Competitors in arms
Elite runners from the military’s four branches battle in today’s Marine Corps Marathon.
Liam Collins and James Felty live thousands of miles apart but have been in regular communication for essentially an entire year. Together, they have been counting down the months leading up to Sunday’s 40th annual Marine Corps Marathon, eager for one special aspect of the race: a competition within the competition.
Each year, select teams of military runners representing four branches compete in the Armed Forces Competition.
Since 2009, Collins — a Special Forces colonel and the director of the U.S. Military Academy’s defense and strategic studies program — has coached the All-Army Team, which has produced five overall male and female marathon winners since 2011. The All-Army Team also has won the Armed Forces Competition in the men’s division each of the past four years.
Felty, who joined the military in 1976 and is now a civilian, has led Navy’s team for the past 21 years. In 2008, Navy won the men’s division and claimed an upset over the All-Army Team on the women’s side in 2014.
After coaches piece together teams with service runners from all over the world, curiosity mounts regarding the strength of the other branches. And as October approaches, Collins doesn’t hesitate to place a call from West Point to the Trident Training Facility Naval Base in Bremerton, Wash., to pick Felty’s brain.
“We always talk and try to figure out what we have for teams and how strong the other teams will be — and we’re pretty honest,” said Collins, who also serves as a volunteer assistant coach for the academy’s track and crosscountry teams. “We’re not sandbagging or lowballing and then having a surprise show up. We pretty much tell each other what we have for athletes.”
The Armed Forces Competition was introduced to the Marines Corps Marathon in 1998 with only a men’s division. The women’s division began in 2006, and the Air Force has won five and the Navy three. In 2013, the Army won both the men and women’s divisions.
Teams consist of 10 runners: six men and four women. The men’s division winner is determined by the combined time of the top four finishers, while the combined time of the top two finishers decides the women’s division.
Competition doesn’t necessarily begin on race day. First, runners must compete against members of their own branch to earn a spot on the team.
“It’s an application process,” Felty said. “Even if you win the Marine Corps Marathon, you have to apply again the next year. There are no guarantees you get to come back. You apply every year, and it’s based on current results and fitness. So I spend a lot of time talking to the athletes, gauging their fitness level, going through their results, talking to in some cases to personal coaches, in some cases to race directors to validate that they’re all that they say they are.”
In the past four years of the Armed Forces Competition, no runners have been better than those of the All-Army Team.
“They have a really amazing team,” Felty said. “When they came to town, you just went ahead and handed them the trophy. Nobody would beat them. They were that good. They were that deep.”
Yet this year, Felty senses a potential changing of the guard. The All-Army Team will be without anyone from its World Class Athlete Program, which has produced a few elite runners, including two overall marathon winners, during the team’s reign.
The All-Army Team also will face its annual challenge of competing in the marathon right after running the annual Army Ten-Miler. Seven of 10 runners on this year’s team ran the Ten-Miler two weeks ago.
“I can tell you right now who will be my one through six, where they’re going to finish, and the only thing I can guarantee you is that I’ll be wrong in that prediction,” Collins said. “No matter what, there are always surprises, both good or not so good, on race day.”
For the past several years, all Armed Forces Competition runners have gathered the Saturday morning before the marathon for a memorial run along the Mall to celebrate the lives of two former runners.
The memorial run began in 2007 after Michael Mann, a longtime runner for the Air Force team, died from lung cancer. Teams also celebrate the life of Maj. Megan McClung, who was the first female Marine officer killed in the Iraq War.
“The first time we did the memorial run when Mike Mann passed away — that was probably the most significant time of the competition,” Felty said. “Everybody came together. Everybody knew him. It didn’t matter if you were a marine, a sailor, an airman or a soldier. It was one of those times when we were all one family. It was probably the single most special moment to me besides when I’ve had people win the marathon. That was a really special time.”
Runners from the Navy, Marines, Air Force and Army participate in a training run around the Mall.
From left, Air Force runner Jason Brousseau and Navy runners Jackie Chimiak and Meghan Connor stretch after their workout.