Let Freedom Ring: a Reflection on Running in the World Military Championships

US Women's Team; 2010 CISM Marathon Gold Medalists
US Women’s Team; 2010 CISM Marathon Gold Medalists

This Fourth of July, a mere month before the Summer Olympics start and with our national Track Trials in full swing, I’m reminded of how sport brings people together. One of my favorite parts of spending over 10 years in the Army was the opportunity to compete for the US Armed Forces team against other military teams from around the world in both cross country and the marathon. The US team, selected from the top finishers from each of the services at the US Armed Forces Championships, goes on to compete against other military teams at the World Military Championships  (CISM).

This is unique in several ways. Cross-service rivals became my teammates, many of whom became good friends as we saw each other year after year at the Armed Forces Championships and the CISM. What’s interesting, and I think even more readily apparent in a military environment, is the emphasis on the absence of politics at these competitions. We all participated in the same activities, devoid of any status or ranking. Fitting, because the motto of CISM is “Friendship through Sport.”

To get us in a patriotic mood, I thought I’d share a little more about CISM.

CISM is a multi-day affair, culminating in the championship race. The rest of the week usually consists of an opening ceremony, cultural day, closing military ceremony, and post-race banquet. Countries who are not typically allies come together at these events, regardless of political or social stance. The military powerhouses are not necessarily the running powerhouses. And at the post-race festivities, no one cares what uniform people out on the dance floor are wearing. In fact, one of the unofficial activities throughout the week is to trade uniform items and souvenirs with as many countries as you can. Athletes are ultimately there for the competition, but the event is structured to learn about and appreciate other cultures.

Running cross country for the US Armed Forces team in Belgium
Running cross country for the US Armed Forces team in Belgium

Another interesting aspect besides meeting people I wouldn’t normally meet, was visiting countries I may not otherwise have ever traveled to. Sure, it was nice staying in a picturesque alpine village in Switzerland where we could walk to the local chocolate shop, or experiencing living in a castle in Italy, and I didn’t hear any complaints in Belgium that the canteen on base opened as early as breakfast. But Tunisia? Where we had armored guards at our hotel and sizable police escorts take us to the running course? That was an interesting experience!

Maybe most interesting was Serbia, with questionable living conditions, and an aura of depression. That trip was probably the hardest for me, as I debated the chance to travel and compete for the US versus leaving my five-month old first born. I had to awkwardly pump and dump the entire time I was there. My coolest CISM was in Greece, covering the historic Marathon to Athens route that launched the modern Olympic Games. There, we ran along the official 2004 Olympic Marathon course, and could still see the blue line painted on the road that Deena followed to bronze.

My experiences running for the US military taught me to appreciate the freedom we have as not only Americans, but as runners. As Americans, we are privileged compared to so many around the world with our standard of living, the opportunities we have, and the choices we are allowed to make. As runners, we can train where and how we like, and have countless options for races each weekend. The world is wide open for us to freely explore, and running is a great  way to do that.

Take a moment to appreciate our freedom this 4th of July!

I have fun trying to sprint, enjoy long runs in the mountains, and everything in between. Former competitive runner (3 x marathon OTQ & trail marathon national champion) currently working through a lingering injury. I write about trying to stay competitive while raising young kids and moving into a new post-competitive stage.

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