Veteran running 223 miles for suicide awareness
By Daniel Carde
It’s humid, dark and partly cloudy outside when kinesiology sophomore Roel Gonzalez wakes up and turns off his phone’s alarm at 4 a.m. Aug. 31, not yet knowing he is going to run nearly 11 miles at a pace of 8 minutes 40 seconds per mile before his 8 a.m. economics class at this college.
The Army veteran, 31, is training for a new mission.
Gonzalez, who served more than 12 years in the U.S. Army as an infantryman, will raise awareness for veteran suicide by running the Oct.16-17 sixth annual Capital to Coast Relay race, a 223-mile race from Austin to Corpus Christi, while carrying the U.S. flag.
He will run the relay solo, which allows him to start a day early.
Motivated by the friends he has lost and the veterans who commit suicide, his mission is to bring veteran suicide, the unseen conflict, to the public eye, he said.
Running has eliminated Gonzalez’s own suicidal thoughts, he said.
“Yesterday when I went out running, I was at war and nobody really noticed,” he said. “While I am preparing for this run, nobody really sees what’s going on. I filled the void with running, instead of sorrow and resentment.”
Running the race solo started off as a personal goal but became an opportunity for something bigger, Gonzalez said.
“I realized that there is a bigger purpose in here,” he said.
During discharge from the Army in August 2013, Gonzalez was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.
A psychiatrist, whom he met for cognitive therapy, encouraged him to do things he enjoys but he was no longer doing, he said. He suggested a running group to Gonzalez.
When Gonzalez began running every weekend with the group, he recognized running was more than an activity he enjoyed, it was a coping mechanism.
“He was trying to get me back on the right track,” Gonzalez said. “He noticed a change in me in three or four weeks.”
Though he ran cross-country in high school, it wasn’t until 2007, during his seventh year in the Army, that he started long-distance running, Gonzalez said.
“One of my commanders pushed if we wanted an extra day off, we would have to participate in a half-marathon, which is 13.1 miles,” Gonzalez said. “I never ran that far before. … I was pretty good at it so I stuck with it.”
Running eventually eliminated his need for medications to help with the effects of PTSD.
“They had me on two medications, one (mirtazapine) was to help me sleep, and the other, (prazosin), was for anxiety,” he said.
His medications made him feel lethargic the next morning, he said. He wanted to quit taking them.
“I felt like a zombie the next day,” he said. “I decided to get off of it.”
He said after nine months of running, he no longer needed the medications.
“When I need that escape, the pressure is too much or I just want to release some stress, I do it by running,” Gonzalez said.
Before his running regimen gave him a new outlook, he said he spent most Sept. 6’s disconnecting from society by hiking and camping alone. Mourning the loss of one of his closest friends, finding solace as he did during his four deployments, watching the sun rise and set.
Spc. Tomas Garces of Weslaco, was killed in action Sept. 6, 2004, as their convoy drove from Camp Cedar to Baghdad International Airport in Iraq.
“I go out now,” Gonzalez said. “I went from sobbing in a corner to doing (running) it in remembrance of them.”
Gonzalez started training for ultra marathons, any race longer than the traditional marathon of 26.2 miles, in March, he said. He won the first 50-kilometer (31-mile) race he entered.
At the beginning of summer, he began training for the relay race.
“I put my foot down and started training in June,” he said.
He trains at Valero Trailhead along the Leon Creek Greenway, San Pedro Springs Park, downtown and along Broadway.
“I don’t always know where I am going to run. Sometimes I drive by a place and think it looks like a good place to run so I run there,” he said.
Gonzalez uses an elevation training mask he refers to as “the hurt.” The mask allows him to control the amount of air he can breathe while running. He sets the elevation level to 5,000 feet above sea level to build his cardio-respiratory endurance.
When race day comes, timing is important, he said. He wants to run as much as he can before the sun comes up, but he doesn’t know when in the morning he will start.
“I might leave at midnight so I can have more time to run it before the sun comes up.”
“Once 7 a.m. comes and the suns starts coming up, then I’ll get concerned about when I should rest and for how long.”
Sleep is another concern.
“I am not going to worry about getting three to four hours, then struggle to get back going,” he said.
The hardest part of the race will be mentally “wanting to quit,” he said. “The closer I am getting (to the race), I am getting more and more scared I am not going to finish.”
Gonzalez said the fear of letting people down is worse than not finishing.
“To me, that’s scarier than not finishing,” he said.
When Gonzalez runs, his mind wanders from fallen comrades to his technique and, at other times, nothing at all.
“I don’t even know if I am thinking,” he said. “I am in a lost state of mind sometimes.”
When Gonzalez feels like he is “sucking and starting to slow down,” he starts thinking about the military brothers he lost.
Other times he is thinking about his form, he said.
“I was getting one of those stabbing pains,” he said, while pointing about halfway down his right ribs. “I started to focus on my breathing.
“Sometimes, when I thought I prepped and trained right … I didn’t perform the way I thought I would,” he said. “Other times, I thought I didn’t train right and I blew the doors off.”
Gonzalez will be running the race alone, but he won’t be completing the race alone.
On the first day of the race, his parents, Imelda and Salvador Villegas, and brother Rolando Gonzalez will be driving the route and providing support.
His sister LeeAnn Gonzalez and best friend, Kate Ward, 31, of Florida, will join to support him during the final two days.
The group will drive the route, stopping every 5 miles to help him, he said.
“They’ll be massaging me, checking me for blisters and keeping me hydrated,” he said.
They also will have a trailer set up for Gonzalez to sleep every 75 miles.
Just as his family is helping him complete the race, anybody can reach out to a veteran and help fight against suicide by talking about it, Gonzalez said. He wants people to start talking about the issue.
“Not every scar, not every wound is visible,” he said. “Even though veterans come home, soldiers come home, they are at a quiet war now.”
“If they (anyone) talk about it, that’s help,” he said. “That’s helping in some way.”
For information on helping or supporting Gonzalez, contact him at 253-226-6471 or his Facebook page: www.facebook.com/roel.gonzalez.967.
For more information, visit http://theranger.org/2015/10/05/one-good-deed-gives-rise-to-another/.