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Military Runners Conquer Boston Marathon Far From Home

By David Mays
Special to American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, April 17, 2007 – While thousands of runners braved the remnants of a late spring storm to run the Boston Marathon, servicemembers deployed overseas, and one in space, joined in to participate in the prestigious race.

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An Army soldier crosses the finish line of the Boston Marathon on Tallil Air Base, Iraq, April 16, 2007. Courtesy photo

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

So-called “satellite” races are nothing new to servicemembers deployed overseas. These running events, which are held on forward operating bases, are designed to coincide with massive stateside races like the Marine Corps Marathon and the Army Ten Miler.

For the third year in a row, servicemembers at Tallil Air Base, Iraq, marked off a 26.2 mile course and lined up to participate as official entrants in the Boston Marathon, which was held April 16, Patriot’s Day in Massachusetts. Race officials waived stringent qualifying times for servicemembers racing in Iraq.

Runners in Boston were pummeled with rain, wind and much colder-than-average temperatures, resulting in much slower winning times for elite athletes. Conditions were also strange for runners in Iraq.

“The morning of the race was not what you would consider weather perfect,” said Army Capt. Andrew Heymann, who organized this year’s Boston Marathon in Iraq. “Although in light of what was going on in Boston, I’ll take it.”

Runners at Tallil started their voyage at 5 a.m. local time to avoid temperatures that typically soar to 100-plus this time of year. But like their counterparts in Boston, Iraq participants had to endure nature’s fury.

“The morning had 20 mph gusts, which kicked a lot of dust into the air,” Heymann said. “Add to that a rain which fell sideways and a lightning storm.”

Army 1st Lt. Elias Gonzales, who is deployed to Iraq with the Florida National Guard, won the Tallil event in 2:35:50, a time that would have easily qualified him for the actual Boston Marathon. Army Staff Sgt. Jennifer Yurczk, a Minnesota National Guard member, was the first woman in the Tallil event with a swift 3:34:39, also well under the official Boston qualifying mark. Both were crowned with olive wreaths, as is the famous tradition for winners at Boston.

Seventy-eight other servicemembers followed a course that took runners outside the base and past one of Iraq’s best preserved historical features, a 50-foot tall Sumerian ziggurat, which is a massive, stepped pyramid, part of an ancient temple complex built in 2100 B.C. Runners took a final long lap around the base perimeter to the finish line. Although Tallil runners were not required to meet Boston’s rigorous qualifying times, they were offered official bib numbers, finisher’s medals, participant T-shirts and other goodies supplied by the Boston Athletic Association, which has organized the storied New England marathon since its inception in 1897.

Last year’s winner of the Iraq race, Navy Lt. Cmdr. Matt Simms, who has since rotated home to Washington, ran the actual Boston course this year in 2:44:23, a time that placed him 186th overall in the 111th edition of America’s oldest continuously run marathon.

For the first time, coalition forces in Kosovo ran their first “satellite” Boston Marathon.

“The course was four laps, plus a small add-on loop of hilly terrain around Camp Bondsteel,” said Army Staff. Sgt. Richard Fortuna, one of the inaugural event’s organizers. “The race went on time and as planned. We had a great day. The day started with the national anthem , and then a flyover by two Apache attack helicopters.”

Meanwhile, Navy Cmdr. Sunita “Sunni” Williams ran her own “satellite” Boston Marathon aboard an actual satellite. Williams had qualified to run at Boston with a 3:29:57 finish at January’s Houston Marathon. She planned to run it with her sister, Dina Pandya, and colleague, Karen Nyberg. But Williams is a NASA astronaut, and she realized she would be working inside the International Space Station on race day. So she decided to attempt something no other astronaut had done before: complete the 26.2 mile run while orbiting the earth.

Williams was strapped to a specially designed treadmill with bungee cords, an uncomfortable process that puts strain on a runner’s hips and shoulders. NASA said Williams’ treadmill speed registered as fast as eight miles per hour during her “satellite” Boston race, but in actuality, she was traveling more than five miles per second as the space station completed two laps around Earth during the marathon.

Williams, who is a native of Needham, Mass., wore Boston Red Sox socks for her race in space. She finished the arduous journey in 4:23:10, well off her times on terra firma.

Williams told her NASA colleagues the motivation for running this historic marathon was simple.

“I would like to encourage kids to start making physical fitness part of their daily lives,” she said. “I thought a big goal like a marathon would help get this message out there.”

Boston Marathon organizers told NASA they have a different take on this historic achievement. "Suni running 26.2 miles in space on Patriots' Day is really a tribute to the thousands of marathoners who are running here on Earth,” said Jack Fleming, a Boston Athletic Association spokesman. “She is pioneering new frontiers in the running world.”

(David Mays works for the Pentagon Channel.)

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