A year ago, Father Lukasz Willenberg could never have imagined that this year, despite racing under a most unique set of conditions in one of the most inhospitable areas of the world, he would manage to top his finishing time in last year’s Boston Marathon.
Instead of a bright, sunny morning with a light breeze blowing in off the ocean, Father Luke, and more than 500 runners representing all branches of the Armed Forces taking part in this year’s officially sanctioned Boston Marathon Afghanistan, set off on their quest for victory at 3 a.m., under the cloak of darkness — necessary to maintain operational security in a region where Americans and their military partners are prone to attack at any time.
“I think I have God on my side,” Father Luke joked Monday in a telephone interview from Afghanistan, of his finishing time of 2 hours, 44 minutes and 59 seconds, which is about 11 minutes faster than his finish last year in Boston.
As they circled the sprawling Bagram Airfield northeast of the capital, Kabul, about 100 miles from the Pakistan border, the runners also had to contend with the challenges brought on by the location’s 5,000-foot elevation, where the air is thinner than at sea level, and filled with the dust stirred up by winds coming down out of the snow-capped mountains, which surround the base in a bowl.
Father Luke finished second in the marathon, behind Josh Peterson, a civilian working for the U.S. State Department’s Diplomatic Security Service. The first three runners received the actual medals and trophies presented to finishers at the Boston Marathon on Monday.
“The timing of the race was the most difficult part for me. The 3 a.m. start time really messes with your sleep cycle, so you have to decide whether you want to stay awake, or try to catch some sleep before the race,” said Peterson, who is from Plymouth, Minn., in a phone interview Monday.
Peterson, who has run in the Boston Marathon once, in 2006, as well as in a storied race in Greece in 2012, in which runners replicated the route of the first marathon, running from Marathon to Athens, enjoys running because it provides him with a few hours of escape from the realities of life in a war-torn country.
A year ago, Father Luke, 32, a native of Poland who was ordained a priest in the Diocese of Providence in 2008, ran the Boston Marathon, finishing the venerable race with a very strong time of 2 hours, 55 minutes and 55 seconds.
But for the now military chaplain, pushing himself to the limits is exactly what he signed up for — literally.
A veteran runner, who has competed in Ironman and triathlon events, Father Luke ran the race so quickly last year that he even had time to drive back home to St. Luke Parish in Barrington, where he had served as an assistant pastor since his ordination, to rest a bit before celebrating a confirmation that evening. It was then, as he stretched out on the sofa in the rectory that he heard the horrible news that a pair of explosions had torn through the finish line area killing three and wounding and disfiguring more than 250 others.
He anxiously telephoned other racers who were friends of his to make sure they were all right.
Days later, after a pair of brothers with ties to the Chechnya region of Russia were accused of the crime, as well as the subsequent killing of an MIT policeman, with one brother killed and the other apprehended following an extensive manhunt, Boston began a long healing process.
At that time, Father Luke began to think about the next race.
His strong 2013 finish had qualified him to run in the 2014 race, but this presented a problem for him, as he was planning to enter the U.S. Army in the next few months, where he would serve a four-year tour of duty as a military chaplain.
In January, Father Luke, now a captain assigned to the U.S. Army’s 10th Mountain Division, began a one-year deployment with his unit to Afghanistan, where he is based at Bagram Airfield. He also travels around the embattled Southwest Asia country by land and helicopter whenever there is a need for his ministry.
Inspired by the courageous “Boston Strong” stories of those whose lives changed forever on Patriot’s Day 2013, Father Luke aspired to make his base an official extension of the Boston Marathon.
“I had an idea to bring the Boston Marathon to Afghanistan,” he said, noting how he first approached the base commanding general, Major General Stephen J. Townsend, with his idea.
Major General Townsend green-lighted Father Luke’s idea, and the chaplain petitioned the Boston Athletic Association for permission to host a Boston Marathon outside of the Bay State.
The organization granted only one entity — the Combined Joint Task Force-10 and Regional Command-East, based at Bagram Airfield — permission to host such a marathon.
The race was advertised strictly through word of mouth, again to maintain operational security. It took only a few days for more than 600 soldiers and civilians serving all over Afghanistan to sign up to take part in the marathon, which was held last Friday, instead of jointly on the same day of the Boston Marathon.
“As we run the first Boston Marathon since last year’s bombings, we “Run as One” with the people of Boston. Like the U.S. Army’s slogan, “Army Strong,” the people of Boston have shown they are tough, they are resilient; they have shown the world they are “Boston Strong!” Major General Townsend said in a statement issued Friday to the runners of the Bagram Shadow Marathon and the people of Boston.
Father Luke, who apparently had enough energy left in his tank after completing the 26.2-mile event Friday to do some pushups at the finish line, to the delight of the crowd that gathered at sunrise, said he is comfortable in his new role with the military, although there is still much to learn.
“So far, everything is going really well; everything is new to me,” he said. “I’m still learning how to be a chaplain and how I fit in.”
On a day-to-day basis, his ministry entails “lots of counseling,” including suicide prevention and resiliency trainings to help soldiers cope with their missions and prepare for their eventual return to civilian life, as well as hearing confessions and offering Masses. While celebrating the Easter Vigil Mass at the base, he baptized nine soldiers into the Catholic Faith.
“It was a very powerful and moving moment for them and me. It was a great journey leading them to this moment,” Father Luke said.
He said his ministry both challenges and humbles him every day, as he does his part to make the world a better place.
But his assignment is not without risk.
“Every so often, we get powerful reminders that we are still at war. You get hit with rockets and shot at while you fly.”
Living and working under such conditions is another reason why offering those in harm’s way even a slice of the life they left behind in the States through activities such as the Boston Marathon Afghanistan is so very important.
Dr. David King, a 1991 graduate of Mount Saint Charles Academy who went on to become a trauma surgeon at Massachusetts General Hospital and who served in both Iraq and Afghanistan as a Lt. Colonel in the U.S. Army, rushed to save the lives of victims of last year’s Boston Marathon bombings barely an hour after running the race himself.
He said that by bringing the marathon directly to the troops in Afghanistan, Father Luke has done something very special that is of great value to the military community across that country.
“The Boston Marathon is an iconic event. The ability to bring this to those who are deployed is profoundly meaningful downrange,” Dr. King said of the impact the race would have on the morale of the troops.
Posted with permission from The Rhode Island Catholic, official publication of the Diocese of Providence.