This week Ragnarians will prepare for Ragnar Relay – Las Vegas. They’ll buy cowbells, put the final touches on their costumes, study their leg maps, and taper down on their running to save their legs for the big day. Friday is Ragnar Relay- Las Vegas race day and Ragnarians will embark on a 200- mile journey of a lifetime starting in the Mojave Desert outside of Las Vegas, Nevada.
Some 7,600 miles away in desert terrain in Afghanistan, a different group of Ragnarians will embark on a similar journey; a journey we’ve dubbed Operation Ragnar Afghanistan.
Sixty active duty members who are stationed in Afghanistan will run nearly 200 miles, through the night, in teams of 12, as they shadow Las Vegas course. Although they won’t be able to run from point A to point B, they are able to run outside around a 1.05 mile loop, running on uneven ground and desert terrain to emulate Las Vegas experience. Ragnar is providing them with slap bracelets, tee-shirts and finisher medals. There is expected to be a 10 hour overlap in time when runners in Las Vegas, and runners in Afghanistan will be running at the same time.
Spearheaded by Chaplain Stephen Roberts a northern Virginia native who completed Ragnar Relay – Washington DC two years ago, Operation Ragnar Afghanistan will provide a welcome distraction for soldiers who are ordinarily looking ahead to the next convoy or mission.
“A number of us were running “shadow” half marathons through the Rock and Roll series, and I wanted to set up a more adventurous, team-oriented race,” said Captain Roberts. “The response has been overwhelmingly positive.”
The positive response has much to do with the active running community at the base camp in Afghanistan. Because Operation Ragnar Afghanistan was a bit of an impromptu idea, the soldiers will rely on their (already high) current level of fitness. Running helps keep soldier’s minds off of deployment and draws their attention towards life and goals after the deployment, according to Captain Roberts.
“This idea (of Operation Ragnar Afghanistan) didn’t take nearly as much salesmanship as I thought,” he said. “I just started passing the word by mouth and by email that we would run a 12 member, 200 mile marathon. Soldiers, often ambitious and daring, decided to take up the challenge.”
On race day, the challenge of running 200 miles through the night on teams of 12 will serve as a distraction. Soldiers’ focus will not be on their next convoy or mission, and it also won’t be on the constant protruding thought of missing family and freedom.
“When Americans think of our service out here, they think of combat and firefights,” Captain Roberts said. “While those moments come for many of our soldiers, the greatest hardship they experience is separation from their families. On race day, with an unusually eclectic band of friends by their side, they will be allowed to dream of home.”
Four out of the five teams representing Operation Ragnar Afghanistan are internationally mixed teams, combining Americans, Canadians, officers, and enlisted men and women.
“In this way, our teams very much resemble the alliances and friendships that persevered together in campaigns in Italy, France, Korea, and Afghanistan,” Captain Roberts noted.
The five teams are named appropriately to remember people who are special to the soldier’s hearts: Team Martin Richard, named after the youngest Boston Marathon victim; Team Byrom Greff, named after the last Canadian friend to die in the Afghanistan War; Team Randy Lane, named after a Guardsman killed in action in Afghanistan; Team Dwayne Fores and Team Eugene Aguon named after two American soldiers who were killed in action, just a few months ago.
“These are not military losses, they are our country’s losses,” said Captain Roberts. “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.”
For Captain Roberts, this Ragnar Relay is a bit of a metaphor for his life.
“When I ran my last Ragnar, I did so with two of my brothers,” he said. “When one of them went down with extreme cramping late in the race, the other took him to the hospital.”
Captain Robert’s wife met him late in the night to provide race support and his parents met him early the next morning. Captain Roberts couldn’t have gotten to the finish line without their support.
“When I run Operation Ragnar Afghanistan, I will remember that my family is behind me in this present, tremendous challenge. At the finish line of this deployment, they will be waiting for me.”