Com­peti­tors in arms

Elite run­ners from the mil­i­tary’s four branches bat­tle in to­day’s Marine Corps Marathon.

The Washington Post Sunday - - SPORTS - BY AARON DOD­SON aaron.dod­son@wash­post.com

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.”

TONI L. SANDYS/THE WASH­ING­TON POST

Run­ners from the Navy, Marines, Air Force and Army par­tic­i­pate in a train­ing run around the Mall.

TONI L. SANDYS/THE WASH­ING­TON POST

From left, Air Force run­ner Ja­son Brousseau and Navy run­ners Jackie Chimiak and Meghan Con­nor stretch af­ter their work­out.

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