Jean Davies carried extra inspiration as she powered through Saturday’s 1,500-meter race walk at UNM track stadium.
It came in the form of a second bib pinned just below the National Senior Games competitor number pinned to her back. On it were the words: “In honor and memory of John A. Pelham, Army Specialist, Died: 02-12-14.”
Davies never knew Pelham, but the 74-year-old from Los Lunas was honored to compete on his behalf. She learned of him through MedalsOfHonor.org, a nonprofit project dedicated to honoring fallen American military service members.
After completing her final lap around the toasty track, Davies shuffled to a nearby grassy area and flopped down under a tree for several minutes. After a brief recovery she was all smiles.
“That was quite a challenge,” Davies said. “These women from the World Masters are pretty darn good, and several times I thought about not coming. But I really enjoy racing to honor soldiers who have passed and their families. That’s my motivator.”
Davies was not an athlete growing up in Cheyenne, Wyo., and found her competitive calling only after moving to New Mexico in 2014. She participated in a race benefiting the Wounded Warriors Project and noticed another runner sporting a bib honoring a fallen soldier. Davies asked about it and was directed to the Medals of Honor website.
“You can find names and sometimes bios for soldiers who gave their lives for our country,” Davies said. “You sign up and they give you the name of someone to honor at your event. It’s a wonderful cause.”
For a relative rookie, Davies has excelled in various age-group competitions. She won Los Lunas’ King of the Hill run in one of her first attempts and has since racked up an impressive collection of medals and ribbons in cycling, running and race walk events, including the New Mexico Senior Olympics.
Davies was initially surprised by her success and said, “My husband was surprised, too.” But she does not keep mementos from any of her competitions.
“I like writing letters to the families of the soldiers I’m honoring,” she said. “I never wear the race shirts they give us. I fold them up with my letter and whatever medal or ribbon I get and mail it to the family. They don’t know who I am, so it’s kind of like being a secret Santa in a way.”
Davies hopes her letters and race effects will brighten a day for a surviving family member.
“If I win a medal and hang it on my wall, two or three years later no one’s going to care,” Davies said. “I think it’s a lot more important to remember a soldier who gave his life two or three years ago. My achievement is nothing compared to what these soldiers achieved protecting our freedom. I’m thankful to be able to run in events like this.”
Saturday’s race was a mixed blessing for Davies. She crossed the finish line seventh among 25 competitive walkers, more than a minute behind winner Kathleen Meares of Louisiana, who pulled away from the field with a time of 10:48.32.
Davies was excited to hear she’d finished seventh but was later disappointed to learn she’d been disqualified for a line violation.
“When I don’t get a medal or ribbon, it’s kind of a bummer,” she said, “because I like including them with my letters. I actually like sending those out more than I like racing.
“But my husband always reminds me I can’t win every time and I need to be a good loser as well as a gracious winner. I just think about the soldiers who don’t have a choice when they’re putting their lives on the line. That puts things in perspective.”