HEADLINE: In Iraq, the ultimate Ultra Warrior

This story first ran in the Fort Worth Star Telegram on June 5, 2005.                                     It was named best feature story in Texas for 2005 by the Houston Press Club.

By Jan Hubbard

As long as the enemy was nature, Curt Maples was comfortable with personal misery. The unrelenting heat, periodic gulps of dust and a stomach soured by Maples’ self-abusive sport were nothing new. This was a familiar sort of pain. And it wasn’t that bad.

The explosions, however, were a problem. They started at the Army base next door, and then three or four rattled the ground at CampTaqaddum. “Hey,” Maples said to his support group, “we’re getting incoming.” Everyone stopped, put on helmets and flak jackets, and watched. Maples quickly checked in with superiors. “We’re OK,” he said by walkie-talkie. “We’re just out here watching.”

It was 6 a.m. on July 13, 2004, in Iraq, where Marine Maj. Curt Maples, a native of Dallas, was making sports history. At that precise moment, 72 runners were competing in the notorious Badwater Ultramarathon in the sizzling California Death Valley, where the temperature reaches 125 degrees during the race. Maples had competed in the 135-mile event six times, finishing three of them. His unit has returned from Iraq, and Maples is currently training at his home near San Diego to compete at Badwater again in July.

In 2004, however, Maples was unable to leave his primary job as the force protection officer for the 1st Force Service Group in Iraq. He could not put his body through the torture of racing from Badwater (282 feet below sea level in Death Valley) to Whitney Portals (8,360 feet above sea level on Mount Whitney). He would miss those near-death possibilities of violent regurgitation, revolting convulsions and searing pain shooting from feet to brain, although some have suggested that anyone who finds fulfillment in running 135 miles is probably one lobe short of a functioning brain, anyway.

Because Maples could not experience the perverted joy of Death Valley, he decided to do the next best thing. He competed by proxy.

Maples ran the “Ultra” — as enthusiasts call it — on his Marine base in Iraq. He mapped out an 11.5-mile course around Camp Taqaddum, which is about 60 miles west of Baghdad, and began running at 5 p.m. on July 12. He had circled it five times and was at the 60-mile point the next morning with nothing more than minor irritation from the 100-plus degree heat and the sand in his throat and nostrils. He was quite pleased that his stomach had acted up only once and had caused him to vomit only a half-gallon of body fluid.

Nature, however, was a minor enemy. The real one came equipped with rockets. When insurgents began blasting the base, Maples had to stop the race.

“The rocket fire hit about a mile away from where we were physically,” said Maples, a graduate of Dallas White High School and Texas A&M. “There were no casualties, but one did hit right next to the course where we had been about 15 minutes before. If we had been a little bit slower, we might have had some casualties. Turns out we were fine.

“But there was a downside. Any time we took impact on the base, part of our procedure was that we had to account for everyone on the base. We had 5,000 personnel, and we had to make sure no one got hit and was lying out there hurt. So we were forced to sit there for about two hours and 40 minutes.”

In Badwater, competitors can take all the breaks they want, but the clock never stops. At first, Maples kept the clock running. But later, he decided to deduct the 2:40 from his time.

“No one had a problem with it,” he said, “because it wasn’t by choice that we had to stop.”

No panic

A historian named Herodotus wrote an account of the Battle of Marathon, which was part of the Persian War in 490 B.C., in a document called Histories. Herodotus claimed that at a key point, an Athenian herald named Pheidippides ran 140 miles from Athens to Sparta to plead for help from the Spartan army. The run took two days, and at one point, Pheidippides encountered the mythical god Pan, who asked why the Athenians no longer paid attention to him. Pan said he could help with the war because he had the ability to inspire extreme fear, which gave birth to the word: “Panic.”

There are varying accounts of Pheidippides’ journey, but the most widely quoted was that later, after the Athenians defeated the Persians, Pheidippides sprinted from Marathon to Athens, a distance of 26 miles, to deliver the news. It was indeed a life-changing experience because when he arrived and breathtakingly announced, “Rejoice, we conquer,” he dropped dead.

Scholars are dubious about the story because the account of Pheidippides’ exploits was written 50 years after his death. And if the guy could run 140 miles twice — from Athens to Sparta and back — without dying, what was so taxing about 26 miles?

But there is little doubt that the story not only was the genesis for popular marathons in the Olympics, Boston, New York and many other places, but also for Ultramarathons. In 1982, a group of runners ran the 140-mile route from Athens to Sparta to commemorate Pheidippides’ run. And the first Badwater Ultra race was run in 1987, although individuals began running the route in the ’70s.

When Andrew J. Mojica was doing a project for his degree work in psychology at the University of Texas-El Paso, he became fascinated by the effects of long-distance running and by the apocryphal story of Pheidippides and Pan. In 2002, Mojica conducted a study of 20
runners in the Badwater Ultramarathon to determine the effects of running 135 miles in brutal conditions — specifically, if one of the byproducts was hallucinations.

His study concluded that for many reasons — long exposure to heat, sleep deprivation, dehydration and exhaustion — runners lose touch with reality, which, 2,500 years after the fact, led him to conclude that the god Pan was a figment of the imagination.

“We can make a reasonable conclusion,” Mojica said in his study, “that Pheidippides experienced a hallucination in 490 B.C.”

Punch drunk

Unlike some ultramarathoners, who have encountered giant beetles, bats, lizards, scorpions, pterodactyls, panda bears and — in Pheidippides’ case — a god, Maples, 41, said he has never
hallucinated. But the difficulties he has not only endured but also embraced would make a masochist flinch.

In his first 100-mile race in 1994 in Utah, Maples ignored stabbing pain in his lower right leg during the last 50 miles of the race. He later discovered he ran to the point of nearly snapping tibia.

He once zoned out so completely at Badwater that he failed to notice blood running down both legs because of severe chaffing on his inner thighs.

During another Badwater race, he passed out twice but demanded that his crew lift him so he could continue running. When revived the second time, he thought he was being impeded and tried to punch one of his aides. Later, he remembered nothing of the incident and still denies it happened, which makes one of his crew members laugh.

“He takes a nap in the vehicle and tries to cool off,” said Sgt. Jason Gravem, who has been part of Maples’ crew in Badwater and Iraq. “He’s so exhausted that when he goes to sleep, he just passes right out. Sometimes when you try and get him up, he’ll take a swing. You just have to be ready to jump back and defend yourself. Marine training comes in handy at a time like that.”

During another Ultra, Maples overheated so badly that his crew members had to rush him to a hotel, where they submerged him in a bathtub of ice water for 90 minutes to bring his body temperature down. Gravem was on the crew.

“He went into some kind of agitated fit,” Gravem said. “He was becoming very upset very quickly. You could tell by the way he was talking that it was not him. He was talking about things that didn’t make any sense — like, ‘When is Santa Claus coming?’ That kind of gives it away that he’s hurting. We call it blowing a gasket.”

And during a 100-mile race in Huntsville, he collapsed and couldn’t move for two hours. His parents went to the race director as their son lay on the ground next to the roadside.

“They said, ‘Look, our son is a stubborn jackass,’ ” Maples said. ” ‘He’s not going to quit, so would you do us a favor and just kick him out?’ ”

The race director complied.

Ultramarathons have many rules, but the most important is that if runners take an I.V., their race is over. That happened once to Maples, and that time, he didn’t fight it.

“It was either take an I.V. or die,” he said. “So I took the I.V.”

“Don’t let me die”

Preparing for a 135-mile race in Iraq is in some ways easier than training for a 135-mile race in Death Valley. For starters, the weather is consistent. Long before race day approached in July, the temperature was hotter than 100 degrees every day. At home, Maples was stationed at Camp Pendleton, near San Diego, and the temperature was usually in the 70s or 80s. Maples would simulate heat by running in a chemical suit, ski parkas or fleece. But it wasn’t the same. At night, the temperature was cool. In Iraq, it was always hot.

The disadvantage of training in Iraq — besides possible rocket attacks — is that the war is a seven-day-a-week job.

“I run just about every day,” Maples said, “but in the past, I could have a big 25- 30-mile training run on the weekend. In Iraq, I just didn’t have that kind of time.”

Maples began training by running eight miles and power walking four miles a day. He gradually increased his distances until he was running 14 miles a day and power walking four. When July 12 arrived, he was ready — or as ready as anyone can be before a 135-mile race, which is a combination of running and power walking.

He began his run at the same time the first batch of runners took off in Badwater, which was 5 p.m. in Iraq. He was considered an honorary competitor, and race officials sent him his official No. 13 pin-on number to wear during the race. The plan was to run the 11.5-mile course 11 times, then finish the last 8.5 miles with an out-and-back to a point on the perimeter of the base.

Before starting, Maples asked the camp chaplain to lead him in prayer. Maples bowed his head and listened, then finished the prayer with a final thought: “God,” he said, “please don’t let me die.”

Ultramarathoners always have crews, which include pacers who accompany them for stretches at a time. In Iraq, one of those was 1st Lt. Charlotte Brock, who ran 34 miles alongside Maples.

“Everybody had heard that this crazy guy was going to run a long race,” said Brock, who began running with Maples at 2 a.m. “I started running with him around the 50-mile mark for him, and he was hurting. It turned out that was his low point. He was in control, but he was sick as a dog. I didn’t think there was any way he would make it at that point.”

Rockets, man

At about 6 a.m., Maples, Brock and the crew heard the first rockets hit the Army base next to the Marine camp. They were followed by hits on Camp Taqaddum. Everyone stopped, but no one ran for cover.

“No one was worried because they were pretty far away,” Brock said. “You know that if you’re hearing it, it’s not on you. The one that hits you is one you never hear. So if you’re hearing it hit, you’re good.”

Maples said not running for cover was more of a practical decision than battlefield bravery.

“We were in the open, and there wasn’t any place to go,” he said. “If they’d hit closer to us, we probably would have at least gotten to the ground. But with the nature of the people we were
fighting, that wasn’t necessary.”

The reason is that the insurgents used a primitive method to launch the rockets. “They were firing these things out of homemade launchers out of the back of a truck,” Maples said. “It was just a tube set at a 45-degree angle. They don’t have any accuracy at all. Half of the time they were shooting at us, they would miss the whole camp.”

The attacks did not last long — for good reason.

“If they don’t leave quickly, our counter battery fire will take them out,” Maples said. “So they would fire a few rockets or mortar rounds, and they would haul.”

During the wait, Brock said Maples was more amused than upset that his run had been delayed.

“He wasn’t happy about it,” she said, “but he wasn’t bothered that much because he thought it made a great story. He said that people back home were going to love it.”

And Maples does relish telling the story and has even christened it as “the Baghdad Badwater.”

“I tell people it was not only the first ultra run in Iraq,” he said, “but it was the first that actually came under fire during the race.”

After the 2:40 delay, Maples continued running, never taking a rest of longer than 20 minutes. One of those came at the 100-mile mark when Maples stopped for a breather. Gen. Richard S. Kramlich, who was in charge of the base, approached Maples and expressed
concern.

“He told me, ‘You’ve already done a lot; you’ve already gone more than 100 miles,’ ” Maples said. “And I said, ‘Yes, sir, but I have 35 more to go.’ ”

Brock ran for about 12 hours with Maples and discovered later that she should have quit earlier because she had a stress fracture in her shin. But she learned that was part of ultramarathon running.

“Maj. Maples likes to talk a lot, and I like to listen,” Brock said. “So I learned a lot about him and long runs. He told me he gets sick, he throws up and goes through incredible pain. But he doesn’t seem to mind it.”


An idiot?

A fundamental element of athletic success is endurance, but ultramarathon runners take it to an extreme. The question is: Why?

“I guess the best way to describe it is that I run for philosophical reasons,” said Maples, who has completed 15 races of longer than 100 miles. “I think people should challenge themselves. If I couldn’t run, I’d do something else. I wanted to find something beyond my abilities and give it a try.”

For Maples, a career Marine officer, pushing himself is nothing new.

“He was always a very determined young man,” said his father, Charles Maples, a retired educator who still lives in Dallas. “As a child, when he said he was going to do something, he did it. He got his Eagle Scout when he was in the eighth grade. That’s pretty determined.”

As an example, Charles Maples told of the time his son was in high school and was supposed to go on a camping trip with his Scout troop on a Saturday. But on Friday, he was involved in an accident and broke his ankle.

“He couldn’t go on Saturday,” Charles Maples said, “but on Monday morning, we made arrangements and we drove up to join the rest of the kids, and he went on a hike over the mountains on crutches wearing a backpack. And he never missed a step.”

Lisa Maples, Curt’s wife, is familiar with his drive. She has worked on his crew several times, and at points when he was convulsing and in severe pain, she pleaded with him to stop. That
happened the first time he ran an ultra in Utah, where competitors ran 100 miles up and down the Wasatch Mountains. When Maples reached the 50-mile point, his shin was badly swollen.

“You’ve got to stop,” his wife told him.

“No,” he said, making her angry.

“You’re an idiot!” she screamed.

He paused, thought about it, looked at her and said: “Well, at least I don’t spend all my time in bars.”

When Maples began running long distances, his wife was nervous because she knew it would take a lot of time away from their marriage. And it did. The two first married 15 years ago, but they have been together only 10 of those years.

“We took a break,” Lisa Maples said. “We got divorced, and part of it was the running. We were divorced five years, and then we remarried. I thought he wasn’t going to run anymore, but he went back to it. Now, I’m just living with it. But that’s his hobby. And it is better than going to bars.”

Or hero?

Ultramarathoners might be the ultimate sports purists. The Badwater race is limited to no more than 90 runners, but there is no prize money. Runners, in fact, have to pay to enter the race. As part of their entry fee, they receive a T-shirt, hat, Badwater
Ultramarathon Race Magazine and, according to the Web site, “an awesome goodie bag.”

If they finish the race in less than 60 hours, they receive an “official finisher” shirt and an “official finisher” medal. If they finish in less than 48 hours, they receive the “coveted Badwater belt buckle.”

In Iraq, Maples turned his run into a charity event. Details of his plans were put on the Badwater Web site, and Maples said he wanted to make it a fund-raiser for a worthy cause. He was stunned when he began getting e-mails from long distance runners asking what they could contribute. The fund eventually grew to more than $10,000 in cash and merchandise, including more than 50 boxes of school supplies, clothing and sports equipment that Maples donated to Iraqi school children.

When Runner’s World magazine found out about Maples’ Iraqi adventure, he was invited to the first of what will become an annual event called “Heroes of Running.”

“It’s for runners who have done amazing things,” said Chris Brienza, the magazine’s executive director of publicity. “We had people who had come back from cancer, Roger Bannister — the first runner to break four minutes in the mile — and two Olympians. Maj.
Maples was by far the star of the group.”

In keeping with the image of a Marine, however, Maples was uncomfortable being called a “hero,” especially with colleagues still fighting in Iraq.

“He was very humble,” Brienza said. “He said he was a runner and was a little crazy. And he said if anyone didn’t believe him, they could ask his wife. When he was talking, the audience was mesmerized. When he finished, he got a huge ovation. He brought the house down.”

When Maples competes at the next Badwater race in July, he might carry on a tradition from Iraq, where he completed the 135 miles in 37 hours, 59 minutes. He was obviously worn out at the end, but he mounted one final charge, grabbed a Texas flag and dashed across a
makeshift finish line, which was made of toilet tissue.

“When I’m racing, I always carry three flags — American, Marine Corps and Texas flag,” he said. “I don’t know what I’ll do, but maybe I’ll finish with the Texas flag like I did last year.”

Maples knows the run this year will be physically harder than last year, but as his father noted, there is one advantage.

“You have a tremendous change of elevation and temperature in Badwater,” Charles Maples said, “so it’s more difficult to run.

“But at least in Badwater, no one is shooting at you.”

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