Remembrance Day changed for me in 2003. That was the year I travelled to Belgium to run the ‘In Flanders Fields’ Marathon in Belgium as part of the Arthritis Society’s Joints in Motion program. Known as the Marathon for Peace, the marathon was the vision of Andre Mingneau, who founded the race not just to honour his own family’s involvement in two world wars, but to connect people from all over the world in the common goal of peaceful co-existence.
In the days preceding the marathon, we visited the Essex Farm Cemetery, made famous by John McCrae’s poem, where I asked why some headstones touched while others were evenly spaced. I learned the burial ground’s close proximity to the battlefield meant it was frequently bombarded and often, remains were unearthed timed and time again.
The jumble of limbs, impossible to separate, were reburied together, yet honoured by individual stones…
We toured German and Commonwealth grave sites and saw the ‘Brooding Soldier’, a memorial to the Canadians who withstood history’s first gas attacks. But it was surrounded by 11,953 pristine white tombstones in the Tyne Cot Cemetery that I was emotionally shattered by the magnitude of loss. Each stone represented a rich and vibrant past, loved ones left to mourn. As I ran my fingers along a long curving wall engraved with 34,870 names of the missing, I allowed tears to flow freely to honour the endless columns of those who died without ceremony or last goodbyes.
But it wasn’t until that evening, as 230 Canadians gathered under the Menin Gate to lay wreaths for our war veterans, that we experienced the dedication and commitment of the Flemish people to this ritual of remembrance and reverence. Every night, traffic is halted on this main thoroughfare while Fire Brigade volunteers play The Last Post. As the first strains of ‘O Canada’ began to lift upward, Belgian and Canadian stood side by side, wiping tears, sharing an instinctive bond created before most of us were even born. I noticed one elderly woman who came early, bringing a folding chair. She sat silent and alone beside one of the columns. I somehow sensed this was a nightly ritual for her.
Faced with this dedication to remembrance, how could I ever fail to observe another Remembrance Day?
Two days later, I ran the marathon proudly wearing my poppy and with Canadian flags and maple leafs stamped on my arms and legs. I handed out maple leaf pins and flags to the Belgian volunteers and families who lined the route cheering ‘Ka-na-da!’ as we passed. Skirting the fertile fields that still give up their dead, thoughts of the incredible courage and sacrifice of our soldiers kept my legs moving when they wanted to give out.
No doubt these boys spent many hours feeling inadequate or questioning their worth. But yet, their fight for the freedom of others continues to impact the lives of many every single day. I went to do my small part in the struggle against a disease that affects millions – and while my actions seemed insignificant in the whole picture, I realized when one stands with many, we can make a difference. Together, we can win our own individual wars.
A hundred metres from the finish line of my first ever marathon, I again passed through the Menin Gate. This time, I breathed a prayer of thankfulness for the thousands who lived and died for a cause and for the lessons they continue to teach.
A Remembrance Day as not passed since, that I do not relive the experience, the emotion and the gratitude I felt that day. And I wonder how I will ever give back what has been given me.
Read more about my marathon experience.