by Ivan Hurlburt
Defying the Taliban, One Step at a Time.
© 2005 42K(+) Press, Inc.
I wasn’t sure how to write this. I am by no means a writer. My creative skills have been limited to pretending that I am a carpenter some months and a paint-by-numbers artist in others. I don’t consider myself a writer, let alone a marathon race director. I am a captain in the United States Army serving with the 25th Infantry Division based in Hawaii. I consider myself an average person who happened to be in extraordinary circumstances and at the right place at the right time.
The place was called Tarin Kowt, Afghanistan. It’s a typical Afghan village in a province called Uruzgan, which is famous for its geographical ties to the Taliban. Many of its more famous Taliban leaders were born just north of the city of Tarin Kowt. Tarin Kowt is at an elevation of about 5,000 feet in a valley surrounded by mountains that are at the tail end of the Hindu Kush mountain range. The summers are hot and dusty and the winters are cold and unforgiving. It’s an area of strategic commercial and military importance that has seen numerous invasions that have more or less been repelled by its determined people, harsh weather, and rough terrain. From Alexander the Great to the Soviet Union, many nations have attempted to tame and conquer the people of Afghanistan, but they have universally failed.
The time was August 2004. The Second Battalion, Fifth Infantry Regiment—also known as the Bobcat Battalion—had been in Afghanistan since April, and we were looking at another nine months in the country before we could see our loved ones again in Hawaii.
Carrying A Bit Of Hawaii With Us
Hawaii’s allure was not only our families at home waiting for us but the fact that it’s a paradise for outdoor enthusiasts among our ranks. Runners cannot ask for a better experience than Hawaii. Although Hawaii has many running events, the pinnacle for most of us is the Honolulu Marathon. The Honolulu Marathon is like no other race: the people, the weather, and the course itself make runners want to do the race over and over again.
The military is a huge supporter of running events in Hawaii. A large number of military members sign up for the Honolulu Marathon and other running events, and Honolulu even has a registration-fee waiver for military members. The relationship that Hawaii has with its military guests has been a good one, and both cherish the historic ties that have grown over the decades.
For the first time since Vietnam, the 25th Infantry Division was called on to serve a 12-month combat tour starting in April 2004. Half the division went to Iraq, and the other half went to Afghanistan. My battalion, the Bobcat Battalion, went to Afghanistan.
It’s hard enough to leave family and friends, but we had to leave paradise as well. Being in a war does not leave a lot of time for running, as most of us quickly discovered. The missions were constant and the tempo fast, but still soldiers were finding ways to get those running shoes on and get some miles in around the fire base, a small military area similar to the outposts in the Old West. Troops at a fire base work with the local populace and against any enemy in that area. Fire Base Ripley, named after a marine who was killed in the area, is on the outskirts of the capital of Uruzgan Province, Tarin Kowt.
Runners Are Runners, No Matter Where They Are
At our fire base, it was inspiring to watch the dedication of soldiers running 20 miles on a “track” that was only a half mile or less. The tracks were rocky and covered in fine powder—in some places, up to a foot deep. Most soldiers found that they were hurting the muscles in their feet and twisting their ankles. The summer heat was unbearable, and even if the sun showed only hints of coming over the horizon, for many it was already too hot to run. But run they did. They ran to relieve stress in a hard environment that is unforgiving and that demands your respect—stress caused by the death of friends or their wounds from combat, stress caused by being thousands of miles away from those you love. The person I loved and had left behind was my wife, Anita. We had met only a few months before I deployed and had a wonderful wedding at the beach in Oahu. I missed her terribly, just as many husbands missed their wives and families.
In August 2004, a few of us were at dinner, talking about the things soldiers talk about, when the conversation turned to the Honolulu Marathon that was coming up. Most at the table had run the Honolulu Marathon at least once before. We told some Honolulu Marathon stories, and some recalled the morning of the 2003 race when it was announced at the start line that Saddam Hussein had been captured. Finally someone said, “I wish we could run it this year.” For a minute there was silence as everyone seemed to reflect on the past and how good it would be to run through Honolulu again, up Diamond Head and back down into Kapiolani Park at the end of Waikiki. Finally I broke the silence and said, “Why can’t we? We can run the Honolulu Marathon, all of us!” There was a little bit of laughter, but the soldiers around the table were startled to see that I was serious. I had no idea what I meant to do, but I was determined to follow through. Maybe it was the aloha spirit; maybe it was the soldiers who run despite everything else; maybe it was that I just didn’t want to completely forget an event that meant a lot to many of us. Whatever the reason, I was inspired and determined to run the Honolulu Marathon. I never imagined what an event it would turn into.
I got on one of the few Internet computers we had, looked up the Honolulu Marathon’s Web site, and found a point of contact for the Honolulu Marathon Association. I sent an e-mail asking for support. The next day I received an e-mail from Mr. Pat Bigold, who is the media liaison for the Honolulu Marathon. He was very interested in the idea and excited to help in any way he could.
All It Took Was The Least Bit Of Encouragement
At this point, neither Pat nor I had a clear idea of what we were getting into or how this was going to look, much less work. Our e-mail correspondence was flowing, and before we knew it we had a vision. We were going to run a full-blown Honolulu Marathon satellite run at Fire Base Ripley. This would mean all the soldiers would get official times, T-shirts, and medals, all through the support of Honolulu. But it seemed late already. We had just over three months to plan and execute this crazy idea.
I called an old friend at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, and told him about the race. His immediate response was: “A marathon where? You’re crazy!” Maybe I was, but the ball was rolling.
The president of the Honolulu Marathon Association, Doctor Jim Barahal, threw his full support behind it. Not only that, but the president of the ChampionChip system, Mr. Mike Burns, gave us his support by donating a chip system. This would allow the soldiers to be timed with the runners in Honolulu and give us accurate times.
Immediately I realized I needed help as the story hit the newspapers and people began to take notice. This was the first official marathon in Afghanistan and the first “satellite” run to be sponsored by the Honolulu Marathon Association.
I had never directed a marathon before. I had run only a baker’s dozen of them, so I had a lot of questions. Many of them were answered by the Honolulu Marathon Association, but the majority of the advice came from a friend and fellow soldier, Staff Sergeant J. B. Jaso, who had directed a number of races in San Diego and therefore had a lot of experience. Together we would work the next three months to create a great event for the soldiers in Afghanistan.
No sooner had the event hit the papers than the army became concerned about the media attention. It was my first lesson in race directing: when dealing with the media, nothing is off the record. I might have said some things that sounded innocent to me, but as far as the army was concerned, there were proper channels to go through, which I had not. No sooner had I promised the army that I would clear all interviews than legal affairs came up. Forms had to be signed and agreements and waivers had to be written between the army and the Honolulu Marathon Association. I was learning as I was going, and at that point I was growing doubtful as to whether the marathon was ever going to happen. To make matters worse, donations ranging from socks to significant amounts of money poured in unexpectedly. Obviously, this was a nonprofit effort, so once again I was put under the legal microscope. After more apologies and promises that I wasn’t attempting to get rich, we were on our way again.
Writing Our Own Race Director’s Manual
I suspect this has been like no other marathon coordination to date. We had decided to open the marathon to all military personnel in Afghanistan. This, of course, would depend on military transportation of all kinds. After ensuring that we would get adequate air coverage, we worked out the details so that I could get together an invitation for all of the troops in Afghanistan. A flyer went to every military e-mail address in the country in early September 2004. The next day, I received about 100 e-mails from interested soldiers, so for the next three months I worked on registering runners. I would get the required information from the soldier and go to the Honolulu Marathon’s Web site to register the runner with the help of the Honolulu Marathon staff, which set up a special system for the Afghanistan runners.
The Honolulu Marathon staff was absolutely amazing. The coordination and assistance from Honolulu could not have been better. The staff ensured that all names were scrutinized, that all addresses were correct, and that each soldier would receive all the goodies that the runners in Honolulu would get. This included
T-shirts and medals for every runner. The staff sent 13 boxes of items to assist us with first aid and hydration and even sent road signs for the course. The Honolulu Marathon Association even donated three koa wood bowls to be given to the top three finishers, similar to the top finishers in Honolulu.
I am certain that we tackled some of the same issues any marathon staff would work out. Where to put the aid stations? How to arrange the start and finish line? When to start the race? What are the race rules? Where to emplace the .50-caliber machine gun? OK, maybe the last one is not typical for a marathon, but this was another unique thing about this race. We had to consider where to position weapons of every kind. We had to ensure that we had adequate air support. We had to ensure that we had a plan for all the runners to turn in their weapons before they ran. We certainly had some issues to tackle that made this marathon different from the rest.
The Word On The Race Takes On A Life Of Its Own
During this planning time in October and November, a few more feature articles were published in Hawaiian newspapers, a few in other media sites in the States, and even a few in some international publications. I had no idea what a spark this idea would create, but we started to receive donations from everywhere. It was amazing to see the patriotism and support from Americans who had no other reason except to thank the soldiers who were over here taking part in such a symbolic and historic event. We were receiving boxes full of marathon items ranging from socks and PowerBars to more expensive items like watches, gift certificates, running suits, and running shoes. At the same time, letters of support began to pour in from world-class runners, amateurs, and even nonrunners. But without a doubt, the best letter we received was from running legend Patti Dillon.
Patti is a huge supporter of the Honolulu Marathon and has been at the event for many years both to run and to watch. Patti was equally inspired by the idea and began to write regular letters to our battalion in the middle of Afghanistan. She wrote us running tips and even told us about her family. It was amazing for the soldiers to be getting weekly updates from one of America’s greatest runners. We were truly inspired by her.
By November, the race was getting dangerously close. By Thanksgiving, we had received all the items we would use. We had a state-of-the-art online timing system, compliments of ChampionChip. We had 400 T-shirts, 400 medals on shell necklaces, banners of all kinds, and even mile-marker signs. We had the necessary items to have a great race and things were looking good. We had more than 300 registered runners from around Afghanistan: Kabul, Bagram Air Base, Kandahar, Ghazni, Salerno, and more. Even though I had a limit of 200 runners, I was sure the two-thirds rule would apply as it usually does for any race: only about two/thirds of the registered runners would show up. With that rule and the fact we are in the middle of a war, I assumed we would have a number of no-shows. I registered just over 300 runners and still had to turn away a number of hopefuls.
“Neurotic” Is The Race Director’s Middle Name
Race day was December 12, and it was fast approaching! On December 10, we began the last-minute coordination. Security was tightened and patrols increased. With all the media attention, we were somewhat concerned that the Taliban might think this was a great chance to disrupt an event that represented what they hate: freedom, especially freedom of movement. The marathon meant something different to everyone who ran it and who supported it. For the runners, many of them had a chance to take part in the Honolulu Marathon—one of the largest and most spectacular races in the world. For others, it represented change: the first marathon in Afghanistan. It had a deep symbolism for the United States and its efforts to promote freedom in Afghanistan—a country that is home to a people who survive one day at a time. The thought of something as frivolous as running 26.2 miles in the dirt and heat would seem absurd to the majority of Afghans, but to some it was a stepping-stone to a country where they could participate in an event simply because they wanted to, despite its being a seemingly pointless waste of time. That is what freedom is all about—doing something simply because it makes you feel free and good despite what the majority might think. At least that’s what freedom means to me.
The runners where all flying in on December 11 on CH-47 Chinook helicopters and C-130 transport planes. On the morning of December 10, Staff Sergeant Jaso and I were ready to set up the race. We would put up the signs, ensure that the race check-in tent was ready to go, and do a last rehearsal with all the race volunteers—soldiers who had been volunteered by the command sergeant major of the battalion, Frank Leota. Sergeant Major Leota was without a doubt the backbone of the race.
I got out of the cot and noticed that the sky was looking pretty dark. A storm was coming, and it looked bad. Sure enough, the rain came. It poured all day. The course was literally a huge muddy pit. The Army Corps of Engineers had worked for months to dig out a track that was exactly 5.24 miles. We were going to run five laps, which for the math-challenged made exactly 26.2 miles. Not only was the course now a disaster, but the bad weather had delayed all the flights. Runners were stuck all over Afghanistan trying to get to our little fire base. I was certain that the race was a bust. But the sun came out just in time, dried the mud, and the C-130 flight for December 11 was a go. On race day we were going to have half the runners fly in on CH-47 helicopters two hours before the race started. It was going to make things tough, but we were determined. If the runners could make it here in time, we would have a race—come rain, mud, or shine . . . or all three.
The Corps Of Engineers Was Right On Track
On December 11, the engineers went right to work repairing the 5.24-mile dirt road as it began to dry in the sun. At the same time, the first flight of runners stepped off the C-130. We were at the flight line giving the runners safety briefs, registering them for the race, giving them the race packets, and showing them to their tents. It was a huge process that involved a lot of help from our team of volunteers. That day the road dried up enough that it looked like we were going to have a decent track. Staff Sergeant Jaso and I applied the last-minute touches to the course and went to bed that night praying it wouldn’t rain again.
The next day was race day, and we awoke to clear skies. We went to work calling Honolulu to synchronize the ChampionChip system, which would allow online tracking of the runners in Afghanistan and a competitive time with the Honolulu results. We did some last-minute checks of the course and the start and finish line as the soldiers posted themselves around the course to get ready for a myriad of tasks, everything from water stations, aid stations, start and finish timers, and even extra soldiers for security and emergency response teams.
On December 12, the helicopters dropped in the last 100 soldiers along with some media representatives from the army and a reporter from an Afghanistan newspaper who was interested in the event and what it meant to his country. We registered the soldiers, conducted a few interviews at the flight line, wrapped up the last-minute problems for registration, and then ran to change to get to the start line. I forgot to mention that Staff Sergeant Jaso and I were also running in the race. This was going to be a long day for both of us.
When I arrived at the start line, everything seemed to be in place. The runners were starting to line up, and the timing with Honolulu was all ready to go. Hawaiian music played in the background to get some aloha spirit going. At 10 minutes to the start, the battalion commander, Lieutenant Colonel Terry Sellers, made the opening remarks. After that, I made the typical administrative announcements that you would hear at any marathon, which included where the water and aid stations would be and what to do in the event of a rocket or mortar attack. (Well, maybe some races don’t warn their runners about mortar attacks.) A few minutes later, a B-1 bomber made a pass right over us. It was perfect timing and a great start for the soldiers and runners. The energy in the air was amazing. A few minutes later, a blast from a 105-millimeter howitzer got the race under way. Two-hundred soldiers left the start line and ran into history: the first marathon in Afghanistan had begun. Even a few Afghanistan National Army soldiers began the race. A few retired soldiers and sailors were running, and we even had a few military dogs running with their trainers. It was a varied group from all over Afghanistan.
Honolulu And Tarin Kowt Have Much In Common—Not
Although we tried to make our race as similar to Honolulu as possible, there were some things that I am certain the Honolulu Marathon runners did not see. The Afghanistan runners ran next to razor-wire fences, under the protection of guard towers, past a mine-detection team that had decided to train that day, and under the watchful eye of A-10 Thunderbolt airplanes. Just to let us know they were there, the A-10s dropped flares over the course as the runners watched and cheered. The sun was out and spirits were high. A group of soldiers pounded on empty fuel drums to mimic Hawaiian warrior calls and inspire the runners to finish.
I spent most of the race talking to other runners on the course. I caught up with two older gentlemen at about mile 15 and listened to their conversation for a bit before asking where they were stationed in Afghanistan. It turned out they were both retired officers who were old marathon buddies. They had traveled to Afghanistan to visit their sons, who were stationed in Kandahar and at a smaller fire base, and heard about the marathon in Tarin Kowt. I was certainly impressed.
Of the 200 runners who began the marathon, 146 soldiers made it through 26.2 tough miles. The overall winner, First Lieutenant Mike Baskin, crossed the finish line with tears in his eyes at 3 hours, 12 minutes, 15 seconds. Many people can’t help getting teary as they finish a marathon, but Lieutenant Baskin was emotional not for himself but at the thought of the young soldiers who had been killed in action over the last nine months. It was truly an emotional event for many soldiers. A team from a smaller post called Fire Base Cobra ran with shirts that had the names of some of their comrades who had been killed by a roadside bomb a few months before.
A few hours after the finish banner was taken down and everyone had had a shower, we had the awards ceremony at the chow tent. The top three overall finishers were recognized as well as the top three female finishers. Then we had a raffle of all the great gifts that patriotic Americans had donated over the past four months. Every soldier who participated walked away with something.
Postrace Euphoria—And What It All Means
The race ended successfully. Every soldier who participated in Afghanistan’s first marathon will never forget the day we defied the Taliban and terrorists by getting in shorts and running shoes and racing 26.2 miles across the desert. We defied them without bullets or bloodshed; we represented freedom and America in a simple but effective way. Each soldier ran for different reasons. Some ran to honor those who had died in the name of freedom. Some ran to be a part of history. Some ran to be a part of the Honolulu Marathon. Why did I run? I suppose I ran because as an American it’s what I like to do, it’s what makes me feel free. But it certainly wasn’t about me. It was about giving these deployed soldiers a chance to run for whatever reason they wished. It was about defying terror and giving the people of Afghanistan a glimpse of what freedom means in America.