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GRAFENWÖHR, Germany – The prize hung tangibly in the chilly, damp air Saturday morning as some 200 competitors set off dutifully in pursuit.

The U.S. Forces Europe Army 10-Miler qualifier, a jewel in the Europe military sports schedule, took place under what several racers called “ideal” racing conditions – a refreshing light wind and trickling rain. The reward for 12 active-duty servicemembers: fully-funded trips to Washington, D.C. in October to compete among 30,000 runners at the national Army 10-Miler.

Beyond personal standards, the inspiration of family and friends and the motivation of stiff competition, that carrot dangled for runners making the trip 5 miles down the Grafenwöhr tank trail and back.

“There’s no other race like it,” 1st Lt. Sara Clarke, the fourth women’s qualifier and a representative of hometown Grafenwöhr, said of the Army-wide event in the nation’s capital.

The fastest six male and fastest six female active-duty soldiers to cross the finish line are eligible to take the trip to Washington, pending commander approval. Six male and six female alternates are ready to step in if a qualifier is unable to make the trip.

Due to deployments and other obligations, 43-year-old Cpt. John King of Wiesbaden was competing in his first 10-Miler qualifier on Saturday. Now he’ll make his debut in D.C., carrying with him a very respectable first-place qualifying time of 54 minutes, 49.83 seconds.

The time exceeded even his own high expectations, a fact that King struggled to explain.

“I don’t know, pizza for dinner maybe,” King said as he waited near the finish line to shake hands with the runners finishing after him. “I had a good day, conditions were good. I had guys behind me pushing me.”

Jessica Letarte, 24, of Grafenwöhr paced the women with a time of 69:29.96, finishing more than 3 minutes ahead of runner-up Erica Barkei of Heidelberg.

Many men’s racers set their gazes on a team title. Clad in bright red and gathered in a group at the fore of the 8 a.m. crowd, a seasoned team of racers from Vicenza, Italy, cut an imposing figure at the starting line.

“These guys had a crazy training plan,” said Staff Sgt. Michael Phillips, the sixth and final men’s qualifier. “The goal was to bring back the gold for the (173rd Airborne) brigade.”

That effort came up just short as Vicenza took second to Wiesbaden, an annual team power buttressed this time by King.

The moral support was welcome, as the race’s there-and-back format down Grafenwöhr’s non-descript tank trail didn’t offer the participants much to look at after leaving and before returning to the base’s gleaming new fitness center. But Clarke, who trains frequently at nearby Netzaberg Hill, said that the setup eliminated any surprises down the crucial stretch run.

“It’s nicer to run in a circle, but down and back isn’t so bad,” Clarke said. “You know what you’re about to tackle.”

As the hyper-competitive national 10-Miler looms just four months away, Clarke and her 11 qualified peers look forward to tackling the next one.

broome.gregory@stripes.com

Twitter: @broomestripes

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