Sonja Morse, right, and Erika Yackulic completed the Tough Ruck virtually this year. The 26.2-mile event raises money for military families and to honor fallen service members, police, firefighters and EMTs. Courtesy photo

CHINA — Sonja Morse felt fatigued near the end of her 26.2-mile Tough Ruck, but knew she had to finish strong.

The lifelong China resident headed toward the final stretch in stride with her rucking partner, Erika Yackulic, but they did not know what was in store for them when they finished.

The Maine State Police and China Volunteer Fire Department surprised them with an escort the last mile of their fourth straight Tough Ruck, an event that raises money for military families and to honor fallen service members, police, firefighters and EMTs.

The event went virtual this year due to the coronavirus pandemic

“It was amazing to see them there, being able to support them and them support us,” Morse said. “It was a surreal experience, for sure.”

The Tough Ruck is a 26.2-mile course, undertaken with a minimum of 15 pounds in a ruck backpack, and traditionally occurs the Sunday before Boston Marathon Monday at Minuteman National Park in Concord, Massachusetts.

The Tough Ruck is partnered with the Boston Athletic Association, which organizes the Boston Marathon, and the National Park Service. It benefits the Military Friends Foundation.

Yackulic, 34, of China is a staff sergeant and recruiter with the Maine Army National Guard.

Morse, 24, is a 2016 graduate of Thomas College in Waterville, where she pitched on the softball team. She now works as a compliance monitor for the Coalition for Juvenile Justice.

“Having someone to do it with is just having that support system,” Yackulic said. “You’re essentially out there by yourself, so knowing that someone else is going through that pain, so to speak, with you is definitely a morale booster.”

Yackulic moved to China from New Jersey six years ago and is friends with Morse’s aunt, Katie Moran. Yackulic approached Morse about competing in the Tough Ruck four years ago. Morse ran the Millinocket Marathon in 2017. and has participated in a handful of half marathons and ultra relays over the years. 

“Running and rucking has been something I’ve done since collegiate sports has ended,” Morse said. “I was like, ‘Yeah, I’m up for the challenge.’ That turned me onto it, and I’ve done it ever since.”

This year’s event, like the marathon, was delayed to the fall, then made virtual. Ruckers used an app to track their progress.

Morse raised $1,500 this year and has raised $3,500 over the four years. Yackulic hit her $450 fundraising commitment this year, the minimum required for participants, and has raised a total of about $2,000.

Yackulic did her first Tough Ruck the year before joining with Morse, but has done it with Morse the last four years. 

“Registration goes out in November, and there’s always conversation — ‘Hey are you going to do this again?'” Yackulic said. “I think we’re planning on doing it the next couple years, but it’s one of those conversations that happens when registration comes out every year.”

Sonja Morse and Erika Yackulic’s 2020 Tough Ruck route,

Yackulic said the delayed date of this year’s ruck added meaning.

“To be able to do something that honors them is huge, I think,” Yackulic said. “This year, the time frame happened to work around Sept. 11, and it made it that much more special.”

The duo met up at Erskine Academy at 7 a.m. last Sunday to start their ruck. They rucked 10 miles to their first checkpoint at China Middle School. They then went around China Lake to the Vassalboro Boat Landing, another checkpoint, before heading for the finish down Route 32 to Erskine Academy.

They actually ran more than 26.2 miles.

The escort at the end was extra special, as Morse’s family includes many volunteer firefighters.

Her grandfather, Dick Morse, is chief of the South China Fire Department. Her father, Glen, is a lieutenant.

Morse also has a few family and friends who have served in the military or law enforcement. 

“Raising the money for that foundation is something that’s become really important to my family over the past four years,” Morse said. “If my body allows me to do it, I’ll keep doing it.”

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