MILTON — For Santa Rosa County Sheriff's Deputy Caleb Cook, the eve of the second End of Watch Memorial Ruck is a bittersweet moment.

This year's ruck across Santa Rosa County, to memorialize the law enforcement officers who died in the line of duty across the United States last year, has attracted 90 participants, a number Cook proudly calls "kind of a neat thing."

At the same time, though, ruck participants will traverse more miles than they did last year, as they work in shifts to tick off 150 miles — one mile for each death in law enforcement ranks in 2018. That's up by 16 miles from last year's total of 134 miles. In all, according to Cook, each participating  team will ruck about 20 miles during the three-day event beginning Thursday morning.  

"More miles means more deaths," said Cook, the organizer of the End of Watch Memorial Ruck.

But, Cook said, "I'm confident that the teams will come together and take care of each other."

Getting team members to work together is part of the strategy for the ruck, so participants can experience something like the teamwork required among law officers, Cook said.

The increased number of law enforcement deaths also means more weight for ruck participants to carry along the winding route around Santa Rosa County. In addition to rucking one mile for each fallen officer, each participating team splits 150 one-pound weights among team members to carry along the way. 

"It's sobering," Cook said.

And it's likely to be doubly so for some participants, volunteers who wrapped rocks with the names of fallen officers in advance of the ruck.

"They looked at every single weight," Cook said.

This year's around-the-clock ruck will begin at 8 a.m. Thursday at the Santa Rosa County Fairgrounds near Milton, and will end at the fairgrounds more than 50 hours later at about 4:30 p.m. Saturday. The route goes through Navarre, Garcon Point, Pace, Jay and Bear Lake before returning to Milton. Members of the public can participate in the last mile of the ruck by showing up at the fairgrounds arena at 3:45 p.m. to be shuttled to the last-mile marker.

The ruck includes a mix of law officers and civilians as a way to informally break down barriers between the public and the police.

Or, as Cook put it, "To show them that we're human."

Like last year, ruck entry fees and sales of memorabilia online at eowf.org will go to the First Judicial Circuit Law Enforcement Association, which provides financial support to members of the criminal justice community and their families in times of need and also supports children’s advocacy organizations.

For the future, while the ruck will remain a centerpiece of his efforts, Cook hopes to move his work to a larger stage through the End of Watch Foundation, now on the cusp of earning nonprofit status with the Internal Revenue Service.

In just a couple of years, the ruck and Cook's future plans have taken him in a somewhat unexpected direction from his day-to-day work in law enforcement.

"It's a different world for me," he said.