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Soldier Returns From Iraq to Compete in 15K Race

By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Feb. 21, 2007 – Army 1st Lt. Elias Gonzalez wasn’t about to let a deployment to Iraq keep him from an attempt to defend his title as two-time champion of the Gasparilla Distance Classic men’s 15K run in his hometown of Tampa, Fla.

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Army 1st Lt. Elias Gonzalez runs in a “Race for the Cure” in Iraq, part of his training for the Gasparilla Distance Classic men’s 10K run in his hometown of Tampa, Fla. Gonzalez placed sixth in the Feb. 17 Florida race. Courtesy photo
  

(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.

The 30-year-old Florida National Guardsman, who deployed to Iraq in May with the Jacksonville, Fla.-based C Company, 111th Aviation, returned home on leave last week to join more than 4,000 other runners in the 30th Gasparilla on Feb. 17.

Gonzalez, who bested his 2005 and 2006 showings by crossing the finish line this year in 48 minutes, 13 seconds, placed sixth this year. He attributes super-tough competition, not to mention a particularly challenging training environment in Iraq, with his standing in this year’s race.

But while acknowledging some disappointment with his own standing – one he vows to improve on next year – Gonzalez said he took some consolation in seeing his 7-year-old son, Manuel, place fourth in the Gasparilla Junior Kid Classic. “That was really a great thing to see,” he said.

As he was preparing to deploy to Iraq last year, Gonzalez requested leave time to correspond with the Gasparilla race. “It was my No. 1 choice, to come and do the race again and defend my title,” he said.

Working toward the goal was a tougher proposition. Gonzalez maintains a strict training schedule in Iraq, rising long before sun-up to get in morning runs that average 10 to 15 miles before starting his work as the unit physical security and property book officer in Tallil. On most days, he runs alone. “It’s always too hot, too cold or too early,” he said. He’s run in weather ranging from more than 100 to 20 degrees, through driving sand, through mud and even through the threat of incoming mortar attacks.

But even in the worst of conditions, Gonzalez calls his daily runs a blissful break from the routine of his deployment, and one of the rare times when he’s not required to carry his M-16 rifle.

“It’s a nice little escape,” he said.

Gonzalez admitted that it’s easy for some people to slack off their physical training schedules while they’re deployed, but insisted there’s always an opportunity for those motivated to keep up their PT routines.

“You can always squeeze something in if you want to,” he said. “It depends on what kind of goals you set for yourself.”

For Gonzalez, the Gasparilla Distance Classic is just one step toward his long-term goal. He hopes to get into the Army’s World Class Athlete Program and, ultimately, to participate in the Olympics. “That’s a dream for me,” he said.

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Click photo for screen-resolution imageArmy 1st Lt. Elias Gonzalez runs in a race in Iraq. Courtesy photo  
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