Known amongst service members as "The Nijmegen," the International Four Days Marches Nijmegen takes place annually mid-July in Nijmegen, Netherlands. For the past 103 years, service members from more than 30 countries have come together to complete the 100-mile ruck march over the course of four days.
According to the event's official website, 41,235 participants successfully completed the 2019 march. Of those were the 13 service members from the team, Way Too Far.
Soldiers who represented six units from across the U.S. Army Garrison Bavaria included the following: Capt. Sandi Folkerts and Capt. Peter Harris, 41st Field Artillery Brigade, Capt. Catrinna Amorelli, Staff Sgt. Ethan Lambert, Staff Sgt. Michael Graham and Sgt. Joseph Tokash, U.S. Army Medical Department Activity Bavaria, Sgt. Eric Creamer, Sgt. Victor Coles and Sgt. Jonathan Scott, 4th Squadron, 2d Cavalry Regiment, Sgt. Scott O'Donnell, 2nd Squadron, 2CR, Geoffrey Utter, Joint Multinational Readiness Center, Maj. John Rich, 7th Army Training Command, and 2nd Lt. Amanda Coleman, 18th Military Police Brigade.
Each Soldier joined together to make a team with one goal in mind: start and finish as one. Putting together a training plan that aligned with everyone's schedules, though challenging, was critical.
"You can't go into this and not train for it," said Folkerts.
For those in the military contingent, each day of the Nijmegen began between 4:30 a.m. and 5:20 a.m., and participants were required to finish each leg by 5 p.m. Roughly 60 percent of the route overlapped between the civilian and military contingencies with shared rest stops and bathroom facilities.
However, for the military participants, established daily checkpoints required that each team member passed through together.
"If someone fell off and they didn't get through the checkpoint with us, they were eliminated from the event," explained Folkerts. "It was really important to me to keep the team together because I had been told by several people that when someone drops back from the team, they are not going to be able to catch up, and we are going to lose them."
Team Way Too Far developed their strategy for finishing as one during their training, leaving a three-hour leeway each day for injuries, unexpected delays at rest stops and general tiredness as the days went on.
"The physical pain was torturous," said Amorelli. "You think one day that this is the most pain it's going to be, and the next day is worse."
When marching through the cities, the competitors were met with lots of fanfare. Children lined the streets, giving high fives to every Soldier as they passed by. Locals provided an array of snacks ranging from cucumbers and fruits to pretzels and potato chips.
"People would bring their couches, their living room furniture, out on the sidewalk, and they would be there all day cheering people through," said Folkerts.
"All week really," added Lambert. "They had their spots taped off like who was going to sit where. Seeing the civilians of another country being so supportive and appreciative of a completely different country's military participating spoke volumes of their citizens."
Over the course of the four-day march, different physical ailments began to have an impact. Rucksacks rubbed the skin raw on their backs, blisters became severe, feet were swollen, and some lost toenails.
"We had a couple of medics on our team, and they were critical to prevention and recovery," explained Folkerts.
However, it proved quite challenging for team Way Too Far to secure medical support outside of their own supplies throughout the event. At the military rest stops, each country had a designated area and a separate medical tent with the expectation that each delegation would be providing its own medical support for its military participants.
"Luckily, we brought our own supplies," said Amorelli. "We had our own medics, and people knew how to tape feet. After the first day, we just gave up [expecting support] because you would be waiting for hours to see the medics."
Of the 5,900 military participants, 450 were U.S. Soldiers. Supplies that did exist for the U.S. military dwindled very quickly, leaving them to seek assistance elsewhere. The medical support was not proportional to the number of participants.
"On night three, before day four, we were getting help from the British and the Norwegian Armies as far as supplies and medical care because [the U.S.] just didn't have it," explained Lambert.
U.S. Soldiers have been participating in the Nijmegen march since its induction 103 years ago, but the lack of support for the U.S. military was not just inside the medical tent. The French and German Armies often supplemented resourcing by providing food at the American rest stops.
The four-day march provides a unique opportunity for Soldiers to interact with their NATO allies and build relationships within the European theater. Nonetheless, in the Way Too Far team's experience, the support for such a strategic event is not on par with where it should be.
"We earn a badge for completing a 100-mile ruck," explained Folkerts. "That is a lot."
"Anyone can go out and run 10 miles but walking 100 miles is on a way different level," Folkerts continued. "There are tryouts for the Army Ten Miler, people are put on orders, and they fly over. There is all of this support for the Army Ten Miler, and you don't even get a badge from it. It doesn't help the international relationships where you are rubbing elbows with Soldiers from other countries and building that international support and camaraderie."
The Cross for the Four Day Marches is an officially recognized Dutch decoration and is awarded to those who complete the march to regulation. If participants complete the march more than once, they will receive either a number on their ribbons or crown above their distinct Cross for that particular year after the event.
After each team finishes the 100-mile march, there is an optional 5K that is known as the Via Gladiola. It is similar to a parade and runs through the city center where locals pass out candy, beer and gladiolas to the participants.
"We sing cadence with the other countries," shared Creamer. "It is a great bonding experience. It really brings together the NATO alliance."
In order for this opportunity to continue for the U.S. military, the staff support from the U.S. military must match the requirement based on the number of participants.
"[Next year] they are not going to have the slots for the Americans that they have [this year] because they don't have the support staff to support them," said Lambert.
Giving out more than 1,000 high fives over the course of four days and marching 100 miles together, team Way Too Far successfully finished as one.
"Just to know that all of us come from different units spread between three different installations, and we didn't lose a single one of us. We all made it together," shared Lambert. "I was pretty impressed by that."
Registration for the 104th Four Days Marches opens in January 2020. More information regarding the event, its history and how to register can be found at the official website: https://www.4daagse.nl/en/.