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A veteran’s tale: Alone in the dark

Charles Starkey ran as part of high school wrestling practice and later in the Marine Corps.

“As you might imagine I had to run a lot!” he says. “I still wasn’t a big fan, and was a middle-of-the-pack runner at best. Later in the Corps I ran a bit more, and enjoyed running alone when stationed at the U.S. Embassy in Botswana. Hot, dry and peaceful.”

He hit pause until about 15 years later when he did some 5Ks and mile-long races, and ran while deployed in Afghanistan and Iraq with the Army Reserves. While in Iraq, he did the Army Ten Miler, his first run ever at that distance.

After returning to the U.S. in 2017, he found what unites most runners: the camaraderie.

“I joined a local running store chain 10K training group … and I was hooked,” he recalls. “I left that training group a couple of years ago now, but many of them are my closest friends and we still run and hang out together. That bond is very important to me.”

Finding ultra

In January 2019, Starkey discovered trails.

“I’d always loved hiking and spending time in the woods,” he recalls. “I joined an intro to trails running group and that got me hooked. I worked up to the Tuckahoe 25K in November that year, it was a big deal for me. Then I did something dumb and wonderful. I joined a New Years ‘fun run’ put on by some local trail geeks where we went 30-some miles.”

He admits he wasn’t trained for it.

“I didn’t really know anybody,” he says. “I just did it. For me it was crazy tough, but I finished and met some wonderful people. Not a race but that was my first ultra distance, and again was hooked.”

What drew Starkey to the ultra scene is also similar to what unites service members.

“The draw for me is the adversity, the camaraderie, and the sense of accomplishment,” he says of the trail and ultra running community. “I’m not fast or one of the cool guys, so these are really tough for me. But oh wow, that feeling you have when you finish. It’s amazing. Also, the trail and ultra communities are pretty cool. Most people are laid back, and are there to have fun. I’m not an uber-competitive person, so that works for me. I just want to have fun and complete tough feats.

A muddy, sloppy mess

Recently, he did complete a tough feat. It was the Algonquin 50K in Pocomoke City, Md., put on by race director Trent Swanson of Algonquin Ultras.

“It was brutal! The race is a flat, very flat, trail ultra, known for usually being cold and wet,” Starkey says. “Well this one was all that for sure. Lots of ankle- to knee-deep puddles, felt like it was the whole way. It was cold and rained/sleeted the whole time. It was just really tough for me.”

What got him through? The community.

“I got motivation from running with some friends who were there too,” he says. “We shared the struggle, kept each other going. The race support crew also was amazing — those aid stations rocked. But ultimately I had to still actually do the running myself, and I tried to focus on that sense of accomplishment I always seek. I just had to finish it as I knew I’d feel so good afterward. I was tired, cold and wet, but gave myself no choice but to slog it out.”

In addition to future ultras, Starkey has his first triathlon on the horizon, doing the Eagleman Half Ironman in Cambridge, Md., in June. “That will be an enormous challenge for me. I’m focused on just finishing feeling strong and learning. Oh yeah, and hopefully having fun!”

In service

Starkey served as an infantryman in the Marines from 1993 to 1997, then served on embassy duty in Botswana and Hong Kong. From 2010 to 2017, he was a counterintelligence special agent in the Army Reserves.

He says his two stints were vastly different, one being pre-9/11 and the other one after. After returning to the civilian world in 1997, he did not experience any transition issues.

“It was a different time, no combat tours, no constant war,” he reflects. “For the latter Army service, I was a Reservist, so wasn’t doing it full-time, but in many ways I did a lot more. My tours in Afghanistan and Iraq were easy compared to most, but there are still always challenges coming back.”

A challenge reservists frequently face is having one foot in each world — civilian and military.

“When on active duty and deployed down-range, you can have an almost singular focus,” he says. “Lots of things are taken care of, so you can devote your physical and mental energy to the difficult tasks at hand. Then you come back to the real world have to reorient yourself to your family, daily requirements of work and home, etc. It’s not always easy. I had some trouble adjusting after Afghanistan, and counseling helped. After Iraq, I proactively sought counseling to get ahead of any problems, plus I picked up running. THAT helped a lot."

In support of BTTT

Starkey’s connection with Bigger Than The Trail (BTTT) is a natural fit. BTTT is a nonprofit group that advocates for and raises donations for mental health counseling through trail running. (Like Starkey, I am a BTTT ambassador. I'd be honored if you would consider a donation to my fundraiser for BTTT that provides mental health counseling services for those in need.)

“I was interested right away – a group from the world of trail running that supports mental health? Sign me up.”

For Starkey and other post 9/11 veterans, mental health issues have become the signature wound of the war on terrorism.

“It touches me very personally. It has taken me a long time to come to terms with my own mental health; to understand, to accept, and to manage depression,” he says. “I had a very good Marine friend commit suicide many years ago, and I helped a suicidal soldier downrange. I see signs of mental health difficulties in many people, but far too little awareness, far too few resources.”

And BTTT gives Starkey a way to continue his service.

“Supporting BTTT allows me to use my experiences to help people,” he explains. “While they help anyone who needs mental health counseling, not just runners, their roots in trail running appeal to me. I can use that to connect to people and spread the word about available resources.”

Starkey is still trying to process his mental health and how it ties in to running.

“It may seem weird but while in Iraq I really enjoyed running alone late at night. First, we worked really long days so weren’t free until night. It was also a lot cooler. 90 degrees felt nice after 110 or more degree days. In July, it was like 126 degrees every day.”

Often, he would run the inside of the base perimeter alone in the dark.

“The phrase ‘That’s me, alone in the dark’ became both a description and a mantra,” he says. “I faced some difficult ethical, professional and personal challenges there, so I felt very alone. I embraced that though. It felt good to exult in the aloneness by running in the hot night. One day I’d like to put together a short book on my experiences and observations, perhaps titled ‘That’s me, alone in the dark.’ We’re all out there sometimes alone, sometimes in the dark. And we can all make it through.”

Speed drill

Name: Charles J. Starkey

Hometown: Baltimore

Number of years running: 3 ½ regularly

How many miles a week do you typically run: All over the place, am always under-trained. Let’s say 25 on average, more ahead of big races..

Point of pride: Being a single dad to an amazing teenage daughter. Introducing several friends to the world of trail running.

Favorite race distance: My only ultras are two 50Ks so far, so let’s say that!

Favorite pre-race or training food/drink: Pre-race: Oatmeal, coffee, Red Bull. Post-race: Pickles, whole chocolate milk, bbq chips, a Pepsi, Gatorade and beer.

Favorite piece of gear: Orange Mud 1L vest and Topos.

Favorite or inspirational song to run to: I don’t listen to music while running, love to listen to the quiet of the woods. 😊

Favorite or inspirational mantra/phrase: “Sunshine Happiness” May sound cheesy but it works for me. There’s a history behind it.

Where can other runners connect or follow you:

Instagram: @starkrunner


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