This year’s Memory of the 8 run will mark the 20th anniversary of a drunken driving crash that killed eight University of Wyoming cross-country student-athletes in 2001.
The event is going into its 11th year of raising awareness of the dangers of drinking and driving.
One of the runners killed was Campbell County High School graduate Morgan McLeland. In the crash, a drunken driver collided with the vehicle carrying the eight UW athletes as the returned to Laramie from Fort Collins, Colorado. The crash took place just five days after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Morgan’s mother, Debbie McLeland, said the crash seems like it still happened yesterday. At the same time, she also feels like it happened a lifetime ago.
“It seems like forever and yesterday both,” Debbie said. “People know because they’re dealing with 9/11 so they know exactly how it felt. It feels like it happened yesterday but it feels like it happened 20 years ago, too.”
Sonny Roberts has been the event’s main organizer since its inception. While he didn’t know Morgan or any of the other runners personally, he took it upon himself use the tragic event as a platform to raise awareness.
Roberts began by running 8 miles on Sept. 16 on his own to honor the memory of the cross-country runners who were killed. His friend suggested making an 8-mile course so the entire community to run along with him.
Now in its 11th year, the event is still focused on celebrating the lives lost 20 years ago. Roberts went above and beyond the call of duty when it came to organizing this year’s event, Debbie said.
“They always tell us that it makes a hard day easier,” Roberts said before the event last year. “We’re there to celebrate who (the runners) were and to remember who they were.”
Debbie has learned to accept what happened all those years ago. Her goal now is to spread as much awareness as possible to prevent others from getting behind the wheel while intoxicated.
Clint Haskins was the driver who caused the crash and was the only survivor. He served 10 years in prison before being paroled in 2011.
Even before he was released from prison, Debbie and Haskins have spoken together about the dangers of drinking and driving. Forgiving Haskins was a crucial part of the grieving process for Debbie.
“You have to keep it at the forefront and people need to be reminded all the time,” Debbie said. “People don’t remember and don’t believe (the dangers of drinking and driving) so the more you can drive it home, the better.”
Sept. 16 is always a sad day for Debbie and her husband Jim. It has helped that the couple has been able to share it with the community since the Memory of the 8 run began.
Twenty years ago, Sept. 16 was the day they got the phone call about their son’s death.
Now, Sept. 16 is a day when they are reminded of the power of community. Seeing all the love and support shown for Morgan and the other seven runners is a gift she’s awarded midway through September every year.
“I just get to see a lot of people that love Morgan and that remember him and I get to hear a lot about him and the things he did and the things he said to other people,” Debbie said. “Those kinds of things mean a lot to me.
“Having the community kind of rally there and be a part of that is important to me. It’s nice to know that there’s people in town that are still that supportive of our family.”
Both the Campbell County and Thunder Basin high school cross-country teams participate in the event as well as runners from Sage Valley and Twin Spruce junior highs. Debbie and Jim have two grandchildren who will run in this year’s event.
Kaylee McLeland is a junior cross-country runner for Thunder Basin and Spencer Morgan McLeland is a seventh grader for Sage Valley. Seeing Morgan’s niece and nephew run just like son used to is always a cherished reminder of the importance of family, Debbie said.
The event has grown significantly over the last decade, and the Memory of the 8 now has its own committees for fundraising, advertising and marketing. This year, Gov. Mark Gordon will attend to celebrate the anniversary and to honor the lives of the eight who were killed, Debbie said.
Each of the eight runners has a mile dedicated to his memory. The other runners who died are Cody Brown, Josh Jones, Justin Lambert-Belanger, Kevin Salverson, Kyle Johnson, Nick Schabron and Shane Shatto.
Registration for the run is free and will be from 4-5 p.m. at M&K Oil, 901 S. 4J Road.
A Kids Fun Run begins at 5:15 and the 8-mile run at 5:30.
Those who choose to attend aren’t mandated to walk or run, and a barbecue and social hour will follow the race.
Shirts and hats can be bought and donations will be accepted. For more information, the organization can be found on Facebook at Memory of the 8.