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


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). 

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.

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