When the starting gun goes off Saturday at 7:30 a.m. Central, LaMonica will take to his treadmill a half a world away. He’ll “run” his first ARC event since suffering a shrapnel wound during a mortar attack, and working that treadmill at his base in Afghanistan while old friends jog the streets of Anniston will be therapeutic.
“It helps me to filter out my stress,” he said. “When you run, you just feel free. You can just go with it as you run.”
This year’s Woodstock will once again carry a special designation, serving as the Road Runners Club of America’s national championship for the 5K distance for the third time in four years.
Among the 1,200-or-so runners will be top athletes. One who will miss the race is women’s winner and course record-holder the past two years, Olympian Janet Cherobon-Bawcom. She will run the 10,000-meter event for Team USA on Friday in London.
But thanks to a robust running club in a military town, Saturday’s race will be about more than crowning champions. It will also bring joy and healing to another kind of America’s finest.
LaMonica, originally from New Jersey, is a 19-year veteran and serving with the Army's 2nd Brigade, 101st Airborne Division in Afghanistan.
His stateside base is Fort Campbell in Kentucky, but he was stationed at the Anniston Army Depot from 2005-08.
He and his wife Gwen and daughter Lexie, lived across the street from Fort McClellan.
That’s when he got serious about running and joined the Anniston Runners Club, which knows him for more than running. He was also instrumental in helping the club start Hayley’s Twilight 5K, a fund-raising run for cystic fibrosis research at UAB.
“Randy Blake, me and him were in Knights of Columbus together, and my best friend growing up had cystic fibrosis,” LaMonica said. “Randy, his stepdaughter Hayley, also had Cystic Fibrosis.”
LaMonica and his family have run in several ARC events, during and after their time living here. They last ran the Woodstock in person in 2010.
LaMonica called former ARC president Brooke Nelson his “running mentor.” What did she teach him?
“I learned to not go out so fast and run and kill myself and burn out while everyone passed me,” he said, laughing.
Nelson and LaMonica have remained in contact, mainly through email and Facebook messages. They kept in touch through his first Afghanistan deployment, which started soon after he last ran the Woodstock in person, and now his second.
Their favorite subject? Running, of course.
“It would always impress me that, no matter where he’s at, running was constant and maybe it passed as normalcy in his life,” Nelson said, “but he exemplifies everything that is good in some way. He’s serving his country. He’s a wonderful husband and father, and he’s a hero.”
In late June, Nelson read one of LaMonica’s posts, something about healing so he could run again.
“I sent him a message on Facebook, like, what happened?” she said.
LaMonica emailed her the details of a June 18 mortar attack.
His unit advises an Afghan unit, and they patrolled nearby villages, meeting local leaders. They returned and were cleaning equipment when Taliban fighters began firing mortars.
LaMonica’s unit took fire for about an hour. He bandaged two wounded Afghan nationals and helped get them evacuated.
After incoming fire stopped, LaMonica huddled his unit to discuss what to do in such attacks. After they broke up for dinner, he stayed behind to write his report on the incident.
A new soldier, a medic who saved two fellow soldiers during the attack, called LaMonica back outside to talk about the incident. LaMonica congratulated him on his work during the attack, and the two shook hands.
As they opened the door and started into to their team room, a mortar exploded behind them. LaMonica took shrapnel through his left knee.
“I felt it hit my leg,” he said by telephone Monday. “I looked at my soldier to make sure he was all right. I pushed him in the door, and I looked down and could see the blood.
“I tried to keep working, and my guys made me sit down so they could clean it and bandage it. I was more mad than anything.”
LaMonica was flown by helicopter to the nearest field hospital. He called Gwen by cell phone before going into surgery.
He was back at his base within two days but on crutches. Once off crutches, he began slow work on an elliptical machine and worked his way to the treadmill.
Doctors cleared him to return to normal activity Monday.
“Today, the doctor, he manipulated it (his knee) in more ways than I ever thought could be, and he said I’m good to go,” LaMonica said. “He said my injured leg is stronger than my uninjured leg.”
News of his recovery was well received back in Anniston.
“It doesn’t surprise me that he would act in the way that he did,” Nelson said, “but I was just thankful he wasn’t hurt worse.”
Nelson remains an officer in the running club, serving as triathlon/multisports director. She routinely nudges others into running and said it “means a lot” that LaMonica considers her a running mentor.
A driving force behind Woodstock’s recent growth from a small local race to a national-level event, she beamed about LaMonica’s plan to shadow-run the event Saturday.
“That’s pretty awesome,” she said. “He does that a lot. He’ll shadow our runs. Others will do that, too. It makes them feel a part of the running community that he was so much a part of.
“Those ties that bind are so important, whether it’s shoestring ties or heartstrings.”
LaMonica said he expects to be back in the U.S. around Christmas and hopes to hit the road running. He has signed up for a half-marathon in Lexington, Ky., and expects to get back to Anniston for an ARC event or two.
“Is it too late to order the new shirts?” he asked Nelson by email.
Between now and Christmas, more dangerous work lies ahead in Afghanistan.
“The scenery is awesome here, what little bit I know,” he said. “Of course, it’s wartime conditions. There are beautiful mountains with a great river right in front of us, but we have the enemy all around us, so that takes away from the scenery.
“The people we work with, the unit we’re advising is a good unit, and we’re making great gains with them.”
Starting at about 4:30 p.m. his time Saturday, he’ll get on the treadmill and try to tune it all out. He’ll try to settle into his running mentality.
“No worries,” he said. “All you’ve got to worry about is finishing.”
Sports columnist Joe Medley: 256-235-3576. On Twitter @jmedley_star.