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131st Citizen-Airmen Set Sights on Air Force Marathon

Scenes from the 2014 Air Force Marathon 
(U.S. Air Force photo by Wesley Farnsworth)

Scene from the 2014 Air Force Marathon (U.S. Air Force photo by Wesley Farnsworth)

WHITEMAN AIR FORCE BASE, Missouri -- Despite the sweltering heat and humidity typical of a summer here, Citizen-Airmen from the Missouri Air National Guard's 131st Bomb Wing are at the tail end of a 12-week strength and conditioning regimen designed to prepare them to run the Air Force Marathon.

For Staff Sgt. Ashlea Garrison, 131st BW Commander's Support Staff administrative assistant, this will be the second time she has competed in the iconic race. She first took on the daunting 26.2-mile run in 2012, and said that feat was one that she placed on her bucket list after she lost a significant amount of weight in order to join the military.

"It's a battle with yourself - you find out what you can do; what your body can endure," Garrison said of marathon running.  "The distance is all in your head."

Coincidentally, Garrison's Air Force Marathon debut featured the B-2 Spirit stealth bomber as part of the race's theme: the same aircraft that Garrison supports in her role with the 131st.  Her race medal, emblazoned with the mighty bomber, is proudly displayed on her desk as a reminder of her accomplishment. 

The 2015 race, set for Saturday at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio, will mark the 20th running of the marathon.  Garrison said that although she has taken part in many different races, the Air Force Marathon is unlike any other she has ever seen - and not just because it's the longest.  The local community comes together to support the runners by cheering, providing food and water and being a constant source of positive encouragement.

"It's a different crowd at the Air Force Marathon," Garrison said.  "This crowd comes out because they support the military."

Garrison will be joined by fellow runners from the wing: Col. Kimbra Sterr, 131st Maintenance Group commander; Capt. Amy Cottrell, 131st Medical Group administrative officer; Master Sgt. Mike Hamms, 131st MXG commander's support staff; and Master Sgt. Gary Miller, 131st MDG medical administration technician.  Also running is Col. Joanie Peterson, who celebrated the conclusion of 30 years of service during September drill the weekend prior, and will officially retire from service on Sept. 30 from her role as 131st MDG commander.  

The 131st Citizen-Airmen will be just a handful of the 15,000 participants in this year's sold-out race.  Each individual has been diligently training their minds and bodies to sustain them through the race.  For Garrison, the preparation has included waking up before the sun to complete 12-mile runs three to five times a week, as well as incorporating additional strength training into her weekly routine.   The key to running is to start small, according to Garrison, who recalled the days when she was able to run just 15 or 20 seconds at a time.  She thought she would never be able to run a 5K or a 10K, let alone an entire marathon.

Peterson, though, has dedicated the entire last year of her career preparing for this race.  She ran the half marathon last year and said she knew then that she would have to complete the full marathon as a celebration of her time in the military.  Despite having knee surgery in July, Peterson was logging 20-mile runs by August.  A lot of determination - along with a handful of her fellow MDG Airmen - have been there to support her along the way, she said.

"She's running the Air Force Marathon for the first and only time, and has always dreamt of completing a marathon," said Cottrell. "We would like to support her to make that dream come true."

The last mile of the marathon, Peterson said, is an incredible experience where participants run underneath the wings of various aircraft positioned along the finish.  "Each runner's name is announced, everyone is cheering and a four-star general places a medal around your neck when you cross the finish line," she said.   For Peterson, it is a meaningful parallel as she also crosses the finish line of her military career.

"We're calling it 'Colonel Peterson's Last Air Force Mile,'" she said.  "I knew I had to challenge myself and leave the Air Force with a bang.  I can't think of a more fitting way to leave the Air Force after 30 years of service."

While the Guard members will not enter and take part in the race as an officially recognized group, they go into it with a team mindset, Garrison said.  Many of the group will carpool to Ohio where they will all gear up for the race together the night before, and will celebrate each other's achievements after the race.  Some will run the entire marathon, while others will take part in the half-marathon event.

"We all take care of each other," Garrison said.  "We all wait at the finish line.  We don't leave anyone behind."

This year, Garrison said she is looking forward to the finish line most of all, and can only describe it as a once-in-a-lifetime experience. 

"The crowd is cheering your name as you approach the finish and you catch that second or third or fifth wind," she said.  "You finish strong, and you finish proud."