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Family organizes race to honor son

STAR VALLEY, WYO.

It isn’t necessary to discuss “what if” or “forgiveness” in the family of Jeremy Kunz. For them, the first is useless and the second is natural.

Perhaps that’s why in the months following his death at the hands of an intoxicated driver, they didn’t waste time with blame or bitterness. Instead, they honored the legacy of a husband and father who “lived life to the fullest” with a half marathon that raises money for needy families in their community.

Now going into its fifth year, the Star Valley (Wyoming) Half Marathon — held annually the second Saturday of July — is a family-operated event that draws hundreds from throughout the United States to the little community of Thayne, Wyoming. This year’s event, held July 12 on what would have been Jeremy Kunz’s 38th birthday, fielded nearly 400 runners, who ran the 13.1 miles from Bridger National Forest in western Wyoming into the little towns of Bedford and Turnerville — with scenes harking back to Norman Rockwell — and reaching the finish line by Thayne’s elementary school.

Greeting each finisher, no matter how long it takes, is Jeremy’s wife, Melinda “Min” Kunz, of the Kamas (Utah) 4th Ward; and Jeremy’s parents, Bart and Denice Kunz of the Cottonwood Ward, Afton Wyoming Stake; along with other family members, including Jeremy and Min Kunz’s children, Brinci, 12; Toby, 10; and Gage, 7.

Healing and helping are the reasons this family — all wearing orange T-shirts on race days — began this race nearly two years after Brother Kunz’s death at the Las Vegas Ragnar relay in October 2009, when a driver under the influence hit and killed the then-33-year-old as he was holding water on the sidelines for a teammate.

“Our whole purpose on this earth is to help each other out and figure out a way to lift each other and to make each other better people,” Min Kunz told the Church News. “I feel like this race lets our family do that. We can be examples to other people that tragedy doesn’t have to define you.

“Hard times don’t have to make it so you are a bitter person. You can rise above your hard trials, and you can do good things no matter what comes your way.”

The idea for a half marathon in Star Valley — site of one of the Church’s future temples — actually began in the months prior to Brother Kunz’s death. In 2008 and 2009, the family, with Jeremy’s persuasion, put together teams for the Ragnar Relay’s Wasatch Back in Utah.

“Jer (as he is known to family) enjoyed life, and he took every opportunity to have other people enjoy life,” his wife recalled about her husband, whom she married in 1998 in the Idaho Falls Idaho Temple. “When he found anything that he loved, he shared it with everyone he knew, and he would find a way to drag them on his adventure.”

With that enthusiasm, he urged his mother, Denice, to join the family team, but he asked her what race in Star Valley could help her train.

“That was always in my head [after he died],” Sister Kunz said, sitting at her kitchen table in Star Valley, the day after this year’s race. “We wanted to do something for him, in his memory, that would bless the valley.”

Thus, in December 2010, the extended family planned a half marathon that would not only share Jeremy’s love of life and fitness, but also would bless a needy family. Every year since, proceeds go to such a family.

“The best way to heal a broken heart is to look outside yourself,” said Min Kunz, “to focus on somebody else.”

In talking to the family, it’s apparent that healing began immediately, and there was never any bitterness or blame. Jeremy’s father, Bart, was home in Star Valley when he got the call every parent dreads.

“As I knelt down to say my prayer that night,” he related with tears in his eyes, “I prayed for [the driver] and his family. I prayed long and hard for them that night. I felt a very strong peace. I didn’t even know a name.”

Today, if you ask the Kunz family if they have forgiven the man, who is serving a term in the Nevada prison system, they respond there was never a need to forgive because there was never blame to begin with.

“The day after the funeral,” said Denice Kunz, “we realized that no one was angry. It dawned on us that we’ve gone through this and nobody is placing blame. There was peace. I think peace was one of the biggest gifts given. We all had peace. We’re regular people who God has helped.”

“Lots of people,” Min Kunz added, “are shocked that it’s one family that puts on this race. It’s not a corporation. It’s a family working together.”

Everyone takes part, including Jeremy’s sisters and their husbands: Katie (Nate) Rockwell, 36; Breanne (Cameron) Neff, 33; Emily (Dan) Rose, 31; and Chandra (Chris) Parry, 28. The 12 Kunz grandchildren also do their part.

Min Kunz related how during backpacking trips with ward youth, her husband “would always bring up the rear to make sure everybody finished.”

Thus, the course for the Star Valley Half Marathon is not closed until the last runner crosses the finish line amidst cheers from people wearing orange shirts.

And runners, if they had never met Jeremy Kunz, soon come to know him. Every mile marker includes a photo of him on a run, on a hike or with his family.

One 15-year-old runner, Lexi Young of the Post Falls (Idaho) 4th Ward, who ran this year’s race, probably said it best concerning the legacy the family wants to foster during the Star Valley Half Marathon.

“To take something so bad and make something so good.”

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