Half a world away in Iraq, an Army sergeant trains for the day of his life -- running the Boston Marathon while on military leave
Joe Williams logs about 70 dusty miles a week as he prepares for next month's Boston Marathon. His training runs meander past groves of date palms, man-made lakes, ornate palaces, and a former hunting preserve.
That's the good part. The flip side is that Williams usually hears the crackle of gunfire as he pads along his route in big, looping circles, as well as ground-rumbling explosions outside the perimeter. And the screams of aircraft as they corkscrew toward a landing to avoid enemy rockets.
This is marathon training, Baghdad-style.
For Williams, 37, a sergeant first class with the Army's 10th Mountain Division, such daunting obstacles are a price worth paying to realize one of his dreams on April 17.
According to marathon officials, Williams will be the first US soldier serving in Iraq to take leave to run the historic race.
''For anybody who's run a marathon, Boston's the one," Williams said last week in a phone interview from Camp Liberty in Baghdad. ''If you can get through Boston, you've got an accomplishment under your belt."
Williams is so intent on notching that accomplishment that he plans to use his only two-week leave of the year to run the marathon.
He'll fly to his home in LaFargeville, N.Y., catch up with his wife, drive to Boston for four days, finish the race, and savor a few more days of down time before the journey back to Baghdad.
''I've been pretty focused," said Williams, a former cross-country runner who joined the Army after graduating from Bonita High School in La Verne, Calif.
In a war, soldiers have to maintain focus to stay alive. The same is true for a marathoner at war.
''We're all in some kind of danger. There's really no place over here that you can guarantee complete safety," said Major James Crawford, who, like Williams, is deployed with the division's First Brigade near Baghdad International Airport. ''You can't stop incoming mortar or rocket fire."
The base, Williams said, is not without its charms. Desert foxes scamper across sands that served as a hunting preserve for Saddam Hussein, who maintained a palace nearby. Soldiers fish for carp in the canals. And the lakes inside the base perimeter are popular for strolls.
But outside the gates, the world is tense and ugly. Soldiers from the 10th Mountain Division discovered the body of slain American peace activist Tom Fox this month, as well as a vehicle containing executed victims of Iraq's sectarian violence.
Since the late 1980s, First Brigade has been deployed overseas more than any other brigade in the Army, Crawford said. Many of its 3,500 soldiers already have completed a tour to Afghanistan and been to Iraq twice, he said.
Williams's example, Crawford said, is a morale boost for these soldiers, who face the potential for mortal danger every time they leave the base.
''The most amazing thing about this guy," Crawford said, ''is that not only is he a great marathon runner, but he's a great sergeant. That in itself is enough."
Williams, who leads a communications platoon, prepared for his Patriots Day dream by winning a marathon held at the base in December. On a course measured to the required distance of 26 miles, 385 yards by global positioning technology, Williams led 100 finishers in 2 hours, 59 minutes, 57 seconds. For his performance, Williams was named the USA Track and Field athlete of the week.
The Baghdad marathon, however, had not been designated as a Boston qualifying race. So Williams wrote to the Boston Athletic Association, which organizes the marathon, and received quick admission after pleading his case.
''That was an easy one for us to accommodate," said Jack Fleming, the BAA spokesman. ''It's not like he's able to take advantage of the 600 or 700 qualifying races around the world."
Instead, Williams takes advantage of what Camp Liberty has to offer. And despite security restrictions that limit where he can run, the sergeant has mapped routes as long as 22 miles on a vast complex of interconnected US military bases. So far, he has been able to avoid any incoming mortars or rocket rounds.
''I see a lot of the same people on my runs, over and over and over every day. Some of them think I'm crazy," Williams said. ''But I've never had to duck and run for cover."
What Williams has been forced to do is maintain a work and training regimen that might break a lesser man. Up at 4:30 a.m., he checks on the brigade's communications operations before his platoon turns out for formation at 6 a.m.
Then, it's off for a run that can last as long as three hours along the pancake-flat roads that ring and crisscross the base.
After showering, Williams works at Camp Liberty until 6:30 p.m., when he studies for three hours toward a general-studies college degree. At 10 p.m., it's lights out for Williams in a trailer, which passes for a barracks on a base that Crawford jokingly called ''the largest gated trailer park in the world."
Williams juggles his choice of routes, but the differences often are limited to running the loops forward or backward. Still, he said, the training has been a boon for his mental health.
''All the things that irritated me all day long, I can think about them when I run," Williams said. ''And then they don't irritate me anymore."
When he runs, Williams is more vulnerable than nearly everyone else at the base. Soldiers are required to carry weapons and wear helmets and flak jackets, except during physical training.
Williams dismissed the danger of all those hours running without body armor. ''I feel detached from the danger because my job doesn't have any cause for me to get outside the compound," Williams said.
''If I were to go outside, I suppose I'd have a different opinion of it."
A few weeks ago, Williams said, the war hit home as he ran around a man-made pond the soldiers call Hidden Lake.
''Right across the wall, there was an explosion and a detonation," recalled Williams, who could not identify the type of blast.
''It was big enough and close enough that I could feel it in my chest. I suppose that was the most uniquely Iraqi thing I've seen or experienced."
Williams's wife, Marjory, approves of his decision to use his leave to run the Boston Marathon. And it's good for Williams, she said, because he has a goal that keeps him focused and healthy in Baghdad. It's good for her because she's never been to Boston.
''I've got a whole list of things I want to do," said Marjory, who teaches ninth-grade social studies. ''I want to see the Museum of Science. My daughter wants to go to the aquarium. And I'd really like to walk the Freedom Trail."
And after her husband's Boston adventure is over, Marjory said, ''he's got some household chores that he's probably going to have to do."
Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.