Troops Run ‘Minefield Marathon’ in Afghanistan

B By Pamela Constable

bAGRAM, Afghanistan – The starting point was a Soviet fighter jet carcass, the course ran between two barbed wire fences hung with land mine warnings and the finish line was a military hospital choked with dust from a stream of Humvee traffic.

The only familiar features of the Minefield Marathon, held Friday at this chilly U.S. military base, were the human ones: lobster-red noses and knees on the thinly clad runners, whoops of encouragement from platoon mates on the sidelines, rhythmic grunts and grimaces as the dirt-streaked runners soldiered on.

Lt. Raymond Youngs, 25, a military policeman from Boston, won the race in 3 hours 1 minute 5 seconds, a more than respectable time considering the elevation (4,480 feet), the weather (30 degrees Farenheit at the 8 a.m. start) and the terrain – a rugged, unpredictable dirt course around a military airstrip that had been heavily mined during a decade of war.

“It was definitely a challenge. With all those mines, you’ve got to make sure you stay on the path,” Youngs said just after crossing the finish line ahead of 150 other contestants, all servicemen and women from among the 5,000-plus American and coalition troops stationed in Bagram.

The race was part of a two-day Thanksgiving celebration at the U.S. base that began Thursday with a mammoth feast airlifted from Germany for all 12,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, including 6,400 pounds of turkey, 16,750 pounds of mashed potatoes and 1,320 pumpkin, pecan and sweet potato pies.

Friday, in addition to the marathon, troops in Bagram were treated to greetings from several minor Hollywood celebs on a USO tour, and a pep talk from Gen. Tommy Franks, head of the U.S. Central Command, that was laced with folksy humor.

Franks praised the troops for showing that “Americans can develop an attitude, a little chip on their shoulder when they need to.” He said he had spent his Thanksgiving – the second consecutive one with U.S. troops stationed here – “being thankful for your sacrifice” in the war against terrorism. There is still “a long way to go,” he said, “but we can get there.”

The marathon also had a humanitarian purpose: to remind the public of the continuing threat posed by land mines in Afghanistan, where more than 7 million of the deadly devices were planted during various conflicts in the 1980s and ’90s.

Lt. Col. James Post, a surgeon and four-time marathoner from Pittsburgh who runs the army field hospital in Bagram, was a principal organizer of the race.

“In the hospital here we still see a lot of children injured by mines,” Post said before the race. “We wanted to emphasize that they are still a danger to the people of Afghanistan.” Later in the day, villagers outside the base said a local boy had just been seriously injured by a mine and treated in Bagram.

To highlight the issue, the race was begun with a detonation of explosives instead of a gunshot, and the 6.5-mile course around the airfield was marked with red mine warning signs. At scattered intervals, mines in the field were marked with red spray paint, and a team of Bosnian mine dogs preceded the runners as a final protection.

Further military drama was provided by an Apache attack helicopter, which hovered over the starting line, and two Humvees with machine gun turrets mounted on top, which flanked the course as the runners waited impatiently in the freezing morning air, many wearing only shorts and T-shirts.

The race was an officially sanctioned, 26.2-mile marathon; each contestant’s time for four loops around the airfield was carefully clocked and recorded, and the fastest three men and women received watches and commendation plaques.

Lt. Kristen Lafond, 23, from New Jersey, was the first woman across the line and third in the entire field, finishing in 3:15.55.

But many runners joined just for the experience; some chugged along at a near walk, sweating heavily under full backpacks and rifles. One coalition soldier from Poland held his country’s flag aloft the whole way, while a squad of Koreans jogged along together, egging each other on with lusty yelps.

Capt. Jonathan Fellion, 34, an army nurse from Pittsburgh, said he viewed the grueling race as an important morale boost for troops confined to a remote base during the holidays.

“There’s a reason we all got up at 0500 to be here – we did it to challenge ourselves, to bolster our self-esteem and camaraderie,” said Fellion, jogging in place to keep from freezing. His contestant’s patch, No. 34, was scrawled with the names of his relatives and pets.

Some contestants said they hoped to work off a little of the turkey and trimmings with which they had stuffed themselves Thursday. Others said they mostly wanted to be able to tell their children about the experience.

“To say I’ve run a marathon in a war zone,” mused Maj. Dean Mings, 47, a high school history teacher and army reservist from St. Louis, who was warming up at the starting line. “It is definitely the challenge of a lifetime.”