Two Hours of Relief in a Dangerous World

(Jul. 23, 2009)

July 23, 2009 (Utica, NY) —  They had to begin early.  It would reach nearly 120 degrees by mid-day so sweat would be pouring off them as if from a faucet if they remained too long under the blistering hot sun.  It was a blazing 80 degrees, even at 5 a.m., but it seemed cool to them, since they had become accustomed to the draining heat of the Middle East. 

At 0500 on July 11 more than 500 military men and women toed the dusty start line to participate in the second annual Boilermaker in Iraq.

Captain Ruth McDermott helped coordinate the event at Tallil Air Base and kept in contact with Tim Reed, executive director of the Boilermaker, for months during preparation.  She is responsible for 67 soldiers and 120 civilians stationed at five different posts throughout southern Iraq.  The Clinton native ran her first Boilermaker in 2002 and after college joined the military and has not been home to run again due to her military assignments.

"I wanted to host the Boilermaker here in Iraq since it is the beloved race from my hometown," McDermott says. "There is not much change here from day-to-day.  This race gave everyone something to look forward to and take their minds off being here, even if it was only for a couple hours."

McDermott realized she was in need of assistance for planning the complex event, so she sought out Sergeant Doris Contreras.  Originally from Cleveland, Contreras had never heard of the Boilermaker but was new to the company and was happy to provide assistance.

"Since I was helping with the race, I also wanted to be a participant," Contreras says.  "I wanted to be involved to the very end; so I started training on my own in the weeks leading up to the race."

The Boilermaker committee wanted to help make the runners feel as close to home as possible. So, supplies and apparel were sent the 6,000 miles over the Atlantic Ocean for them to have similar support as the runners partaking in the Utica event.

Due to a lack of resources, various units were forced to pool their gear and items together to share whatever they had to execute the race. And just like in Utica, a great deal of coordination took place to make it a success. 

First, the15k course was mapped out.  Arrows indicated the 15 different kilometer marks throughout the race.  The signs were constructed at the wood shop on post.  McDermott then arranged for music to be played at the event. Water tables were set up throughout the course to help hydrate the participants while military police assisted by blocking off the roads.  Security had to be coordinated along certain points of the route because of the proximity to the perimeter, keeping any potential enemies at bay.  Fire department members and medical units were on site in case of emergencies.  Even the dining facilities were present to offer fruit, bagels, donuts, water and Gatorade for the runners as they crossed the finish line.

On the evening before the race, the unit held a pasta dinner for all the runners.  There, each participant signed the race banner.  Both coordinators and participants were praying for a calm day.  If it is windy in Iraq, sand storms could be devastating, making it hard to see and breathe the dusty air. Thankfully, on the morning of the 11th, the weather was ideal.

On race morning, McDermott and Contreras awoke at 2:30 a.m. to finalize their preparations.  "We had put months of planning into this event," Contreras admits.  "We went over the route more times than I like to remember.  We wanted everything to be perfect!"

At 5 a.m. the race began.  More than 500 service men and women moved along the circular course, yearning to accomplish the goal that they had set.  For those 9.3 miles, however long it took them to run, they were able to forget the daunting challenges in the Middle East and shift their focus on the Boilermaker finish line.

Runners became overwhelmed with joy when they heard the inspirational music.  "I was elated when I crossed the finish line," Contreras confesses. "While training, I would post my progress online.  So on race day, my husband who is also a captain in the army, stayed up and waited for me to get back and post my results." 

As they finished, the runners were presented with a finisher's pin and a complimentary, military Boilermaker t-shirt.  According to Contreras, the t-shirts were a coveted item since there was a limited quantity and it was the only merchandise which named the site: Talill, Iraq.

 "It was such a great feeling to run," Contreras says.  "I realized I was still in Iraq, but there was no war.  There were aircraft taking off but for the first time, I didn't care where they were going.  Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicles shared the road with us and I mumbled a blessing as their mission is always outside the wire, but I kept running."

"This race made a big difference for many of the soldiers stationed here in Tallil," McDermott concludes.  "Some soldiers sent me thank-you notes so I could see how much the race meant to them.  One sergeant told me that it was the farthest that he had ever run, and that he was going to hang his complimentary shirt on his wall as a reminder of his accomplishment."

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