In mourning the death of her son, Janet Manion started a foundation in his honor in the family's hometown of Doylestown, Pa. But in terms of celebrating Travis Manion's life, his mother and others wanted to do something to bring together the former Navy wrestler's passion for sports and the patriotism that had led him to the Naval Academy in the first place.
It was late August 2008, about 16 months after Manion was killed in Iraq. The seventh anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks was approaching.
"We were brand new with the foundation and the work we're doing now, and we talked about having a 5K run," Ryan Manion Borek, the late Marine's older sister, recalled recently. "Travis was into running and he did a bunch of different runs. We decided to have a run and call it the Heroes Run in honor of Travis and all our fallen heroes. We put some posters up, very grassroots."
On the day of the race, several hundred people converged on the starting line in Doylestown, much to the amazement of the Manions.
"We looked at each other and said, 'We're on to something here,' " Manion Borek said. "Fast forward, the following year we moved to two locations, one in Doylestown and one closer to Philadelphia. Last year we had close to 30 runs. It's become kind of this movement because there are so many people that want to do something around September 11th."
The 9/11 Heroes Run will be held Sunday in nearly 50 cities in the United States, including Annapolis, and five foreign countries. An estimated 25,000 people nationwide are expected to take part in an event to honor Manion, who was killed during his second tour in Iraq in April 2007, as well as thousands of men and women who have served, and currently serve, in the military and as first responders.
"We wanted to give individuals in small towns an opportunity to come out and honor and remember all these brave young and women," Manion Borek said. "My father said it's like the expression, 'If you build it, they will come.' And that's kind of what we felt we have done. But I don't think between 2008 and 2012 we thought we'd be in this place now with runs around the world. I don't think we could have imagined it would get this big."
Captain Mike Barikian, who went through the academy as well as basic training for the Marine Corps with Manion, said that his former wrestling teammate would be "proud of the work being done by the foundation and probably be a little bit bashful about it being named after him."
Barikian, who serves as the liaison between the academy and the wrestling team, said that Manion, like other former Navy athletes killed in action, often comes up in conversation with current midshipmen.
"They know who Travis Manion is, they know who [former lacrosse player] Brendan Looney is, who [former football players] Ronnie Winchester and J.P. Blecksmith are, they know who these individuals are and their legacy, that's what they're here for, that's what they're training for," Barikian said. "It's good to know that the legacy of these individuals will cycle through the brigade year after year."
Major Josh Jabin, who was a senior on the wrestling team when Manion was a freshman and now serves as the assistant director at the Annapolis race, said that holding the event around the anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks is fitting.
"Travis was very patriotic, he felt very passionately about protecting America," said Jabin, who teaches math at the academy and serves as a faculty representative for the wrestling team. "There's a story about between his two deployments going to New York City to visit Ground Zero. He felt deeply that it was his job to go back for that second tour, that he could do that job better than anyone else."
It was during that second tour that Manion was killed by an enemy sniper in Fallujah, Iraq.
Michelle Beahm and her six siblings, along with several other family members and friends, will be running in the Annapolis event for the first time.
Beahm, whose younger brother Samuel Boswell was among the first Maryland National Guard members to be killed in Iraq in 2005, found out about the Heroes Run through Kate Papak, a fellow band member at their church. Papak's husband, Brigadier General Dave Papak, is the director of the Annapolis Heroes Run, which last year attracted about 1,000 runners — nearly half midshipmen, including many athletes — and this year expects to get between 1,500 and 2,000.
In the past, Beahm and her siblings honored their brother on his birthday. Boswell was on his way to see one of his brothers also stationed in Iraq when the Humvee he was riding in crashed.
"We never really linked 9/11 before," Beahm said. "This now seems like a good thing. It helps us celebrate things with them [her family]. It's a good cause. When he first died, he didn't leave [his own] family behind. The donations we got that first year we ended up sending a care package over to the soldiers. It kind of fizzled."
Beahm said that Sunday's event "will be for us another time to get together, primarily it's to run for the cause."
But Beahm said that it will also serve as a reminder "that as busy as life gets, as hectic as everything is, we think about him all the time. Healing takes forever and an event like this helps us to stop what we're doing and take a breather. There are families who are losing [soldiers] today and they're just beginning the journey. We understand how tough it is going to be for them."
Beahm is amazed at how the Travis Manion Foundation has grown.
"When I looked at what they've done, I'm absolutely flabbergasted at how big they've gotten and how much time and effort they've put in," Beahm said. "Now that they've lost their mom, it's more amazing what they do. I'm honored to be a part of it."
Janet Manion died from cancer in April 2012, nearly five years to the day of her son's death in Iraq. She was 58.
Diagnosed a week before last year's Heroes Run with terminal cancer, Janet Manion stood up before the 5,000 runners and spectators who had gathered for the 2011 race in Doylestown to talk about the foundation, her son and the race.
"I don't think one person there knew she was sick," Manion Borek, who had served as the foundation's executive director since 2009 and succeeded her mother as its president, said last week. "She delivered a powerful message to the crowd. She was in this office every single day. One of the amazing things is when she passed, there were so many people connected with the race who didn't even know she was sick. She never stopped. She continued on and on and on."
Just as her son's legacy continues at the Naval Academy, Janet Manion's legacy continues with the Heroes Run.
But now it's not just in Doylestown, it 's all over the world.
"We're happy to know that we're continuing on with her legacy and what she created in my brother's name, it was with her vision that we got to the place where we are today," Manion Borek said. "My mom dreamed big. For me and maybe for my dad, I venture to say we never expected to see how big we've gotten with these Heroes Runs, but my mom always expected it and she was always pushing for more."
9/11 Heroes Run in Annapolis
Date: Sunday, Sept. 9, 2012 at 2 p.m.
Location: Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium
Fees: $25 per person (registration closes at noon)
Distance: 5K and 1-mile fun run