Flying the colors
Rob Wilson is a racer who learned about toughness and perseverance long before he joined any running clubs.
The Eagle Point resident pushed through challenging training as a Marine Corps veteran. With his military career behind him, the 45-year-old now carries an American flag in the Pear Blossom Run 10-mile race.
Look out upon the sea of runners and there Wilson is, merrilly jogging with the end of the flag pole resting in his palm and the rest resting on his shoulder.
Wilson began his tradition in 2012. The act, he says, is easy compared to what others have done for the United States.
"I've been doing that to pay respect to veterans and those who are serving," Wilson says. "I figured if they can do what they are doing, I can at least carry the flag for a little bit."
He’ll have some help this year.
Wilson recruited five runners who will carry flags bearing the logos of the Army, Marine Corps, Navy, Air Force and Coast Guard on Saturday.
The group plans to run single file early on and stay fairly close throughout. When the opportunity arises, they will stagger out to the left of Wilson to form another patriotic visual.
Wilson will rise early on Saturday and distribute the flags to the carriers, including Medford resident Heather Philp. She says she was happy to volunteer after seeing a message Wilson left on a Facebook page, no matter which branch she’ll be representing.
"I support all of them," says the Jacksonville native, who is a member of Southern Oregon Runners and Southern Oregon Running Enthusiasts.
Philp will likely be closest to her friend Laura Kimberly, a Medford resident who will carry the Coast Guard flag.
“My best friend who I grew up with was in the Coast Guard,” Kimberly said. ““I have a brother-in-law serving and have had grandparents and cousins. I was a military brat.”
As for Wilson, his father Mark is an Army veteran and his brother Brian is a Navy veteran.
Rob and the family moved often before he graduated from Pemberton Township High in New Jersey.
WIlson was stationed at Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune in North Carolina. He was active for many years, eventually becoming a member of the 2nd Marine Division. He now works for a local tire shop and is married to wife Nicki.
Wilson did a pair of Pear Blossom 5-kilometer runs before conquering the 10-miler.
"I started to get in better shape," he says. "At first I lost weight, but then I gained it back through muscle."
Last spring, Wilson was 188th overall with a time 1 hour, 22 minutes, 49 seconds out of 468 male competitors. But he isn't concerned about his time.
"I don't run to compete," says Wilson, who now regularly enters athletic events around the Northwest. "I run to complete. I'm not a fast runner."
Behind his skill to endure long runs is a grit developed in the Marine Corps.
"Self-confidence and discipline," Wilson says, describing the biggest traits he gained. "Whatever they told you to do. You do what you are told. ... There are those points where you run and it turns into more of a peaceful moment. Then there are also those moments where there is just pain. You just push through it."
Wilson says he'd like to continue his tradition for as long as his body allows. He also plans to run in a philanthropic 200-mile race for a charity called Gamerosity and for the Phoenix cross country team in May.
Wilson says he’ll feed off the crowd and encourage fellow racers on Saturday.
"I'm just excited to see the people there and talk to the other runners," he says. "During the run I like to encourage other runners — lots of high-fives and 'good jobs' throughout the race.”
Wilson’s presence is appreciated, Philp says.
"It is inspiring, and every year that I have run by him holding it I say, 'If he can do that holding a flag, I can get through.’”
Kimberly says she’s hoping to hold her flag strong and keep an open ear to veterans and others who are inspired to share their stories on Saturday.
At the end of the race, people often approach Wilson to thank him for his act. Wilson says it’s the least he can do, but he appreciates the positive vibes the act generates.
Ultimately, Wilson says, he's just trying to finish the race.
But ask Central Point resident Paul Lange, who will also carry a flag, and he’ll say that his friend does much more than that.
"He is a huge inspiration for all runners," Lange says. "He goes out and runs with all the new people. He's always cheering. He's just an all-around good guy with a big heart."
Reach reporter Dan Jones at 541-776-4499, or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Find him online at twitter.com/danjonesmt