warrior Project.”
Although it is not a formal ROTC event, Major Shosh said Lt. Col. Jim Tuite, U.S. Army, a professor of military science at Providence College who runs the ROTC program, has always been very supportive of the cadets’ efforts.
“What’s so impressive is that every year the students have taken it upon themselves to run everything,” Major Shosh pointed out. Team captain Kyle Ribeiro from Bryant University coordinated this year’s event.
Ms. Oliveira said one of the things that impressed her most was the team’s dedication. “There was no complaining, no whining about the heat,” she said. “We were all so hot, and when we took our boots off at the end, we all had bloody blisters on our feet. But none of us said a word, because we all wanted to be there and do the march in honor of Christopher Potts.”
The marathon ruck march team asked people to sponsor them with donations to the Wounded Warrior Project, which provides services and programs to those injured in military service on or after September 11, 2001. Ms. Oliveira said she received more than $1,000 in donations, all from the Martha’s Vineyard community.
Ms. Oliveira opted to participate in ROTC this semester before signing a commitment, and plans to make a decision soon on formally joining the program. She comes from a family with a long tradition of military service. Her dad, a court officer at the Dukes County Courthouse, served 20 years, first in the Marines and then in the Air Force. Her mother, who now works for NSTAR, retired from the Air National Guard after 20 years.