OMAHA, Neb. – National Guard athletes from 34 different states and territories ran more than 26 miles to compete for spots on the elite All-Guard Marathon Team during the National Guard Marathon Time Trials at the Omaha Marathon, Sept. 20, 2020, in Omaha, Nebraska.
For the past 36 years, the Lincoln Marathon and Half Marathon in Nebraska has also served as the National Guard Marathon – the official time trials for determining the All-Guard Marathon Team. After the Lincoln Track Club announced the cancellation of the marathon in mid-March in compliance with recommendations by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention due to the global pandemic, the National Guard had to find a new host race for the official time trials to determine the 2020-2021 All-Guard Marathon Team – and hope that public health conditions would allow for the event to take place.
Fortunately, the Omaha Marathon was a “Go,” and more than 125 National Guard runners traveled to the familiar state of Nebraska to run a similar 26.2-mile race in a different city, on a different route, during a different season, but with the same goal in mind.
“We are getting ready for the first marathon in a lot of months for many of us due to COVID,” said Capt. Kenny Rayner, California Army National Guard, the day prior to the race.
Because the pandemic cancelled many traditional road races, including the annual Boston Marathon – which was canceled for the first time in its 124-year history – the Omaha Marathon was the first full-length event this year for many of the National Guard runners.
“I’m a little nervous because in Lincoln you just know exactly where you’re going, and you kind of have that mental preparation beforehand,” Rayner said.
Rayner, who has been with the Marathon Team since 2013, said the National Guard runners typically start training in January for the May race in Lincoln, so this year’s race taking place in Omaha in September – under COVID restrictions – will be very different. The runners were expected to wear masks at both the start and finish of the race, and the aid stations were mostly self-service with small, capped water bottles instead of open water cups.
The lack of other organized events, including 5K, 10K, and half-marathon races made keeping traditional training schedules more difficult. Restrictions on gyms and training facilities, as well as mask requirements in some states created new challenges for runners, too. Additionally, for some runners on the West coast – like Rayner – COVID restrictions and wildfire smoke forced runners to train with masks on, even while running indoors on treadmills in recent weeks leading up to the marathon.
“I think all of us just kind of have to get used to the COVID environment and how it affects racing. It’s affected our training, so it’s just going to be a different race all together, I think, for a lot of us.”
The ongoing pandemic also changed race plans for a few Arkansas National Guard runners, including now retired Lt. Col. James Mann, running coordinator for the Arkansas Army National Guard, who planned to run his last Lincoln Marathon as a Guardsman this year before retiring this past June.
“Since I did my first Lincoln in 1989, this year was supposed to be my fifth decade of doing the Lincoln Marathon, so I was kind of looking forward to that. Plus, actually it being my last official race as a guardsman,” Mann said. “Being in Omaha, it is really great that we are getting a race in, but it will definitely be different not being on the same course that I have run year after year.”
Mann ran the half marathon distance in Omaha, but assuming things go back to normal in 2021, he plans on returning to Lincoln in May, to make up for what he missed this year.
He also wants to encourage young Guardsmen to participate in the National Guard Marathon Program in the future.
“I would say that if you ever come to one, then you’ll be hooked from then on, because it is just such an awesome experience,” he said.
Mann believes that the addition of the All-Guard Endurance Team adds a special element by broadening the Marathon Program to a wider group, giving athletes more options and events to train for and compete in. The Endurance Team – which will compete in obstacle races as compared to traditional road races – was a new addition to the Marathon Program this year, and the team’s inaugural time trials were held in Hastings, Nebraska in August.
This year’s top National Guard Marathon Team winners:
– California National Guard Capt. Kenny Rayner, San Francisco, California overall male winner with an unofficial time of 2:35:18
– Kentucky National Guard Lt. Col. Varinka Ensminger, of Lexington, Kentucky, overall female winner with an unofficial time of 3:16:21
– The Indiana National Guard Team was named the overall National Guard team winner of the 2020 National Guard Marathon Team Time Trials at the Omaha Marathon with an unofficial average team time of 3:05:16
Rayner was not only the winner for the National Guard, but the first to finish the marathon, beating out the entire Omaha Marathon field as well.
While winning wasn’t his ultimate goal, Rayner said he is always proud to represent the National Guard on the podium. More than anything, though, he said he loves the travel, the memories he’s made and the camaraderie built with the other athletes, and he plans to continue to run as part of the National Guard Marathon Team as long as he can.
“It’s definitely the best experience in the Guard I’ve had,” Rayner said.
The top National Guard runners selected for the 2020-2021 All-Guard Marathon Team will travel the country to compete in select events as part of the All-Guard Military Competitions Program.
The 2020-2021 All-Guard Marathon Team:
CPT KENNY RAYNER, CA
SSG JAVIER TORRES ROLON, PR
SPC DEREK YOREK, AR
1SG EDDIE CLEMENTS, NH
LTC VALENTINE ROBERTS, HI
MSG JOE MCFARREN, IN
SSG JERROD ABEL, OH
SSG CHRIS EDWARDS, OH
OC RICHARD LANGDEAUX, SD
2LT BLAINE ZIMMERMAN, IN
SPC KOREY JOHNSON, KY
SSG PAUL DUNCAN, NV
MAJ BRENDAN THOMPSON, WA
SSG BEN BLESSING, ID
SPC PEDRO OCHOA, AK
SSG DAVID LANGFORD, AR
MAJ MIGUEL PEREZ, NM
MAJ LEX GRIMLEY, UT
SSG RICHARD MERCEDES, PR
SSG EARNEST FULLWOOD, PA
SSG WHITNEY LAKE, IN
CPT ETHAN MCINTOSH, TX
MAJ SETH KASTE, WI
SSG ANIBAL SOTO, PR
1LT GARY PARKS, IN
LTC VARINKA ENSMINGER, KY
1LT NICK CLAIR, KS
SGT JENNIFER ST. AMAND, MN
CPT KIMBERLY QUINN, FL
CPT REBECCA LINDER, SD
CPT AMANDA SCHMID, NE
SGT MIRANDA KIBLER, OH
CPT FERNE RYDER, VT
CPT LEAH BALDWIN, WI
SMSGT BETH JOHNSON, SD
SPC JESSICA PAL, KS
1SG SHELLEY HORNER, TX
CPT SARAH GRIFFIN, VT
CW2 AMANDA NESBITT, PA
MAJ AMANDA TOOKE, TX
MAJ DEBORAH FISHER, PA
SGT AYRIN HAMNER-RIPPERGER, IA
1LT JAMIE NEWTON, AR
MAJ LIBERTY REYES, NV
SFC AMY PARKER, KY
The All-Guard Military Competitions Program additionally encourages and enhances the National Guard Retention Program by instilling physical fitness, self-discipline, and esprit de corps among National Guard members from all 54 states and U.S. territories. Anyone interested in joining the All-Guard team should reach out to their state’s program coordinator and plan to compete in the time trials back at the Lincoln National Guard Marathon in Nebraska in May 2021.