At one time, running a marathon or even a half marathon was an option for only an elite group of serious runners. However, as running participation numbers have grown to more than 41 million people in the United States, the demand for running events has increased. Runners use the events to set a goal and train for something special as a means to get or stay fit. The branches of the military are addressing this need and encouraging activity in their communities by creating races of every size and scope. The branches plan and host everything from 5Ks to full marathons. In return, military fitness centers are drawing outside attention to and appreciation of the U.S. Armed Forces and are building camaraderie, morale and fitness among service members. Some military running events only involve runners from their community and surrounding areas, but others draw participants from around the world. The following pages feature some of the running events and programs that are drawing crowds at bases in the Air Force, Army, Marine Corps and Navy.

Air Force: Does It All

Air Force Fitness describes its running program in two words: In Training.

This program provides Air Force fitness centers with an online turnkey promotion that helps new runners get started by providing tips, training schedules and an easy-to-use tracking system.

“In partnership with several corporate sponsors, we are dedicated to growing runners in the Air Force community, military and civilians alike,” says Margaret Treland, Air Force Fitness chief. “We know there are people who are interested in running but, for one reason or another, just haven't gotten started. This program will be a way for people to meet other runners in their area and track their progress online.”

The tracking system acts as a virtual coach, logging distances and allowing runners to see how they compare to others through an online community. The training regimen is designed to help a person train, regardless of their initial skill level, for the U.S. Air Force Marathon in Dayton, OH. However, runners can apply the training tips and schedules to any race, Treland says.

In Training launched in May and already has 3,600 users. Besides increasing participation in the marathon, Treland says, other program goals include educating people on the benefits of running and encouraging participants to develop more active lifestyles.

The program can be used on its own or in tandem with other programming. At the Rambler Fitness Center on Randolph Air Force Base, TX, In Training is enhanced with brochures, nutritional seminars and group training runs. Rey Salinas, head of Randolph's running program, plans a yearly schedule of races with a variety of times and distances. The events are open only to Department of Defense (DoD) cardholders.

One of the most popular runs was the Freedom Run on Sept. 11, which is in honor of those who lost their lives in the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. The event typically draws more than 150 runners, Salinas says.

“It's a great experience, and with civilian DoD people and active duty, it's really a community coming together,” he says. “We have spouses and parents who come out and support their loved ones. It's a family-based event.”

Army: A Perfect 10

Promoted as the largest 10-mile race in America and the second largest in the world, the Army Ten-Miler (ATM) is a force to be reckoned with in the running event industry. Held earlier this month in Washington, DC, the road race normally draws 26,000 runners.

For this year's race, registration sold out in a record 21 days.

“The Army Ten-Miler has a strong brand,” says Jim Vandak, race director, “and we are pleased with the continued success of this race.”

Although specific figures weren't available for public release, all proceeds of the race benefit Army Morale, Welfare and Recreation, the comprehensive network of support and leisure services designed to enhance the lives of soldiers and their families, says Nancy Brandon, marketing manager. The race costs $47 per runner, and more than half of ATM runners are from the Washington, DC, area. Six full-time employees organize the race each year, resulting in a high-profile running event that promotes the sport of running and overall fitness, she says.

The race draws a mix of military and non-military runners. Fifty-seven percent of runners are affiliated with the military as either DoD cardholders or U.S. federal government employees. The event draws slightly more men than women (56 percent men vs. 44 percent women), and 66 percent of participants are between the ages of 25 and 44 years old. This year's race also included four teams involved with Missing Parts in Action, a group of military amputees. Some of them are double amputees.

Each year, the event is marketed through radio and print advertising, mailed postcards and e-mails.

“Fifty percent of our runners are return customers, and the others usually hear about the race by word of mouth,” Brandon says.

So what makes the ATM so popular? Location and its affiliation with the Army, Brandon says.

“We are the only race to start and end at the Pentagon,” she says. “We are the Army's race, and people come out to support the soldiers.”

Marine Corps: The Big One

If the Army is known for its Ten-Miler, then there's little doubt that the Marine Corps is known for its marathon. With more than 30,000 runners, the title of “best marathon for families” by Her Sports + Fitness magazine and Oprah Winfrey as a past finisher, the Marine Corps Marathon is the largest marathon in the country that doesn't offer prize money.

When the Marine Corps Marathon began 33 years ago at the Marine barracks in Washington, DC, it was a small race created to help Marines qualify for the Boston Marathon. After the first three years, civilians from the community began to participate, says Beth Johnson, public relations coordinator for the Marine Corps Marathon. To accommodate increased demand, the race was moved in 1992 to Marines Corps Base Quantico, VA.

Then, in 1994, Winfrey publicly trained for and finished the 26.2-mile race. The media attention from the TV star's run has helped the Marine Corps Marathon grow steadily since then. In years past, about 60 percent of the marathon's runners were male. Today, the male to female ratio is closer to 50-50.

“There was a boom in the running industry when she ran,” Johnson says. “There were more women and more beginners and lots of people who wanted to run.”

In addition to the marathon on Oct. 26, Marine Corps Marathon festivities include a three-day health and fitness expo, a kids' fun run, a 10K race, a fall festival and a celebration at the finish of the race. About 5,000 runners are affiliated with the military (active duty, reserves, former service members or retired).

Throughout the year, Marine Corps Base Quantico holds a series of runs to prepare runners and to promote fitness. Race organizers also developed an online trainer to help runners train for a half or full marathon. The marathon takes 18 months to plan, but the work is worth it, Johnson says.

“The marathon is the biggest single day for Marine Corps community relations with runners from all 50 states and more than 45 countries,” she says. “We have 155,000 spectators on race day and anywhere from 13,000 to 16,000 volunteers, all because they want to be a part of the event.”

Navy: One Size Does Not Fit All

Naval bases across the country hold running events year round to keep their communities and sailors fit. The events aren't typical, however. With names like Redneck Olympics and Rudy's Seal Challenge, these creative running events draw attention and high participation numbers, Navy Fitness professionals say.

Rudy's Seal Challenge is an 8K race that takes runners across the length of Naval Amphibious Base Little Creek in Norfolk, VA, and through the ocean, across the beach, into mud puddles and through logs and sand dunes. The challenge draws 500 participants.

John Lucas, regional fitness and sports director of Navy Morale, Welfare and Recreation (MWR), Mid-Atlantic Region, came up with the idea for the challenge while watching The Discovery Channel's documentary series “Navy SEALs: BUDS Class 234,” which features wannabe SEALs as they endure physically and mentally rigorous training.

“I was up late one night watching the show when I thought it'd be a good idea to incorporate the hazing, training, etc. into our race,” Lucas says. “It's worked quite well as the race has grown over five years. Creativity in an event is a great thing.”

At Naval Station Everett, WA, MWR holds the Red Neck Olympics, a command challenge for service members. The Red Neck Olympics consists of a hub cap toss, wheel-barrel race, slip-and-slide mud slide, watermelon-eating contest and a large tire flip. The trophy is a toilet seat, says Diana Sall, sports, fitness and aquatics manager of Fleet and Family Readiness.

Rita Hammerstad, Navy Southeast Regional running and triathlon team coordinator, organizes a 5K poker run where runners receive a playing card at each kilometer's end. The final card is at the T-shirt table at the finish line, she says.

Each year, Kent Blankenship, recreation branch manager of the Navy Southwest region, helps plan a Year to Year race that starts at 11:55 p.m. on Dec. 31 and runs into the next year. Last year, 300 people participated.

“We need to offer the opportunity to get the runner out and participating,” Blankenship says. “If we want sailors and their families to be mission ready, then we need to offer the runs that will help encourage their fitness.”

Tips for Hosting a Successful Run

  • Be prepared

    A race can be perfectly planned, but if a storm rolls through or a heat wave strikes, organizers must be prepared by having shelter and medical personnel on hand and by having a communication system in place to cancel the race if necessary. In addition, each staff member and volunteer should have a detailed timeline and a basic step-by-step plan of the event.

  • Be flexible

    On race day, it's not uncommon for glitches to occur. Whether it's volunteers being late or a street being closed, race organizers must think on their feet and realize that plans usually can't be followed 100 percent.

  • Throw out the paper

    Most large-scale races no longer record their runners' times with pad and paper. Instead, a variety of digital chip timing systems are available for rent or purchase, making the timing process more accurate and less of a burden for race organizers.

  • Expect all abilities

    From marathons to 5Ks and everything in between, there will be runners who aren't fit enough to complete the race. Have trained medical responders, AEDs and other first-aid supplies stationed throughout the course.

  • Don't get too crazy

    Themed fun runs are good, but don't lose sight of your main focus: health. Military fitness professionals recommend a mix of fun, creative runs in addition to basic runs that promote health.

  • Listen to your runners

    Feedback is incredibly important when planning races. After an event, send surveys to the runners, and make changes based on feedback. Runners know the course best.