Back in the running


With his former college roommate shadowing one step behind him, Pete Richert makes his way over the 8-mile cross country course on Saturday, marking his return to collegiate competition since he lost his leg in Iraq. Andrew Ottoson / Free Press

For Hillsboro native and Kansas National Guard veteran Pete Richert, Saturday?s 8-kilometer cross-country race at Cottonwood Point was a big step in his proverbial thousand-mile journey.

?God has a certain path for each individual,? Richert said. ?He gives each person certain talents, certain abilities.... He knows who can handle what, and who can?t.?

Richert?s tour of duty in Iraq took an abrupt turn Feb. 22, 2007, when a roadside bomb claimed his right leg?a wound for which he received a Purple Heart.

But while the wound has slowed him, Richert?s step-by-step return to doing what he loves will not be stopped.

?I?ve got to be honest, I never wanted to be disabled,? Pete said. ?I kind of took my abilities for granted, but almost right after (the injury) I wanted to get back to running.

?I was still in the hospital, Walter Reed, when I met this older guy in the Air Force who had lost his leg and still flies airplanes,? he added. ?He asked what my favorite thing to do was, I said running. He said, ?You can still do that.?

A running family

Richert?s first steps toward being a competitive runner came at an early age, as one might expect of a man born into a family of runners.

?My family is known for running,? he said. ?My parents, they were both runners when they were in college. My older sisters ran in college. I?ve been running ever since I was little.

?And then there?s all the success I had in high school in track and cross country,? he added.

Richert placed sixth at the state cross country meet his senior year and garnered acclaim during three consecutive trips to state in track. He also earned all-conference honors running for Tabor in 2003 and 2004 seasons.

?Running has always pretty much been my life,? he said.

Then came Feb. 22, 2007.

?It felt like it was going to be a really long road before I could get back to running, period,? Richert said. ?But if you really think of it, it hasn?t been terribly long.?

Exactly 583 days later, Richert ran his first prosthetic-powered race, handling the 5-mile run in 47 minutes, 48 seconds, placing 125th out of 126 runners.

?I would like to be able to break 40 minutes on an 8-kilometer run,? he said. ?I?d be happy with that. I was looking at my split times, and my first mile was 7:25. The mile was my event in track, so I?m basing things off of that. And to do an 8-K in 45 minutes, that?s a pace under a 9-minute average for every mile.?

During his freshman year at Tabor, Richert completed the Bluejays? home course in 28:27.

?At first, you think it?s such a slow time, but it?s not demoralizing,? he said about his effort on Saturday ?It?s only been about a year and a half since the injury.?

And Richert has positive proof that he is not yet close to reaching the peak of his ability.

?I started running again in October of last year, but over the summer, I wasn?t able to do much,? he said. ?I injured my groin on the residual limb side, so at the beginning of the season, I was struggling to make it two miles.

?But about a week ago, I made it eight miles,? he added. ?Just this fall, it?s been a big improvement.?

One thing about running has not changed for Richert: ?You only get out of it as much as you put in. I get a lot of soreness, but it takes a lot of time to get back to having the right muscle tone.?

A friend in step

The 126th finisher Saturday was one of Pete?s best friends?Will Higerd?who made the trip from Colby to run with his former roommate.

?Pete and I are pretty much brothers,? Higerd said. ?It was a big honor for me to run with him.?

Higerd said that Richert ran the race without falling, but noted two near-misses.

?He banged his knee on a tree limb as he rounded a corner,? Higerd said. ?I didn?t see what he hit, exactly, but I heard it. And by the end of the race, it was really bleeding, and some people thought he had a fall.

?There was another time when he caught his spring on the lip of the grass just as we were turning to go up a little hill, but Pete didn?t fall there, either,? he said.

?He?s a competitive guy?always has been?and in the past he could be pretty loudmouthed about it. But since the injury, he?s been a little quieter, because he knows he?s not competing with the other guys out there?he?s competing with himself.?

Competitive spirit

Higerd attributed part of Richert?s quick jump back into competition to the willpower that he has known, up close and personal, since the two became roommates.

?He?s always been the kind of guy who will do something just to prove you wrong,? Higerd said. ?If you try to tell him he can?t do something, he?ll go do it anyway.?

He also noted the entire crowd present and many of the competitors who had crossed the line stood alongside to cheer Richert to the finish, not only to support, but also to recognize and honor.

?The guy from Garden Plain who won the race was leading some of their guys through a cool-down lap going back through the loop, and when they saw us, he said, ?That?s inspiring? and turned his group around to run behind Pete to the finish,? Higerd said.

?And they weren?t the only ones. The closer we got to the end, the more people there were running behind us.?

Richert estimated?perhaps only half-jokingly?that after the race, he had a thousand handshakes with people he did not know.

Strong support

Higerd said many in the crowd were Tabor students, and Richert said support for him at the college and around town?both of which have Anabaptist roots that run deep?has been stronger than he anticipated.

?When it comes to war, and to being a Christian, war can give a person a mental breakdown?but some people can handle it. And maybe that?s why it?s OK for some people to be pacifist and some not to be,? he said.

?On campus, most of the people who have said supportive things aren?t the anti-war types, and that?s not surprising. But the town as a whole has been very supportive, and there are a lot of veterans in Hillsboro that people don?t realize live here.?

Looking ahead

A run at Southwestern is one possibility for Richert?s near future. Down the road, he may set his sites on the Paralympics, an event held in parallel with the Olympic Games.

?I?m looking at doing para-Olympics stuff,? he said. ?That?s something that coach (Karol) Hunt is going to help me out with in the spring, try to find some track meets to get into.?

Held in September in Beijing, the Paralympics fielded more than 4,200 athletes with a wide range of levels of ability. They hailed from 148 countries.

?I haven?t set too many goals time-wise, how fast I?m going to do it?I?ve just set distance goals so far,? he said. ?I want to do a half-marathon somewhere. It?s just going to be putting in the miles, getting into shape, getting physically fit and physically sound.?

Whatever else his future holds, Richert has shown in the steps he has taken so far that he is in the middle of his journey with competitiverunning?not at the beginning, and certainly not near the end.

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