Different Strides: PACAF runners take intersecting trails to victory

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Jake Barreiro
  • 51st Fighter Wing Public Affairs
An only child from Mankato, Minn., Staff Sgt. Joshua Johnson likes to socialize while running. Airman 1st Class Andrew Riesenberger, from Wilmington, Del., the youngest of three children, likes to run alone. Despite this contrast, Johnson and Riesenberger earned spots with four other Pacific Air Forces Airmen to represent PACAF in the Air Force Half-Marathon Sept. 20, 2014, in Dayton, Ohio, helping the team place first against six other Major Commands.

Johnson and Riesenberger, both stationed at Osan Air Base, Republic of Korea, were selected out of 59 Airmen trying to compete. Official competitors in the Air Force marathon are selected based on run times from their last three years. All of the applications are evaluated by a PACAF Services board, which selects the best to represent the MAJCOM, sending them on a permissive temporary duty assignment to Ohio.

Long before being paid to race by the Air Force, Johnson, now a 51st Operations Support Squadron airfield management operations supervisor, spent most of his time running around playing in the woods behind his house.

"I was an only child, and I had to be creative," Johnson said. "It was probably a quaint way of living. We only had one TV channel, which was CBS, and the only show I ever watched was at 9 p.m. on Saturday nights: Walker Texas Ranger. My friends always joked I was living in 'Leave it to Beaver.'"

Spending his time outdoors led Johnson to a natural interest in sports. He played baseball and basketball, but never competed at running until his first duty station at Cannon Air Force Base, N.M.

"In 2011, I met a man who was in the fitness center on an exercise ball," Johnson said. "I made fun of him and said 'aren't exercise balls for pregnant women?' He snapped back at me, 'No, you only think that because nobody knows how to use them properly.' Then, he stood up entirely on an exercise ball, and it blew my mind. He started helping me train afterwards. We started running and bicycling, and he became my coach and mentor."

Racing quickly became addictive to Johnson.

"My first race, it was this rush," he said. "I had a really happy feeling, everyone was just excited to be there running and finishing together. I pushed my body and had a great time. I was hooked."

For Riesenberger, running competitively has been a part of life since he was 13. His father cultivated his interest in racing and encouraged him to try out for track and field in high school.

"After I finished track freshman year I realized I could be good," said Riesenberger, now a 51st Civil Engineer Squadron engineering technician. "I got competitive with some of the best runners in Delaware in high school and continued in college because I wanted to keep getting faster."

As an engineering technician, Riesenberger helps survey and map the entire base. When he's at leisure, he likes to play Frisbee, golf or take photographs for fun. However, when he is running, he's serious.

"I have a whole running process," Riesenberger said. "I build base mileage first and then add quality work once my base is adequate. I set goals and build toward them. There's still a goal I have of running a 5K under 15 minutes. I haven't reached it yet, and I won't feel completely satisfied with my running career until I do."

Their enthusiasm for running is in step, but Johnson and Riesenberger' s path to competitive racing is as diametric as their approach to the sport itself.

Johnson, whose job as an airfield manager puts him in contact with dozens of people a day, enjoys building camaraderie and making friends through the shared experience of running.

"Racing with my mentor and friends turned into spending time training with other people," Johnson said. "I like building relationships through it. You feel better because you're exercising together. I also seek out those who are better than me. Surrounding myself with people who are better runners pushes my abilities to new levels."

In comparison, the lane to success for Riesenberger runs primarily through self-motivation.

"I like to run alone," he said. "It's the best way for me to take it seriously and push myself."

Johnson's training partners span a wide distance, including Airmen and civilians at Osan AB, an off-base English-language teacher and the Songtan Marathon Club: a local, Korean-based running group.

"There are probably only two people in the club who are comfortable speaking English," Johnson said. "So, it's really fun and challenging to learn their training methods and socialize with them. I've found they do a lot of stuff based around togetherness and building the team up."

Riesenberger prefers running on soft-surfaces and often trains around the soccer field on base after work. He implements a specific regimen.

"Once I condition my body to the distance I want, I start doing specific workouts that target aerobic and anaerobic capacity," Riesenberger said. "I tend to focus on building aerobic first and then anaerobic."

Johnson enjoys the competition, but doesn't think about winning when racing.

"I always try to do my best," Johnson said. "If I don't win, I don't get down on myself. My goal with running is to do an activity I enjoy with good people that I enjoy training with."

On the other foot, Riesenberger embraces the competitive nature of racing, which propels him.

"The biggest motivator for me to compete is winning and becoming a faster runner," Riesenberger said. "It seems like a never-ending process, and I'm okay with that."

While Johnson and Riesenberger train in different ways, both agree that properly preparing for a race involves more than exercise. Johnson makes it a point to monitor his diet.

"A lot of it is about nutrition and eating properly," he said. "If you don't use the right food to fuel your body, you'll cheat yourself and what you're capable of."

Riesenberger prefers to relax his body in the weeks leading up to a race

"Getting closer to the race, I start to decrease the intensity of my training," he said. "There's really little to be gained at the last minute. My biggest priority is preventing injury and going in healthy."

Before the big race in Ohio, Johnson was optimistic about his performance.

"I feel like I've done everything I can to prepare," Johnson said. "I have my goal, I know my pace, and I've been eating right. I'm ready."

Riesenberger was more skeptical.

"I haven't trained as well as I'd like to," Riesenberger said. "I think if the weather cooperates, and I'm feeling good, I may be able to run a 1:23:00 or 1:24:00."

The race itself wasn't the only alluring part of the TDY. Both runners were excited because it gave them a chance to reconnect with family.

Before the race, Johnson, who said his parents taught him to work hard and be humble, returned to Minnesota and took a road trip to the race with his family.

"I was able to visit with my grandma on my mom's side," he said. "It meant the world to me to see her. Then my dad, mom and grandma on my dad's side began our road trip. Spending quality time with my family was a rare and special gift. Having my dad, mom, grandma, second cousins and best friend, who drove from Lubbock Texas, at the race to support me made the trip an even more incredible experience for me."

Riesenberger also spent time with his father at the race.

"It was awesome to have him there, because I hadn't seen him in 10 months," Riesenberger said. "I'm proud that I could put on a solid performance for him too. He used to watch a lot of my meets in high school, so it was cool just to have him there again."

Riesenberger smashed his expectations at the race, finishing the more than 13-mile course in 1:19:16. Johnson achieved his personal best with a time of 1:27:45. They finished with the top two times on the PACAF team, helping PACAF win the half-marathon competition with a collective run time of 9:07:38 and an average of 1:31:17.

Both are excited about the victory, with Johnson enthused to have the chance to integrate his passion with his profession, and Riesenberger already preparing to take the next step.

"The whole experience was great," Johnson said. "It was fantastic getting to do something I love personally. I got to run, socialize, meet with people and help them,  and now that I'm doing it with the Air Force involved, that's even better."

"It wasn't my best time by a lot, but I was still very pleased with how I ran," Riesenberger said. "It's very encouraging for me to continue running, because it shows me what I can accomplish with consistent training and a goal in mind. "

As the two Airmen cool down from the competition and victory, they set a steady pace toward the future. Riesenberger, whose next duty station is in Italy, has ambitions to make the U.S. Air Forces in Europe racing team.

"This was an amazing permissive TDY," Riesenberger said. "To be able to represent Osan and PACAF and come away with a team win and individual success feels amazing. I'm hearing about a USAFE cross country team that competes in Europe against the Air Forces of other countries. I look forward to the competition."

Johnson, set to move to the United Kingdom, plans to keep running, socializing and branching out. The racing and people are not just about competition or connections though. He derives motivation from a maxim his mother instilled in him: "We are here to serve others."

"I want to shine my light and live the best I can, doing the right thing to honor God and my family," Johnson said. "In doing so, I want to serve others and help them reach their best. If we all try a little bit harder to make a difference in someone's life, that kindness that you spend for maybe a minute by showing you care, showing a little love, goes so far. It makes the world a better place and helps people realize there are other people who care about them. That's what it's all about for me."