A U.S. soldier won Afghanistan’s first marathon Sunday, running in the thin mountain air for more than three hours. He burst into tears at the finish line, remembering four comrades killed in recent fighting.
A total of 184 soldiers and civilians working for the U.S. military took part in the race at Firebase Ripley, a remote camp near Tirin Kot in central Uruzgan province, facing high altitude and a bumpy track as well as the threat of attack.
Plastic palm trees among the gun stores and bunkers near the course lightened the mood for the runners, who the Afghan National Olympic Committee said were competing in the first marathon in the war-ravaged country’s history.
But the darker side of their mission resurfaced as the winner labored across the finish line after five long laps of the airstrip to cheers and handshakes in 3 hours, 12 minutes, 15 seconds — an impressive time for the conditions.
“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,” 1st Lt. Mike Baskin, a California native, told an Associated Press reporter.
The race, which ended nearly three hours before 20,000 people began the Honolulu Marathon, was the idea of members of the U.S. Army’s 2nd Battalion, 5th Infantry Regiment, based at Schofield Barracks in Hawaii, who didn’t want to miss out on the competition.
The unit, part of the 25th Infantry Division, is operating in one of Afghanistan’s most hostile areas. It suffered its latest casualties when a bomb ripped through a patrol near Deh Rawood, another town in Uruzgan, on Nov. 24, killing two soldiers. A similar attack killed two other soldiers in October.
Helicopters flew troops in from across Afghanistan for the race. Before the start, the assembled runners cheered as two military jets thundered low over the base, which lies 4,500 feet above sea level, and into the surrounding mountains.
The competitors, shorn of their guns and flak jackets, toiled around the circuit in shorts and T-shirts under cloudy skies and in temperatures of about 55 degrees.
Some of the course was gravel, but most was covered by fine dust that a rare overnight shower had turned to mud in patches. Its single hill was dubbed Diamond Head for the Honolulu landmark, an extinct volcano.
The first woman to finish was Spc. Jill Stevens, a 21-year-old soldier from Utah whose helicopter battalion is deployed at Bagram Air Base near Kabul.
“I love Afghanistan, and the views of the mountains during the race were great,” she said after recording a time of 3:45:19 in what she said was her fifth marathon.
A large brown dog called Dunny, loping alongside a group of civilian contractors, also completed the regulation 26.2 miles.
The sole Afghan who ran in the race pulled out after one of the just more than 5-mile laps, complaining that soccer games were no way to prepare.
“These people are very fit, but this is not for an Afghan who only gets tea and bread for breakfast,” said Mohammed Anwar, who works for the military, sitting on the ground and looking with concern at his knees.
All 153 finishers were presented with the same medals, certificates and black sponsored T-shirts as their Honolulu counterparts, and their times are to be recorded and listed in the same booklet.