MISSOULA — Lt. Col. George Kraehe can finally see the finish line.
To be precise, Kraehe has run across 49 finish lines and has raced for 1,283.8 miles. Sunday's Missoula Marathon will cross off his last state in his quest to honor 50 fallen soldiers by running 50 marathons in 50 states.
"I've been in the regular Army, the Reserve and Guard. I've deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, so I have that personal experience and obviously I've served with people who have been killed in combat," Kraehe told the Missoulian.
Through his service, Kraehe learned about the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS), a national nonprofit organization that offers care to families grieving the loss of a loved one who died while serving in the military or as a result of their service.
Kraehe had just begun running marathons around the time he learned about TAPS, so he decided to combine his newfound passion for running and his dedication to his fellow service members.
"I thought it was a really good organization. I wanted to support that," Kraehe said. "I thought this would be a good cause to run for. And then after I started running for them, I thought, 'Well, I'm going to start running a marathon in every state.'"
And the idea of honoring a fallen soldier from each state soon followed.
Kraehe is honoring fallen U.S. Army Capt. Jeremiah Sipes, a 1996 graduate of Belgrade High School. Sipes served as the Intelligence Officer for the 3rd BCT 82nd Airborne Division 5-73 Cavalry Regiment until his death on Jan. 1, 2011.
While on a jog near Fort Bragg, Sipes was accidentally shot by a hunter, according to the Associated Press. Sipes died as a result of his injuries.
Kraehe honors each fallen soldier in two to three ways on race weekend, he said. Before the race, he sends out an email blast about the person for whom he's running. It goes to people who've supported his TAPS fundraiser. During the race, Kraehe wears a picture of the fallen soldier on his back.
And sometimes, when logistics work out favorably, Kraehe has the opportunity to meet with family members of the person he's commemorating.
Kraehe will meet Sipes' wife, Heather Sipes, this weekend. She's running in the half-marathon.
"I'm looking forward to meeting Mrs. Sipes and getting to know her and getting to know more about her husband," Kraehe said.
"It's been interesting every time and rewarding," he added of meeting family members of the fallen. "My wife and I've made some longstanding friends that way."
Kraehe didn't pick the Missoula Marathon for his Montana race for any reason other than that it fit in his schedule, as getting to the state isn't easily accomplished.
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Kraehe also appreciates that the Missoula course isn't too daunting.
Earlier this year, Kraehe's marathon in Kentucky — the Land Between the Lakes Marathon — was a little more than he bargained for.
"It was like a 26.2-mile obstacle course," Kraehe said of his race on March 10. "I fell several times and sprained my wrist. It was an ordeal. It's the only marathon I came out of with blood all over me.
"I thought the one in Kentucky was going to be like a trail run. They had a different conception of what trail was because I didn't see much of a trail during that marathon."
Kraehe was all healed up for his marathon in Iowa on June 23 — the Run 4 Troops Marathon.
It's taken Kraehe 12 years to complete his 50-state goal. And now that he's almost finished, Kraehe's taken some time to reflect on the races themselves.
"It's never easy. They're all a challenge. They're all difficult. They're all different in some way. But I can say honestly that I've enjoyed every marathon I've run to some extent…," Kraehe said.
"It's an interesting athletic event. There's a lot of highs and lows, and it's like the human experience. So that's I guess that's why I like to do them.''
Some of his favorites have been the Chicago Marathon in 2010 (where he ran his personal best), the Little Grand Canyon Marathon in Utah in 2009 (because of the course's beauty) and the Boston Marathon (because of how difficult it is to qualify for).
Kraehe's also finished other major races such as the Walt Disney World Marathon, the San Francisco Marathon, as well as the Rock 'n Roll marathons in Las Vegas, Seattle and New Orleans.
Even though the Missoula Marathon isn't as large or well-known as those races, race director Tony Banovich is happy that Kraehe's bringing his cause to the Garden City.
"We just think that's incredibly powerful. People get much more connected to the event because it has a powerful, emotional message to them," Banovich said. "We love to have those people come here, whether it's somebody like George, who's running on behalf of a fallen soldier, or if it's somebody who's running because their mother died of cancer or their dad died of Alzheimer's.
"Whatever that cause may be, we think it's so powerful and people get so emotional. We get so excited to see them come through and accomplish that goal at our event."
Kraehe runs for a different reason than most, but the part of the race to which he's most looking forward is similar to most everyone on the course.