JOINT BASE CHARLESTON, S.C. --
As the morning temperature began to rise, both physical and mental conditions started to deteriorate for 1,331 participants from around the globe who had prepared their bodies and minds for the twenty-six plus miles ahead for the 23rd Annual Air Force Marathon at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, Sept. 21, 2019.
The start of the race was running an hour behind schedule.
Capt. Sarah Smith, a Medical Service Corps and executive officer from the 315th Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron at Joint Base Charleston, South Carolina, was not going to let this small deviation deter her from the two things she’s passionate about - running and serving in the Air Force Reserve.
“This year marks my 20th year of running,” said Smith with a wide grin and humble tone. She began competing in middle school through high school ultimately leading to a track scholarship at The Citadel in Charleston, S.C., where she set several records.
Smith was one of the select few chosen to represent Air Force Reserve Command, one of 10 Major Commands participating in this year’s marathon. Each MAJCOM team consisted of 10 members. Three males and one female are selected for the marathon and four males and two females are selected for the half-marathon.
“I ran my first marathon in 2013 in Charleston and qualified for the Boston Marathon at that race,” said Smith. “After completing the Boston Marathon, I realized there is so much more to the running circuit outside of high school and college. This is a community and I really fell in love with it.”
“My third marathon was in Houston this past January, setting my [personal record] at three hours and 17 minutes. I qualified well under the time needed for the Boston Marathon and registered to do it (Boston) again next year,” said Smith.
Feeling ambitious and not to shy away from a challenge, Smith was alerted to the Air Force Marathon and decided to embark on her next race.
After applying, Smith learned in June that she was accepted to represent AFRC as the lone female for the marathon team of four. Her two passions on display for all to see - fitness and the Air Force uniform.
“I probably hadn’t worn a race uniform since college,” said Smith as she enthusiastically describes picking up her official Air Force running uniform at the expo the day before the marathon. “I got back to my hotel room and put it on and thought, this is so cool, I’m actually part of the team...the AFRC team. It felt really special and I was honored to be able to represent AFRC, JB Charleston, and my unit.”
“The race itself was tough. We had a lightning delay by an hour; it messed up people’s nutrition, drinking, and timing and you’re on your feet for another hour before you start the race,” said Smith as she described the disheartening situation on race day. “It rained, which made conditions hot and humid.”
Despite Smith’s rigorous training and doing everything she could to be in optimal physical condition, she had a tough race. Her 20 years of competing would play a key role in her ability to complete the challenge ahead.
“I got cramps and did everything right as far as training but I still had struggles,” said Smith. “I had to walk and thought a lot about quitting. But no, I was on the team. This is important to me even if my time is nothing near what I want it to be, I’m going to finish because having just a little bit of grit - you’ve got to get through it.”
The finish line is where everything came together for Smith - physically, emotionally, and spiritually. It was there that she would connect with her role as a leader and reinforce her desire to serve in the military.
“The finish line was the longest on the planet,” Smith described as she had to navigate two corners before the end came into sight. “I’m finally coming down the finish line and cross under the wing of a C-17 Globemaster aircraft with people cheering.”
“I cross the line and expect to see some personnel in uniform. So, there is a gentleman standing there, in his uniform, and he reaches out to shake my hand. I’m kind of emotional due to having a rough race and not being proud of my time and it’s hot. I realize it’s Gen. Arnold Bunch, Jr., Commander, Air Force Material Command. He ran the half-marathon and had changed into his uniform. The emotion of the day must have went across my face because he went and gave me a hug.”
“I was so blown away,” said Smith. “I went over to get my finish medal and colonels and commanders from other groups were handing out medals. We just had the resilience tactical pause last month and we tell our Airmen, ‘We are here for you, we want to let you know that we care and you matter,’ and some of the feedback received is ‘Are you sure we matter? Do we only matter here? Do we matter at the Wing? Do we matter at the Group? Do we matter higher up?’ Most people would probably say, ‘I don’t think I do.’”
“I am going to tell you right now, my experience at the marathon - I mattered” said Smith. “I know I’m just an Airman (captain) but leadership was there and it wasn’t just for them to say they were at the marathon. Generals just don’t give out hugs. They were welcoming everyone coming across the finish line. It was genuine and they meant it. Personally, it was a very special moment to experience and witness, at those upper levels, that they truly care about each individual person, each Airman, all the way down to the most junior rank. That’s the type of leader I want to be and the feeling I want our people to have in the squadron, in the group, and in the wing.”
Smith finished the marathon sixth in her division at 3:56:20.