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Ironman on a Mission

Mark Goldman is running 13 endurance races to honor 13 service members killed in Kabul, Afghanistan.

Mark Goldman crosses the finish line at the Ironman 70.3 Oceanside in Oceanside, Calif., in April 2022. It was the first of 13 Ironman races Goldman is completing to honor each of the 13 service members killed on Aug. 26, 2021, during the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. Goldman carried flags the full distance of the race to honor U.S.  Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Kareem Nikoui, who grew up in nearby Norco, Calif. The race course went through Camp Pendleton, where most of the fallen Marines were based and trained. 

By John Rosengren
May 24, 2023
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Mark Goldman ’95 was in the middle of the grueling 56-mile bike leg of the 2021 half-Ironman triathlon in Madison, Wis., when an idea came to him.

It was Sept. 12, 2021, less than three weeks after a suicide bomber killed 13 members of the U.S. military and 170 Afghan citizens at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan. The news cycle had already moved on, but Goldman had not.

He feared that the memory of those who’d paid the ultimate sacrifice would soon be forgotten. So that day, while biking on the rural Wisconsin roads, the corporate communications executive and recreational triathlete resolved to complete an Ironman or half-Ironman for each of the service members who died — 13 races total over the next three years. With that, the 13 for 13 Heroes mission was born. 

“I was deeply moved by the character, selflessness and sacrifice of the 13 heroes — and those wounded in action — and the incredible work our troops did under very difficult circumstances during America’s exit from its longest war,” Goldman wrote on the Ironman Foundation website. “I felt strongly about honoring the wishes of the Gold Star families by ensuring the life, service and sacrifice of these heroes is never forgotten.”

Mark Goldman joins Cheryl Rex, right, the mother of U.S. Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Dylan Merola, and Merola’s sister, Olivia Hernandez, at the finish line of the Ironman 70.3 race in Oceanside, Calif. on April 1. Goldman carried flags the full distance of the race in honor of Merola and gave his finisher’s medal to Merola's family.

Goldman, who studied communication and political science at Northwestern, did not serve in the military, but his father served as a U.S. Army captain and Mobile Army Surgical Hospital surgeon in Vietnam. Goldman decided to create 13 for 13 Heroes just days after the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. Ten years prior, on Sept. 11, 2011, Goldman had taken charge of his personal fitness by running the Chicago Half Marathon, his first endurance race. 

Goldman has now completed six of the 13 races for the fallen heroes, dating back to April 2022. It’s his way of giving back.  

“The act of somebody doing something extremely hard physically in honor of someone who’s given the ultimate sacrifice resonates with service members and Gold Star families,” says Goldman, who lives in Minneapolis. “When you’re racing knowing a Gold Star mother or father is waiting for you at the finish line, it changes the way you look at a race. It’s no longer for yourself. You feel a tremendous sense of responsibility.”

On April 1, Goldman participated in the Ironman 70.3 in Oceanside, Calif., in memory of Marine Lance Cpl. Dylan Merola, who was 20 years old when he died and grew up in nearby Rancho Cucamonga. The bike course took Goldman past the barracks at Camp Pendleton, where Dylan was based and trained. Dylan’s mother, Cheryl, his sister, Olivia, and his grandparents were at the race to cheer on Goldman. On May 6 he completed another Ironman 70.3, this time in St. George, Utah, for Marine Staff Sgt. Taylor Hoover, who grew up in Salt Lake City. Goldman has three more half-Ironmans scheduled for 2023, each as close as possible to the hometown of the service member he’s honoring.

Mark Goldman honored U.S. Marine Corps Cpl. Humberto Sanchez by completing the Ironman 70.3 race in Muncie, Ind., in October 2022. He was joined at the finish line by members of Sanchez’s family, along with Cpl. Kelsee Lainhart, middle, one of the Marines critically injured during the suicide attack in Kabul, and Sgt. Mallory Harrison, bottom right, the best friend of Sgt. Nicole Gee, who was also killed in action. Sanchez was from nearby Logansport, Ind.

Goldman carries a U.S. flag on each leg of an event. Before the race, he folds it with the family members of the fallen service member he’s honoring and tucks it into his wetsuit for the swim. During the run, he carries the flag on an aluminum pole. When he comes up the red carpet at the finish, the service member’s family is there in the finish chute as the announcer says a few words of remembrance about the honored service member. Goldman then presents his race medal and the flag to the family. “It’s gratifying to be part of a moment that reminds the service member’s loved ones that their sacrifice is honored and remembered,” he says. 

Goldman credits Rick Morris, now associate dean at the School of Communication, with helping him understand how to use effective imagery and storytelling to spread the word about his mission. Goldman also says his wife, Liz, and daughter, Meredith, as well as his employer, Schwan’s Food Company, have been supportive, giving him the time and flexibility he needs to train and compete in events around the country.

While Goldman pays his own entry fees and travel expenses, he has partnered with the Ironman Foundation and its Operation Gold Star to raise donations for the active duty and veteran military programs it supports. He knows that his effort won’t restore what’s been lost, but he hopes the moments he’s shared with the grieving families will provide some respite — that his act of compassion might offer some comfort.

“I hope on a hard morning, when they’re missing their loved ones, they can fall back on these memories created by a stranger,” Goldman says.


John Rosengren is the award-winning author of The Greatest Summer in Baseball History: How the ’73 Season Changed Us Forever and father of alum Alison Rosengren ’22.

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Reader Responses

  • Wonderful tribute to these service people and their sacrifices. Wish these people had been been protected better.

    D.D. ’97 MD, Chicago, via Northwestern Magazine

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