CONTINGENCY OPERATING BASE SPEICHER, Iraq - There are those that choose to accept what is the basic norm, and those that decide to challenge themselves, pushing their bodies to the limit.

Forty-two of the toughest Soldiers Task Force Marne has to offer competed in a grueling test of wills as they participated in the task force's first biathlon held at Contingency Operating Base Speicher, near Tikrit, Iraq, Feb. 27.

These select Soldiers were hand-picked by their respective chains of command to represent their unit in the biathlon, essentially pitting their Soldiers against the other elite biathletes from across the task force.

The 42 Soldiers involved in the biathlon were representative of each unit across United States Division-North. The categories were broken down to first through third place for male and female competitors. There was also a category for overall male and female with the most points.
The scoring system was a combination of the Soldiers' efficiency at the range combined with their run times after negotiating the muddy, wet 7.4-plus mile, round trip run.

"It was a test of their endurance and how well they could shoot," explained Maj. Dennis O'Reilly, deputy division surgeon, 3rd ID, breaking down the events. "They had to run over 3.7 miles to the range, put on all their protective gear that they wear in combat, fire 10 rounds at a [25-meter] target, then drop their combat gear, and run back, all done in ACUSs and boots [with rifles]."

The biathlon, a vision of Maj. Gen. Tony Cucolo, the USD-North commander, was planned by Soldiers across the task force.

"We had lots of help," said Maj. O'Reilly. "[TF Wings ran] the range. I told Wings 'We are going to have 42 to 60 Soldiers show up, shoot, then run off the range. Go ahead and figure that out. And they did a great job doing that. Mr. Songer, [from the 'Ready' Brigade, did a great job as the run coordinator]."

Ultimately, when the winners were announced, the competitors from 25th Combat Aviation Brigade, TF Wings, led the way. First Lieutenant Valerie Aquino, Headquarters and Support Company, 209th Aviation Support Battalion, and Spc. Douglas Long, Company E, 2nd Battalion, 25th Aviation Regiment, both of TF Wings, led all competitors with a combined 363 points. First Lieutenant Aquino also had the highest individual score of any competitor, scoring 185 points.

"It feels great," said 1st Lt. Aquino, on her accomplishments. "I'm glad it's over, but it was very exciting. My goals were to not give up, and to hopefully win. I'm very happy I had a chance to represent my unit."

Most of the biathletes felt the same way. Many didn't expect to perform as well as they did and were surprised by the outcome.

"I was surprised. I didn't think I was going to place," said Staff Sgt. Desiree Browning, from Co. B, 26th Brigade Support Battalion, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 3rd ID, who took third place in the female category with 99 points. "I was just going to do my best and try to finish the race."

First Lieutenant Samuel Freeman, Battery B, 1st Battalion, 9th Field Artillery Regt., 2nd BCT, 3rd ID, and second place winner for the males with 166 points, also had no expectations prior to the race.

"I wasn't expecting to get second place at any point," he said. "I came out here and did a lot better than I expected to do. I'm not much of a distance runner. The most I've run is probably a little over six miles. Running in boots and ACUs was extremely difficult."

Some of the biathletes had their own goals whether it was motivating their Soldiers or showing their commitment to physical fitness by finishing the event.

"This definitely raises the bar for my Soldiers," said Staff Sgt. Browning.

Specialist Long, first place winner for all male biathletes with 178 points, also weighed in on his reason for competing.

"I think it just shows how dedicated I am to physical fitness and keeping myself healthy. Running in ACUs (Army Combat Uniform), boots and with a weapon ... it really changes the dynamics of running."

Staff Sergeant Lawrence Smith, who won third place for the men with 161 points, shared a few of his goals in competing. He also placed in the recent Operation Iraqi Freedom Great Aloha Run, Feb. 1.

"One goal was just to finish it because it was something I've never done before. And the other was being one of the top runners. My goal was pretty much to come up here and have fun."

A triumphant finisher, Spc. Long discussed his pride in being involved in the task force's first biathlon, knowing the stiff level of competition.

"It feels pretty good," he concluded. "All that hard work paid off. I knew it was going to be tough. Every unit was going to send their best. So [winning certainly] felt good. And knowing that you were selected to represent your entire brigade was pretty cool."