George Chmiel completes run across U.S. behind schedule -- but triumphantly

George Chmiel completed his cross-country run, over 3,000 miles from San Diego, at the National September 11 Memorial in Manhattan on Tuesday. Zandy Mangold

On just the second day of his quest to run across the United States from San Diego, George Chmiel was slowed by a knee injury. The next day, he suffered a partial tear of his right Achilles tendon.

He was crushed. The 3,000 miles to his finish line in New York City might as well have been 3 million.

"It was a very dark place," said Chmiel, 36, an experienced ultrarunner. "I was dumbfounded."

He wouldn't realize until later it was a blessing.

Chmiel kept on going, walking long hours each day. After a month, he could run-walk. Eventually, he could run again. By the time he finished his trek late Tuesday afternoon at the National September 11 Memorial in Manhattan -- after slogging the final 33 miles from New Jersey through driving rain, wind and cold to a warm reception of new and old friends -- he felt as strong as he ever has.

He started from the deck of the decommissioned aircraft carrier Midway on Sept. 11 and finished more than two months after his original target of Nov. 11, Veterans Day. The injuries allowed him to take his time, meet more people and better spread the message that sparked him to run in the first place.

He ran to raise awareness and money for the fight against the epidemic of suicides -- about 20 per day -- by military veterans. He ran for the Guardian for Heroes Foundation (a non-profit founded by the late Chris Kyle of "American Sniper" fame) and the Paralyzed Veterans of America.

Chmiel says once the timetable went out the window, the run evolved into something new. He took his time and stopped to talk to people about veterans issues one-on-one or in small groups, while still doing the fundraisers that had been planned along the route (sometimes driving or flying ahead before returning to resume his run). He even was invited to the White House on Veterans Day to talk about the issue with President Barack Obama along with the president of the Paralyzed Veterans of America.

"The fact it took four months instead of two months, the fact we finished later, I think things happen for a reason," Chmiel said. "I think it worked out for the best."

He had hoped to raise $1 million along the way but will probably come in between $300,000 and $400,000. Yet he believes the connections he and his team made will raise higher dividends, including the signatures gathered for a Reverse Boot Camp program proposal that would provide a better transition from military to civilian life.

"If we ran through a local town and saw a crazy dive bar or whatnot, we said, 'Let's go get a beer in here and chat with some of the locals,'" he said.

Getting to know people who'd lost loved ones to suicide -- such as a woman in Carlsbad, New Mexico, whose son killed himself after a tour in Afghanistan -- steeled his resolve. Even through a third injury, to an ankle, he kept running. Troops don't have an "eject button" from strife, he said, so he wouldn't allow himself one, either.

Chmiel had hoped to average 50 miles per day for 60 days. Instead, he averaged just over 30. Even though he did 50 or more miles only five days, when he finished Tuesday he was convinced he and his support team had accomplished their mission.

"It was incredible, so powerful," he said. "It didn't really feel like I was ending the run. It just felt like I was part of this magnificent celebration of our veterans and the unity in this country that we need so badly right now. It was amazing."