From our Chairman, Sean Valigura:
The effort that has evolved over the years into what is now known as Operation Valor got started back in late 2013 for me. I reconnected with an old friend that I had fallen out of touch with for roughly 15 years. We talked for a bit and got caught up on what we were doing and where we each were in life. FaceBook friend requests were exchanged and naturally we started popping up in each other’s FB feeds shortly thereafter.
About every other week or so, I would see photos and posts of him at what I learned were called Obstacle Course Races (or simply OCRs). You may have heard about Spartan Race, BoneFrog, Green Beret Challenge, Conquer the Gauntlet, Savage Race, Tough Mudder or other similar races. Well, as a military guy from a military family, I’ve done my fair share of obstacle courses and that stuff is fun to me. So, I reached out to him and asked him about the events. He said, “Oh! That’s a Spartan Race that I just did a week ago here in Dallas.” I was intrigued…and we talked about these OCRs for a good hour and a half. As the conversation was winding to a close, he said, “Well listen…there’s a Spartan Race in Austin this coming May. How about I come down and we’ll run it together?” Without truly understanding what exactly I was getting myself into, I said yes!
I’ll admit, I was a bit arrogant going into that first race. I’ve been a halfway decent athlete my whole life…playing multiple sports at various levels since I was young. So, I sincerely thought “this is going to be an easy day…~20 obstacles that I’ll dominate with about a 1/2 mile run in between them, right?!?” Boy was I ever WRONG! There no nice way to say this, but I simply got my ass handed to me all day long. It was brutal.
The event starts off with each wave of people loading into the starting area by climbing over a ~5 foot wall. No big deal, right?!? Well, as I load up for a spring jump to climb over, I pulled my left groin (later at the Ortho’s office I would learn it was a partial tear). I knew I hurt myself as soon as it happened. So the race starts and I have to favor that side so my gait and stride is weird and not at all natural. As luck would have it, before we get to the first 1/2 mile, I slip on some rocks while planting the other leg and give myself an ankle sprain. So now both legs are dinged up…which results in me moving VERY slowly. Now as a ~300 lb powerlifter, I was already moving pretty slow. But with injuries to both legs now, I was moving like molasses up a hill in December!
Now, as runners of these kinds of events know, heats are sent off in regular intervals. For Spartan Races, it’s every 15 minutes. So about 30 minutes into our day, the 9:15am heat catches up to us on the course. The folks in the front are, of course, amazing athletes and come bounding past me like a herd of wild gazelles. I fully expected this, so, it wasn’t any kind of surprise. What WAS a surprise were the things the said and shouted at me…to me…as they flew by me. “Great job man! Keep it up!” “Stay strong big guy! You’re doing great!” “Way to go!!” Now, I knew I wasn’t breaking any kind of land speed records. And, I know full well that I’m not a runner and certainly don’t have a runner’s build. So…these came off as insincere, sarcastic taunts!
As a quick aside, my athletic background is almost exclusively team sports…football…baseball…rugby. Point being, these are all “zero sum” games. Your loss is my teams gain! So I want to step on your throat to ensure my team’s victory! Because of that mentality, and my own innate stupidity, I honestly thought these people were mocking me…so as they were passing me and saying these things, I launched a few choice comments back at them! And yes, there might have been a few “colorful metaphors” scattered in here or there!
About another 45 minutes goes by and the 9:30 heat catches up with me. It’s almost a carbon copy of the 9:15 wave. I keep my mouth shut this time. Another hour goes by and the 9:45 wave catches me…same thing. I was on that course on that day in May 2014 for 7 hours and 17 minutes. And EVERY SINGLE wave that passed me…this same exact thing took place. Even my rock-for-brains Deck Ape brain caught on after a while that these people WERE being sincere..it WAS an honest outpouring of support. That caught me completely off guard.
When I eventually crossed the finish line, I would have a torn left groin muscle, a high ankle sprain in my right leg, 3 broken bones in my right foot and 1 in the left. And the first words from my mouth after I crossed that finish line were…”NEVER AGAIN”. I stumbled my way to our team tent, crow-barred my shoes and socks off my feet, threw a towel over my head and began to reflect on everything that happened that day. THAT is when it began to sink in…
For those that have never done an event link this, allow me to explain. There is an INSTANTANEOUS camaraderie between complete and total strangers out on that course…derived, I suspect, from the shared exertion, dedication, and misery at some points. That’s something I had not felt since I was on active duty in the Navy. And, I didn’t even know I was missing it when it was given to me So generously by hundreds of anonymous athletes and scores of my new teammates. It filled a void inside me that I had forgotten about up until that point. I cried. Underneath that towel, I sobbed…both in joy for what I was given and in pain that it had taken me 20 years to find it. I knew without reservation that THESE were the kind of people that I wanted to spend more time with!
So…the week after that race I began to look for my next geographically-close OCR. And, I found a Spartan Race in Dallas! Now, you need to understand that these races are never actually IN the announced city. They’re almost always somewhat outside of the major metropolitan area that it’s advertised to. For example, the Austin race is actually 45 minutes north of Austin in Burnet, TX. And similarly, I found that the Dallas race was actually being held about and hour and a half west of Dallas in Glen Rose, TX. Now, as a proud Navy veteran with friends in Navy Special Warfare, that set off an immediate alarm in my mind. When I went to find the exact location and venue for the race, my fears were confirmed. The Spartan Beast in Dallas was actually being held at Rough Creek Lodge…the exact same property where US Navy SEAL Chris Kyle and his best friend Chad Littlefield were shot and killed in February of 2013. I was stunned. I sat there for what had to be 15-20 minutes before I thought to reach out and talk to anyone about what I’d just found. I reached out to the leadership of my racing team, The Lone Star Spartans, and told them what I had found. Apparently, I was the first person in the OCR community to connect the dots, as it were. They talked it over, and got back to me and asked me to put on a tribute to Chris and Chad. As a proud veteran and coming from a proud military family…that’s simply not something you say no to.
We’ve grown quite a bit in our 4+ years of existence now. But, our goals have always been the same:
#1 – Raise awareness for veteran’s issues, including PTSD and TBI.
#2 – Raise money that we donate to fully vetted veteran-oriented 501(c)3 charities each year.
#3 – Honor and pay tribute to our nation’s veterans, especially those lost in the line of duty…beginning with Chris Kyle and Chad Littlefield.
Operation Valor is an officially designated 501(c)3 charity by the IRS. And, as a true 100% all-volunteer operation, every single net dollar that we bring in goes to helping our nation’s veterans in need.