On Saturday, as 4,000 runners hit the streets in the Under Armour Baltimore Marathon, a more compelling race will take place half a world away. There, in a salute to the run back home, an Ellicott City man will head a small band of U.S. soldiers on a 13-mile chase through the rocky hills of northern Iraq - amid dangers unknown, and in 100-degree heat.
Leading the pack will be Timothy Kirby, 36, an Army captain from Howard County who is part of an elite Border Transition Team stationed in Sulaimaniyah, in the mountains of Kurdistan.
Last year, Kirby ran the Baltimore Marathon, his first, to see whether he could finish. (He did, in four hours.) On Saturday, he and his Army team will run half that distance but under more perilous conditions - and for a greater cause.
"I thought it would be a pretty good time to show the people [of Maryland] what we were doing here in Iraq through running," Kirby said in an e-mail.
Officials of the Baltimore Running Festival embraced the notion of a "shadow race" and sent the soldiers the same commemorative T-shirts and medals that entrants here will receive.
"It's an honor to us that they're doing this," said Lee Corrigan, director of the event. "On Saturday, when we'll all be worried about potholes and traffic, they'll be thinking about land mines and sniper fire. It's a pretty neat tribute."
His idea for a shadow race wasn't that farfetched, said Kirby, a 17-year Army veteran who is serving his second tour in Iraq. He runs almost daily at 5 a.m. as a way to combat the stress of the mission. Kirby's team is embedded in a remote region near the Iranian border, assigned to teach the Iraqis how to keep terrorists from smuggling bomb-making materials into their country.
There are times, he said, when a soldier needs to break out and chill - even if it means jogging in the withering heat.
"Running is also a good way to get away from the other 10 members of the team for a while," Kirby said. "It helps to clear your head. We live in cramped quarters, and running gives you some air to breathe and freedom. ... Well, at least for a little while."
But Kirby's motives for organizing the half-marathon go deeper, those who know him say.
"Tim is doing this as a morale booster for everyone over there," said Matthew Honaker, an old friend from Baltimore. "It helps them to make a connection back here to us."
And vice versa.
"I'll be thinking of him while I'm running the [Baltimore] 5K on Saturday, hoping he's safe," Rebecca Kirby said of her husband. Before he deployed overseas, the couple practiced together, circling Centennial Lake and running the BWI Airport Trail.
A one-time Army signal officer, Rebecca Kirby, 28, also saw duty in Iraq and understands the grind.
"Goals are very important there, where every day is 'Groundhog Day,' " she said. "For Tim and his team to be able to look forward to Saturday and to finally complete the race, well ... it's the small milestones that can get you through the large expanse of 365 days."
Precautions have been taken to ensure the runners' safety, said Kirby, who mapped the course himself.
"Though the area is heavy guarded with peshmerga [Kurdish fighters] and Iraqi forces, we will also have an armored truck to provide road clearance, security and to act as a mobile water point," he said. "There are land mines in some of the outer trails around the area, but we will avoid these paths and stay on the well-traveled ones and concrete roads.
"Snipers? Possible.There is always the chance for someone to want to do harm to the forces in Iraq. With the help of our counterparts in the Iraqi army, we hope that this threat is not an issue."
The only member of his Border Transition Team with race experience, Kirby coaxed the others into taking part.
"I first asked nicely who would like to run, then the gloves came off and I told the younger guys how there was no way they could beat me anyway," he said. "Pride is the main thing riding on this event. The Army is very alpha male. To have to listen to another guy bragging for the rest of the year can easily drive someone crazy."
The locals watch the Americans jogging and shake their heads.
"The Iraqis think running is weird," Kirby said. "Physical fitness is not a priority for them. I've had cars swerve toward me because they were looking to see what I was doing instead of paying attention to the road. Many times, taxis have asked if I needed a ride."
Once, Kirby took one of his Iraqi interpreters on a practice run. After 10 miles, the man stopped and said, "I'm going back to my trailer to die."
Kirby shrugged and plodded on.
"For five years, I was at Fort Bragg [N.C.], home of the Airborne," he said. "Running is the Airborne way of life because, once we parachute out of a plane, we just have our two feet and can only go as far and as fast as they can take us."
Views of city's good and bad along marathon route PG 6