Run­ners In Arms

TO CEL­E­BRATE THE 100th AN­NIVER­SARY OF THEIR UNIT AND THE END OF A ‘TOUR’, THESE US SOL­DIERS IN KUWAIT SPENT A PUB­LIC HOL­I­DAY TACK­LING A MARATHON.

Runner's World South Africa - - CONTENTS - BY AN­DREW DAW­SON

What did you do on that last pub­lic hol­i­day? When you’re a sol­dier in an iso­lated desert camp... you and your bud­dies make the most of it.

Tat 0600 to mark the start of Pres­i­dents’ Day (orig­i­nally first US pres­i­dent Ge­orge Wash­ing­ton’s birth­day) 2018 at Camp Arif­jan in Kuwait. The tune is used to wake sol­diers on base, but it was un­nec­es­sary to­day. Hun­dreds were al­ready up. Gath­ered at a makeshift start­ing line, 533 ser­vice­men and -women stood at at­ten­tion. Ahead of them was a long stretch of Perime­ter Road. This dirt, gravel, and sand path runs straight and along the side of the base that had been home to the 35th In­fantry Di­vi­sion of the Army Na­tional Guard, a unit from Kansas and Mis­souri, since June 2017. It’s a road the sol­diers had come to know well from their shifts dur­ing the past eight months. And it was one they were about to grow enor­mously sick of dur­ing the next sev­eral hours. The day’s mis­sion was sim­ple: run. Typ­i­cally, the only re­quired run­ning in the Army is two miles (3.2km) for the phys­i­cal fit­ness test. How­ever, on ar­rival in Kuwait the 35th’s unit lead­ers dis­cov­ered that run­ning was an ideal way to fill large amounts of down­time. “Our so­cial lives are lim­ited here,” says Sergeant First Class Shane Rock­ers, who helped or­gan­ise the event. “Run­ning is a great way to take up that time, it’s great for ca­ma­raderie, and it’s a great pos­i­tive out­let for our lead­ers.” Namely, Cap­tain Jennifer Den­kler and First Lieu­tenant Han­nah Hig­gins. The pair were tasked with start­ing a run­ning club for the base, to boost morale and pro­mote a healthy life­style among the troops – a taller or­der than it sounds. “It’s a com­mon mis­con­cep­tion that peo­ple in the Army love to run,” Hig­gins says. Den­kler and Hig­gins were met with mi­nor scep­ti­cism at first, but soon the sol­diers opened up to the idea of a run­ning club. Thus, the Santa Fe Run­ning Club was born – a moniker that plays off the unit’s nick­name, the Santa Fe Di­vi­sion, which comes from a trail that runs through Kansas and Mis­souri.

The base held group runs twice a week that would draw any­where from two to 40 peo­ple, de­pend­ing on sched­ules and the ther­mome­ter (in Kuwait, the tem­per­a­ture can push 38 de­grees at sun­rise, in the sum­mer months).

Dur­ing the first eight months of their tour, the club hosted its own 5K, ‘vir­tu­ally’ ran the Kansas City Marathon’s 10K, and par­tic­i­pated in the Gulf Bank Half Marathon in Kuwait. With a half in the bag, the log­i­cal next step was 42.2. The club tar­geted Pres­i­dents’ Day, know­ing that many sol­diers would have a re­duced work­load for the US hol­i­day. All that was left was to de­ter­mine a name.

“We put the name of the race up to a unit vote, and came up with ‘The Buck Stops Here Marathon’,” Hig­gins says – a nod to Pres­i­dent Harry S Tru­man, who was a com­man­der in a unit un­der the 35th, and fa­mously had ‘The Buck Stops Here’ on a sign on his desk at the White House.

Not only would the race pay homage to Tru­man, it would also cel­e­brate the 100th an­niver­sary of the unit, and the end of their ‘tour’ the fol­low­ing month. The trifecta created a true esprit de corps.

That pride was also alive nearly 1 130km west, where Cap­tain Den­kler had or­gan­ised a sim­i­lar event in the moun­tains in Jor­dan. Sev­eral of the unit’s sol­diers had moved there mid-tour; and be­cause they weren’t able to par­take in the Kuwait marathon, they created their own satel­lite race.

There, some 30 to 40 run­ners made loops over the moun­tain­ous ter­rain – one of them with a 16kg pack. “It was a great time for every­one,” Den­kler says. “Even though we were many kilo­me­tres apart, we were still run­ning to­gether in spirit.”

Back in Kuwait, no-one at the base was pre­pared for the race turnout. More than 500 sol­diers tack­led the marathon, the half marathon, or made up five-per­son marathon re­lay teams. “We were all su­per-shocked by the num­ber of peo­ple,” Hig­gins says. “It was mo­ti­vat­ing to see them out there, when they could have just been sit­ting on their bunks.”

Some walked, some ran, and two hacked it with 16kg packs up and down Perime­ter Road – two and a half loops for half marathon­ers, five for marathon­ers. With no shade, the race got tough when the sun rose; but ev­ery sol­dier crossed the line, to cheers from their broth­ers and sis­ters in arms.

Now home from their 10-month tour, the unit rests and re­cov­ers. While there’s no plan to re­turn to ac­tion now, the sol­diers re­tain their ca­ma­raderie; as well as a new­found abil­ity – and for some, an in­ter­est – in run­ning be­yond Kuwait.

“I’m very proud of the team for pulling this to­gether,” says Colonel Tim Bush, who led the 35th. “My hope for the fu­ture will be that they’ll come out of this de­ploy­ment, and keep run­ning – and stay with it for the rest of their lives.”

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