The Air Force Marathon: The ‘younger, hotter’ military marathon

James Beyer, 46, Dayton Ohio, crosses the finish line to win the U.S. Air Force Marathon's men's full marathon event at 2:35:47, Sept. 21. (Michelle Gigante/Air Force)

James Beyer, 46, of Dayton, Ohio, crosses the finish line to win the 2013 Air Force Marathon in 2:35:47. (Michelle Gigante/Air Force)

If you’ve even heard of the Air Force Marathon — and chances are good you haven’t — you might be quick to dismiss it. Especially after you find out it’s in, um, Ohio.

While it may not enjoy the dramatic location or running world prestige as that other military marathon, organizers say the Air Force Marathon — like the service itself — is “younger and hotter” and just as worthy of a spot on your big race bucket list.

“Everyone knows about the Marine Corps Marathon, but we’re just as good, easily,” says Rob Aguiar, Air Force Marathon race director at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base just outside Dayton, where the race is held every September. “We’re pretty darn good.”

That’s big talk for a relatively little race, but Aguiar says he knows some things you may not.

“I’ve run the Marine Corps Marathon a few times. It’s an incredible race,” he says. Winding its way past many of Washington, D.C.’s most storied monuments for nearly four decades now, the middle-aged Marine Corps Marathon is considered a runner’s tour de force for good reason, now drawing 30,000 runners annually.

Launched in 1997, the Air Force Marathon, on the other hand, is still young by big race standards. But it’s finding its stride.

For starters, it’s not so little anymore. The Air Force Marathon has doubled in size since 2008, with 15,000 runners expected to compete this year in its full, half, 10k and 5k events. This year’s race is slated to kick off Sept. 20.

It’s got some history, too. There’s the multi-hanger-sized Smithsonian-quality National Museum of the United States Air Force, which serves as both the start and finish line as well as host to the pre-race, carbo-loading, pasta-thon dinner the night before.

The Air Force Marathon is also the only full major marathon with a course nearly entirely inside the wire of an active-duty base, Aguiar says. That includes the very field a certain Brothers Wright converted into the first full-on airfield after their Kitty Hawk test runs.

Look up and a Wright Flyer replica of the original military aircraft could be flying close air support through a stretch of your run.

Need more firepower? Bring on the jets. Nothing like a low-altitude flyby to get your blood pumping. This year’s featured starting gun will be brought courtesy of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.

“What we are is a really great race that’s filling up very quickly, and we’re becoming our own name,” Aguiar says.

Race marketing director Tiffany Johnson puts it more bluntly. “We’re younger, and we’re hotter,” she says.

Indeed, the Air Force Marathon has now grown into one of the top 30 races in the U.S., according to the race trackers at MarathonGuide.com. A kind of Yelp for long-distance runners, more than 300 users give the Air Force race an average of 4 out of 5 stars, just below the Marine Corps Marathon’s 4.5 stars.

Last year, fitness site Daily Burn included the Air Force Marathon in its “15 Best Fall Marathons,” right alongside the Marine Corps’ big race.

And while the Marine Corps race is sold out, there’s good news if you want in on the action. The Air Force Marathon still has openings in its half and full runs.

“The Air Force Marathon does one of the best jobs anywhere. This is one of my must-do-every-year marathons,” says Sid Busch, a retired Navy master chief. He should know. He’s notched up about 200 marathons across the country, including 20 split between the Marine Corps and Air Force marathons.

Busch, who served most of his 26-year career aboard submarines, has dedicated dozens of races to fallen troops, usually carrying a U.S. flag and the picture of a service member killed in action.

“The Marine Corps and Air Force marathons are equal as far as emotional starts and finishes,” he says. In Ohio “from start to finish, the support is fantastic. The course is awesome.”

Tech test run

With all the new running gizmos and fitness tracking devices out there these days, you might be wondering which ones manage to hit that sweet spot at the intersection of form, function and user-friendliness.

The fighting mad scientists at the Air Force Research Labs at Wright-Patt are wondering, too. That’s why this year they’re sending more than 100 devices — from FitBit Flexes to UnderArmour39s — to runners training for this fall’s Air Force Marathon.

“We will have at least half a dozen types of devices — about 10 to 20 each — that people will be able to check out a month or two before the race,” says Joshua Hagen, chief of the Human Centric Sensor Systems project. “New ones are coming out all the time, so as we get closer to the race, that may go up.”

While runners test off-the-shelf tech, Hagen’s team is at work building the next generation of wearable monitors. One prototype is a Band-Aid-like stick-on that tracks real-time hydration levels from body sweat, beaming data directly to a smartphone. Hagen says that should be ready for human testing by next year’s marathon.

In the meantime, he hopes this year’s test run will help “to establish a set of design rules when it comes to physiological monitoring from the user perspective. We don’t want to be in our lab with blinders on and developing something from beginning to end and five years later have this product that nobody cares about because it’s not wearable or the user interface is no good.”

Jon R. Anderson is a staff writer for OFFduty. Contact him at jona@militarytimes.com.

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