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Fort Drum soldiers to run shadow Boston Marathon in Afghanistan

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Days before runners take to the streets for the Boston Marathon on Monday, deployed Fort Drum soldiers and other military personnel will take part in their own version of the iconic race today in Afghanistan.

Rather than the windy roads by sites like the Ashland clock tower and Boston College, or the crushing climb of Heartbreak Hill, 600 entrants from a range of units and countries will run 26.2 miles on the roads of Bagram Airfield.

This year’s race was organized by Capt. Lukasz Willenberg, a chaplain in the 10th Mountain Division’s headquarters who ran in Boston last year.

The Barrington, R.I., native completed the race, for a fourth consecutive year, about two hours before a set of bombs went off near the race’s finish line at Copley Square.

After a beautiful day of running and beating a personal best time, “all the magic of that day was ruined.”

Capt. Willenberg said he and other entrants planned to run in honor of soldiers who have died in Afghanistan, along with victims of last year’s bombings in Boston.

To help that effort, Maj. Roberto Sanchez, who helped plan the race’s logistics, said more than 100 soldiers volunteered with the race, “which is more than we ever imagined.”

The officially endorsed race has been held multiple times since 2005, in multiple countries and even on a ship at sea. With the looming deadline to close major American military operations in Afghanistan at the end of the year, today’s shadow Boston Marathon may be the last one officially organized in Afghanistan.

Among the biggest differences between the stateside and overseas races is the elevation. The Afghanistan base sits about 5,000 feet above sea level, more than 10 times the highest elevation of about 450 feet at the start of the Boston race, which descends to about sea level.

Capt. Willenberg said the elevation will make it harder to breathe fully during the race. However, the course has been described as relatively flat.

“There’s no Heartbreak Hill,” he said.

With the race taking place in a combat area, Maj. Sanchez said, another challenge was ensuring security for runners.

Comments from the two soldiers were made available through video distributed by the Regional Command-East public affairs office.

The race has received the full support of the Boston Athletic Association, which puts on the Boston race.

The entrants in Afghanistan will receive the same T-shirts, bibs and finisher’s medals as those running stateside, and will run by official start and finish banners.

The benefits of the race can be seen both at home and abroad.

Lt. Col. Rodney R. Freeman, who now serves with the New Hampshire National Guard, created the first shadow Boston Marathon while deployed in Iraq in 2005. He said replicating the Boston race, which he called “an American institution,” helps boost morale for entrants. At the time he launched the race, he said there were few positive stories coming from Iraq or Afghanistan.

“It’s a way to bring the world a little closer together, and bring those guys home for a little while,” he said.

Given the tragedy of last year, Col. Freeman said, this year the race will provide comfort both in Boston and abroad.

“In Boston the race is going to be a healing event,” he said. “For folks in Afghanistan, it’s a healing event of a different kind. It’s a war healing event. No matter how bad your deployment has been, it’s a way to honor folks.”

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