BOSTON — Lt. Col. Rodney Freeman was training for the 2005 Boston Marathon when his New Hampshire Army National Guard unit shipped out to Iraq.
Goodbye, Heartbreak Hill.
Hello, Ziggurat of Ur.
“I was planning to run, and the government had a different idea,” said Freeman, who gathered some friends together for a “shadow marathon” at their military base outside Nasiriyah, Iraq.
“At that time, Iraq wasn’t a very friendly place. Everything coming out of Iraq was negative,” Freeman said this week. “It’s not the T-shirt. It’s not the medal. It’s not the marathon. It’s the fact that Mom and Dad could see something back home that’s positive.”
The plans for that first race grew from a handful of buddies following a Humvee with a cooler of water to more than 350 runners, escorted by gun trucks, through the dusty Iraqi streets. The Boston Athletic Association, which organizes the marathon, has supported a shadow race for members of the military each year since then. For inspiring a new tradition in the world’s most traditional road race, the B.A.A. presented Freeman with its Patriots’ Award on Thursday night during the annual marathon kickoff party.
A high school athlete while growing up in Maine, Freeman wasn’t willing to give up on his dream of running Boston after he was deployed overseas. He gathered a few friends for a 26.2-mile run on Marathon Monday and sent off an email to the B.A.A. to let them know his plan.
The marathon organizers promised support, but they also encouraged Freeman to see if he could get more people involved. Soon, he had enlisted hundreds of runners and arranged for a course that took them off the base and to the Ziggurat of Ur, a 4,000-year-old pyramidal platform built by the Mesopotamians.
Leaving the base meant an escort of two gun trucks and scheduling that part of the run in the morning, before the heat and the locals were out in full force. Portable bathrooms and mobile hospitals were set out along the course. The Humvee with a cooler grew to eight tractor-trailers full of water.
Instead of New England spring rain, Freeman had to worry about a sandstorm that hit two days before the race and prepare for sweltering heat. The run started at 6 a.m. to avoid the hottest part of the day; by noon that day, the temperatures had climbed to 130 degrees.
The B.A.A. sent over T-shirts and bibs for all the runners and finishers’ medals just like the ones they hand out in Copley Square at the end of the 26.2-mile trek from Hopkinton. A banner with the organization’s unicorn logo was hung over the start and finish line.
“Just like Boston shuts down for the day, the base shut down for the day,” Freeman said. “It became something bigger than me.”
In fact, the event grew so large that Freeman was too busy to run in it. After he returned to the States, he was invited back to run Boston; he finished the 2006 race in about 4 hours, 30 minutes.
Since the 2005 race at Camp Adder, thousands of runners have participated in shadow marathons each year in Iraq and Afghanistan; the 2008 race on the supercarrier USS Nimitz was delayed for several days because of 50-knot winds and 14-foot waves.
“We would have blown several folks overboard to their deaths,” Lt. Cmdr. Spencer Moseley told the B.A.A.
In his dress blue uniform, his chest covered with military medals, Freeman accepted the crystal Patriots Award and presented it to his wife of 16 years, Missy, noting that military families make just as many sacrifices as the soldiers and sailors sent abroad. He also thanked the long distance-running community, saying their dedication to the event was a form of patriotism, too.
“Patriots aren’t people who wear uniforms. Patriots are people that live every day and have dreams and aspirations,” Freeman said. “Patriots are people that fight for something they believe in. The people in this room, you are all Patriots.”
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