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Iraq War vet ex-firefighter with PTSD completes 80-mile fundraising run to help other first responders facing same struggle

Ryan Mains plows through a flooded path at mile 75 on May 30, 2020, in Crystal Lake. (Stacey Wescott / Chicago Tribune/TNS)

A day after he ran 80 miles to raise money for colleagues struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder, former Woodstock firefighter and paramedic Ryan Mains was sore, tired and thankful.

“I don’t know how I can express my gratitude,” he said from his home in Huntley. “The support we got in the months leading up to it and yesterday was so incredible.”

Mains’ 21\u00bd-hour odyssey Saturday was meant as a tribute to the 130 firefighters and EMS personnel who took their own lives in 2019 — he ran 1 km for each of them — and as a way to bring visibility and funds to a cause with which he has painful personal experience.

Family members and supporters cheer Ryan Mains in Woodstock after he ran 130 kilometers on May 30, 2020.
(Stacey Wescott / Chicago Tribune/TNS)

Mains, 40, an Iraq War veteran and a longtime first responder, left his job with the Woodstock Fire and Rescue District last year to be treated for PTSD, and is still trying to secure disability benefits. Long runs serve as a form of therapy, and he decided to create an event, dubbed “Run for Our Lives,” that would raise money to help others in the same situation.

He left at midnight from Woodstock Square and followed the Fox River Bike Trail on a journey more than twice as long as the 31-mile run that marked his previous distance record. The path was not in pristine condition after recent rainstorms — the water was knee-deep in one spot — and he had to switch out his socks and shoes every time they got wet.

An exhausted Ryan Mains leans on his wife, Danielle Mains, at mile 78 of his 80.7 mile run on May 30, 2020, in Woodstock. Mains is a veteran of the Iraq War and a longtime Woodstock firefighter and paramedic who has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.
(Stacey Wescott / Chicago Tribune/TNS)

Nutrition was another problem. He didn’t eat enough in the early hours of his run, and grew nauseous as the day wore on with his diet of applesauce (for the carbohydrates) and pickles (for the sodium). But he persevered, always accompanied by at least one pacer.

“Honestly, I tried to not think a lot,” he said. “I tried to make a point to not do that, to not think about what was coming up, to stay where I was. That helped a lot. I feel my spirits were good most of the day. I was pretty out of it sometimes, but I never felt like I couldn’t finish, that it was too much.”

Finally, he arrived back in Woodstock at 9:30 p.m. to a reception of about 200 people waiting for him in the square. His run had raised $18,000 for the Illinois Firefighter Peer Support Group, an organization that assists first responders in crisis.

Supporters share words of encouragement with former Woodstock firefighter Ryan Mains, seated, as he takes a break after running 72 of 80 miles, May 30, 2020 in Crystal Lake.
(Stacey Wescott / Chicago Tribune/TNS)

Danielle Mains said her husband’s success, achieved despite his own struggles, gave her immense pride.

“Every day he had a training run, he would do it; it didn’t matter if it was raining or cold,” she said. “He could have just sat on the couch and said, ‘Woe is me, I don’t care, I’m upset with the system and what happened to me,’ and he didn’t. He has a lot more perseverance and grit than that.”

Mains’ father, Joel Mains, a retired Downers Grove firefighter who now lives in North Carolina and drove up to assist on the run, said watching his son meet his goal was inspiring.

Former Woodstock firefighter Ryan Mains runs with pace runner Leann McMonigan along the Fox River Trail, May 30, 2020 in Elgin. After months of training, he was making an 80-mile run to raise $18,000 to help first responders struggling with PTSD.
(Stacey Wescott / Chicago Tribune/TNS)

“I’ve seen people run marathons, but to watch what he did not only physically but mentally to himself yesterday, all trying to make things better for someone else, people he will never meet, it left me overwhelmed,” he said.

After resting up, Mains plans to tackle another race in June in which he will run 10 miles a day for 10 consecutive days, and then, perhaps, set his sights even higher.

“I want to try more,” he said. “I want to try longer distances. I want to be better. I wanted to finish (the 80-mile run) stronger than I did, but I finished, and at the end of the day, that was my main objective.”


© 2020 the Chicago Tribune