Running toward a better tomorrow

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman J. Michael Peña
  • Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson Public Affairs

Airman 1st Class Jase Pursley barely managed to hold himself up over the nearest trash can, gasping for quick breaths between the vomit he failed to keep back. It was his junior year, he had just placed fourth in his 3,200-meter race for the Chinook High School track team, and his coach was patting his back in support.

Just a couple minutes and he’d be racing again as the last leg in the 400-meter relay. Despite the pain and nausea, Pursley wouldn’t give in, ready to put his feelings aside, eager to compete for his team. His perseverance was vital for what the future had in store for him.

“When I feel weak and my body is giving up, I have to push further,” Pursley said. “‘Be fearless in the pursuit of what sets your soul on fire,’– that’s my mantra.”

Pursley was raised on a ranch in Blaine County, Montana, a rural region on the Alberta border where people were few and far between. When the chores were done, he rode horseback across the sprawling wilds of the West. Sadly, the bliss of his youth was tainted by the growing feud between his parents.

Pursley made the best of his situation, turning his place of education into a safe haven. Although getting there was an hour of bone-shaking drive over washboard dirt roads and bad highways, Pursley found ways to stay at school as long as he could. He enveloped himself in his passions, becoming the “teacher’s pet” of his art teacher and taking a chance on after-school sports.

When he joined track and field, it began as a way to be with his friends but soon evolved into a community where he could reach new heights and distract himself from the turmoil at home. From middle school to high school, he came into his own as a dedicated athlete; qualifying for state was his senior-year dream. Unfortunately for Pursley, the pandemic that hit the world in 2020 put a premature end to his athletic career.

“I spent the entire off-season training so I could lead my team at state,” said Pursley. “I was their captain, leading them in stretches and warm-ups. I was crushed when those dreams were taken away from me.”

The young ranch hand saw how fast the world around him could change, stability becoming an increasing necessity for his future. After long and arduous thought, the Air Force seemed like a step in the right direction.

“I was passionate about ranch work and being with my livestock, but I wanted to experience more,” said Pursley. “Broadening my horizons, travel, consistent checks and a way to pay for college without burning through my savings? I could rely on that a little bit more.”

After graduating, Pursley traded his rustic ranch life in Montana for the cramped barracks of Basic Military Training at Lackland Air Force Base, San Antonio, Texas. In this foreign environment began the next chapter of his life.

Pursley thrived under the structure of BMT and technical training. His time in track and field made physical exercise no issue, and the day-to-day tasks his flight was assigned were nothing compared to ranch chores. He studied munitions systems at Sheppard Air Force Base, Texas, where he made new friends and even earned the black rope position, a designated leader in a student drill team.

Everything seemed to be going his way. After a short seven weeks, Pursley was on his way to his dream assignment, leaving behind the Lower 48 for the 3rd Munitions Squadron at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska.

Though he yearned to experience the wonders of the largest state in the country, his dreams were immediately curbed by the expectations of a flight line worker at JBER.

“When I first got in, it was dark,” said Pursley. “It was November and it had really started to snow. I got put on midnight shifts immediately and I didn’t have time to make new friends.”

During winter in Anchorage, daylight can be as short as 5.5 hours, from about 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. The lack of sunlight, cold temperatures and harsh weather can contribute to Vitamin D deficiency and seasonal depression – especially among “mid shift” workers, whose workday typically begins a couple of hours before midnight. They can go months without regularly seeing the sun.

Blizzards and near-zero temperatures were a familiar challenge for Pursley, having lived near the Canadian border. Running helped him remain positive in the past, so that’s what he did.

On account of the slick and icy paths, Pursley ran for miles in the local fitness center, wishing to be on wilderness trails instead of mind-numbing treadmills or endless loops on the small indoor track. Though monotonous, his persistence was rewarded each passing week as winter slowly surrendered to the tepid rays that graced the Anchorage Bowl.

The towering forests of Sitka spruce had barely thawed, but that didn’t stop the Montanan from running the local trails – snow be damned. The untamed beauty of Alaska was too enticing, and as the summer season drove back the endless gloom, Pursley took full advantage, moving to day shift and basking in the midnight sun.

“I did a lot of fishing, outdoor painting and berry-picking that first year,” he said. “I even went hammock camping on the Kenai with a friend for three days. That entire summer I was listening to the album ‘DeAnn’ by Zach Bryan, on repeat.”

From the Chugach to Denali, the Last Frontier was better than Pursley had imagined it would be. Crystalline lakes from up high coursed into the emerald valleys below, feeding the wild grass and fireweed as far as the eye could see.

His summer euphoria was just the beginning. To his surprise, Pursley was selected to go with the 90th Fighter Expeditionary Squadron for their deployment to the 32nd Tactical Air Base in Łask, Poland, in support of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization air-shielding mission.

Things had turned around for Pursley, and his deployment was icing on the cake. He looked forward to exploring Europe, meeting new people, and truly seizing the opportunity for travel that drew him to join.

Unfortunately, like a pendulum that swung as far as it could to one side, Pursley’s future began to swing in the other direction.

Pursley hadn’t spoken much to his father in recent years. They were still on good terms, but after the divorce in his early childhood, he’d stayed with his mother. What Pursley and his dad lacked in words, they somewhat made up for in the silent way they understood each other. His father eventually remarried and continued working on the ranch.

His wife found him in the barn.

Noticing he had been out there for longer than usual, she came across him lying on the ground, unconscious from a heart attack. His health was already declining – he was losing his vision, developing neuropathy and losing sensation in his feet. He was rushed to a local hospital but had to be airlifted to another two hours away. He suffered a second, then a third heart attack.

Pursley would only come to know about his father’s condition after his release from a rehabilitation facility where he was re-learning to walk. He rushed to call his father, terrified it would be the last time they would speak to each other. Shortly after, he had a massive stroke and was rushed into brain surgery. It was too late.

While Pursley’s relationship with his father wasn’t perfect, the loss hit him hard. He was furious and racked with guilt, unable to leave Alaska and help his family deal with the aftermath, let alone attend his father’s funeral, due to being on call for his deployment. Some days he felt better; others felt like a wound as fresh as the day he got it.

Pursley tried to take his mind off of his emotions by focusing on his running. He spent seven days preparing for the Army 10-Miler that June and successfully completed the race, qualifying for the nationals in Washington D.C., though he’d be unable to attend. He even pushed himself to complete his first-ever marathon that summer, but even the triumph of running 26.2 miles could not free him; he was a prisoner to his sorrow.

With hallowed goals achieved, Pursley finally left for his deployment, hoping his time in Poland would help take his mind off his grief. But what was supposed to be an amazing opportunity only isolated him further, as another tragedy befell his family.

Pursley’s mother was in a major accident while riding an all-terrain vehicle with her stepdaughter.

“She tried to go up the side of the coulee and it tipped over and fell back on her,” said Kayceen Pursley, Jase’s older sister. “Her stepdaughter had to pull the 4-wheeler off of her and go get help.”

The stepdaughter rode up the shallow ravine to get help from her husband, who was waiting to meet them both. The stepdaughter called 911 while her husband rode back down to stay with Pursley’s mother, rendering aid until a helicopter was able to airlift her to the nearest hospital, said Kayceen. 

“When I got the phone call for my mother, I felt a sick and sharp pain in my gut,” said Pursley. “I stayed on the phone waiting to hear anything from the doctors. I couldn’t sleep until she was stable.”

The accident left his mother in critical condition. She was concussed, suffered major bleeding in her chest cavity, collapsed both her lungs and broke eight ribs. All Pursley could do was wait, halfway around the world.

Still struggling to accept his father’s passing and now his mother barely escaping death, Pursley felt as if his life was crashing down around him.

He was again faced with feelings of rage, remorse and futility so intense that nightmares plagued his sleep. His usual cheery demeanor was shattered, supplanted by a despondent and unmotivated presence, devoid of any warmth.

Pursley had even given up running, the one activity he relied on to get through difficult times. This choice drew surprise from his friends and coworkers, increasing their concerns, but he ultimately declined their help and spent the majority of his time alone, falling into a vicious cycle of depression.

The only thoughts that came to mind were the connections he failed to make in his relationship with his father.

“My biggest hurdles were forgiveness and guilt,” said Pursley. “We were never big on talking about our emotions, which was hard to navigate when they were running high. There were things I never got to say to my father, but by then it was too late.”

In thrall to his misery, Pursley’s last conversation with his father played over and over again in his head, his thoughts chained to the things he wished he could have said and done. The self-torture was burying him in a despair that grew deeper with every regret, but at his lowest point, his father’s last words came into focus.

“Don’t give up on me,” he remembered his father saying.

“I used to think he was referring to his survival, but now I think he was referring to forgiveness in unspoken words,” said Pursley. “And it was this mutual understanding, a silver lining, that became my inspiration to continue moving forward.”

Though emotionally battered and bruised, the epiphany inspired him to take the first step toward the light. Reframing his connection to his father gave Pursley the strength to work through this chapter in his life, becoming the catalyst to take up running once more.

Like starting from scratch, Pursley tried to up the pace of his steps, fixating on the length of his strides, staying aware of how much energy he was consuming, and keeping his breathing under control. It was difficult being back to square one, but his conditioning pushed his overall distances further and further while his run times kept going down.

There were days when anguish prevented him from being at his best, but Pursley tried earnestly to put himself on a track toward self-improvement. After all, the physical exhaustion was nothing compared to the joy he felt running toward some undecided goal, rather than away from sorrow.

“Don’t give up,” he repeated to himself.

Upon his return from his six-month deployment, Pursley was ready to make good on his efforts. After rigorous training, he qualified for the Army 10-Miler once more, a stepping stone to the multiple marathons he’d finish later that year.

Pursley didn’t know how far he would go, but he knew the further he pushed, the more at peace he felt.

At the time of writing, it’s been almost two years since the passing of his father, and his mother has made a near-full recovery. In an effort to stay in Alaska after the end of his tour, Pursley took a position in the 354th Munitions Squadron at Eielson Air Force Base, six hours north in the city of Fairbanks.

“My father’s death had left me thinking of ways to honor his life,” said Pursley. “He had always dreamt of going to Alaska but never got the chance, so I’m grateful that I got to experience what it had to offer.”

Pursley said he still holds on to some of the pain from the past, but he has a new goal and he’s excited to try and reach it. His new ambition is a 50-mile ultramarathon before the end of 2023, just to see if he can accomplish the task.

He said his family and friends were to thank for helping him get this far, especially his sister Kayceen.

Be it rain or shine, trails covered with mud or snow, Pursley still makes an effort to run nearly 30 miles a week. He breaks it up into different runs, slowly pushing the threshold of what he can endure.

“I thank my father for helping me realize that time is limited and I have to make the most of it,” said Pursley. “He’s given me the hope and inspiration to keep dreaming bigger and bigger.”