For most people, the thought of waking up at 3 a.m. to walk over 25 miles is simply crazy. To do it four days in a row wearing a military uniform and carrying a 10 kilogram (22 pound) rucksack is simply preposterous. However, that’s exactly what Master Sgt. Ralf Weiss (Germany) and 16 other members of the Headquarters Allied Air Command Ramstein marching team did during the annual Four Days Marches in Nijmegen, the Netherlands, from July 20 to 23.
The 2010 edition of the Nijmegen Marches marked the sixth time Master Sergeant Weiss completed the grueling four day event.
However, Sergeant Weiss wasn’t the only member of the multi-national Ramstein team to have finished the marches more than once. Chief Master Sgt. Norman Sheffield (U.S.) crossed the finish line for the fourth time, his first Nijmegen completion since 1989. Lt Col. Wayne Goulet (U.S.) was a three time finisher while Maj. Stefan Schmidt (Germany), MSgt Thomas Domzol (Germany) and MSgt Timo Mahnke (Germany) completed the Four Days Marches for the second time. First time finishers included SFC Shekelia Rambus (U.S.), 1st Sgt Kristian Hubred (Norway), SFC Jelani Watkins (U.S.), TSgt Krzysztof Kalwasinski (Poland), SSG Bruce Vescovi (U.S.), SGT William Lynch (U.S.), A1C Oliver Sommer (Germany), A1C Swen Dunzweiler (Germany), CPL Johan Loeken (Norway), SPC Tuan Nguyen (U.S.), and CPL Martin Hjelmeland (Norway).
This was the third consecutive year a HQ AC-Ramstein team competed in the Nijmegen marches. The Four Days Marches are the largest walking event in the world, consisting of both military and civilian participants.
Military participants march an average of 40 kilometers per day carrying a rucksack weighting at least 10 kilograms.
At different points throughout the Marches, officials enforce the 10 kilogram requirement by randomly weighing rucksacks. Military members not carrying the required weight are automatically disqualified. Civilian participants are not required to carry any weight and can complete a 30, 40, or 50 kilometer course per day.
The Marches were originated by the Dutch Army in 1907. In 1932, the number of civilian participants exceeded that of military marchers for the first time.
Registration is capped at 47,000 and is usually met within days of opening. This year over 39,000 participants, to include 5,000 military members, started on Day One. On Day Four over 36,000 marchers crossed the finish line.
Every year nations from all over the world send military contingents to participate in Nijmegen. Military members are housed in Dutch military barracks at Camp Heumensoord, a bare base outpost five kilometers south of Nijmegen.
First used in 1962, the camp is run by the Royal Netherlands Army and has over 20,000 cubic meters of tent space and 200 showers and toilets. The dining tent holds 300 benches where 2,400 people can eat at the same time.
Major Schmidt organized and led the HQ AC Ramstein team. According to Major Schmidt, “This year our biggest challenge was overcoming the high temperature during Day One. The increased temperature resulted in the earlier onset of painful blisters that normally appear in later days.
Our team was fairly successful in blister prevention. However, a few marchers developed severe blisters they had to deal with during the remaining three days.”
“For me, the key to finishing the marches was hydration and foot care,” stated Sergeant Hubred. “Although the water we carried was not counted as part of the ten kilos we were required to carry, I ensured I had plenty of water to keep hydrated. Additionally, I carefully checked my feet at every rest stop to prevent small blisters from becoming larger.”
The HQ AC Ramstein team was made up of seven members from the United States, six from Germany, three from Norway, and one from Poland. It was the largest HQ AC Ramstein team to date, surpassing the 11 and 10 member teams in 2008 and 2009. For marching over 160 kilometers, each member earned the Vierdaagskruis (Four Day Marches Cross), an official Dutch decoration that military members from many nations, but not all, can wear on their uniform.
Team members expressed various reasons for wanting to complete the Marches. “I wanted to challenge myself and show the younger troops that I could still do it,” said Chief Sheffield. “However, my goal changed to motivating the first-time marchers who wanted to quit at various times.
It was especially touching when we finally crossed the finish line and I was able to see the combined expressions of exhilaration, pride, and relief on their faces.”
“Although I am extremely proud that I’ve completed the Marches six times,” stated Sergeant Weiss, “I know my accomplishment is small compared to some of the other military marchers I’ve met. I’ve talked to military people who have completed the march over 30 times. That is truly inspiring and keeps me coming back to do it again.”
“I wasn’t sure I was going to finish,” said Sergeant Lynch. “By the second day, I had large blisters on my feet and my knees were bothering me. But I didn’t want to quit and let the team down. My teammates motivated me to continue. I wouldn’t have finished the Marches without the active support and encouragement from the team.”
Colonel Wayne Goulet works in the Logistics Division at Headquarters Allied Air Command Ramstein on Ramstein Air Base, Germany. E-mail him at email@example.com.