It’s race day in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Kevin Bittenbender is making his way to the starting line. “I’m walking out those jitters,” he says. It’s hard not to notice the bystanders looking down as he moves through the downtown streets, peaking at his adorable canine, Kirby, and his prosthetic.
“I’m just thinking it’s 444 days since my amputation. One of the things Lynn sent me was about what 444 means. The meaning says the universe is saying to you today, don’t look back. Be present in the moment. Let your soul lead the way, not your fear. Life is a learning experience. Mistakes are part of the human journey. Be brave. You are so powerful,” Kevin says as he points out the message on his phone.
The Retired Sergeant Major is all about numbers and signs. Kevin’s surgeon, Lynn Eckrote, sent him that description about the meaning behind the number 444, and she’s waiting for him in the corral.
“[At the] six-week follow-up, I was like, what are your goals? I knew he was hand-cycling Pittsburgh, [and] he said, ‘I’m going to run it next year.’ With no filter, I said I could be ready for that, and he said, ‘I’m in if you’re in!’ That was the end of it. It was a really quick conversation, and here we are, 444 days later,” Lynn says.
Kevin’s goal is to run the full marathon, his first since having his leg amputated from the knee down. Around the 12-mile mark, he’ll either go right for the 26.2 full marathon or left for the half. He says hello to a couple of friends he hand-cycled with last year at the starting line.
“When I saw them last night, they were like, ‘We didn’t see you on the registry to ride,’ and I said no, I’m running,” he says with a grin.
Kevin and Lynn are off to take on the hills of the Steel City with his Hope For The Warriors family cheering him on. “It means a lot that I have folks in my corner,” Kevin says. He makes his first stop around mile five to make adjustments to his prosthetic.
“I’m doing what our game plan is. I’m changing around every four-five [miles]. As you can see, I’m drenched,” he says. He points out the text in his socket, which reads, “Live a Life Worth Their Sacrifice.” He’s running for so much more than himself. “I’m going to be thinking of my teammates. Major Hank Officer, Master Sergeant Scott Ball, Sergeant Jan Argonish, and Staff Sergeant Cody Tyler,” he says.
It’s no surprise. Kevin and Lynn go right at the bridge. They’re in it for the long haul.
Kirby is waiting at the halfway point and isn’t the only one thrilled to see Kevin. Erin, Nikki, and Anthony wearing their Team HOPE jerseys, link up with Kevin for the journey’s second half. “Through the grueling miles that seemed to be endless, we had our way of pushing one another to get to that next mile,” Kevin said.
Around Mile 22, the rain starts coming down, but Kevin isn’t stopping. “I hope that I can inspire someone that may have been feeling the way I felt years ago when I met HOPE.”
A police escort leads the way during the home stretch as HOPE CEO Robin Kelleher waits for Kevin to make the final turn. She’s grinning from ear to ear. “He’s doing phenomenally. It’s raining. It’s everything you can throw at a Sergeant Major and look at him go.”
The patient pup has been standing by for over seven hours. It’s all worth it for the moment when Kevin crosses the finish line. “It was a goal I set for myself 444 days ago. “To have it come to fruition with the help of HOPE, with the help of my teammates, makes it all worthwhile.”
Team Hope For The Warriors (Team HOPE) provides athletes of all abilities the opportunity to compete at various endurance events throughout the year. Team HOPE comprised two different groups: Warrior Team and Community Team.
Warrior Team members are provided race support, goal-setting opportunities, and social engagement to ensure that they all feel the camaraderie, belonging, and connection that comes with being part of a team.
Community Team members challenge themselves to raise funds for America’s heroes, set new athletic goals, or simply support our military. Together, these Team members are united by the goal to improve the health of service members and military families across the nation.
*All Warrior Team participants must connect to services with Hope For The Warriors before being added to the program.