Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Think your route is tough? Try running in a combat zone, like these soldiers will do during the Bittersweet 5K "Shadow Run"

Lt. Jacob Kruer runs a 5K at Camp Phoenix in Afghanistan. The route is practically an obstacle course, as you'll discover in the article below.. Soldiers at Camp Phoenix will participate in Mt. Vernon's Bittersweet 5K during a "shadow run" — where they run the same race at the same distance and at approximately the same time.

When you run the Bittersweet 5K in downtown Mount Vernon Oct. 5, you'll be joined by a group you won't actually see. 

The best way to think of them is to imagine they're running behind you. Not because they're necessarily slower — but because they've got your back. 

Soldiers at Camp Phoenix in Afghanistan will participate in the Bittersweet 5K during what’s called a “shadow run.” Lt. Jacob Kruer contacted us a few months ago to ask if we’d be interested in his unit doing such a run in conjunction with our race. It works like this: they simply run the same race at the same distance at approximately the same time we do. They’ll even get Bittersweet T-shirts, thanks to our friends at Surge Promotions, who provided the shirts at a significant discount. The idea is to give the soldiers a little connection to home and the framework of an actual race. We will exchange photos with them so we can both see how each others’ races went. Be sure to stay tuned to Rockcastle Regional’s Facebook page.

“It means a lot to those of us who run and enjoy running to know that folks back home are willing to help us run different races,” Kruer said. 

But as you’ll discover by reading the interview below, a 5K run on a base in Afghanistan is different than a stroll down Main Street in Mt. Vernon. Very different. 

Lt. Kruer took the time to answer a few questions we asked him by email:

What is Camp Phoenix?
Camp Phoenix, where I’m stationed, is a coalition base with about 16 countries represented. When we organize these events, and partner with you back in the states, you literally have runners participating from all over the world.  

How did the shadow runs start?
I don’t know exactly how they got started. When my unit arrived, someone was already organizing them and had done so for the duration of his time here. When he left, I volunteered to take over and have been organizing them since August. I will take a guess as to why they got started, which is that simply running for the two-mile APFT (Army Physical Fitness Test) is not any fun; 5Ks are more exciting and build camaraderie amongst all runners here.  

Where do you run?
We have two locations – a mostly "paved" half-mile loop and a one-mile loop that is gravel and busted concrete. These are our only courses, although we do switch up every now and again and run the opposite way. Both could be considered obstacle courses by some standards because of traffic crossings for vehicles and pedestrians, gators, black water trucks cleaning latrines, and helicopters. The helicopters make it extra exciting because as they come and go they can blast you with rotor wash and dust. Large runners are not as affected but small runners usually have to alter course or get behind someone larger so they don't get blown over. Running is also made a bit more difficult because we are 6,000 feet above sea level (where oxygen levels are lower than, say, in Rockcastle County, which has an elevation of 1190 feet.)

What distances do you race?
Typically 5Ks will have the most participation with an average of 120 runners.  Longer distances are less popular due to the time and the fact that we are essentially running on the same terrain lap after lap.  Before I arrived, a mini-marathon (13.1 miles) had been run here, and it was run on the half-mile loop. We will be participating in the Army Ten Miler soon, which will be on the large loop. 

Will you run at exactly the same time as the Bittersweet 5K (Oct. 5) in Mt. Vernon?

We will likely run Friday morning here, on Oct. 4. The Fridays around here are typically slower and allow more participants. We have done a few races at or about the same time as back in the states, but it is starting to get darker earlier here which means that we are running about twilight into dark. For safety reasons, it is usually better to start in the morning about 6:30 here after the sun has peeked over the mountain. 

Describe running in the military.
Running in the military … it's like running for anyone else, I suppose. It’s this bittersweet love-hate relationship. The Army only requires a 2-mile run for the physical fitness test. I believe the Navy has a
1.5-mile run and the Marines, a 3-mile run. 

However, your finish times are all age-graded as far as how fast you need to run regardless of the service. The Army, in the lowest age bracket, requires a 15:54 two-mile time for the youngest age group of 17-21 and adds about 30 seconds every five years thereafter for males. The females get 18:54 at the same age group and about the same 30 seconds every five years after for the age group. 

The only time you run in groups are when you are doing a physical fitness test as a unit or if there is a larger function like an Esprit de Corps run. These are typically less than fun as the pace is either painfully slow at a shuffle (lines and columns with flags; the stuff you see in the movies) or it’s at a blistering speed to which you can't keep up and you are constantly circling about to put the slower-paced people up front.

In my experience, you are as likely to have battle buddies in the military who absolutely love running as you are with your friends or co-workers back home. Some will participate in a couple local 5Ks or a turkey trot and others would rather just train for a month prior to the test and not again until the next test. The ones who only train for the month prior to a physical fitness test are the ones who are blessed with high metabolism and natural athletic ability. The rest of us have to be consistent and keep our fitness level.   

Are you or other runners in your unit from Kentucky?
I am from New Albany, Indiana, which is a stone’s throw from Louisville. There are some Soldiers from Louisville in our unit but are not necessarily runners. We have a couple of medics from Ft. Campbell who regularly participate. Beyond those, there are National Guard units from all over the states, active duty units from all over the states, as well as the other countries that are in support.

What about runners from other countries?
The Canadians are currently the fastest and have swept the top finisher places in recent races. Other countries are France, Australia, Denmark, and the Netherlands that have forces that regularly participate and enjoy running in the events. Honestly, running is a pretty universal language as far as allowing participants, because all you have to do is have people line up and go. 

Tell us more about your experience with running at Camp Phoenix.
Some mornings when I run just before the sun comes up, it seems as though it could be the most peaceful place anywhere. There are mountains you can see in every direction when the skies are clear. On those mornings before everything comes to life, you can zone out and slip into your runner's high. As the camp comes to life each morning you get the experience that only deployed runners experience -- running in a combat zone. The walls and razorwire become noticeable. The smells, MRAPs (mine-resistant ambush protected trucks) come to life with guns mounted and the rotor wash of the Blackhawks, Chinooks, and a variety of civilian helicopters add to the experience that you can find nowhere else. 

Strive to remember these “shadow runners” during our local race, and appreciate what they sacrifice so we can enjoy our peaceful mornings of exercise and camaraderie. These troops really can’t be thanked enough. We’ll have a poster on hand at the race for you to sign that we will send to them. See you Oct. 5!