How running became a refuge for this Air Force veteran — and made him a better person
When a three-month deployment turned into eight months, Sean Godwin discovered a not-so-secret weapon: running
Before Sean Godwin was deployed to the Al Dhafra Air Base in the United Arab Emirates in 2019, he found stress energizing.
He used chaos as motivation, challenges as fuel.
But after the COVID-19 pandemic turned a three-month deployment with the Air Force Reserves into eight months, all that changed.
“The deployment changed who I was and how I react to stressors,” he said. “I feel like I get overwhelmed more easily since deployment.”
But that COVID-19-extended deployment also gave him a not-so-secret weapon that not only helped him better manage life’s challenges, it also transformed his health. A self-described casual runner before that long, lonely deployment, Godwin’s running career existed almost exclusively to ensure he could keep his job with the Air Force.
“A lot of people wanted to escape and just sleep. I realized how much more effective I could be at work. … It sounds sort of cliche, but I was a better person in so many different ways.” — Sean Godwin
“I’d really just run enough to pass my fitness test,” he said with a laugh. “Then I got deployed with the Air Force Reserves in 2019.”
When the pandemic turned a three-month deployment into eight months, Godwin found himself lacing up his running shoes more often and for longer distances.
“That’s when my running really started to take off,” he said. “It was kind of a way to put the long days behind me and clear my head.”
At first it was just a couple of miles, then one day he felt so good he ran 4 miles. As he ran longer distances, he found the runs transforming more than just his body.
“I realized how far I could go and how much it did for me mentally and physically,” he said. “It was a pathway for clearer thoughts.”
He doesn’t run with music, books or podcasts because he doesn’t want to be distracted from the run.
“I want that time in my head,” he said. “I needed a way to let some things go. That’s where running found me … or I found running.”
He said it’s easy to let 12-hour days turn into 15-hour days when one is on assignment far from home and the world is locked down.
“A lot of people wanted to escape and just sleep,” he said. “I realized how much more effective I could be at work. … It sounds sort of cliche, but I was a better person in so many different ways.”
His decision to take care of himself on his own time meant he could focus on work when he was there, even through long, grueling hours.
Godwin returned home to Utah in June 2020, and he immediately decided to continue his daily runs. He ran 13 miles on a trail in under two hours and thought maybe he should give racing a try.
“Things were opening up, and I was looking at trying to race,” he said.
But races didn’t recover as quickly as other businesses did.
“I didn’t know if I should register for a race and then have it canceled or go virtual,” he said. “I didn’t really want to risk it, and I didn’t really want to pay to run a virtual race.”
Godwin ran the Salt Lake Marathon in 2018.
“I just signed up on a whim because it was the day before or after my birthday, and I wanted to start getting in shape,” he said. “My time was awful, and I hurt for days.”
He wanted to run a local race and test himself in the spring of 2021. He looked to the Salt Lake Marathon again because he had a deferred entry he could use.
“I’d registered for it the year before I was deployed, and then it got canceled completely (because of COVID-19), so I deferred my entry,” he said. “So technically, I ran the Salt Lake Marathon last year but it was virtual.”
So he kept running and hoped races would eventually come back in their pre-pandemic form. As he trained, he continued to see the transformative power of running in his life.
“The competitive aspect is great and fun and gives me little goals each time I go out,” he said. “But you could take that all away — Strava, the metrics, all of it, and I will still go lace up and go 30 minutes minimum. I need that every day.”
The sport may not need him, but he needs the sport.
“I’m a better person when I run,” he said. “It’s therapy for me. I didn’t know I needed it.”
That need became crystal clear in the months after that extended deployment. Godwin joined the Air Force in 2004 but left active duty after a yearlong deployment in 2016. He joined the reserves only to be deployed again in November 2019.
As he discusses how he feels more easily overwhelmed since his deployment, he also talks about how running helps him deal with the changes.
“I can’t change the things that happened,” he said. “Even though it changed me in ways that I wish it hadn’t, I just found a way to deal with it.”
Healing, he said, has been a mixture of challenges and blessings.
“I guess that’s part of it, too,” he said. “There are a lot of things about this experience that I wish didn’t happen, but I’m also the most fit I’ve ever been in my life. A lot of good things happened because of COVID.
“When I came back after that extended deployment, I found a new job. I was content in my old job, but I didn’t know people could be happy at work. … Had I not gotten locked down during COVID, I don’t know that I would have landed in this job. … I’d be commuting an hour each way and getting more and more out of shape and more and more unhappy.”
Instead, he’s planning to celebrate his 41st birthday by attempting to qualify for the Boston Marathon with a personal best at this Saturday’s University of Utah Health Salt Lake City Marathon. He will be joining more than 6,000 people in participating in the marathon, half marathon or other events. While the numbers for races across the country are trending down, this year’s marathon numbers are the highest in the race’s 19-year history, according to Jennifer Nelson, marketing director for the event.
It will be his first road race since he started training consistently.
“The competitive side of me has come out,” he said. “I want to qualify for Boston, and I want to be in the top five in my age group.”
He laughs at what he thought after finishing the marathon in 2018.
“I remember finishing and thinking, ‘I’m more of a 5K guy. Just stick to 5Ks,” he said. “Running has helped me in a lot of ways, being that it’s my outlet,” he said. “It’s helped me put a positive spin on every direction my life has gone since (2019).”
Amy Donaldson is a contributor to the Deseret News.
U. of U. Health Salt Lake City Marathon events on Saturday, April 23, 2022
6 a.m. — Bike tour
6:20 a.m. — Wheelchair and handcycle start
7 a.m. — Marathon and half marathon start
7:05 a.m. — 10 skate start
7:10 a.m. — 10K run start
7:15 a.m. — 5K run start
8 a.m. 5K — Awards ceremony
8 a.m. — Kids activities
9 a.m. — Half marathon, 10K run and 10K skate awards ceremony
10:30 a.m. — Marathon awards ceremony