A diverse field of American and international runners will participate in the Oak Tree Half Marathon and 5K this year over 6,700 miles from Geneseo, NY where the race will be held for a ninth consecutive year. During planning for this annual running race, organizers were contacted by soldiers serving in northern Afghanistan interested in holding a version of the race there.
Andrew Kless, a reservist serving as a Combat Engineer with the Regional Support Command – North at Camp Mike Spann conceived the concept saying, “A race here gives us something to look forward to.” As an Oak Tree participant numerous times, Andrew reached out to Race Director Benjamin Gajewski to determine if an overseas version of the event would be possible.
Through a series of emails, Benjamin and Andrew arranged details for the event to create as close to an Oak Tree Half Marathon experience as possible for the soldiers. The Oak Tree Race committee is packaging running bibs, finisher medals, and race shirts and will send them to Camp Mike Spann. Runners on the base will start at precisely 1630 hundred hours on September 1st, the same moment that runners start in Geneseo at 8am (0800 hundred hours).
While the Afghanistan race will be held concurrently with the race in Geneseo, soldiers will not have nearly the scenic running experience as locals will have. The Geneseo Oak Tree course features land protected by the Genesee Valley Conservancy and passes hundreds of acres of beautiful Oak Grove savannahs. The course was specifically setup to showcase these protected fields and forests. In contrast, the Afghanistan course is a secure 1km square within the confines of Camp Mike Spann. The loop has a one inch gravel surface packed into dirt, is roughly 20 feet wide, with walls 15 feet high. The soldiers will need to complete 21 loops to cover the 13.1 mile race distance.
What runners in both locations will share is the challenge and accomplishment of training and completing a 13.1 mile run. Of the soldiers training, Andrew said “I think for some, it will be the greatest physical accomplishment they take from the deployment. Soldiers who never considered running 13.1 miles are getting the courage up to take on this challenge.” Here in the United States, Andrew’s wife is training for the Oak Tree and plans to step to the line on September 1st.
The Oak Tree Half Marathon & 5K is a fundraiser for Genesee Valley Conservancy, a not-for-profit land conservation organization working in the Genesee River watershed. The Conservancy has protected 14,400 acres of forests and farmland and owns three nature preserves open to the public. Race Director Benjamin Gajewski, who is also Executive Director of the Conservancy said, “Our goal each year with the Oak Tree Race is to put on a high quality experience for all participants and to raise the funds necessary to continue the Conservancy’s mission of protecting important habitat and farmland.” The Oak Tree Half Marathon is the Conservancy’s largest fundraising event.
The race is in its 9th year and organizers pride themselves on the uniqueness of the event. Describing the event, Gajewski said “We try to make the Oak Tree Race stand out, from the hand-made finisher medals, the bagpiper on Nations Road, to the historic aircraft flyover. The race has beautiful scenery, tremendous volunteers, and a unique charm that is unlike other races in the region. Holding a simultaneous Oak Tree Race in Afghanistan seemed right in line with offering runners a unique race experience.”
For many of the soldiers, as with locals, the Oak Tree will be their first half marathon. The committee waived the registration fees for troops in Afghanistan that would normally be charged to cover the costs of finisher medals, bibs, and shirts. “We’re spending extra money to do this, but it seemed like the right thing to do. This is a neat opportunity to give Andrew and his peers a reminder of home while they are deployed” said Benjamin. Andrew will be forwarding a participant list, finisher times, and photos from the event so everyone in Geneseo can see how the troops did.
Close to 50 soldiers are expected to toe the line on September 1st while an estimated 750 runners will be starting their race in Geneseo.
Andrew is looking forward to 2014 when he will be back in the United States and running the Oak Tree in Geneseo again.
To find out more about the Oak Tree Half Marathon and 5K, visit the Oak Tree page (link) of the Genesee Valley Conservancy website.. You can also follow the Oak Tree Half Marathon on facebook (link) to see photos and results from Geneseo and Afghanistan, and watch live streaming video of the race in Geneseo.