Soldiers run their own race to remember the fallen while reminding us all of the costs of war

Published: Sunday, Nov. 10 2013 4:05 p.m. MST

The Rev. Stephen Roberts, a chaplain with the U.S. Army Reserves; is shown with his wife and newborn son before he deployed to Afghanistan nearly four months ago from Virginia. He organized Operation Ragnar Afghanistan, a shadow race of the Las Vegas Ragnar that allowed five teams of soldiers to compete in Afghanistan against runners participating in Las Vegas the weekend before Veterans Day.

Courtesy Stephen Roberts

Most of the teams running this weekend’s Ragnar Relay in Las Vegas didn’t know about Team Martin Richard, Team Randy Lane or Team Byron Greff.

Ragnar teams are notorious for their humorous, goofy and sometimes provocative team names. But five teams that nobody saw ran nearly 200 miles under the names of those lost to a war many of us forget we’re fighting.

As most of the runners participating in the Las Vegas relay enjoyed the rugged desert red rock, the tranquility of Lake Mead and the glitter of the Strip, about five dozen U.S. soldiers and members of the allied forces found joy in the monotony of running 190 laps around a 1.05-mile loop in the dusty confines of their Afghan military base.

Other races, including the Salt Lake Marathon, have offered soldiers stationed in far-off lands the chance to run the same distance with the same recognition as their fellow athletes at home in the U.S.

But one military chaplain decided he would like to offer soldiers something that better epitomized the way it feels to do a job that a lot of people pay lip service to but few actually understand.

“A number of us were running ‘shadow’ half marathons through the Rock ’n’ Roll series, and I wanted to set up a more adventurous, team-oriented race,” said Stephen Roberts, who is stationed at Fort Belvoir (Virginia) but serving in Afghanistan for nearly four months. “I ran the D.C. Ragnar about two years ago. There were eight of us running … only four of us were at the finish line due to injuries. We loved it. It was a wonderful bonding experience.”

Thus Operation Ragnar Afghanistan was born.

It didn’t take much of a sales pitch and Roberts had five teams ready to run this weekend. Their race overlapped by about 10 hours with the Las Vegas Ragnar that began Friday morning and ended Saturday night.

Roberts said the races are a welcome distraction, even for those who never intended to participate in endurance events.

“We have an active running culture out here, even in the poor conditions,” Roberts said in an email. “It is key in drawing a soldier’s mind from this deployment to life and goals after the deployment. … Soldiers, often ambitious and daring, decided to take up the challenge.”

One team was made up of soldiers who served with Indiana native Randy Lane, a National Guardsman killed in action. The other four teams were a mixture of coalition forces and soldiers from various units and branches of the military. They made up Team Martin Richard, the little boy killed in the Boston Marathon bombings; Team Byron Greff, the last Canadian soldier to die in the war; Team Dwayne Flores and Team Eugene Aguon, two U.S. soldiers killed a few months ago near the base where the race took place.

Roberts asked his fellow Ragnar runners, regardless of the race they ran, to consider them as they enjoyed the weekend’s event, which coincidentally led up to Veterans Day, the holiday that honors the sacrifice of our soldiers.

“While you are running, some of our Afghan allies will die,” Roberts said. “Perhaps even some of our coalition soldiers as well. These are not military losses. They are our country’s losses. 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.”

So the five teams ran through the night, around that same dusty loop, cheering each other on in much the same way thousands of runners ran through the night helping each other achieve something together that none of them could do alone.

Roberts missed the finish of the Ragnar race he organized.

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