WEST POINT, N.Y. (Dec. 8, 2011) -- By Thursday morning, the West Point Marathon team had run more than 120 miles on the road overnight with about 160 to go before reaching FedEx Field in Landover, Md., for the Army-Navy football game Saturday.

Thousands gathered in a downpour at Daly Field Dec. 7 for a spirit rally with the Army Football team and in the midst of a roaring crowd and a blazing bonfire, about 20 cadets sprinted off into the darkness to begin their 48-hour journey.

The mission -- one which the marathon team has upheld for nearly three decades now -- is to deliver the ceremonial game ball from West Point to the playing field. Each member contributes about 15 miles, sometimes more, to the destination. They are careful along the way not to drop the ball -- somewhat wary of the consequences to the game if they do.

"We just don't want to be the one to drop the ball," Class of 2012 Cadet Sarah Binder said. "It's kind of like a superstition surrounding it, so we don't want to bring bad luck to our team if we were to drop the ball."

This year, the marathoners are adding a significant detour to the trip when they pass the World Trade Center site in New York City to honor fallen graduates from both service academies.

"I think it is great that we not only get to contribute to the Army-Navy game but we are also honoring members of the Long Gray Line who sacrificed their lives," Binder said.

As much as the game itself is an intense rivalry between two services and two academies, the memorial run recognizes the greater ideal of "one team, one fight."

"It's like a brotherhood and sisterhood of arms, and while we may have this great rivalry one day each year, every other day we're one team. It's pretty cool to get to acknowledge that," Binder said.

The team will wear memorial shirts that show the sites of the 9/11 attacks, and the names of fallen West Point and Naval Academy graduates on the back. Concurrently, a contingent from the Naval Academy will carry a game ball past the Pentagon and the veteran support organization; Team Red, White and Blue, will run near the Flight 93 crash site in Pennsylvania.

Binder participated in her first ball run two years ago to Philadelphia and this will be her last before graduation. Last year, Binder spent the semester at the Air Force Academy and missed Army-Navy Spirit Week.

"I think this will be a good year to run, not only because it's a different destination but also because we're running for fallen West Point and Naval Academy graduates. This year will be a special one," she said.

Two midshipmen from the Class of 2013, Ashley Mannix and Christian Fussman, are members of the West Point Marathon Team this semester while participating in the exchange program.

"They have represented the Naval Academy very well here," Binder said. "We'll be sad when they're gone next semester. We've been trying to convert them slowly, but they've held onto their naval 'cred' very well."

Binder said the trip itself comprises mostly of running, sleeping and studying. Binder, a history and German major, planned on packing a few books so she could brush up on military art.

"Well, we do have finals next week, so there's actually quite a bit of studying that goes on," she said. "We have some nerds on our team and I'm one of them, so we'll be studying a lot. There's a lot of sleeping too, and listening to music and singing. Nothing too crazy goes on."

Also on her packing list was cold weather clothing.

"It's all about staying warm and not dropping the ball," she said.

This will be Class of 2015 Cadet Daniel Schlich's first ball run.

"It's really exciting to get to participate in this tradition and, in a way, be a part of the Army-Navy game," Schlich said.

Schlich competed in his first marathon three weeks ago in Richmond, Va., only having run two-mile races on the track team at Steubenville Catholic High School in Ohio. Schlich apparently found his niche in long-distance running. He won his age division (19 and under) at Richmond with a 2:48 time to qualify for the Boston Marathon.

"That was pretty exciting," he said. "I got a better time then I expected. I didn't know how I would do because I've never run a marathon before, but I guessed I would finish under three hours."

The Army-Navy game is much more than a football game because at West Point the entire Corps of Cadets, members of the Long Gray Line and the Army itself get involved. Binder said it highlights the best of two academies and the profession of arms those students have chosen to embrace. Even so, she still wants to see Army beat Navy in the end.

"This year, more than ever before, I can say I really believe the Army Football team can beat Navy," Binder said. "I've seen them do really well and know they have the potential to win. I would really love to graduate having seen an Army victory over Navy."

Follow the team's journey on their Facebook page at www.facebook.com/pages/West-Point-Marathon-Team-West-Point-NY/313644085315562?v=wall.