Twenty five years ago this month, Chaplain (Captain) Mike Suttle of Little Rock, Arkansas asked me if I wanted to join him in the 1991 running of the Frankfurt Marathon, our entry fees fully paid for by USAREUR (US Army Europe).
At the time, I was a Private First Class (E-3) and Chaplain Suttle’s driver (our CUCVEE was aptly named “The Holy Roller”). He wanted to prove to the rest of the 15th Ordnance Battalion that a man of God (and his driver, apparently) could knock out 26.2 miles with little more than a shrug. I was compelled to say yes—I was fresh out of training and rather fit—and thereafter our commitment gave him bragging rights.
“Let’s take a ride to Hanau and tell them about the race,” he’d say. Or, “The XO in Babenhausen thinks he’s a runner—but just wait until he hears about what we’re doing. Ha!”
I was 19 years old and fully on board. Plus, it gave the Chaplain and I something to talk about besides the Bible while jetting back and forth between HHD in Darmstadt and the outlining company kasernes.
The Chaplain, I felt, never was fully comfortable with a collar. His background as an enlisted infantryman during peacetime kept him from ever putting his rifle skills to practice. He often voiced regret for never having an opportunity to show off his soldierly wares.
“God’s will,” he’d say, looking towards the sky.
His current responsibilities mostly revolved around conducting morale-building visits to soldiers locked-down after Saddam’s recent shenanigans in Kuwait. On longer road trips the Chaplain would talk a lot. I knew that one of his secret desires was combat. But at that point, even if our unit got deployed, he still wouldn’t have been able to scratch that itchy trigger finger of his. And probably me neither, for that matter.
Morning PT was where we got our miles in. Miles that, for the most part, never exceeded ten. We followed the typical routine: push ups and sit ups followed by an ability-group jog through sunrise forests that once served as a secret munitions hideout for Hitler’s Nazis. Ours was one of the few bases with a working railhead. Most of the troops on base were ordnance or transportation guys working around the clock to send SCUDs to the desert. Often we’d run past their smoking area and give a wave. My job was a cakewalk compared to theirs. I could wear the same BDUs all week. I had it lucky.
When I was a kid my dad told me that one of his lifelong goals was to run a marathon. I saw the race in Frankfurt as a chance to do something about which my dad and I might someday commiserate. Maybe it would be something made my dad proud of me.
A buddy from Admin passed on an Eastbay catalog. “Dude, you can’t run a marathon in those shitty PX shoes,” he said.
Besides heeding his advice, I also felt compelled to mark the event with memorable attire. I liked bright colors, so I sent off a $37 check for a pair of pink Brooks flats to match my pink-trimmed Nike parka. Within a couple weeks my APO box had a “PACKAGE RECEIVED” card in it. My race day kicks had arrived. They stayed in the box until then.
The Friday before the race, Chaplain told me I’d need to get to Frankfurt on my own. Something about his wife and kids wanting to come and not having enough room in the car for me. I borrowed another soldier’s VW Jetta and, for the first time, drove on the Autobahn wearing civvies. No dirty looks from Germans.
Today, the miles are a blur. But I distinctly remember a few things, like running on cobblestones and worrying about twisting an ankle. I remember early in the race running past a woman taking a shit not ten feet off the course. I remember stopping at a hydration station and chugging a can of Henninger Pils. I also remember walking. A lot. Maybe even crying. I remember being cold. And hot. And cold.
I can still hear the cheers that grew louder and louder as I neared and entered the finish line chute. Something in German as I ran under the banner. Being led by officials to a recovery area where I started shivering uncontrollably. Where a volunteer gave me my first ever cup of hot Nescafé instant coffee, the aroma for which I am still wildly nostalgic.
I remember not seeing the Chaplain at all that day in Frankfurt. Not before or during the race, not at the finish line. In fact, I saw nobody I knew or even recognized. Once I warmed up and got my bearings, I drove back to base. Home by noon. Sunday morning. My roommate barely getting up when I walked back into the barracks.
“What you doing today, Griffen?”
“Nothing really. Just finished that marathon.”
“Oh yeah. No shit? How far was it?”
“Like 43k. 26 miles.”
“Wow. Well, whatever then. You going to chow?”
The next morning I met the Chaplain at the motor pool while PMCSing the truck.
“Hope she’s looking better than I’m feeling,” Chaplain said. “How’d it go for you?”
“Well sir, I am pretty sore,” I said.
“Me too. You know your time?”
“Nice work! Me too. Strange we didn’t cross paths.”
I dropped the hood of the truck, warmed up the glow plugs, and started the engine.
“The Roller’s sounding good, Griffen. You up for a ride to Babenhausen?” Chaplain asked.
“Sure thing. Anywhere you want, sir.”
“Let’s swing by the barracks so you can grab your medal.”
“I want to see the look on the fuckin’ XO’s face when we walk into his office wearing ‘em.”
I laughed. “Yes sir!”
“Praise to God, Private Griffen! We run like the wind!” he shouted. “Praise to God Almighty! HOOAH!”