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Runner carries flag in Fargo Marathon for fallen soldier

Kurt Philion was a longtime runner, but he had resisted pleas to join his sister in running a half-marathon. Thirteen-plus miles was too far, he said. But sister Nikki persisted. So, he half-relented. "I will only do it if there is a good reason ...

Kurt Philion was a longtime runner, but he had resisted pleas to join his sister in running a half-marathon.

Thirteen-plus miles was too far, he said. But sister Nikki persisted. So, he half-relented. "I will only do it if there is a good reason to," he said.

That good reason came Dec. 2, 2006, when hometown friend Corey Rystad of Red Lake Falls, Minn., was killed in Iraq. Sgt. Rystad and another member of the Minnesota Army National Guard died when their Humvee struck an IED.

So, Philion ran in the 2007 Fargo Marathon as a tribute to his buddy, wearing a T-shirt with Rystad's military photograph and the words "Land of the free, because of the brave. Corey Rystad, 1985-2006."

The message attracted attention from the large, encouraging crowd that lined the race route. But the attention -- and the volume -- ratcheted dramatically during the last three miles. On the homestretch, Philion ran while holding a U.S. flag.

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The wave of cheers provided adrenalin that made him forget his fatigue and carried him to the finish.

"The flag was like a volume control, Philion said. "The higher I raised it, the louder they got."

Later that year in a Detroit Lakes half-marathon, he carried the flag the entire way. And in last year's Fargo event, he toted it for the 26 miles of the full-marathon.

The reaction is mixed. Some shout, "USA, USA," in a light-hearted tone. Some salute. Some thank him for honoring their fathers, spouses or children who have served in the military. And some tear up.

They all get the message.

"The flag stands for freedom, and no one can take that away," Philion said. "The idea is to remind people why they enjoy the freedoms they do in the United States."

Another reminder

More reminders come Saturday when the 26-year-old kicks off the 2009 Philco Freedom Run by running a half-marathon in Fargo. Philco is his nickname from high school in Red Lake Falls, where he became friends with Rystad.

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When he checks Saturday's weather, it won't be for the temperature or the precipitation. The 5-foot-8, 155-pounder will be most concerned about wind speed because of its effect on toting the flag, which is 5 feet by 3 feet.

Running 26 miles is difficult enough without carrying a nylon flag flapping in the breeze and providing more resistance. Last year's Fargo Marathon had 30 mile per hour winds that extended his expected time by about an hour, to 5ยฝ hours,

Under normal conditions, he grips the flagpole with one hand and rests it on his shoulder. But he needed a two-handed grip for some of the race.

"I'd rather have the wind flow at me than from the side or back," he said. "When it's behind you, it pulls my arms away from by body. And from the side, you need to stay away from other groups of runners so they don't get whipped by the flag."

Wind or no wind, holding a flag limits the arm-pumping action that's crucial to running.

"I treat it like soldiers going off to war -- I just go out and do it," he said. "I don't train with the flag. I just manage it the day of the race."

More than honor

Philco's Freedom Run has another purpose. It's also about raising money for Project New Hope, which holds military family weekend retreats.

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The program provides veterans and their families the education, training and skills necessary to return to civilian life after wartime service. Multiple and extended deployments are just one reason that it's become difficult for combat veterans to return to their previous lives. High suicide rates for veterans age 20 to 24 are another concern.

The nonprofit was recommended to Philion by the Red Lake Falls Lions Club. Previously, Philion ran to benefit Freedom is Not Free, which aids families of wounded or deceased military members. Both are worthy causes, he said.

Donations or not, Philion will keep running to keep alive the memories of his friend, who made the ultimate of sacrifices. Old Glory will always come along.

"When I have the flag on my shoulder running, I think of it as Corey being there with me," Philion said. "He can't run, but I can carry him the distance."

Reach Bakken at (701) 780-1125; (800) 477-6572, ext. 125; or send e-mail to rbakken@gfherald.com .

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