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Race from afar: Shadow runs let deployed service members participate in stateside races

Race from afar: Shadow runs let deployed service members participate in stateside races

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Bob Aguiar can’t stand it when people say they really want to run the Air Force Marathon this year but won’t be able to because they’ll be deployed.

“That’s not true,” he’s quick to tell them, “you still might be able to.”

No, the Air Force Marathon director can’t pull any strings to get you to his race at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio. But depending on where you’ll be downrange, he may already be taking the race to you.

It’s just one of many races — big and small — that you can compete in even while deployed to a combat zone.

Dubbed “shadow runs” by some, the idea is as much about connecting troops to those back home as it is racing in the sandbox.

In one of the most recent shadow runs, more than 1,000 troops at Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan took on a 10K run July 19 mirroring the Run to Home Base race in Boston, a fundraiser for wounded troops with a finish line at Fenway Park’s home plate.

That’s why organizers sent a Red Sox bag to Afghanistan, for the Bagram runners to hit as they finished as well.

“I know first-hand how meaningful it is for deployed servicemen to feel like they are a part of something greater such as this shadow run — especially when it’s an event in honor of them,” says retired Army Brig. Gen. Jack Hammond, now director of the Home Base Program. “Two years ago, I was a participant in a shadow Run to Home Base race in Kabul, and it made me feel connected to home, even while far away.”

And for some of the more popular races, running downrange is probably the only way you’ll be able to earn a race medal, and maybe even bring home a trophy.

Participants pick up their race packets and t-shirts during a block party at Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan. More than 700 people participated in the 3rd annual Bagram Marathon events held here in 2013. The Bagram Marathon is an extension of the Air force Marathon held at Wright Patterson Air Force Base, in Dayton. (U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Rob Hazelett)

Participants pick up their race packets during a block party at Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan. More than 700 people participated in the 3rd annual Bagram Marathon events held here in 2013. The Bagram Marathon is an extension of the Air force Marathon held at Wright Patterson Air Force Base, in Dayton, Ohio. (U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Rob Hazelett)

Slots to run in the Air Force Marathon on Sept. 20, for example, have long since sold out. But registration for its shadow runs — slated for six sanctioned downrange locations — opened just a few weeks ago.

Already, 2,250 troops are registered for the race, including full marathon, half-marathon and 10K events, says Rochelle Miles, an Air Force Central Command coordinator who helps manage the downrange events from Shaw Air Force Base, South Carolina.

Race locations include:

* Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan

* Ali Al-Salem Air Base, Kuwait

* Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar

* Eskan Village Air Base, Saudi Arabia

Even some of the more hush-hush bases are in the action, with two “undisclosed locations” sponsoring races somewhere in southwest Asia.

Registration through your local fitness centers is free and closes Sept. 10.

Miles still hangs her Air Force Marathon medal proudly in her office. She ran the 10K event when she was deployed to Oman in 2005 while still in the Air Force.

“It was great to be a part of it,” says the former tech sergeant. “There were about 200 people running around our very small base. I was just thankful it was at 7 a.m., because it was still pretty cool — about 80 degrees. If it had been any later, it would have been 100-plus. Not fun to run in.”

Marine Cpl. Paul Peterson always wanted to run the Marine Corps Marathon but couldn’t because of deployments, training or other commitments.

But last year, he finally got his chance — in Afghanistan.

“The gravel roads around the base were particularly challenging. After a few miles, you can really start to feel it through your shoes. Still, at every step of the way, there seemed to be people cheering us on,” says Peterson, who was among those competing at Camp Leatherneck.

Since 2006, more than 1,600 troops from all service branches have bagged the “MCM Forward,” running loops inside the wire at air bases, embassy compounds and even aboard warships. Last year alone, some 450 service members completed the race while downrange.

“At mile eight, I was passed by a Marine running in boots. He actually took a few seconds to talk to me, complimented me on my pace, and then pressed on toward the finish line. I honestly can say I have never been more pleased to see someone completely outclass me on a run,” Peterson wrote in a recent post for the Marine Corps Marathon website.

Running between towering connex walls and razor-wire fencing, he says the experience ranged from somber, with some fellow runners carrying pictures of fallen comrades, to the silly, with one standout supporter sporting a sign that read: “Chuck Norris never ran a marathon.”

Exactly three hours and 26 minutes after he started, he was proud to finally be able to call himself a Marine Corps Marathon finisher.

Jon Anderson

Jon Anderson is a writer for OFFduty. Reach him at jona@militarytimes.com.