FORT BENNING, Ga. - Racers trudged through hills of red Georgia clay, over fallen trees and under long-growing branches for 13.1 miles, while the “pop, pop, pop” from a distant small-arms range echoed on Kelley Hill, March 15.
The setting was fitting for the 2014 Chesty Puller Trail Race. Perhaps the terrain was reminiscent of the coconut groves Marine Lt. Gen. Lewis B. “Chesty” Puller found himself with his men in 1942, where “many of the trees were shattered” and broken trunks mixed with debris. Or of the sounds as the Marines braved shellings and firefights, according the Marine Lt. Col. Jon T. Hoffman, author of Chesty: The Story of Lieutenant General Lewis B. Puller.
“We wanted to bring flavor to the community while representing the values Chesty Puller had,” said Marine Lt. Col. Ruben Martinez, the Marine Corps Detachment, Maneuver Center of Excellence, commanding officer. “He was an American hero, not just a Marine hero.”
Three years ago, retired Marine Gunnery Sgt. Daniel Baumgardner, a Jacksonville, N.C., native, and a few other Marines in the Marine Corps Detachment at Fort Benning, decided to turn their Monday morning trail run into something bigger. Since Baumgardner has retired and left the area, he handed over the race planning to Marine Staff Sgt. Ricky Jordan, a Tank Maintenance Instructor from Bethel Springs, Tenn.
“When we started this [race] three years ago, we never expected it would have grown to be like it is today,” Baumgardner said.
Baumgardner joined the more than 200 service members, civilians, spouses and family members on the day’s race.
“There’s swamp land, dirt roads, gravel, soft sand, large tree roots…you name it, and it’s probably out there,” said Spencer Folds, a sports specialist with the Fort Benning Morale, Welfare and Recreation. “This course is not for the faint of heart.”
The day also featured a 5k Fun Run, which Folds said was just as technical and included some of the same terrain incorporated into the 13.1 race.
Folds, of Dadeville, Ala., spent months working with Jordan, Marines with the Marine Corps Detachment, and dozens of volunteers, to plan the half marathon and prepare the trail. With the rough terrain, the team had to ensure that each potential safety hazard was properly indicated with red and gold spray paint and the route was marked with tape and signs. Folds said the Marines' MWR staff and volunteers' help setting up the course was invaluable.
“It was tough,” said Army Lt. Col. Kevin Capra, the commander of 3rd Armored Brigade Combat Team’s 1st Battalion, 10th Field Artillery Regiment. “The hills were the hardest part. The terrain was challenging. I expected some ups and downs, but nothing like that.”
Capra said the only way to really prepare for something like the Chesty Puller Trail Race is to run trails. Having access to Kelley Hill’s wooded areas, where his battalion is located, may have seemed like an advantage, but Capra said there is still work to be done prior to racing.
“Just like any military operation, you have to do a recon and a rehearsal,” said the Mt. Claire, N.J., native. “Mentally, your pride won’t let you quit. You just have to keep on pushing.”
Capra placed second in the 40 to 49 year old men’s division, coming in at 2:04:56.
The toughest part for others, however, wasn’t the hills but the soft sand that was scattered throughout the course.
“It really sucked!” said 2nd Lt. Tim Nelson, with the 2nd Squadron, 16th Cavalry Regiment, 199th Infantry Brigade. Nelson, of Augusta, Wis., placed first, overall, with a time of 1:28:24, averaging a 6:45-mile pace.
Following the finish, Nelson talked with 2nd Lt. Mike Kurvach, of Victor, N.Y., who placed second, overall, and first in the men’s 18 to 29 year old bracket, with a time of 1:29:55. Legs bloodied, Kurvach, a student at the Fort Benning Infantry Basic Officer Leadership Course, under the 199th Infantry Brigade, said he shared his disdain for the sand, and the branches, as the two caught their breath after their top finishes.
“I have done that course so many times, and it’s tough, but it’s what the Marine Corps is about. It’s about what military life is about— it’s hard,” Baumgardner said. “But, you survive and you make it through.”