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Run For Jason

300+ gather to run in memory of Hillsborough(NJ) star

August 24, 2008 - Hillsborough Township, NJ

John Nepolitan on site

On July 24th, readers of the DyeStat New Jersey and High School Elite messageboards (and all track folks in NJ and around the country) were shocked by the news that New Jersey senior-to-be Jason Walton of Hillsborough High School had been found dead on the railroad tracks near his home two days earlier.  It is tragic when any young person dies, but it becomes confusing and difficult to understand when there is no illness or apparent reason to for it.  Almost immediately, those same messageboards were alight with young people and adults not only showing sadness at the news, but recounting some of their greatest memories of one of the hot young running talents in New Jersey.  Those memories included Walton’s great anchor leg at the Penn Relays to put his Hillsborough team in the Championship of America 4 x 800 final (pictured below - photo by John Nepolitan), and his State Group and State Meet of Champ 800 victories – the latter in a meet record 1:50.14, one of the best times in the nation for 2008.

An online memorial was not going to be enough to ease the loss felt by many of those whose lives Walton had touched in own his short life.  Quickly, over the days that followed the heartbreaking news, plans for an informal group run started to take shape.  Eventually, word had spread and a unique event in high schools sports was going to take place – people who had stepped to the starting line to race against Walton and the Hillsborough team were wishing to join in the run and show their support for the family and the community.  Word of the run and its pending size – well over 500 runners which would pose a danger on the local roads – put the run in danger.  Community leaders, police and organizers, however, worked out the details and the run was on.

As “Run” day dawned a bright sunny day, it was unsure if anybody really knew what to expect upon arriving at the Hillsborough track.  The mood was sad and respectful as everyone knew why they had gathered.  Once the 300-plus runners and walkers who had come together were broken into pace groups, it was easy to see the impact one young man had on New Jersey running.  It was not just his team that was there, but runners from all over the Garden State, including members from NTN teams Don Bosco Prep and Voorhees (led by state champ Melanie Thompson), state title contender Doug Smith, 2-time Foot Locker Finalist Brandon Jarrett (on his way to Harvard in a few days), and messageboard regulars like “Rob A.”

This was not just a run for the young as many adults were also touched by Jason, including New Jersey fixture Joe Lanzalotto, and The Star Ledger’s Jim Lambert.  Parents who had attended many of the New Jersey’s championships, and had seen Walton streak to victory while there to support their own children, had shown up as well.  They included the Molkes (parents of Jenn and Rob, stars at Holy Angels and Don Bosco), the Jarretts (parents of Brandon), and former New Jersey star Kevin Byrne (father of rising star Kevin Jr).  All of them, for sure, hug their children a little harder and hold on that extra second longer as a result of hearing the news of July 22nd. 

Out on the roads for the 6.8- or 4-mile run, runners did trade some stories of Jason, but the run was far from a sad, depressing procession.  It was more of a celebration of a life that had brought joy to each and every one of them in one way or another.  At the start of the summer, runners from all over New Jersey had been gathering at different locations to train and build that ever-important base for the upcoming season.  One of those runs had been hosted by Walton and his family, who had opened their house to young people they had never met, but that their son was bringing together to do what runners do – run.  And although Jason could not be a part of the run today, he was the reason so many from so many different teams had come together.  It is something that is very unique to the running community. 

It is sad but true that every year young people die, but it is doubtful that football players, baseball players, or basketball players from different schools would come to attend such an event as the Run for Jason if one of their competitors was to die suddenly.  From time to time, high school sports brings out the worst in people, but track/cross country athletes show why they are not the same as others – there is a feeling of common experience that they all go through in training and racing that in times of need bring them all together such as this tragic event.

Jason Walton has run his last race, but the runners of New Jersey will carry him in their hearts and memories as they attack the hills of Holmdel Park, or kick for home at the Toms River bubble this winter, and then at Plainfield later in the spring. 

Keith Marley – a Hillsborough parent on one of the many running messageboards – may have summed up Jason Walton best:  “As the proud father of one of the boys on Jason's 4x800m team, I can say that while listening to the boys talk and being around the track meets photographing, he was a true sportsman and gentleman.  Although he was extremely competitive when on the track, he was a friend and gentle peer with the kids he ran with and those he ran against.  Very often I heard him congratulate kids from other schools whenever they ran well and, occasionally, when they could beat him.  He was a driven individual and lived his sport.  It's sad to see his legacy end so soon.  We'll all miss him.”

The police have ruled that Jason’s death was a result of suicide.  What drove him to that point, and what made him feel that this was his only choice, will never really be known.  Suicide is not an option and for everyone there should be a parent, family friend, teacher, coach, pastor, or some professional that they can talk to and work out the problem.  If you cannot find one of the above, simply pick up a phone and call the National Suicide Hotlines at 1-800-SUICIDE(784-2433) or 1-800-273-TALK(8255).  If you take nothing else from the passing of Jason, and the Run in his memory, take that.

John Nepolitan