Marine Capt. Edna Rodriguez has been stationed in Iraq since June, and already the budget officer says she has grown accustomed to the sound of mortar fire.
Still, it's not something Rodriguez, a competitive runner, is used to worrying about during a race.
Yesterday, she and 1,300 other runners -- troops and civilians -- spent the early morning staging their own version of the Army Ten-Miler, a popular annual road race held yesterday in Washington. The race has been ongoing since 1985.
As runners in the District hoofed it up and down the Mall braving drizzle and a temperature that dipped into the mid-40s, Rodriguez and her fellow runners in Iraq had more to think about, specifically their safety. Before the race, organizers warned that a loud horn would sound if trouble erupted along the bunker-lined course near Balad. Their instructions: Seek cover.
"I was like, 'Oh, shoot!' " recalled Rodriguez, 28, who was interviewed by telephone after the race. "But nothing like that happened. It ended up being a great run with no intermission."
"Great run" is perhaps an understatement by Rodriguez, of Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, who was the top women's finisher with a time of 1:15:02.
This is the second year Army organizers have hosted the "shadow race" at Logistic Support Area Anaconda, a sprawling U.S. military base about 60 miles northwest of Baghdad. Once an Iraqi air base, Anaconda reportedly has earned the nickname "Mortaritaville" among troops because of the frequency of mortar and rocket attacks there.
Last year the race, known as the Anaconda Ten-Miler, drew about 1,500 competitors. Officials said many runners came seeking a slice of normalcy.
"It takes them away from the everyday grind and gives them something to look forward to," said Army Maj. Willie Rios, who coordinated the event. The race ended yesterday at 2 a.m. Eastern time, and winners were awarded trophies. "It does wonders for them mentally."
Army National Guard Cpl. Curtis Persinger, 23, was running for the University of Louisville when he was deployed to Iraq.
His camp, about three hours south of Balad, is only about 21/2 miles wide. To stay in shape, Persinger runs what he calls "laps." When he learned of the Anaconda Ten-Miler two weeks ago, he stepped up his training and persuaded his colonel to allow him to make the trip to compete.
"I knew I could win if I got up here," Persinger said.
He did. Persinger won with a time of 56:02.
The unique road-racing experience was not lost on him.
"Where else can you run a 10-mile race . . . and have the chance of a mortar going off when you do it?" Persinger said yesterday in a telephone interview.
The roughly 13-mile perimeter of Camp Anaconda is fenced, providing some protection to the 23,000 people who live and work on the base. Still, that's no guarantee of safety. For the race, a few extra measures were added to the heavy security in place.
"There is always a chance something can happen," said Maj. Rich Spiegel, spokesman for the Army's 13th Corps Support Command. "We took the appropriate precautions."
Much of the base has been rehabilitated, and event organizers staged the start and finish of the race inside Anaconda's stadium. The route wound around the base. And though one participant got lost during the relay event, his team finished first.
"We knew it wasn't going to be perfect," Spiegel said. "Unlike a road race in the States, we had to make a lot of considerations for safety. And some of the roads are smaller. But [the race] was great, and it served its purpose."
Last October, Sgt. Maj. Rob Erlich, 44, was in Washington to compete as part of a group in the Army Ten-Miler. His masters team from Fort Hood in Texas won. This year, the Army reenlistment and retention specialist helped lead his team to victory again, but in Iraq.
"It was extra special," Erlich said. "We still felt like we could participate with our fellow runners out of Washington, D.C. I love the race, but to be able to come out here in Balad and put on the run was a great feeling."
He said racers were determined to have a good time.
"We were not going to let the insurgents ruin our day," he said.