When U.S. Army Sgt. 1st Class Augusto “Tito” Piñeiro comes into focus, a smartphone video shot Sunday morning in Greenville, S.C., shows him running slowly. But as he nears the finish line, the 3rd Infantry Division soldier’s pace picks up. Then, amid cheers, he jumps — his last step of a 100-mile run.
Piñeiro wore a gas mask for every step of the 37-hour journey, breaking the world record for distance run in one of the oxygen-restricting devices.
(See video below.)
“I just got in the zone of running,” Piñeiro said Tuesday, back at Fort Stewart, where he’s a platoon sergeant with the 9th Brigade Engineer Battalion of the 3rd ID’s 2nd Infantry Brigade Combat Team. “If you get in that zone of running, you get a runner’s high, and I was just running.”
Constant rain from the time the Knock on Wood 100 began Friday night until dawn Sunday made things tougher, Piñeiro said. It was sunny for the last leg, but that’s when exhaustion hit him. Fortunately, the soldier had plenty of support from friends and family.
“A buddy of mine… was literally holding my hand and running next to me because I was falling asleep on my second morning of straight running with the mask on,” Piñeiro said. “It was physically draining my body.”
Piñeiro did it all to raise awareness of Operation Enduring Warrior, a nonprofit that helps wounded and at-risk veterans adjust to life after combat through athletics and other programs.
The 37-year-old Orlando, Fla., native’s passion for Enduring Warrior comes from his own experience. Piñeiro, a three-time Purple Heart recipient, was rattled after an intense deployment to Afghanistan in 2012.
He was in seven improvised explosive device blasts while on foot patrol.
“I’m a combat engineer, so I dealt firsthand with a lot of people dying in front of me,” he said. “It took a hard beating on my mind and my body after that last deployment.”
When he got back to Fort Bragg, N.C., he contemplated suicide, but running helped him cope.
“A lot of people don’t seek out help because they’re scared of what their leadership will think of them,” Piñeiro said. “Operation Enduring Warrior helped me fight those demons, and that’s what I want people to know: They don’t have to fight it alone.”
He joined Enduring Warrior’s Masked Athlete Team and began running in events with his gas mask — something team members do to hide their identity while putting the focus on wounded veterans. They also go by code names while wearing the masks. Piñeiro’s is “Unbreakable.”
This past weekend’s “ultra running” event was set on a 3.2-mile loop, and Piñeiro pinned on a different photo for each lap — every one a veteran who was either killed in action or in need of help.
The first photo was of the Navy SEAL who inspired him to run the 100 miles, and the last was of his grandfather, an Army veteran in the Puerto Rican National Guard.
Piñeiro says a Guinness World Records official was at the race, and he was told the company is in the process of verifying his achievement. But he didn’t run to break a record.
“People were asking me why I kept running with the mask on even after I broke the world record,” he said. “I kept telling them it wasn’t for that… (Taking the mask off) never crossed my mind.”
The run took a toll on Piñeiro, who’s 6 feet tall and weighs 230 pounds. His feet are pretty beat up, and he says he’s likely going to be on crutches through the week and may need some toenails removed. But he says it helped to know that his family, friends from Fort Bragg and his platoon at Fort Stewart all showed up to to support his effort.
He would stop for a few minutes after each lap to change the photo he was carrying, and supporters would make sure he ate. Throughout the race, Enduring Warrior posted updates on his progress to the nonprofit's Facebook page, including the smartphone video that shows him reaching the finish line.
When all was said and done, Piñeiro just wanted sleep and something refreshing.
“I drank a Budweiser,” he said.
Now that he’s back at work, he’s a little relieved he won’t need to wear the gas mask for a while.
“It’s normal duty,” Piñeiro said. “No more training during lunch or after work or anything. It’s on to the next adventure.”
That next adventure: A triathlon. In the gas mask.
To see more photos and video of U.S. Army Sgt. 1st Class Augusto “Tito” Piñeiro’s 100-mile, record-breaking run in a gas mask — and to learn about the nonprofit that inspired him — go to Operation Enduring Warrior’s Facebook page at www.facebook.com/GeneralGK221.