Parkites commemorate D-Day with Epic Charity Challenge in Normandy
June 6, 2018
Early in the morning, at the Basin Recreation Fieldhouse on May 15, a tight-knit group of athletes met in the weight room for their regular high-intensity interval training session. On the menu for the day: clean and jerks, weighted pull-ups, deadlifts, and running, capped off with an intense burst of action at the rowing machine upstairs. Mike Augustine, Hoby Darling and Erik Snyder were among the group of people working out, and they're training for a specific date: June 6.
A group of four Utahns — Augustine, Darling and Snyder, of Park City, and Jesse Mease, of Salt Lake City — were readying to travel to Normandy, France, where they are participating in an endurance challenge approximating the physical struggle that many American soldiers went through on June 6, 1944, in one of the most pivotal moments of World War II. Augustine, Darling, Snyder and Mease are swimming long-distance through the open waters of the English Channel, coming ashore on Omaha Beach (the strip of sand immortalized in the opening minutes of "Saving Private Ryan"), and marching with weighted backpacks to the city of Saint-Lô, the original objective of the U.S. forces hitting Omaha.
"A lot of swimming, a lot of running, a lot of rucking, just a lot of sort of endurance-type training," Augustine said of the group's physical preparation. Augustine prepared mentally as well, reading up on the invasion's historical context.
The athletes are taking on the grueling task as part of the Epic Charity Challenge. The annual event, founded by San Diego-based former Navy SEAL Lance Cummings, involves endurance athletes participating in challenges themed around pivotal moments in military history. Last year's challenge took place at Thermopylae, Greece, the site of the stand by Leonidas, the 300 Spartans and a Greek coalition against the Persian army. This year's event commemorates D-Day. Next year's challenge will raise money for the National Ability Center by recalling another WWII event: the Bataan Death March in the Philippines.
Appropriately, for an event commemorating the 20th century's greatest amphibious operation, the Normandy edition of the challenge is raising money for the Navy SEAL Museum in Fort Pierce, Florida. Accompanying the challenge portion is a charity auction, which includes a home in Park City.
The Parkites trained for the event by undertaking the early morning Basin Rec weightlifting and cardio sessions, swimming in the Jordanelle Reservoir and even carrying 50-pound packs during the Running with Ed event on May 19.
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Darling said that paying tribute to the thousands of American soldiers died at Normandy will be an honor.
"You're doing something that, 74 years ago, changed the face of what history would look like, and you're doing it with four guys who are really close to you, and 30 guys with that same feeling and blood running through their veins; that's really special," said Darling.
Augustine said that all of the elements — the history, the charity, the endurance — come together to drive the group during the challenge.
"Paying tribute to the true heroes who paid the ultimate sacrifice, raising money for a great cause. … I just can't stress enough how excited and grateful we are to be a part of it," said Augustine.
'The great crusade'
The athletes are honoring the memory of a turning point in world history. The events of the invasion reverberated throughout the postwar period, the Cold War and even today.
By 1944, the tide of the war had already turned against Germany. The entrance of the United States to the North African front two years prior brought America's industrial might and fresh manpower to the table, and the Western Allies had invaded Italy, knocking Benito Mussolini out of the conflict. However, to the East, Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, overseeing the USSR's advance on Germany, grew restless. While an eventual victory over the Nazis was almost certain, Stalin wanted Roosevelt and Churchill to take the load off the Soviets' shoulders as they fought — to this day — the biggest, bloodiest front of the biggest, bloodiest war in history.
So, on June 6, following an airborne incursion by Allied paratroopers the night before and a massive coastal bombardment in the morning, an invasion group composed of American, British, Free French, Canadian and Polish soldiers hit the coast of Normandy in five sectors; codenamed Gold, Sword, Juno, Omaha and Utah. The attack stunned the Germans, who, misled by Allied tactics, had placed the bulk of their defenses and of their best troops further east at Calais, the narrowest point of the Channel.
The invasion of Normandy — known variously by its codename, Operation Overlord, and in popular memory as D-Day, the term for the first day of all military operations — was planned and executed by an Allied leadership helmed by U.S. Army Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower.
A little less than a year later, Stalin took Berlin. Afterward, Europe was split in half politically, between the ground taken by the Western Allies and that of the Soviet Union.
Cummings said that keeping the memory of these events alive through avenues like the Epic Charity Challenge is important.
"If we don't remember these, we're doomed to repeat the entire history itself," Cummings said. "I think it's important that our society pays tribute to these people and remembers what they did."
Establishing a beachhead
Specifically, the Epic Charity Challenge will retrace the steps of the American forces that landed at Omaha Beach, the most heavily defended sector. Thousands of Americans died not only from German fire but from drowning and equipment malfunctions, easily making Omaha the bloodiest confrontation of June 6. By contrast, the American forces that hit Utah Beach, further to the west, are estimated to have suffered 200 casualties.
Participants in the challenge will undertake a worst-case-scenario amphibious landing on Omaha, though with support from boats of the French Maritime Gendarmerie and, of course, without German MG-42s and pillboxes. The event begins with a six-mile swim from the English Channel to the beach. The experience of swimming in open, choppy seawater is quite different from that of an Olympic pool or the Jordanelle.
"You can have waves that are overhead, churning. … You're out in the English channel and you're just going, 'Well, I don't know what's below me, the shore's a long way away,'" Darling said.
Cummings, who will participate in the challenge himself, said that the French support elements will be ready to assist anyone who has trouble with the swim, and that the challenge will adapt around those who might not make it to shore.
"I'm stressing, 'Hey, everyone, learn to swim with a snorkel,' because if you're going six miles in three-foot chop, you're going to drink a lot of seawater and that's not going to be good," Cummings said.
From there, the athletes will scale the bluffs of the beach and participate in a wreath laying ceremony at the Normandy American Cemetery, just off the coast in Colleville-sur-Mer. On Omaha Beach itself, Cummings said the ashes of an Army sergeant major will be taken back to the sands.
Then, the participants will strap on 44-pound packs and undertake a speedy march, or ruck, 20 miles to the city of Saint-Lô, the Omaha invasion forces' original objective. Along the way, the challengers will participate in physical tasks.
Augustine said the event's draw is twofold between its historical aspects and the participants' passion for pushing themselves.
"The event itself is just epic, paying tribute to the fallen heroes of WWII and raising money for a great cause. … We're all sort of self-fulfilling, doing crucible events, pushing ourselves mentally and physically," said Augustine.
In 2019, Cummings said the challenge will bring things closer to Park City as it raises money for the National Ability Center.
Cummings said he has an affinity for Park City and its spirit of pushing physical boundaries, which is why he's looking to help raise funds for the NAC's veterans programs. The NAC is a Park City-based organization that provides services and training for athletes of all abilities, including veterans.
Next year's Epic Charity Challenge is currently slated to be a 65-mile march on the Philippine island of Luzon, Cummings said. The challenge is meant to bring to mind the infamous Bataan Death March, a 1942 incident following the Imperial Japanese takeover of the Philippines. Thousands of Filipino and American prisoners of war were forced to march between 60 and 70 miles on foot to a POW camp. All estimates indicate thousands of the POWs died from starvation, dehydration, exhaustion and Japanese bayonets, not to mention their treatment at their destination, Camp O'Donnell.
The challenge will benefit both a Filipino charity and the NAC, with which Cummings has had personal experience. Cummings skis in Park City, and the center has worked with Cummings' son, Tanner, who has lymphedema.
"Every time we go up there we'll go up there to the NAC and he's had the benefit of some great instructors, who are volunteers there, just one-on-one helping him out with his snowboarding. … They treat him just like everyone else," Cummings said. "There's no downside to having them as a beneficiary or for Parkites to step up and support their local charity there."
The NAC said in an email that it's looking forward to continue developing the plan for the 2019 event.
"We are honored and excited to partner with Lance and the Epic Charity Challenge in an effort to raise funds for our veteran programs," said Carey Cusimano, Director of Development at the National Ability Center. "It's been a joy to have Lance and his son participate at the NAC over the years and we look forward to finalizing all the details for this beneficial 2019 collaboration in the coming months."
While Park City's continental mountain climate might not resemble the Pacific climes of the Philippines, Cummings said he plans on hosting training sessions in the area as well as making the challenge inclusive and adaptable for athletes of all abilities.
"I'll invite the people who are participating to come to the NAC and stay there," Cummings said.
As for the Park City contingent of the Normandy challenge, the participants said that their camaraderie not only with each other but with the rest of the group is what keeps them going.
"You get to a spot where you're waking up for the guys and the gals you're working out with," Darling said. "It's huge, because it's the people you've trained with for the months before the event and all of us make each other better."
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