Running as a way to cope with loss

— -- To her family and friends, Lisa Hallett always has been a woman of iron.

Since her husband, Army Capt. John Hallett, was killed in Afghanistan in 2009, she's fought through grief to raise their three young children, including a daughter John never met. She's built a new life and co-founded a national organization that helps others cope with the loss of loved ones in military service.

"She's got stamina you would not believe," says her mother-in-law, Wendy Hallett. "When she puts her mind to something, she does it."

Her friend, Elizabeth Thiel, wishes she could have "half the strength and courage [Lisa] has."

Still, getting on with life every day after tragedy isn't easy, even for a woman of iron. Hallett's heart was broken. She needed to find a way to endure.

So she ran.

As a military wife, she had often run to relieve the stress of moves and John's deployments. Now it was a necessity, a tunnel of calm through the chaos of her emotions. Her kids -- ages 3, 1 and 3 weeks when John died -- had lost their father, and she knew they couldn't lose her, too. Running kept her sane.

She did marathons, then added ultra runs. Last year she did her first triathlon, Ironman Canada. In June she finished Ironman Coeur d'Alene in Idaho. Then on Oct. 11, Hallett completed the Ironman World Championship in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii. The woman of iron was officially an Ironwoman, three times over.

She swam, biked and ran 14 hours, 18 minutes and 43 seconds over 140.6 miles on a hot, windy day in Hawaii to honor John and every other casualty of war. She also did the race for herself and her children, who were waiting at the finish to smother her in hugs and kisses.

"I could have flown through that finish line," says Hallett, who was congratulated by more than a dozen family and friends who had come to cheer her.

"It was amazing. And the kids on the other side waiting for me and cheering for me. It was such a beautiful culmination of honoring John but learning to live a life of my own, empowered in a world that is now without him."

"My world was totally rocked. And I turned to the coping mechanism that I'd leaned on throughout John's military career: running. I pounded the pavement and the sorrow for all the love and the dreams I had lost. I pounded the pavement for the fears I now had for the future. I pounded the pavement for the stress of raising three children without the direction and guidance and love of their father."

-- Lisa Hallett at TED Conference, Tacoma, Washington, 2013

In the years since John was killed by a roadside bomb on Aug. 25, 2009, Lisa has often been asked to speak publicly about the organization she co-founded, Wear Blue: Run to Remember.

It was borne in the weeks after John's death, when Hallett and Erin O'Connor, also a military wife, would run together near Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington, where John had been stationed. During the course of a long deployment to Afghanistan, 41 members of John's unit were killed. Soon, other military family members joined them. They began gathering on Saturday mornings to run, grieve and remember.

That's when Wear Blue: Run to Remember was born.

Hallett recalls the first gathering in the parking lot of a burger place. The next week, they met before running to speak the names of the fallen they were honoring. Soon, participants were wearing the same blue shirts with the organization name and forming a circle for a moment of silence and remembrance before runs. Eventually, the group entered races together.

"It became a very tangible way that we were supporting one another during a difficult deployment, finding the stage to honor and remember these men who made the ultimate sacrifice," says Hallett, 33, who lives in DuPont, Washington.

Aside from the Lewis-McChord chapter that draws 100-200 runners each week, there also are chapters at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, and Springfield, Virginia/Washington, D.C., as well as 20-plus informal meet-up groups nationwide. Thousands of runners participate (Hallett isn't sure of the exact number) to honor men and women lost. For Hallett, running and the group became her refuge.

"The first few days after John died, all I could think was, 'My husband died, my husband died, my husband died,'" she says. "It was like 'John, John, John.' I've got this one monologue running through my head and you can't interact with the world and have a singular monologue.

"But running, the act of running, gave me a new conversation. 'Oh, I'm training for this. I have this run. This is my experience.' And in the very beginning days it gave me my first few words outside of 'my husband died.'"

Thiel, who now lives in Hawaii, joined the group when her husband was stationed at Lewis-McChord. Thiel and Hallett became friends and training partners.

"There have been so many spouses, parents, siblings, that have been able to turn to Wear Blue immediately as an organization that helps them cope with their loss," says Thiel. "I think it helps them get through their grief -- well, I don't know if it's easier -- but it definitely helps get them through their grief by having Wear Blue to go to."

Wear Blue and Thiel were instrumental in Hallett eventually competing at the Ironman World Championship. After suffering a running injury, Hallett turned to Thiel, a triathlete, to help do bike training until she could run again. Eventually, Thiel's enthusiasm for Ironmans rubbed off, and Hallett decided to do her first in Canada last year.

She was sold when she learned the date of the race: Aug. 25, the fourth anniversary of John's death. It seemed like a message. She did it, finishing in 13:25:30. When she did the Ironman in Idaho, she beat that time, finishing in 13:19:00. She also caught the attention of the Ironman World Championship, which offers a small number of slots to people with special stories and circumstances. She would be going to Hawaii.

Hallett uses mantras in races to pull her through. One is "Strong body. Stronger mind. Joyful heart." At other times she repeats the names of family and friends praying and pulling for her. "When the moment gets really hard, and my heart is especially anxious or fatigued, it turns into a repetition of 'Mom, Wendy. Mom. Wendy.' My mom and my mother-in-law."

Hallett was nervous in the days before the race in Hawaii. She'd been told about the heat, humidity and winds that can make the course so difficult, and was told not to try for a PR. She also was anxious about swimming in the ocean. She considers herself a "newish" swimmer.

"I wouldn't put my face in the water two summers ago," she says, laughing. "Insane."

Still, despite the warnings, she wanted to compete. She wanted her best time.

"I want to be an athlete," she says. "A participant just does it, and an athlete gets out there and puts it all on the line."

She wasn't as fast on the swim as she'd hoped, doing 2.4 miles in 1:38.18. But she was steady.

"I never lost my cool, so for me that was a success," she says.

Then during the transition to the bike, she saw her three kids, Jackson, 8, Bryce, 7, and Heidi, 5. That gave her a boost. The bike, however, was a beast. She did the 112 miles in 7:38:01, battling the heat and winds that blew some others off their bikes.

"But I finished and I didn't fall over," she says. "I didn't crash, and so it was a success."

When she transitioned to the run, she finally felt at ease. She may not be fast, but she's strong.

"I had a joyful heart and it was fun," she says. "I was comfortable, I felt confident and I just got up there and enjoyed 26.2 miles, one foot in front of the other, talking to people and moving forward. The run was the highlight of my whole race."

John was with her, too, popping into her thoughts. At one point, she heard the blare of a ZZ Top song and pictured her husband -- so serious about his job but so fun-loving at home -- dancing and singing to it. Lisa completed her run in 4:45:49.

She had hoped to be better. It was almost an hour slower than her time in Coeur d'Alene. Yet she was proud of what she'd done and the message she carried, clad in a Wear Blue shirt. She was so invigorated she recalls thinking, "I have to do this again."

"The finisher chute, there's throngs of people on both sides, just thundering applause and encouragement, and it is such a celebration of the culmination of the race, which is really a celebration of the culmination of your training and this accomplishment," she says. "I never felt more alive than crossing through that finish line."

"She had to throw herself into something, and this is the way she copes. She is not one to sit down and feel sorry for herself, and she's not a victim."

-- Wendy Hallett on her daughter-in-law

Every day, Lisa Hallett misses her husband. That will never stop. The two had known each other since elementary school in Concord, California, where they also attended the same church. Both were smart and energetic, with Lisa a few years behind John. Back then, Wendy Hallett recalls somebody saying Lisa might someday become the first woman president.

John was a good athlete and swimmer who became captain of the water polo team at West Point. It wasn't until after John had left for the U.S. Military Academy and Lisa had gone to UC-Santa Barbara that they started dating and eventually married.

Now home from Hawaii, Lisa is back in a routine. Though John is gone, she says she and her kids are thriving, thanks to support from family, friends and neighbors. Her first priority is always her kids. That means during hectic weeks of errands and chores, training and working for Wear Blue and another national nonprofit, Folds of Honor, something has to give.

"I don't sleep a lot, my house is always messy and there is an unidentified smell in the van," she says. "I cannot do it all. ... But I choose my kids first. They're always at the top of the pyramid."

Running and competing are a constant, too. Next year she wants to do a half marathon, a 100K run and a couple of Ironmans. Someday she wants to do the Western States 100-miler.

What would John think about his wife, the Ironwoman?

"If I had to conjecture what John would think, I know there would be such happiness and joy that I have found the place where I can find identity, strength and continue to heal in a really healthy way," she says. "There's so many ways that we can respond to tragedy.

"I'm grateful I have found a community that believes in living healthy and supports one another on the journey going forward."