On Feb. 17, Cathy Powers will run down the streets of Fortuna as part of a 1,000-mile journey across all 50 states to honor her son, Senior Airman Bryce Kenneth Powers, who died in 2013.
After her son’s death, Powers was hit hard by grief and began using food to cope with his loss “almost like alcohol or a drug,” she said, and began gaining weight. Bitterness, anger, jealousy and “so many bad things” swelled inside of her over the next few years.
“I was in a bad place,” she said Thursday. “I thought because my son was gone, I could never be happy.”
Change started to trickle in when Powers began attending “the escort,” a weeklong procession from Maine to Arlington National Cemetery, where her son is buried. Organized by Wreaths Across America, the nonprofit coordinates “the escort” and wreath-laying ceremonies leading up to National Wreaths Across America Day in December at over 1,600 locations around the world. Hearing her son’s name called out as a wreath was laid on his grave, along with the power of the ceremony, helped Powers begin “a marathon of a healing process.”
“It was like a reminder of what it felt like to be living,” she said. “I felt something inside of me change.”
Powers also frequently attended a march where people would also run to honor those who had fallen, and shortly after she began to wonder if she could shift from being a spectator to a participant. So, she signed up for a half marathon and began practicing by walking as fast as she could. At the age of 50, Powers was the only competitor in her age group and took a de facto first place award with an average time of 17 minutes a mile.
“I was over 200 pounds when I ran that half marathon,” she said. “(But) it built me up and helped me think ‘I can do this.’”
Last year, Powers ran a Marine Corps marathon, she said, which had time limits on each mile. Since the beginning of her turnaround, Powers has lost 140 pounds, but more importantly, she’s become a happier and more hopeful person in the process. Running put her emotions “front and center,” creating space for her to work things out. The weight loss, she said, is just an external sign of the lightness she has come to feel inside.
“I took that grief, what I had been using as a crutch, a pity party with no hope, and I catapulted,” she said. “It feels amazing.”
Come New Years Day 2019, Powers woke up with a desire to run for a different reason.
“I need to help others find the hope that I feel,” she said. “When I was running, I started thinking about how many people have done so much, how much they have sacrificed … I just kept running.”
Powers ran more than 13 miles that day with one bottle of water. From that point on, she began formulating a plan to run 1,000 miles in all 50 states as a way to honor her son. Her husband jumped right on board and soon framed a large map of the United States. After reaching out on social media, Powers found a place to stay in each state in just two days.
On Sunday at 2 p.m. in front of the Fortuna Veterans Hall, Powers will present a veterans’ wreath to the community during a ceremony and will then run down Main Street. Sue Long, Fortuna’s mayor said the city has prepared a proclamation for Powers, who visited Fortuna often as she grew up. Long said she has known the family for a long time.
“I saw the struggles she was having when her son first passed away,” Long said. “It’s nice to see that she is smiling and laughing now … to see her now is just really heartwarming.”
In fact, Long said that Powers has talked her into joining the run through Fortuna. Powers will be escorted by police and the Mad River Community Honor Guard will fire a volley of rounds and play taps, according to Curt Lindley, who organizes events at the veterans hall. Terry Gustin, the webmaster for the vets hall, said there is a need for more events like what Powers is doing.
“We as a legion are excited about veterans being recognized and honored,” he said. “As a public, we definitely need to pay more attention to the needs of veterans that sacrificed.”
Powers’ son lived for 7,777 days and she hopes the run will raise the support needed to sponsor the same number of veterans’ wreaths to be sent to Arlington Nation Cemetery in December.
“I am scared about if I can actually do this … I’ve never done anything close to it,” she said. “I don’t even know what this is going to look like, but I’m gonna do it anyway — this is about veterans, this is about my son.”
Each live balsam fir veteran’s wreath costs $15 to sponsor on Cathy Powers’ fundraising page at www.wreathsacrossamerica.org/VA0627
Philip Santos can be reached at 707-441-0506.