Forget Football: Why the Army Marathon Team Ball Run Matters More Than the Army-Navy Game

Photo of the arrival at the 50-yard line in Baltimore; image courtesy of the West Point Marathon Team.   Photo of the arrival at the 50-yard line in Baltimore; image courtesy of the West Point Marathon Team.

After losing to Navy for the baker’s dozenth time, I have a message for Army football fans: Quit the crying. Wipe the tears. End the sobbing. Halt the sniveling. Cease the bawling. No more weeping.

Because the school you care so much about ultimately has one mission – graduating high quality Army officers for service in a challenging, complex world – and Army scored a silent success this weekend in a much more important contest than the football failure on display in CBS’s klieg lights.

Allow me to explain: I had the privilege, in my last act as the Army Marathon Team Officer-in-Charge, to join the team in the 24th Annual Army-Navy Game Ball Run from West Point to Baltimore.  Departing early Thursday morning and ending at the 50-yard line on Saturday, the Army Marathon Team planned, resourced, and executed a 250-mile movement with 3 vans, 18 cadets, 3 adults, and the inspirational support of a 1948 graduate who ran with us for nearly a mile in New Jersey (amazing).

Photo of author and Class of 1948 graduate Roger Conover on the Army Game Ball Run; image courtesy of Cadet Mackenzie Riford. Photo of author and Class of 1948 graduate Roger Conover on the Army Game Ball Run; image courtesy of Cadet Mackenzie Riford.

Essentially, at least one runner carries the game ball, continuously, from West Point to Baltimore.  Each runner aims for 7 miles per “leg” and performs two or three of these “legs.”  There are exceptions though, and sometimes the switch happens after 3, 4, or 5 miles, as in the case of one cadet with a moderately injured leg sustained at the recent Philadelphia Marathon.  Even still, we run all day. We run all night. All aided the entire way by the watchful eyes (and blinding, epileptic seizure-inducing lights) of state and local law enforcement.

Navy does the same thing, although, with the game in Baltimore – their version could more aptly be described as a “Ball Jog.”  They covered about a single marathon distance, roughly one tenth the Army Ball Run (basically a distance the Army Team does before breakfast). For our cadets, this experience displayed more than raw endurance; it took maturity, judgment, and teamwork.  And so there are three reasons why Army fans should forget football, remember West Point’s mission, and look to the Game Ball Run’s silent success: first, distance running is more relevant preparation for modern combat than football; second, the Army Game Ball Run connected with many more Americans that were otherwise apathetic towards the game or our nation’s military; and the run itself performed an entirely appropriate memorial function, untainted by commercialism, to our nation’s veterans and fallen heroes.

Marathon’s Greater Relevance to Modern Combat

Endurance and war are connected. The word “marathon” derives from an ancient messenger giving his last breath to carry word about a great victory.  Moreover, the Marathon Team runs the Boston Marathon annually, a race that honors Paul Revere, another brave messenger spreading word about conflict.  It was in Boston, in 2013, that the team experienced terrorism first hand.

Even more than these themes, competitive distance running is more valuable to a future ground combat leader than football.  But do not take my word for it: take the general officer in charge of the Army’s infantry branch.  The infantry is, of course, the foundational core of any land army.  When West Point asked the infantry branch chief (a two star general) a few years ago what general characteristics he valued most in his officers, he answered that the physical “experience” he valued most was distance running-centric: cross country, marathon, and ultra marathon competitors.  In the infantry, you need to move yourself, just as distance runners do.  This is logical, as is Exhibit B – in modern warfare, physical endurance matters more than brute strength. The hand-to-hand of the trenches has been pushed aside by weapons and communications technology that has markedly increased standoff ranges and decreased the likelihood of close combat. The Taliban doesn’t do Taekwondo.  Today’s wars reward endurance over strength.  To believe otherwise is to be led astray by Hollywood-war porn featuring Gerard Butler and 299 of his best (mostly naked) friends. Today’s opponents are often characterized by their desire to protract conflict and a corresponding inability to reach political decision. Cold warrior George Kennan once wrote, “heroism is endurance for one moment more.” This is also what wins wars today.

Another reason to be heartened by the Army Marathon Team’s Game Ball Run was that this, in nearly every way, mimicked a mechanized infantry movement over 250 miles. The Department of Military Instruction at West Point would have been proud of this training (I know, I work there).  Coordinated foot and vehicle movement. Reporting checkpoints. Mission Analysis. Operations order. Objective. Cooperate with local law enforcement. Engage a local population. Variable terrain. Poor weather.  And judgment, which considers multiple factors while on the move; i.e.: “the Ball Carrier has a bad right ankle that he hurt at the Philly Marathon, we’re 15 minutes ahead of schedule, it looks like there’s an intersection in a mile that should be a safe switchout point, but there are three people in the van that really need to get to a bathroom, and we don’t have communications with this new set of State Troopers because they changed out 10 minutes ago and did not pass off the new commo frequencies…” This is shoot, move, and communicate at it’s best, but without the bullets. Perhaps most importantly, most crucially, is the fact that this was almost entirely cadet planned and led (on a shoestring budget – pun intended).  This is in contrast to the football team’s legion of support workers (i.e. the Executive Scheduling Assistant to the Deputy Special Team’s Advisor) catering to travel needs so they can ultimately arrive at a competition where they execute a set of plays designed to remove individual decision-making to the fullest extent. Marathoners train and receive guidance, then lead their own fight until mission complete – just like junior combat leaders in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Connecting with (Canadians and) Apathetic Americans

Another reason to forget football and take heart in the Marathon Team’s massive movement was the incredibly positive direct contact it made with Americans.  Not from nosebleed seat distance, not from two-dimensional viewing screens, but from actual, visceral contact.  I’ve experienced crowds numbering in the millions in major city marathons before with the team, but this was something else.  Consider that New York to DC is the most densely populated corridor in the United States.  The entire way the team experienced spontaneous horn honking and surprised, startled fits of clapping.  Somewhere in New Jersey, I even had a woman slow down alongside me so she could snap a picture (this was noteworthy as I don’t think anyone outside my immediate family would or could ever desire a photograph of me).  I didn’t turn and smile.  I opted instead for the forward-looking, determined, “stoic warrior” look.  She snapped the picture, and as she sped off to pick up her kid from his organic, meditative, lacrosse recital, I noticed she had a large, prominent Canadian flag magnet on the back of her car.  She probably wasn’t even an American!  And we still connected with her on this road!

In this way the Marathon Team replicated the crucial tactical success in the Army’s “Surge” in Iraq: venturing into intimate contact with the local population as opposed to the centralized, massive encampments which keep the local population at an arm’s reach. More important is the nature of the connections made. People attending or watching the Army-Navy game genuinely love and will always support the military.  Even though this game is on a Saturday, the reverence on display, complete with an audience gleefully belting out “Hallelujahs” (a.k.a. “Beat Navy”), is akin to a choir.  While the Army-Navy Game is coalition and joint warfare, the Marathon Team Ball Run is a movement to contact designed to influence “fence-sitters” and those that had never considered watching the game. The Marathon Team expended great effort to connect Americans (and Canadians?) that likely never contemplated watching the game; the seed was planted, at least some gained interest and were heartened in our nation’s future defense. Ultimately, this is much more valuable than throwing red meat to an obedient fan base.

A Personal, Un-commercial, Moving Memorial

The phrase “brought to you by…” is another reason to forget football.  And I say this as a happy USAA customer, the company that sponsored the game. But we can do better than the “For Sale” sign attached to every uniformed cadet and wounded vet.  And, I believe, the Ball Run did do better.

Every town has a war memorial.  In New York and New Jersey they were often related to the War of Independence, while in Pennsylvania and Maryland the Civil War is more prevalent.  I stood under the obelisk in Boonton, New Jersey, guarded on four sides by bronzed cannons, and reflected on the simple fact that I selected military service, just as they did.  We communed. We connected. And nothing got between us – not USAA, not TV-timeouts, not even an accented gecko. I’d like to think the boys of Boonton appreciated the visit.

What Really Matters

Memorials often serve to focus on what really matters, and, at West Point, this is only one thing: producing the best Army officers possible to safeguard the nation through future conflict. When weighed and measured against this ultimate standard, I can honestly say this weekend was an athletic success. Army won in the contest that mattered most. The contest that did more to prepare cadets for combat; the contest that connected more with non-cammo America; the contest that managed to honor our heritage without hocking home insurance.

The greatest trick Army football every pulled was convincing the world they matter so much.  And so, Cadets, fellow West Pointers, and Army fans – I bring you one message, written in black on every mile marker from Highland Falls to Baltimore: Forget football. Remember the Army Marathon Team. Remember what matters.

Author: ML Cavanaugh

Unequal parts strategist, assistant professor, wordsmith, runner, wine-o, reader, philosopher of firepower, and hopeless lover of three ladies named Rachel, Grace, and Georgie.

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