It’s not unusual to see service men and women running a race in their boots and fatigues. But Amy Cotta is different.
She runs in combat boots not because she’s in the military, but in support of her son who joined the Marines in 2011. It was her way of feeling connected to him as he went through basic training. The 47-year-old certified trainer, model, author of Six Weeks to Skinny Jeans and former competitive body builder was moved by the conversations that started as a result of her unconventional footwear, so she stuck with it. Cotta has since run more than 30 races in combat boots, everything from 5Ks to Ironman triathlons. When she isn’t running races, she’s volunteering at them with the organization she founded, Medals of Honor.
Medals of Honor began in 2014 as a grassroots effort when Cotta ran Ironman Chattanooga—in her combat boots, of course—with the pictures of 21 fallen servicemen on her pack. Cotta’s dream was to give her race medal to the mother of one of the deceased men. But she crossed the line after the official cutoff time, meaning no medal. Cotta turned to social media to share her plight, receiving donated medals for all 21 families within hours.
Now Medals of Honor is an official 501(c)(3) with a national impact and athletes at races across the country. Interested athletes can go to the website and register (it’s free) to run in honor of fallen service men and women whose families have added them to the Medals of Honor database. In addition to agreeing to donate their finisher’s medal, athletes running on behalf of Medals of Honor get special bibs (either as a downloadable template, by mail, or at select races) to share the name, rank, branch and date of death of their fallen hero.
“They wear the bib as they race to ‘carry’ their fallen hero with them,” Cotta says. “We’ve noticed the athletes get deeply, deeply connected with that person when they are running. It brings it home that this was really someone’s husband, wife, uncle, aunt, mother, father, son or daughter. It makes the fallen more than a number.”
Cotta says Medals of Honor is a way to close the gap between surviving family members, active duty military, veterans and civilians.
“Medals of Honor is the bridge, but they’re walking across and meeting each other on their own,” says Cotta, a mother of six and grandmother of three of the bonds formed through the program. “Some people also say this is the first time their racing has ever had meaning because they are doing it for someone else.”
In addition to assisting those who want to race for others, Medals of Honor has a new program called Enduring Heroes, where families of the fallen, active duty and veterans can apply for sponsored entries to endurance events of their choice.
“Races are a way for people to do something physical to heal and honor a loved one, fallen teammate or even someone they’ve never met,” Cotta says. “If you have the will and we have the means, we’ll make race entries happen.”
So far this year, 10 athletes have been sponsored through Enduring Heroes. Cotta’s goal for 2016 is to give away 30 sponsorships.
Medals of Honor is hosting their second event on Nov. 12, the Boots for Troops 5K, in Franklin, Tenn. For those who can’t make it to Franklin, there is a virtual participation option. As a unique twist, participants are encouraged to lace up a pair of boots, to experience a small sense of what it feels like for soldiers. Their first event, the Honor the Fallen 5K & Memorial Mile took place this past April in College Grove, Tenn.
“We’re growing fast, and I don’t see any limit to it,” says the military mom who knows her son is proud of what she’s doing, even though he thinks she’s a little crazy. “He’s a tight-lipped Marine, so he may not say much. But, where words fail, hugs don’t.”