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.”
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.
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.