I Ran Iraq for 20

By 1st Lt. Frank Wheatly

CAMP LIBERTY, Iraq – I have an unreasonable passion for free t-shirts. Fortunately I am deployed to Iraq, where opportunities exist for Soldiers who are willing to endure running various distances to be rewarded with a free t-shirt.

There are typically two to three races each month on Victory Base Complex, the largest Forward Operating Base in Baghdad. Race distances range from 5K to full 26.2-mile marathons. I enjoy races for many reasons, but the most important is the break they provide from the routine of physical training. While many people do not enjoy running, the idea of running with hundreds of other people and a prize to strive for changes a standard run into an exciting community event. When a live band, free beverages and snacks, giant start/finish signs, and photographers taking pictures are added to the scene, it becomes an event not to be missed.

Three types of runners show up to the races: good runners, bad runners and non-runners. The good runners are experienced; they pace themselves, they are not intimidated by those around them and they run their race. They know their capabilities and they usually leave with free t-shirts.

Bad runners are the most prevalent at races. They do not consistently pace themselves, start too quickly out of a foolish desire to pass everyone at the start of the race and do not know proper runner’s etiquette.

Non-runners are the most admirable. They are not influenced by faster people passing them, they run with a sense of purpose, and they value the event and the cause more than anything else. These three types of runners are obvious at races. The good runners start at various places in the pack, but usually finish at the front. Bad runners start at the front of the pack and often flame out around the halfway mark, finishing in the mix. Non-runners are the ones running in groups, talking and laughing and finishing care-free.

I know this because I am a bad runner. I take offense when people pass me or when I see slower people ahead of me. My heart frequently hurts throughout the race, and although my pace is actually varying, I feel like I am sustaining my top speed. I do not completely understand runner’s etiquette, but I do know violations when I see them, such as running even with someone rather than tailing or passing, or trying to start a conversation with a runner wearing headphones. Those who I know historically finish around my time I view as rivals.

And of course, I value the free t-shirt above all else. If there are no free t-shirts to win, the chances of me running the race are negligible. Should two races occur on the same day, I will run in the one with more t-shirts or the shorter of the two. If all conditions are equal, then I will make my decision based on what t-shirt I anticipate being “cooler.”

While I may sound a little overboard, I know that I am not alone in this mentality. I cannot count the number of times I have heard someone say, “I’m just here for the t-shirt.” Much banter and trash-talking occurs within my battalion about who has the most t-shirts and anyone who misses a race had better have been on a mission; if not, they will have a hard time living it down. But honestly speaking, I think my fellow Soldiers and I have not encountered a race in support of something disagreeable yet or we might reconsider the t-shirt obsession. Realistically, I do not think I would run in a race if it promoted “Stealing Candy from Babies,” but I would be tempted. Over here, it is easy to trust that every race will be for something worth supporting, so I have not had to make that tough decision yet.

Even before running a race over here, I set a goal of getting twenty free t-shirts over the course of my year. Currently, I have six and an “I owe you,” which is what races give out when the t-shirts don’t arrive in the mail in time for the start.

The distance to my goal is unknown, yet unimportant. While I am not in shape to run a marathon (or even a half marathon), if that is the distance between the start and the t-shirt, as a bad runner, I intend to power my way to the finish, no matter how miserable the journey. From my experiences, the journey has been surprisingly enjoyable. Rivals have turned into friends, weather has been great, and I have been able to see and trample on parts of VBC that I would not encounter without participating in races.

I have run through a lightning storm, along scenic ponds, amidst mud puddles, by a biblical tomb-like cave, over bridges, under a palace, past multiple bag-pipe players, around speed bumps and into a few other runners on my quest to twenty t-shirts. I have heard of various Iraqi war trophies being taken in the early parts of this war, but for me, the t-shirts I acquire during Operation Iraqi Freedom are my war trophies.

Each shirt, while somewhat painful to win, brings to mind positive memories of challenges met, shared experiences and beneficial friendships. While more runners diminish my chances of winning t-shirts, more runners increase the amount of fun at an event, so whether you are a good runner, bad runner or non-runner, come see what the t-shirt buzz is all about. I look forward to sharing the race experience with you, but look out, because I will not share my t-shirts, nor will I hesitate to pass you at the end as I strive for twenty!

By 1st Lt. Frank Wheatly