It is an emotional exercise, really. Long distance running is as mentally therapeutic as it is physically demanding, the addictive nature of one foot in front of the other providing a mind- clearing release from the everyday stresses of life – traffic, holiday shopping. Hunting for Osama bin Laden.
On Sunday they ran a marathon in desolate Tirin Kot, Afghanistan – perhaps the most unlikely spot on the globe for such an event. Yet the athletes who populated the race needed a few hours of athletic challenge and personal fulfillment perhaps more than any marathon field ever assembled.
Consider the reaction of the race's winner, 1st Lt. Mike Baskin, of California who, upon finishing a course lined with foxholes and weapons check points, broke into tears thinking of four fellow American soldiers recently killed in the war on terror.
"I just thought about those four guys when I crossed, that they won't be going home with us, and it kind of hit me," Baskin told the Associated Press.
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The first-ever Afghanistan Marathon was a testament to everything good about athletic competition, human will and the rejuvenating powers that come from individual accomplishment.
It wasn't about winning or losing, championships or marketing deals. In a sports world gone mad with strikes, steroids and stands-charging athletes, leave it to our troops – who really have something to stress about – to remind us how humbly thankful we should all be just to compete, just to cheer.
"The idea was to bring some sense of normalcy to an environment that is anything but normal," said Dr. Jim Barahal, president of the Honolulu Marathon.
The idea for the race came from Capt. Ivan Hurlburt, 29, of Lincoln, Neb., and a member of the 2nd Battalion, 5th Infantry Regiment. Hurlburt's regiment is usually stationed in Honolulu, and many of its members annually compete in the Honolulu Marathon. But deployment to Afghanistan made that impossible this year.
Or so they thought. Hurlburt had an inspired idea. Since they couldn't go to Hawaii for the marathon, Hurlburt decided to try to bring the marathon to them.
There is little time, let alone energy, for road races in Afghanistan, so Hurlburt decided to email the people in Honolulu and see if they could set something up. Barahal immediately recognized the chance to provide an outlet for the troops – and more.
"It connects not just on an emotional level as soldiers feeling closer to home," Barahal said. "It creates an opportunity for individual growth and development and dream fulfillment. That is the essence of what we are trying to do in Afghanistan.
"Democracy gives people opportunities, and while it guarantees nothing, you can strive and work and then achieve."
So Hurlburt took on the most challenging race director job in history. A 26.2-mile route – approximately five laps around the remote Firebase Ripley camp in mountainous central Afghanistan – was mapped. Foxholes were dug in case of mortar attack. A weapons checkpoint was set up at the start/finish line, although athletes had the option of running with their rifles. (None did.)
A quick strike-unit was formed in case Taliban forces saw 184 people – some flown in from other areas of the country – running unarmed in circles and decided to attack.
In an effort to add Hawaii realness to the race, Barahal had an official timing system sent in as well as race banners and numbers. A carpenter built some mock palm trees as a joke. A CD featuring ukulele music was played at the start just before two military jets ripped overhead.
All 153 finishers received the same medals, leis, certificates and tee-shirts as their counterparts in Hawaii. Their names and times got printed in the Honolulu papers.
Recreational running is a luxury not afforded to soldiers in Afghanistan. But they are in such good shape from their daily duties that they showed up, stretched out and ran a marathon on a dirt-and-gravel course at altitude (4,500 feet).
Most were just happy to be in sneakers and shorts, not combat boots and heavy gear.
"The training we are able to do is not specifically designed for long-distance running," Hurlburt wrote in an email interview from Afghanistan.
"The soldiers are not able to run consistently due to mission requirements and long hours, but during those missions the soldiers are conducting ruck marches usually consisting of a significant amount of weight. This strengthens legs and increases stamina."
Barahal says he hopes to stage the Afghanistan race under his umbrella so long as U.S. troops are there. He isn't opposed to expansion, either.
"Wouldn't it be great if one day [it were safe enough] to run the Honolulu Marathon in Baghdad?" he said.
Since this was the first-ever marathon on Afghan soil, Baskin set a national record by finishing in an impressive three hours, 12 minutes and 15 seconds. The first woman to cross was Spc. Jill Stevens, 21, of Utah, who finished in 3:45:19 and promptly spoke of how beautiful the mountain views were.
Winning didn't seem to matter to either of them.
"Finishing a long run gives one a sense of accomplishment, as all those other problems in your life seem small in comparison to the pain you might be feeling in your legs and lungs," wrote Hurlburt, who finished in 4:23.
"This marathon was never about breaking a [personal record] or winning the race."
It was about the freedom to run and a reminder to all – soldier and civilian, here and abroad – of the great yet simple spirit of athletic competition.