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.
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.”