Thirty sailors from the USS Carl Vinson are running the 34th Marine Corps Marathon

By Jim Hage
Saturday, October 24, 2009

Epitomizing strength, determination and courage, the USS Carl Vinson has waged war and helped preserve peace in conflicts around the world. The constituent parts of the Nimitz-class nuclear-powered supercarrier -- her sailors -- will take individual measure of their own character in Sunday's 34th Marine Corps Marathon.

Is it a stretch to compare a warship with a marathon runner? Not at all, according to champion endurance athlete Charlie Engle, who helped prepare the 30 officers and enlisted men and women for their 26.2-mile ordeal.

"The military mind-set is about a singularity of purpose," Engle said. "The military and its people have a unique ability to envision what the end goal is and then keep it in the forefront of their mind until that goal is achieved. That's especially true when times get tough."

Engle, a recovering alcoholic and drug addict, knows of what he speaks. Last month he set a record in winning the Death Valley Cup for his combined time in the Badwater Ultramarathon (135-mile footrace) and Furnace Creek 508 (508-mile bicycle race).

"All of life is about adapting to change," said Engle, 46. "These guys from the ship have the right mental approach. Most people make a plan, but don't know what to do when things go wrong. Military guys anticipate change, adjust and figure out what move to make next. That's what helps them do their job. And that will help them make it through the marathon, because there are things that never go according to plan."

Nearly all the Vinson runners are new to the sport and none has run a marathon. Training on an aircraft carrier presents obvious logistical challenges, even with treadmills and during a time when the ship has been undergoing a four-year overhaul in Newport News, Va.

Dylan Burch, a former enlisted Marine and now judge advocate on the Vinson, put together a ship's team for a half-marathon in Virginia Beach last March. "After that, it was like, 'Hey, now let's do a marathon,' " Burch said. "We got a great response, but I'm not sure everyone knew what they were getting into."

To help seal the deal, Burch recruited Engle, a motivational speaker, to meet the Vinson runners. On board and during a short run afterward, Engle discovered kindred spirits among the sailors. "I think Charlie really digs working with military personnel," Burch said. "He kind of adopted the ship." Engle promised to return on race day and will set a four-hour marathon pace for the team.

But on the Vinson, the tone in all matters military as well as athletic was set by its former commanding officer, Walter E. Carter, now a rear admiral. After his promotion, Carter ran as a distinguished visitor on the Vinson team in Virginia Beach; one month later he ran the Boston Marathon in 3 hours 46 minutes -- "a lifetime dream come true," he said.

"When the number one guy is an avid runner, it's not surprising that his enthusiasm tends to spread throughout the ship," said Lt. Paul Dussault, an aircraft launch and recovery officer and former competitive cyclist making his marathon debut.

Carter will reunite with the Vinson crew Sunday and run his fourth marathon. "The Marine Corps Marathon is the culmination of working up to that distance for a number of these sailors," he said, "and I could not be more proud of what they have done to train and be ready for this lifetime achievement."

Carter's example has resulted in group long runs and a recent spate of races, including a 12-man, 200-mile relay race in Kentucky earlier this month. "It's been a great way to spend time with the people you work with doing something healthy off the ship," said Lt. Rob Wilkerson a "shooter" on the flight deck.

Wilkerson, a former sprint football player at the Naval Academy, started running only in January; after losing 30 pounds, he still weighs 200. "I don't look like your standard runner," Wilkerson said. "I'll be real happy to run in four hours, 4:10. Like most of our guys, once I finish, I'll probably never say the word 'marathon' again."

Or perhaps even "10K," after running one that consisted of 15 loops on the Vinson's 4.5-acre flight deck during sea trials last summer. "The non-skid metal surface is not the most forgiving," Wilkerson said. "With that, the heat and the wind, it was the most miserable 10K I've ever run." More than 100 sailors participated.

"The nature of work on the flight deck, it's all about teamwork," said Dussault, a 25-year Navy veteran who joined the ship in May but is already known as "Mr. Pain." "So running the marathon is just another venue for working together, suffering together, dealing with adversity. Anything like that is much easier if you do it together."

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