The New Orleans area has a stronger military connection than most realize.
Military installations dot the surrounding landscape, including the headquarters of the Marine Corps’ reserve component. Higgins boats built in the city carried scores of America’s bravest to hostile shores in World War II. The Big Easy proudly houses the national museum dedicated to those who fought in that war.
So it’s fitting that as tens of thousands of runners will be conducting their final pre-flight checks for the 35th Allstate Sugar Bowl Crescent City Classic on Sunday, March 30 — double knotted shoes, iPod set to a running playlist, last-minute stretches — it’ll be the military that signals them into takeoff position on the runway.
Just before the start of the race, the nation’s colors will be presented by a joint color guard — one member from each of the five services. The Navy band will play the national anthem, the words emanating from the lungs of a Navy vocalist.
The beginning of the race is just one of many efforts race organizers made to reach out to the area’s service members. It’s all part of the Classic’s beefed-up effort to re-establish what it feels is a worthy cause.
“What better cause to help out and encourage health and fitness than our military branches,” said Richard Thomas, member of the Classic’s executive committee. “We thought it was a good opportunity to reach out.”
Reach out they did. The race organizers found a new military liaison, Sienna Schehr, to coordinate the efforts this year.
Through Schehr, who currently serves as a Technical Sergeant in the 159th fighter wing with the Louisiana Air National Guard, the Classic implemented measures to enhance the military involvement with this year’s race.
“I know that (the race organizers) are very patriotic and support the troops,” Schehr said.
The military will be involved with every aspect of the race; from a rock-climbing wall manned by the Army at the expo, to a military-style obstacle course for kids at the race’s finish festival.
But the biggest involvement will come during the race itself, where the Classic implemented new measures to honor the service members.
Organizers gave Schehr hundreds of free race bibs for area military members, and any runner can pick up a special bib at the race expo to run in honor of a service member.
The special bibs will say, “I am running in honor of” with a blank spot underneath.
“You can write someone’s name there, a fallen service member or someone who is deployed,” Schehr said. “Or just somebody that you know that’s in the military and you want to run in honor of them.”
The plan is to eventually collect the bibs from runners willing to give them up at the end of the race and tack them to an “Honor Wall,” which Schehr hopes is one day completely covered.
Organizers also hope to have a healthy contingent of service members slapping the New Orleans pavement in rhythm with their boots. They toyed with the idea of setting up a separate corral for military runners in uniform before deciding to intersperse them with the rest of the field.
“To be quite honest, I think the average person running the race will see a big military presence,” Thomas said. “Guys doing the ‘grunt run’ in a full uniform with packs on, five different branches all kind of competing against each other — it’s a good thing.”
The Classic came close to adding an ultimate tribute to come as the Navy vocalist hit the final note of the national anthem.
Schehr had secured approval for a fly-by, but the more than $40 billion in defense cuts via the sequester nixed the plan.
“It broke my heart, because I did a lot of hard work,” Schehr said. “Trying to get a fly-by for something is pretty hard.”
Schehr wasn’t alone bringing the military in the fold, however. Kelly Gibson, a professional golfer by trade, also lent a helping hand.
“She and I had a conversation, and I thought it would be kind of neat to engage the military,” Gibson said. “She pointed me in the right direction … and then there was an opportunity in how to create the military presence at this particular race.”
Gibson founded the non-profit Kelly Gibson Foundation, formerly known as Feed the Relief, after Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans in 2005. He was inspired by the first responders, including members of the Coast Guard, who worked to save people from flooded homes.
He wanted to be involved in what the Classic was trying to do, and hopefully raise both money and awareness for those that serve without asking for anything in return.
“I think it gives the military the opportunity to showcase the impact it has on our city,” Gibson said. “Unfortunately, so many citizens take for granted what the military does for us because they don’t realize how many are here among us.”
The first 100 women to finish outside the top 500 finishers in the race will receive a free print.