Many of these soldiers have not been with their families for the better part of a year ... They miss the homeland that they are fighting to defend. And on race day, with an unusually eclectic band of friends by their side, they will be allowed to dream of home. —Stephen Roberts
Most of the teams running this weekend’s Ragnar Relay in Las Vegas didn’t know about Team Martin Richard, Team Randy Lane or Team Byron Greff.
Ragnar teams are notorious for their humorous, goofy and sometimes provocative team names. But five teams that nobody saw ran nearly 200 miles under the names of those lost to a war many of us forget we’re fighting.
As most of the runners participating in the Las Vegas relay enjoyed the rugged desert red rock, the tranquility of Lake Mead and the glitter of the Strip, about five dozen U.S. soldiers and members of the allied forces found joy in the monotony of running 190 laps around a 1.05-mile loop in the dusty confines of their Afghan military base.
Other races, including the Salt Lake Marathon, have offered soldiers stationed in far-off lands the chance to run the same distance with the same recognition as their fellow athletes at home in the U.S.
But one military chaplain decided he would like to offer soldiers something that better epitomized the way it feels to do a job that a lot of people pay lip service to but few actually understand.
“A number of us were running ‘shadow’ half marathons through the Rock ’n’ Roll series, and I wanted to set up a more adventurous, team-oriented race,” said Stephen Roberts, who is stationed at Fort Belvoir (Virginia) but serving in Afghanistan for nearly four months. “I ran the D.C. Ragnar about two years ago. There were eight of us running only four of us were at the finish line due to injuries. We loved it. It was a wonderful bonding experience.”
Thus Operation Ragnar Afghanistan was born.
It didn’t take much of a sales pitch and Roberts had five teams ready to run this weekend. Their race overlapped by about 10 hours with the Las Vegas Ragnar that began Friday morning and ended Saturday night.
Roberts said the races are a welcome distraction, even for those who never intended to participate in endurance events.
“We have an active running culture out here, even in the poor conditions,” Roberts said in an email. “It is key in drawing a soldier’s mind from this deployment to life and goals after the deployment. Soldiers, often ambitious and daring, decided to take up the challenge.”
One team was made up of soldiers who served with Indiana native Randy Lane, a National Guardsman killed in action. The other four teams were a mixture of coalition forces and soldiers from various units and branches of the military. They made up Team Martin Richard, the little boy killed in the Boston Marathon bombings; Team Byron Greff, the last Canadian soldier to die in the war; Team Dwayne Flores and Team Eugene Aguon, two U.S. soldiers killed a few months ago near the base where the race took place.
Roberts asked his fellow Ragnar runners, regardless of the race they ran, to consider them as they enjoyed the weekend’s event, which coincidentally led up to Veterans Day, the holiday that honors the sacrifice of our soldiers.
“While you are running, some of our Afghan allies will die,” Roberts said. “Perhaps even some of our coalition soldiers as well. These are not military losses. They are our country’s losses. Soldiers do not ask for your veneration. They simply want to be remembered. Remember them. And remember that you are at war too, that their fight is your fight.”
So the five teams ran through the night, around that same dusty loop, cheering each other on in much the same way thousands of runners ran through the night helping each other achieve something together that none of them could do alone.
Roberts missed the finish of the Ragnar race he organized.
The entire Indiana National Guard unit was sent on a mission mid-race. Those 10 runners were participants on four of the teams, which meant their teammates had to run their miles in order for the team to finish.
That is not uncommon in Ragnar races. Someone gets hurt, someone falls ill. And if the team wants to cross the finish line, another person has to carry that burden, they have to run those miles. If they do, the team earns the same medal every other team earns.
“Only two of us were initially expected to run 25-plus miles in the event,” Roberts wrote Saturday night. “I imagine that we had at least a half a dozen do so. And remember only a couple of us were adequately trained for this event. While most of these runners were quite fit, very few had put up significant mileage in the months prior to this event. It was incredible to see some of the pain that these folks were in, and then watch them gut through another leg in the middle of a frigid night, running through puddles that would inevitably draw the chill into their bones. By the onset of the nighttime chill and fog, the Ragnar spirit had firmly caught on within the soldiers, as every runner, regardless of team, was hoarsely and heartily cheered on by all onlookers from other teams.”
They were, after all, running to honor the memory of those we lost. And sacrifice is something these soldiers are intimately familiar with. There was never any question that all five teams would cross the finish line.
It seems Veterans Day is the perfect time to try to understand just what these dedicated, selfless men and women sacrifice for this country and our allies.
“One of my soldiers missed the birth of his baby last night,” Roberts wrote. “Today, he rolled out on a convoy and continued to do his duty. When Americans think of our service out here, they think of combat and firefights. While those moments come from many of our soldiers, the greatest hardship they experience is separation from their families. I left four weeks after my baby boy, my first child, was born. He has fiery red hair and a smile that lights up the room. I see this through the lens of a smartphone. He will crawl for the first time soon. Hopefully I will hear about it within 24 hours. This is the story of each of my soldiers. They will miss irreplaceable moments and do it with determination and courage in their hearts. They leave their families in order to protect them. They willingly stand in the gap between tyranny and freedom to leave a free and secure society intact for their loved ones.”
Running shadow races seems so small compared to what these soldiers do and endure every day. But it’s those small moments that make them feel whole. It’s in the tiniest details that they find the remnants of lives they put on hold to protect the United States and all it stands for.
“Many of these soldiers have not been with their families for the better part of a year,” Roberts said. “Some have spent a significant portion of their lives fighting in the Middle East. They miss the casual kiss of a spouse, the baby in their arms, running through the woods, an evening out with friends. They miss the homeland that they are fighting to defend. And on race day, with an unusually eclectic band of friends by their side, they will be allowed to dream of home.”