A year ago today, Joy Eastman of Moose Pass spent the holiday in Seward, home of Alaska's biggest Fourth of July party. As she watched runners in the grueling Mount Marathon race that is the centerpiece of the town's celebration, she told herself, as she had a dozen times before, "I really should do this race."
"Another lady said, 'If you do it, I'll do it,' and then we just dropped it," Eastman said. She returned to Moose Pass with no real intention of running the race.
Everything changed 14 days later. On July 18, Eastman's son Chris, 28, and a veteran of the Mount Marathon junior race, was killed in a bomb explosion in Afghanistan while serving as a gunnery sergeant with the U.S. Marine Corps.
"That made up my mind," Eastman said.
The mother of eight, including four boys who all ran Mount Marathon as kids, will make her race debut today at age 66. While others will honor Independence Day by waving American flags and wearing various combinations of red, white and blue, Eastman will honor her son by running the race he once ran.
But the decision to do this year's race turned into more than just a way for Eastman to honor her son. The training required to get in shape for the run up and down 3,022-foot Mount Marathon became her way of getting through a rough time.
"Six weeks after Chris died, my sister died, so it was really hard," she said. "I think just making yourself get out every day, I don't know, you still think about it when you're running, but it just helped because I had to go out and practice every day. It gave me something to do every morning when I got up.
"My dog didn't like it very well. He's kind of lazy."
Yet Eastman persisted. With her kids all grown up now, she lives in Moose Pass half the year and Arizona the other half, meaning she had to train for a mountain race in the flat desert. Since returning to Alaska in May, she's gone to the top of Mount Marathon three times and halfway up another three times.
She thinks she is prepared, but she's a little nervous. The women's race begins at 11:15 a.m. The parade begins at 1:30 p.m. and follows a route that includes the same streets the runners take on their way to and from the mountain. Usually there are some stragglers in the women's race who run the final stretch to the downtown finish line on Fourth Avenue with parade marchers, and Eastman doesn't want to be one of them.
"I really don't want to be in the parade," she said. "I don't mind if I lead it, I just don't want to be in it."
Cheering for Eastman will be her son Jason Eastman, the 1994 and 1995 Mount Marathon junior champion, and Chris' family from California -- his widow Gaby and their daughters Joy and Klohe. Gaby was pregnant with Klohe when Chris deployed to Afghanistan.
A bomb technician, Chris was killed while working on a bomb site in Helmand Province.
"The thing that makes me get through it is Chris really, really liked what he did," Eastman said. "And he believed in it."