- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 12, 2004

TIRIN KOT, Afghanistan (AP) — With thoughts of four comrades killed in recent fighting, a U.S. soldier burst into tears yesterday after winning Afghanistan’s first marathon.

Lt. Mike Baskin of Santiago, Calif., ran in the country’s thin mountain air for more than three hours before crossing the finish line.

“I just thought about those four guys when I crossed, that they won’t be going home with us, and it kind of hit me,” he said.

About 200 soldiers and civilians working for the U.S. military competed in the 26.2-mile race at Firebase Ripley, a remote military camp near Tirin Kot in central Uruzgan province.

The Afghan National Olympic Committee said the race was the first marathon in the history of the war-ravaged country.

The event was the idea of Hawaii-based soldiers serving in Afghanistan, and it coincided with the annual Honolulu Marathon.

Members of the U.S. Army’s 2nd Battalion, 5th Infantry Regiment, based at Schofield Barracks near Honolulu, didn’t want to miss out on the marathon during their deployment abroad.

So, they set up a course at an airstrip lined with gun stores and bunkers. To add a touch of their Hawaii base, the soldiers stationed plastic palm trees along the route.

Lt. Baskin completed five long laps of the airstrip to cheers and handshakes in three hours, 12 minutes, 15 seconds — an impressive time considering the conditions. Runners had to contend with a bumpy track and the threat of attack in addition to the high altitude.

The unit, part of the 25th Infantry Division, is operating in one of Afghanistan’s most hostile areas. It was hit with its latest casualties when a bomb ripped through a patrol near Deh Rawood, another town in Uruzgan, on Nov. 24, killing two soldiers. A similar attack killed two soldiers in October.

Helicopters flew in troops from other bases across Afghanistan for the race. Two jet fighters roared low over the base and into the surrounding mountains just before the start, to the cheers of the assembled runners.

One competitor was a young Afghan working for the military, apparently the first to compete in such a race on Afghan soil. He pulled up after one lap, complaining that regular soccer games were no way to prepare for such a test.

“These people are very fit, but this is not for an Afghan who only gets tea and bread for breakfast,” Mohammed Anwar said, sitting on the ground and looking with concern at his knees.

Some of the course was gravel, but most of it was covered by a powderlike dust damped down by a rare shower Saturday. Its single hill was dubbed Diamond Head for the Honolulu landmark, an extinct volcano whose base runners traverse twice during the marathon.

The Honolulu race starts at 5 a.m., but the Afghan run began before noon because of low temperatures at the earlier hour. With a 13-hour time difference, the conclusion came well before the Honolulu start.

The runners in Tirin Kot were to receive finisher’s medals and certificates as well as sponsored T-shirts. Their times were to be recorded and listed in a booklet with those of the runners in Honolulu.

About 20,000 people were competing in the Honolulu Marathon.

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