Running in the 120-degree midday heat of Alafad, Iraq, felt a lot like home for Staff Sgt. Jeremy Brown, who grew up training in the Las Vegas desert.
The war zone is where he steeled himself for today’s Marine Corps Marathon and the Challenge Cup, a trans-Atlantic rivalry within the marathon.
“Actually, it was really a decent training environment,” said Sgt. Brown. I tried to get most of running outside unless there was a sandstorm and I wasn’t allowed to run. People gave me some strange looks when I would head out there around noon.”
Sgt. Brown, who was in Alafad for seven months and is now stationed in San Diego, is one of five male and three female Marines training for the Challenge Cup, an annual competition that pits the U.S. Marine Corps’ best runners against those from the Royal Navy/Marines of Great Britain.
The Challenge Cup emerged in 1978 after the second Marine Corps Marathon when Commander John McDonough of the Royal Navy/Marines told race officials he wanted to bring a team the next year to compete against U.S. Marines.
Each year since then the Challenge Cup has grown more formal and more intense. The Challenge Cup also involves an event on the Royal Navy/Marines home turf where each team runs a half marathon.
In 1998, the teams expanded the competition to include women. Each year the winning team receives a Challenge Cup trophy, an 1897 Victorian silver cup, originally belonging to the H.M.S. Victory, found in storage by Al Rich, a former member of the Royal Navy/Marine team who has run 17 Marine Corps Marathons and now oversees the British runners while in the United States.
Recently, though, the race has been remarkably one-sided with the British racers winning nine straight between 1998 and 2006. The U.S. won last year and hopes to repeat Sunday.
“Every single year things get very competitive,” said George Baker, a Marine Corps Marathon historian and author of “Marine Corps Marathon: A Running Tradition”
“The thing is they are very good friends beforehand but come race time it is one team against the other. It is always a good feeling when you beat somebody you know.”
Before each race, both teams devise a strategy - figuring who does best on hills or straightaways and deciding at what point in the race is the best time for runners to really push their pace. This year, the course designers brought back a route going around Hains Point in East Potomac Park, an area many runners have complained about.
“Some people don’t like the running around Hains Point, but I like it,” said Mr. Rich. “People fall apart there. There is often a lot of wind and nobody around. That’s where you find out who has trained enough.”
Above all things, though, there is a feeling of camaraderie between the two teams and a mutual understanding of the sacrifices each member has made to serve his country. It is not always easy to find time to train for long-distance running, particularly when stationed in some of the world’s most dangerous places. Each member is forced to adjust and react to the constraints imposed by the situation.
“We are not pro athletes and we can’t dedicate all of our time to training,” said Alex Heatherington, a helicopter pilot from Richmond who has served two tours and Iraq and one in Afghanistan. “That is the main appeal of the competition. It is for those who love to run and are also members of their respective armed forces.”