In Afghanistan, more than 100 U.S. and coalition military personnel took time out from a grueling seven-day work week to compete in a marathon at the Bagram Air Base outside Kabul. Much of the 41-kilometer course ran through an active minefield, making the Minefield Marathon an unusual and challenging race.
A C-4 explosive charge set the pace for the Minefield Marathon, held at the sprawling Bagram air base, which is home to more than 5,000 troops of the coalition forces in Afghanistan.
The race course consisted of four laps around the Bagram runway, through carefully marked, but active minefields. Standing in the chill Afghan morning, Lieutenant Tina Kreske, a base spokeswoman and race participant, said using an explosive, or UXO, was the only way to start the minefield marathon. "Instead of just your typical blowing the whistle start, and since we are running throughout a minefield for this marathon, it is very appropriate to have a UXO [unexploded ordinance] to begin the start of the race to get us all pumped and motivated," she said. "It is something very unique."
Lieutenant Colonel James Post, a base physician, organized the race. He says running through a minefield was one way to ensure there would be few stragglers and no cheaters. "You have to make sure you have all the minefields marked, because that is encouragement for people not to cut corners on the marathon. You do so at your peril," he said.
Colonel Post says holding the minefield marathon was also a good way to highlight the dangers posed by millions of mines across Afghanistan, that kill and maim hundreds of people every year. Some of the runners were raising money for Afghan children injured by mines. "The Soviets left over seven million minefields in Afghanistan, and even though we are trying to clear out the mines every day, there are still a lot of mines that are out here, and they had them out for protection against the Mujahadeen," said Colonel Post. "In the hospital, we see a lot of children who were injured by the minefields, and we wanted to emphasize there is still a danger, for not only Afghanistan, but throughout the world."
Much of the race, held along the base perimeter, is considered dangerous territory, not only because of mines, but also because of potential sniper attacks. Normally, troops who run along the perimeter are required to carry their weapons. But sentries posted along the marathon route, allowed that rule to be waived for the minefield marathon. Many runners chose to run with their weapons anyway.
While many runners carried their weapons, Lieutenant Raymond Youngs who commands a squad of military police, chose to put his faith in the sentries posted along the marathon route, to provide security. The tactic worked. Lieutenant Youngs won the minefield marathon with a time of 3:01.05. Still, the veteran marathoner says, it was not an easy race. "It was mentally challenging," he said. "You work all the time here, so you do not get a chance to train like you normally would. Then, there is the dust and the altitude, and the mines. You have to make sure you stay on the path."
Runners dodged jeeps, trucks and armored vehicles, which stirred up the choking dust that is a permanent feature of life at the Bagram base. Base operations continued uninterrupted during the run. Jet fighters and helicopters took off on combat missions. Despite the obstacles, most who started the minefield marathon completed the race calling it a welcome diversion from the seven-day work weeks, and long hours that dominate life at the base.