Special Olympics Michigan: Lighting the way, law enforcement continues 30-year-old torch run
At the opening procession of the 2014 Special Olympics Michigan Summer Games, the Law Enforcement Torch Run will celebrate its 30th year of being the largest grassroots fundraiser and public awareness vehicle for the event.
As a 20-year veteran of the run, Michigan State Police Lieutenant John Card said the ideals of law enforcement coincide with the meaning of the quasi-marathon.
"If you look at law enforcement as the protectors of some of society's most vulnerable people, I’ve always thought this was a good match," said Card, who also serves on the executive committee. "I'm very thankful for the health and well-being of my family members and I knew giving back was always the right thing to do."
The heart of the event is a type of marathon run in which officers carry the “Flame of Hope” torch to the opening ceremonies of local Special Olympics competitions and state and national games.
Starting in Lansing on the steps of the Capitol building, 50 runners carry the torch during five-mile legs nonstop to Kelly/Shorts stadium in Mount Pleasant for the start of the summer games.
Annually, more than 85,000 volunteer law enforcement officers participate in the torch run throughout the world, raising more than $461 million since its inception in 1981.
Founded by Wichita, Kansas Police Chief Richard LaMunyan, the torch run was created as a way to involve police personnel in the community and to support Special Olympics.
Card said the torch run encompasses a variety of fund and awareness raising efforts aside from the initial marathon event.
"We learn lessons from the (Special Olympians) too," Card said. "They go back and pick up ones who fall and as much as they wanted to win, they wanted to make everyone feel like a winner. Those are lessons that we can learn from."
Roughly 70 miles from start to finish, the Michigan event is run at a grueling pace. Garth Burnside, the assistant division commander of the Biometrics and Identification Division of the Michigan State Police, was selected this year to carry the flame to the steps of the Capitol.
Burnside's daughter has cerebral palsy and became involved four or five years ago with Special Olympics fundraising. This year, he started a comedy show in Ann Arbor as a fundraiser for the event, as well as regularly participating in the Polar Plunge fundraiser in Mount Pleasant.
"When I got involved it was really just through fundraising, and then I went up to the games and handed out medals (one year)," Burnside said. "John (Card) always said you do it once and you'll never miss one again and he's right. To be able to start it off from the steps of the Capitol has to be one of the highlights of my career."
Braving the run
The five-mile legs are run at an 8-mile pace, Burnside said, which isn't too difficult for trained runners. Participants basically run twice a day, 24 hours a day. When they are done with a leg, the officers retire to a motor home.
Most runners who train to run a marathon train twice a day at the most, but the police might run three times a day during the event. Lack of recovery time is what wears on them.
"There are other events along the way that you may want to get involved with. You may want to run again with some athletes who join you or with other departments," Card said. "We've had folks run over 100 miles in five days. We have people who train for marathons and say this is harder."
This year, Byron Chief of Police Tim Sampey will be running in the final leg of the event, effectively acting as the last courier of the torch into Kelly/Shorts Stadium in Mount Pleasant. He said it will be an incredible honor to represent law enforcement in the final stretch.
CMUPD Lieutenant Riley Olson was originally nominated to light the torch, but he declined. It was an honor to be nominated, Olson said, but he would much rather stay behind the scenes of the event.
However, Olson's contributions to the race are much more vast than he lets on – Olson has been involved in the torch run and the summer games for about eight years and is now CMUPD's liaison for the Special Olympics.
This year, Olson organized a motorcycle escort for runners entering Isabella County, setting up an armada of patrol cars from the Isabella County Sheriff's department and the Warthogs Motorcycle Club, a law enforcement-based motorcycle organization.
Olson came to CMU in 2000 as a student studying secondary education with a concentration in special education. He eventually transferred and became a police officer but said seeing how much enjoyment the athletes get out of seeing the men in uniform makes being able to still work in those areas worthwhile.
"It's just fun and a good atmosphere to be," Olson said. "The athletes are so excited to see you there and the police motorcycles and they think its great that we hand out medals to them. I think we as law enforcement probably get just as much enjoyment"