Running for country.
Bang! The gun goes off, and the women's 8-Kilometer race begins. The U.S. Air Force takes an early lead but the women representing the All-Navy Cross-Country team are close on their heels.
"Run! Run! Catch up with her! We need you to catch her," screams Cmdr. James Felty, head coach of the All-Navy Cross Country team, who is trying to motivate one of his runners to catch a runner from the All Air Force team. "Close that gap and on the last lap, you got her."
The six men and five women of the Navy Cross-Country Team pushed their limits at 2009 Armed Forces Cross-Country Championship, held in conjunction with the USA Track & Field's Winter Classic early in the year. The Navy started off very strong with Lt. j.g. Will Christian and Lt. j.g. Aaron Lanzel finishing first and second in the men's 12-Kilometer run. At the end, both Navy teams--women and men - took second place as the team championship was determined by adding the placement finishes of the team's top three runners. The second place finish is a very respectable result for a group of runners who do this in addition to full-time work.
"Many of the runners there are professionals, and their job is just to run," said Lanzel, a three-year member of the team. "They compete to make the U.S. National Team with large amounts of money and endorsements hanging in the balance. It's a welcome challenge to measure yourself against the best, even with only a fraction of the time to prepare and train like they have."
Trying to balance a military career with training can be challenging for most of these runners, but like all Sailors, they're used to multi-tasking.
"Everyone in all of the military services have different jobs; therefore, they have different training schedules. Some will be able to train better than others based on their work schedule," said Lt.j.g. William Christian, a two-year member of the team. "Being a surface warfare officer at sea, my schedule can be very hectic. My work day usually starts at 0630 and ends around 1630 and sometimes can run much longer than that. I try to run before work and when the workday is over, I usually run home. When I am at sea, I have to stand three watches, and I normally run on the treadmill in between those watches."
But as the most junior and only enlisted person on the team, Seaman Cory Duquette made evident that the opportunity is available for those who work hard as he placed third in last year's Marine Corps Marathon.
"It feels good. I always let the other service members know that I am enlisted because I try to get the point out that you don't have to be an officer to be selected to compete," said Duquette, who is assigned to USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN 72). "It has to do with the level of competition, the support of your command and the belief that you can compete at that particular level."
The All-Navy Sports program offers Sailors the opportunity to compete at a professional level in 22 sports, including boxing, wrestling and softball among others.
"Depending on the sport, we will invite roughly 20-30 Sailors to camp to try out. The coach will then select the final team which will go on to represent the Navy at the armed forces competition," said John Lucas, interim program manager, Navy Sports Regional Fitness and sports director MWR Navy Mid-Atlantic Region.
Applying for an All-Navy Sports team is as simple as typing www.mwr.navy.mil/mwrprgms/sports.htm and printing out an application. Besides having the talent, skill and dedication to compete successfully, Sailors also need command support.
"Sailors need to have their commanding officer endorsement as well as their base fitness director prior to sending the application to our office," said Lucas. "Between the tryout camps, the armed forces tournament and the follow-on nationals, some Sailors could be [temporarily assigned] to the program anywhere from as little as four days to as long as six weeks."
In the case of cross-country running, the runners must provide records of their times.
"The application [process] considers your past accomplishments as a runner and the time you have run," said Lanzel.
The invitations to camp usually go out within a day or two of the application deadline. Interested applicants need to make sure that they get their forms submitted on or before each posted deadline. From there, commands will cut no-cost orders, and Navy Sports will make and fund travel and berthing arrangements. For this investment, the Navy benefits in a variety of ways.
"We've had athletes go on to compete at the Olympic level in years past. Moreover, the Navy is routinely well-represented at the Ironman Triathlon World Championships at Kona, Hawaii. I think the greatest success comes from the pride that these service men and women get from representing the Navy and the impact that they have on young kids who are considering a career in the Navy," said Lucas. "Additionally, our athletes are proof-positive of the Navy's commitment to a culture of fitness."
These athletes must have a strong supporting cast at home as well. Being away from family members is a part of military members' normal life, but when you add in the training on top of normal duties, the time that they are away from home can really add up.
"My wife is very supportive. She sometimes thinks I am a bit crazy because I'm always on the go and have a lot of ambition," said Duquette, a freshman member of the team. "I am a Sailor who wants to be a more competitive runner, and I also want to be a Navy SEAL."
Felty, the cross-country team coach, is part of that support system. Although the runners train independently, Felty helps them design their work-out schedule and develop strategy and plans for the race when the team comes together the week before the nationals and a week before the Marine Corps Marathon.
"During the past several years we have grown the distance running program significantly as many of the qualities from our core values of honor, courage and commitment are required to be a successful elite distance runner representing the Navy," said Felty. "Serving as the head coach for the past six years has been a tremendous honor and experience as I have had the opportunity to work with some amazing Sailors and runners."
In 2008 the Navy won first place in individual and team categories at the Marine Corps Marathon and in the nationals.
Prior to the race, the Sailors and Coast Guardsmen on the cross-country team try to spend as much time with one another and support each other as much as possible.
"The team gets along great. We go out to eat and hang out to talk about past races, our goals for future races and strategies for the cross-country championships," said Christian. "We like to go on group runs a couple days before the event to get a feel for each other's fitness and to check out the course we will be competing on.
"For those few days we are together, we are as close as any professional team," said Duquette. "After the dust has settled and the medals are handed out, we go out with the All-Marine, All-Army and All Air-Force teams to celebrate at the Armed Forces meet no matter who wins that day. Without a doubt, running on the All-Navy Cross-Country team had to be one of the two best experiences I have had while serving."
Going back to their commands and telling tales about their travels and competing against other services is something in which these Sailors take pride.
"I feel great about [representing the team] every time I run," said Duquette. "When I get the chance to stand on the starting line in big competitions, I feel like I am fortunate to compete against some of the better runners in the United States. They see me wearing the Navy on the front of my uniform, and it instantly lets my competitors as well as spectators know that I am in the Navy, and I am competing for not only my service but also for my country.
"I am in the Navy, and I compete for the Navy and there is no greater feeling," said Duquette. "This is one of the best experiences that I've had in my naval career!"
For more information on Navy Sports programs, visit www.mwr.navy.mil/mwrprgms/sports.htm.
Story and photos by [MC.sub.2] (SW/AW) Jhi L. Scott
Scott is a photojournalist assigned to Defense Media Activity-Anacostia, Washington, D.C.