THE FINAL LOOP: Island athlete finds he’s never alone

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From none, to one, to a crowd of almost 40.

Matt Simms started out alone on his final long distance run last Saturday, the last loop he would run across South Whidbey before his deployment to the war in Iraq.

With a fierce windstorm winding down, and many of the roads along his route cluttered with fallen branches and the occasional downed power line, Simms didn’t know that many of his fellow runners would make it out to join him.

But by the time he crossed the finish line, he was surrounded by friends and fellow athletes.

Turns out, all along the 18.6-mile loop, a friend or two would be waiting for him to come by. And as each mile passed, more and more runners would jump out and join the run.

It was a well-orchestrated good-bye surprise, one that fellow runner Pam Jacques began planning via e-mail two weeks ago.

“We were just kind of brainstorming, trying to think of a good way of sending him off,” Jacques said.

Instead of a party, though, the group decided they would join Simms as he ran across South Whidbey.

“I liked the idea of the whole group running him to the finish line, and him kind of nestled in the middle, and us protecting him. And ending the run in a big kind of run hug,” she said.

Lt. Cmdr. Simms is a Reservist who has been in the Navy about 15 years; the first half on active duty. An intelligence officer assigned to Fort Lewis, Simms and seven others in his unit were mobilized for a one-year tour and are being sent to Iraq at the end of the month.

“The Army is running out of people, and the Navy is doing their part,” he said.

Simms’ friends say the surprise was somewhat easy because Simms never misses his 7:30 a.m. Saturday loop.

The 25-to-30 kilometer run around the South End is a beautiful stretch to run, Simms said.

“To have one of those runs fresh in my mind three or four days before I depart was critical to my well being. I would not have missed that run for anything,” he said.

Simms said it took a while for him to catch on that he wouldn’t be running alone.

“It appeared on the start I was the only one on the loop. All the training partners I run with had run into conflicts, or friends were visiting, he said.

When a fellow runner did join him, Simms thought the pair would complete the run alone.

But then another runner joined the group a few miles down the road, late, he said, because of a dead alarm clock. Then another runner joined with the same excuse. Then another.

Simms took it all in stride.

“I considered them all plausible,” he said.

That changed, however, when fellow runners from Mukilteo hopped out from behind bushes in Langley about six miles into the loop. The jig was up but the jog went on.

Many South End athletes point to Simms as their main motivator.

He is the nucleus of Down Sound Racing, a diverse and dedicated group of runners, swimmers and cyclists, Jacques said.

And Simms — a legendary athlete on the South End who won the Whidbey Island Marathon last year and has also swam from the Langley marina to Camano Island — has brought the group together.

“Now he is leaving and it feels both scary and challenging,” she said.

Only six people or so who were planning to join the group couldn’t make it; they were stranded in their neighborhoods by trees that fell during the storm and blocked their way out, Jacques said.

Those who braved the elements to be part of the farewell run said they knew a storm wouldn’t stop Simms from running.

“Matt is a real inspiration,” said Clinton’s Challis Stringer. “He believes that anything is possible, that anybody can do anything if you put your mind to it.”

“He’s an amazing person, somebody to really look up to,” Stringer said. “To see that many people running down the road, it was just great.”

Simms said he was humbled by the group’s goodbye.

“The energy I draw from the group is incredible, and it was nice to have that as a send-off to carry me forward for the 354 days I’ve got left (on duty).”

Simms left for Fort Jackson, S.C., on Friday morning.

“Which is where the Army basically turns you from a part-time sailor or soldier into a full-time soldier,” Simms said.

After two weeks of training, he will be sent to Kuwait and from there, fly into Baghdad where he will work in the headquarters for the coalition’s forces at Camp Victory.

Simms said he will keep running in Iraq, and he won’t be picky.

“It could be three legged race and I’ll do it,” he said.

Simms was given 12 days notice for his deployment.

“The family is taking it very well,” said Simms, who is married and has two young boys.

His wife Erin has seen him leave for extended periods before, he added.

“We were married when I was active duty, so she’s been through deployments before. And as deployments go, this is relatively easy,” Simms added.

Simms once served aboard the submarine USS Woodrow Wilson, and recalled how he could only send home a 40-character message once a month. Now he expects to have e-mail and regular access to a cell phone.

Friends said they know this talk about “last run” is just temporary. They are eagerly awaiting the next 354 days to go by quickly so he can resume running on Whidbey.

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