At each mile marker he crossed on his 2,146-mile trip from Minnesota to Texas, Mike Ehredt stopped running for a moment to plant a flag representing a fallen American soldier.
On his journey, Project America Run, he has jogged 26 miles a day across the country to memorialize soldiers who died in the Afghanistan war. In 2010 he ran from Oregon to Maine to honor those who died in Iraq.
"It's to honor and say thank you to those that died in Iraq and Afghanistan," he said. "I stop each mile, put a flag down that bears the name, rank, and hometown, in the numerical order of their deaths, and it creates an invisible wall across the country. I just wanted to do something for them, something genuine and pure that no one would replicate."
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Ehredt, a 51-year-old Army veteran from Idaho, will be joined by hundreds of marathoners Sunday in Galveston, Texas for the last leg of his run to the Gulf, which began back in August. The marathoners will accompany Ehredt for the last 10 miles through the city, and then Ehredt will run the last mile alone, as he has many of the 2,000 before, and will plant his last flag at the edge of the water.
"There's a lot of satisfaction in that. Just being able to create that wall (of flags) from north to south and touch the water of the Gulf, you can't really explain it," he said.
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Ehredt will speak at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston about his experiences later in the day, as well, as part of Veterans Day weekend. Ehredt said he's sure he'll field many questions about how a 51-year-old man's body can withstand 26 miles of running each day for 81 straight days.
"I never looked at the big picture," he said. "Never looked at the Gulf or the Atlantic. I just knew I could go out and move forward for five, six, eight hours. Like going to work."
A grandfather of three with a fourth grandchild on the way, Ehredt said he is more enthusiastic about Project America Run than he ever was during his working years.
"I can honestly say if I was this enthused about my work when I was working for the post office as much as I was enthused about this I would never have retired. I'm enthused about getting up every day," he said.
Part of his joy, he said, is knowing that he is remembering the fallen soldiers who fought overseas, soldiers whose families hear about his project and are grateful their son's or daughter's life is being remembered."
"I stayed with a family who had lost their son, and I had a mother meet me where her son's flag was being placed," he said. "There was even a lady from the Houston paper who did five miles with me, and I put flag in her hand, with the name on it, and it kind of gets them. It's powerful."
The trip from Minnesota to Galveston, Texas was meticulously plotted so that the number of miles would match the number of soldiers who died in Afghanistan. In each city, a host family, arranged ahead of time, has housed him and fed him.
Ehredt said that the 67 families, many of whom are associated with the American Legion or veterans' groups, were his favorite part of his days on the road.
"Sometimes they will think you want peace and quiet after your day, and put you up in a hotel and take you to dinner, but I prefer to stay at the homes because there's a community, and you learn from them, and learn about the area. I've been talking to myself all day. I'd prefer to talk to other people."
He also said the encounters he's had on the long stretches of road, especially through the scenic highways of Tennessee, southern Mississippi and Louisiana, have been highlights.
Ehredt's family, including his grown children who live on the East Coast and his partner who lives in Idaho, checked in periodically as he made his way south. His partner will join him in Galveston for the grand finale, he said.
When he is finished, he said, he will head home with her and get started on "a honey-do list a mile long" before running another marathon in three weeks.
"In a way it's bittersweet," he said. "I've been fortunate to see the country on foot from Oregon to Maine, and then to do it again to see even the Deep South now. It's sad that it all comes to an end and I'll never experience America like this again."