Vicenza relay race takes grueling turn in nod to brigade’s changing mission
VICENZA, Italy — Spider-Man costumes and lederhosen were out. Regulation athletic attire or combat uniforms, rucksacks and rifles were in.
Easy laps around the track were out. Jumping hurdles and climbing ropes were in.
Beer was definitely out. Gatorade and water, in.
The 173rd Airborne Brigade’s 24-hour relay race, the Running of the Herd, has changed from its laid-back Vicenza inception in November 2013, complete with costumes and adult beverages, to this year’s grueling competition on Tuesday and Wednesday.
Back then, participants said, it was principally about camaraderie and fun, while highlighting teamwork to honor the courage and sacrifice of brigade soldiers killed in a 1965 battle in Vietnam called Operation Hump.
Members of the brigade themselves had returned only months before from Afghanistan, after the brigade’s fifth combat deployment since 2003, in which nine paratroopers were killed. More than 46 teams participated in a mostly lighthearted event on the battle’s 48th anniversary.
Now, after four years of deploying to training exercises in the Baltics and Eastern Europe, the focus has changed.
“It’s all about combat readiness, lethality, agility,” said Lt. Col. John Hall, a brigade spokesman.
Even the meaning of the race has changed over the past five years. Rather than honoring the Operation Hump casualties, the race is now dedicated to all members of the brigade killed in past wars.
“We’re saying to all our prior generations, ‘Thank you for all you’ve done and thank you for your sacrifice,’” said Maj. Christopher Bradley, another brigade spokesman.
This year, 15 teams, each comprising five to seven participants, ran the 2.3-mile course, taking turns all day and night until Wednesday morning.
Among them were four hardcore “heavy” teams that ran — and jumped hurdles and climbed ropes — in their combat uniforms while carrying 35-pound backpacks and rifles in the July heat.
Lt. Will Cooperider tracked their lap times on whiteboard to “identify trends,” he said. “I was a physics major, what can I say?”
One team consisted of paratroopers from the 1st Squadron (Airborne), 91st Cavalry Regiment, who’d been bused down from Germany for the event. They were doing their laps — each on deck about once every 90 minutes — in regulation athletic attire. It was 87 degrees, and they were soaked by sweat, and by water they’d asked people to throw on them as they passed by.
“It’s a good break, and it’s nice to be part of the brigade,” Sgt. Alexander Perez said.
Perhaps the team closest in spirit to the first Vicenza race was one of paratroopers’ wives and a daughter, who seemed unconcerned about the competition.
“We get passed a lot,” spouse Sarah Ochs said.
The race was inspired by the country-music duo Big & Rich’s 2006 song “8th of November,” about the battle that pitted companies of the 173rd and a battalion of Australians against some 1,200 Viet Cong fighters, in which 49 brigade soldiers died.