Running Together, a World Apart
Loved Ones Connect in Race Here, Satellite Marathon in Iraq

By Rich Campbell
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, October 27, 2006

Marine Sgt. Chuck Trainer is not a marathoner.

He is a football player, or was, anyway, years before duty called him in February to Camp Fallujah in Iraq for his second tour there. Sure, he regularly runs a few miles as part of his conditioning routine, but a marathon?

"Twenty-six point two miles -- that's something you drive," Trainer half-joked in a phone conversation from Iraq this week. "I'd rather punch myself in the face than go run 26.2 miles."

Yet on Sunday, several hours before 30,000 runners stand in the shadow of the Marine Corps War Memorial in Arlington ready to begin the Marine Corps Marathon, Trainer will set out on his first marathon in, of all places, the Iraqi desert.

And he's actually thrilled to be running, only because training for the race has helped him stay close to his older sister, Christine Haas, back home in Pennsylvania.

Trainer is one of 208 members of the armed services stationed in the Middle East who are registered for Sunday's inaugural Marine Corps Marathon Forward at al-Asad air base, which is about 100 miles west of Baghdad. For Trainer and others, the satellite race is serving as a medium through which they can connect with loved ones in the United States, especially those who are running the Marine Corps Marathon here.

"I don't know anything about long-distance running," Trainer, 28, said. "As far as I'm concerned, it's just putting one foot in front of the other for longer than usual. But there's diets and a training regimen, so it was Chrissie that I kind of relied on to make sure I knew what I was doing."

Marine Maj. Megan McClung, an avid runner who will participate in Iraq on Sunday, came up with the idea in May for a satellite race for deployed servicemen and women. With the help of Marine Corps Marathon organizers and the Army's Office of Morale, Welfare and Recreation, the MCM Forward will officially be considered part of the marathon here. Each finisher in Iraq will be added to the list of those who cross the finish line in Rosslyn.

Runners in the MCM Forward will twice run out and back on a 6.5-mile course. The final 0.2 of a mile will be completed in a parking lot in the downtown area of the base. While the race course here is lined with various forms of entertainment and other diversions, participants in Iraq won't have the luxury of being distracted from each grueling stride.

"Maybe we'll have some aircraft to look at," Marine 1st Lt. Carla Jurczynski said via phone from Camp Fallujah. "Honestly, it's really, really brown and gray and sandy out here. I'm sure it will be the same up there."

Despite conditions that are less than ideal, including expected temperatures in the mid-80s, Trainer and Jurczynski are eager to run Sunday because both have sisters running the Marine Corps Marathon here. During the last several weeks of training, the race has helped Trainer forge a connection with Haas, and Jurczynski has done the same with her older sister, Maresa. For all four of them, the experience has been therapeutic during a time apart that is sometimes filled with painful uncertainty.

"This will be, by far, the most meaningful marathon I could ever run, and to be running it with Chuck is such an honor," said Haas, 39, of Newtown, Pa. "It's a way of showing him support, and it gives me an opportunity to be his older sister, whether that's with words of encouragement via e-mail or by sending him a care package."

Haas, a psychologist, was on her treadmill in September training for next month's Philadelphia Marathon when Trainer phoned to tell her he had registered for the MCM Forward. Trainer, knowing that his sister is an experienced marathoner, signed up to prove to her that he, too, could complete a marathon.

Haas immediately changed her plans and was granted a late entry into the Marine Corps Marathon. The marathon seemingly erased the miles separating her from her brother and calmed her anxiety about his safety.

"Let's say I'm running somewhere between four and five hours [on Sunday]," Haas said. "I have four or five hours that, in my mind, I'm exclusively with Chuck. It's like, 'Hey, we're doing this together. We made it.' "

To help her novice brother, Haas recently mailed him a care package.

"She said, 'I'm putting in a whole bunch of stuff that runners use,' " Trainer said laughing. "I'm thinking, 'Well, what do runners use? Shorts? Sneakers?' She sent me these runner's socks and these energy gels. But the problem is that the gel exploded in the package.

"I opened it up and reached my hand in there and my hand was slimy and sticky. The socks are not usable and some of the gel is gone, but it's the thought that counts. That's what happens when you send stuff to Iraq."

Trainer and Carla Jurczynski have trained together with a group of about 10 at Camp Fallujah, and they were scheduled to fly in a helicopter last night from Fallujah to the race site.

Carla and Maresa Jurczynski have both previously run the Marine Corps Marathon, so they jumped at the chance to run the same race on opposite sides of the world.

"We're training for the same race, so in our minds we're running it together even though it's not at the exact time and the same exact place," said Maresa, an active duty Navy lieutenant stationed in Annapolis. "We share stories of training and how it's going, tips and motivation. That's definitely a way for us to bond."

Maresa, 26, and Carla, 23, have trained for Sunday using the same regimen that Maresa found in a running magazine. They had a chance to put it to the test together when Carla returned to their home town of Schenectady, N.Y., last month during a short leave.

"It was so great going home and running with Maresa around the area by our house," Carla said. "I had been looking forward to that during all the long, sandy dry runs out here. I was picturing the New York state countryside in the fall and just talking to Maresa the whole way. I'll think of that during the race, for sure."

All four runners plan on somehow acknowledging their counterpart during their races Sunday. Haas plans on writing Trainer's name on her body in marker. Carla Jurczynski will put a "cheesy sign" on her back and wear a pendant Maresa gave her before she left for Iraq in February.

"When I hear it jingle at mile 23, it will be my little incentive to keep pushing."

Afterward, Trainer and Carla Jurczynski will fly back to Camp Fallujah and call home to relay their race stories. Haas and Maresa Jurczynski will be eagerly waiting.

"I believe that without words, he'll feel it," Haas said. "I think sometimes that we don't always need words to communicate, and I have really relied upon that while he's over there."

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