Going the distance: A Guardian’s marathon journey realized through DAF Sports

  • Published
  • By Emily Peacock

A common joke you’ll find in the running community is that running is a fairly inexpensive hobby. All you need is a pair of running shoes, a running route and the willpower to get up and go.

However, the minute you catch the racing bug, an inexpensive hobby can easily turn into a financial drain. Race registration, hotel and travel fees, GPS watch – all compounded by the physical cost that comes with training.

 Through the Department of the Air Force Sports program, however, a life-long dream of running a marathon became an affordable reality for U.S. Space Force 1st Lt. Ryan Kirk.

Originally from Mountain Brook, Alabama, running has always been a constant in Kirk's life.

“I was always good enough to make the high school varsity track and cross-country team, but never fast enough to podium,” admitted Kirk. “You could say I was the slowest of the fastest.”

After commissioning into the Space Force in 2021 from the U.S. Air Force Academy, Colorado Springs, Kirk didn’t have to travel far for his duty station. Now a member of Space Delta 9 – Orbital Warfare at Schriever Space Force Base, Kirk often finds himself retracing runs from his time as a cadet.

In his first-year post-undergrad, Kirk joined a local running club and maintained a consistent endurance base, completing his 1.5-mile portion of his PT test in 8:04 – an entire minute faster than the necessary time to max the running portion.

Having noticed Kirk’s aptitude for running, a fellow DEL 9 Guardian encouraged Kirk to apply to race on behalf of the DAF Sports program.

Referred to as the official sports program and competition hub for the U.S. Air Force and Space Force, DAF Sports enables service members with superior athletic abilities to train, practice and participate in the highest level of services and international competitions.

“We have 17 sports that operate under the program with teams competing against other branches of the armed forces, such as soccer, basketball and rugby,” said U.S. Air Force Tech Sgt. Justyn Guthier, program manager for DAF Sports. “We also put on specialty events, allowing athletes to compete not just against other branches, but against fellow Guardians and Airmen as well.” These events include the Air Force Marathon, the Space Force 10-miler and the Bataan Memorial Death March.

With a few half-marathons under his belt, Kirk set his sights on the Air Force Marathon at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio.

In order to apply, Kirk needed to submit recent race times and distances as well as a strategic training plan leading up to the race.

“We had 140 race applications for the Air Force Marathon and Half-Marathon,” said Guthier. “Of those 140 packets, we were able to support 50 athletes – Kirk being one of them.”

With a militaristic focus, Kirk began to integrate track workouts, trail runs, long distance and strength training into his weekly routine. Sitting at approximately 6,100 ft. of elevation, every workout in Colorado Springs automatically included altitude training.  

While Kirk put in the miles leading up to the race, DAF Sports took care of the rest: the cost of race registration, flights to and from Dayton, hotel costs and transportation throughout the race weekend. DAF even provided Kirk with a Space Force racing singlet. In total, DAF Sports covered what would have cost Kirk nearly $1,500.

“Racing can add up – both in terms of mileage and costs,” said Kirk. “I’m glad I only needed to focus on the mileage.”

On the morning of Sept. 16, 2023, Kirk laced up his shoes and charged his GPS watch – a fairly standard pre-race routine. However, before leaving, Kirk wrote the names of 25 people who, over the course of his training and throughout his running career, have played an instrumental role in getting him to finish line.

“I dedicated miles to people who woke up early to run with me, who sent me words of encouragement and who simply inspired me to run,” said Kirk.

With the list of names in his pocket, Kirk was ready to race.

Surrounded by fellow DAF athletes, service members from every military branch and other running enthusiasts, Kirk’s journey to his first marathon had come to fruition.

For Kirk, the first half of the marathon was about finding his rhythm and settling into a sustainable pace.

“With all the pre-race jitters I might have gone out a bit fast, but I found a good group of runners to stay with and averaged about 6:30-mile pace,” said Kirk. 

By mile 16, however, fatigue started to creep in.

“There weren’t many fans on the course to cheer you on and by that time I was pretty much by myself,” said Kirk. “My legs were starting to feel heavy but I still had another 10 miles to go.”

At mile 22, Kirk had all but given up.

“Every step hurt, my heart rate was spiking and all I could think about was how much I wanted to stop,” said Kirk. “Then I thought about how far I’d come, how hard I’d trained and the list of names in my pocket.”

At 2 hours 57 minutes and 14 seconds, Kirk crossed the finish line.

“It was a very surreal moment,” reflected Kirk. “The final chute had us running under aircraft wings and I could see my DAF Sports teammates cheering for me. That’s something I’ll never forget.”

In the weeks following the marathon, Kirk had some time to decompress, reflect and think about his next race.

“I’ve already submitted my DAF Sports application for the Space Force 10-miler at Cape Canaveral and eventually I’d like to try to qualify for the Boston Marathon,” said Kirk. “Who knows, maybe I’ll shoot for an Iron Man.”

For more information on the DAF Sports program, visit https://dafsports.com.