When Todd Kinkus’ childhood best friend, U.S. Army Warrant Officer Sean Mullen, died in Afghanistan, he felt as helpless and as lost as anyone could be. But then he met Mullen’s father.
“Four days after I learned what happened, I came down for the weekend,” said the Dover native, who now lives in Oxford, Pa. “I spoke to his father, and looked him in the eye and told him I would not forget him, that I’d carry Sean with me.”
Kinkus said William Mullen put a hand on his shoulder and said he needn’t worry.
“He told me, ‘You don’t forget people like Sean,’” Kinkus recalled.
And while the grieving father’s words were of some comfort, Kinkus still wanted to do more. Not much later, he decided to dedicate his attempt at completing the Philadelphia Marathon to the memory of someone who, even as a child, had the qualities that later in life would earn him the right to lead men into combat.
Mullen was an inspiration to him and to others, Kinkus said.
“I knew that during my training and during the race that he would be with me,” he said. “I know that I could not have done it without him.”
The two men had known each other since they were about 3 years old, when the Mullen family moved to the Crossgates section of Dover in 1977. Mullen was a sports fan, always organizing baseball games among the neighborhood kids. He also was a Boy Scout, and loved to build forts in the woods behind their homes.
“From the earliest age I can remember, he wanted to be a soldier,” Kinkus said. “There was no doubt about it.”
Mullen graduated from Caesar Rodney High School in 1992 and went on active duty three years later. He rose through the enlisted ranks, eventually being appointed a warrant officer with the Special Forces. He was on his sixth deployment when he died on June 2, 2013.
Although he had been a runner in high school, Kinkus began training anew in 2012 as a means to stay in shape. He worked his way through a demanding training regimen and within a year had completed two half-marathons. He’d only been considering taking part in the 26.2-mile Philadelphia contest when he learned of his friend’s death.
“When this happened with Sean, that’s when I decided to do it,” he said. “I knew it would make me constantly think of him. I knew if I did the marathon I would carry him with me the entire way and there would be no way I would quit.”
Page 2 of 2 - But first, he asked permission from the Mullen family.
“Todd told me he was looking to motivate himself by dedicating the marathon to Sean,” recalled Mullen’s sister, Christina Eilers. “But he wanted to make sure it was OK with us.”
As a sign confirming their approval, Eilers sent Kinkus a metal memorial bracelet, one of several soldiers in her brother’s unit had fashioned for the family.
“I wore that on my wrist and I constantly looked down at it for inspiration,” Kinkus said.
Kinkus would need that type of encouragement, suffering a hamstring strain and then a calf injury less than three weeks before the Nov. 17 race. Despite those setbacks, Kinkus kept up his training and his determination.
“With this as my motivation, I felt confident I could do it,” he said. “I didn’t think there would be much to stop me.”
People reaching out
Wearing a red shirt, blue shorts and white socks, with a photo and information about Mullen attached to his back, Kinkus started the race with several thousand other runners.
But he seemed to stand out among the other athletes.
“I had so many people reach out and touch the photo, or touch my shoulder or give me a thumbs up,” he said. “A lot of people who saw it were pretty moved by it.”
The atmosphere surrounding the marathon seemed alive with anticipation.
“It seems the whole city of Philadelphia comes out to cheer you on,” Kinkus said. “The tons of well-wishers there gives you a real high level of energy. It’s pretty amazing.”
Kinkus completed the marathon with a time of 4:54:44, more than twice that of the first-place finisher. But that didn’t matter.
“It was the achievement,” he said. “As soon as I finished, I patted myself on the back, not for congratulations but because that’s where Sean’s picture was. I felt he was right there with me.”
Kinkus is considering at least one more marathon, to see how well he’d run without pre-race injuries, but said his first effort always will be special.