Runners brave obstacles in first Afghan marathon


Mon, Dec 13, 2004 - Page 5

Two hundred American soldiers and civilians crossed the start line yesterday at a dusty airstrip in a Taliban stronghold to run Afghan-istan's first ever marathon.

Gun racks and fox holes as well as plastic palm trees dotted the course for the satellite race to the more orthodox Honolulu Mara-thon, with runners facing the challenge of high altitude and a bumpy course as well as the risk of rebel attack.

The race, which begins several hours before 20,000 people ran in Honolulu, was the idea of the US Army's 2nd Battalion, 5th Infantry Regiment, based at Schofield Barracks near Honolulu, who didn't want to miss out.

Tapes of Hawaiian music blared as competitors, decked out in black T-shirts, set off from between two cannons on five laps of the landing strip at Firebase Ripley, just outside Tirin Kot, 120km from the southern Afghan city of Kandahar and 1,400m above sea level.

"I've never run one this high," said Major Dario Baratto of Alexandria, Virginia, a veteran of 11 marathons. "It's a dangerous area, but there's a lot of weapons along the route. There's bunkers in case anything happens."

Helicopters flew soldiers in from other bases across Afghanistan yesterday morning. Two jet fighters roared over the base, surrounded by the mountains of Uruzgan province, just before the race began 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.

"This is not an official sport in our country," according to Mo-hammed Aref Payman, an official at the Afghan National Olympic Committee in Kabul. "This has never been done here before."

Some of the course is gravel, but most of it is covered by a fine, powder-like dust mercifully damped down by a rare shower on Saturday. Its single hill has been named Diamond Head for the Honolulu landmark, an extinct volcano whose base runners traverse twice during the marathon.

The runners in Tirin Kot will receive finisher's medals and certificates as well as their sponsored T-shirts, and their finish times will be recorded and listed in a booklet with those of the runners in Honolulu.