GRANTS PASS—On July 4, 2016, Ryan Merker and John and Max Belnap were killed in a plane crash off the Oregon Coast.
A year later, the Merker/Belnap Memorial Run was launched to remember their lives. It’s a day not about the tragedy itself, but about the coming together and the healing that only running can provide.
"It helps make a day that would normally be the hardest day of my life or the year, one of the best days of the year,” Darren Merker, the father of Ryan, said.
"I'm happy, I'm excited, this is a fun day,” Cheryl Belnap, the wife of John and mother of Max, said while fighting off tears.
After the loss of John, Max and Ryan, the healing process runs through the hundreds of people who’ve shown up for the past two memorial races—the families, the volunteers, the Grants Pass cross country team.
"I was Max and Ryan's cross country coach and track coach and they just loved life,” Stan Goodell said. “The two of them together were inseparable. Today is of course about healing and this is part of the process. Doing something where the community comes together to honor these two... to honor them for the lives that they lived."
Max lived a life of running stardom—many teammates looked up at his school records and to him as a person. No one admired his work more than incoming senior Daniel Beckstead.
It was fitting that Beckstead won Wednesday’s five-mile race.
"We always remember them, but only in special events like this do we all come together and make it something more than it usually is if you're just on your own," he said.
"Max was just an inspiration for everybody but for Daniel personally, the loss of the three was very hard on him,” Goodell said. “He's taken running and used it to be a positive."
That’s precisely the goal of the run—many families helping two families heal.
"Just remember that they too were family people and they would've absolutely loved and supported this," Cheryl said.
"There's a lot of people that have told me since the plane crash that it's hard to say something to me or my family because it's awkward,” Merker said. “And I totally understand that, I've been there, I've been there myself. I understand that. But when they show up here in the huge numbers that they do, it speaks volume."