Cpl. Justin Lutz was relaxing on his bed inside the barracks, his legs still recovering from a run, when a huge explosion shook the building. Glancing outside he saw that a rocket had smashed the place where he had been stretching just 10 minutes earlier.
It was the sort of thing this soldier- athlete endured on a daily basis while stationed in Iraq - along with straining to breathe in the heavy desert air and having to carry a three-pound pistol as he ran endless interval loops inside the walls of the palace compound once controlled by Uday Hussein.
Sports enthusiasts like Corporal Lutz are known to shrug off all sorts of disturbances - foul weather, tired muscles, and, in some cases, a war - to do what they love.
Whether stationed in the United States or deployed overseas, soldiers who are also runners find that keeping up their sport is a way to stay connected to life back home. It can be an excuse to escape the close quarters of barracks and ease some of the mental and physical stress brought on by unexpected explosions in otherwise monotonous routines. Sometimes that means risking their lives to lace up running shoes, and sometimes that means running 26.2 miles through a desert.
Monday on Patriot's Day, as 20,400 runners tackle America's oldest marathon, in Boston, 265 soldiers in southern Iraq will be joining them in spirit to run the first-ever "Iraq/Boston Marathon."
"The [Iraq/Boston Marathon] is helping to distract these young kids who risk their lives," says Capt. Rodney Freeman, who organized the marathon at Base Camp Adder near the ancient city of Ur. "For six hours or so, they are going be home. They aren't going to be running up Heartbreak Hill, but it will be close enough."
The Iraq/Boston Marathon is one of several races run by deployed soldiers over the past half-year that have been complete with T-shirts, timing chips, and finisher medals. In December, 184 soldiers and civilians working for the US military ran a marathon in the thin air of Tirin Kot, Afghanistan, timed to finish just a few hours before the Honolulu Marathon began. Last August, 10 runners finished the Baghdad International Freedom Marathon inside the Green Zone. A month earlier, 250 runners competed in the Peachtree Roadrace Baghdad Division, coinciding with Atlanta's world-famous 10K race.
And in Iraq Monday, US and coalition soldiers will forget about fending off Iraqi insurgents for a few hours to battle themselves over miles of desert terrain.
Helping troops take their minds off the confinements of a combat zone is one reason Captain Freeman organizes monthly 5K and 10K races for his base. An experienced runner and native New Englander, he thought a patriotic race would be a good boost for morale.
"This just started off with a few guys thinking it would be cool to run a marathon the same day as the Boston Marathon," says Freeman, who is in charge of recreational activities on the base. "The next thing I knew, I had 110 people signing up."
Freeman says that 60 runners will complete the whole course, which will loop out to a pagan temple and then twice around a 10-mile airfield perimeter. More than 200 other runners will be participating in various forms of relays.
Some will simply march with backpacks. Seventy-five volunteers will be on hand to cheer and staff water stations in the 90-degree F. heat.
Many of the soldiers participating are not regular runners, but support from the organizers of the Boston Marathon and Outdoor Life Network (OLN) helped to spark interest. All finishers of the Iraq/Boston Marathon will receive official Boston Marathon medals. OLN plans to televise portions of the run as it winds past some of Iraq's most famous archaeological and religious sites, and it will give troops a chance to send greetings to loved ones back home.
While not all US camps in Iraq have organized races with finisher medals and T-shirts, some soldier-runners are motivated to pursue their training amid rumbling tankers, sandstorms, and incoming rockets. They may even borrow a GPS device to plot out interval distances.
Lutz, a convoy driver for the Marine Reserves, discovered his passion for running in college. His speed in the 1,500 meters secured him a spot on a Reebok-sponsored track team in Boston, and his loyalty to his country twice took him overseas. He swore to himself both times that being deployed wouldn't get in the way of bettering his performance against the clock.
"I tried not to think about the [danger]," says Lutz, who ran almost daily during his deployment. "I'd have the attitude that if it's my time to go, it's my time to go."
He kept in touch with his teammates and coach over e-mail. He posted an online journal detailing his training and close calls with missiles on a four-square-mile loop through the streets of Camp Blue Diamond. And when he showed up at practice in Boston last month after being gone since August, it was as if he hadn't ever left.
"The most remarkable thing is he didn't let a war get in the way," says Kevin Curtin, Lutz's Reebok coach. "As a coach you hear people saying, 'Oh, things are tough at work. It's hard to get to practice.' After getting e-mails from Justin I'd say, 'I don't even want to hear about it. I've got a guy training in combat.' "
The self-discipline that drove him outside to run seven miles after driving a convoy while others relaxed watching movies has made him a stronger runner and a "more confident person," Lutz says. "I was potentially risking my life to do what some people with cushy jobs don't even take the time to do."
He still has a few years left in the Reserves, but for now he's getting resettled into the routine of family and friends, safer workouts, and joining the crowd cheering for the Boston Marathon runners. He'll be an honored guest watching from the finish line this year - where the only incoming rockets distracting him from the clock will be the flurry of Kenyan legs.