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Story by Spc. Jesse Elbouab, 133rd Mobile Public Affairs Detachment
OMAHA, Neb.--"When your legs get tired, just run with your heart," said Sgt. 1st Class Amy Parker of the Kentucky Army National Guard Recruiting and Retention Battalion. With an emotional stir in her voice, she credited the quote to her mentor, teammate, and long-time friend, Lt. Col. Varinka Ensminger.
After 14 years of running with and coordinating efforts for the Kentucky National Guard Marathon Team, Ensminger of Joint Force Headquarters will transition to a new assignment that will distance her from the running group.
"She [Lt. Col. Ensminger] is very unique, and I'm truly grateful to have been a small part of her life," said Ensminger's teammate and successor, Chief Warrant Officer 4 Allen Davis of the 307th Support Maintenance Company. "She is a leader that puts the Soldier first and is not afraid to get the work done to accomplish the mission. The skillset and professionalism she brought to the Kentucky Guard will be missed and is extremely hard to replace."
Runners from the Kentucky National Guard Marathon Team have been competing in the annual qualification race to be a national team runner since the first time-trial took place 36 years ago in Lincoln, Nebraska.
Soldiers that make the All Guard Marathon Team travel and compete in races throughout the year, representing the National Guard and interacting with communities across the nation.
"I made it to the All Guard Marathon team both years since joining the Kentucky team two years ago," said Spc. Korey Johnson, a collegiate runner and medic with 1st Battalion, 149th Infantry. "I've run in Idaho, North Dakota, and New York City. I made it to D.C. with the Kentucky team, and we traveled to Nebraska three times, now. I get paid to travel and run; it is definitely a great feeling."
Traditionally, the qualifying race is hosted in May, but races across the country canceled or rescheduled after the COVID-19 pandemic swept across the globe. As the year continued and government offices slowly opened back up, it was uncertain if Ensminger would get to run in her last season with the team.
After the Lincoln, Neb., race officially canceled, the National Guard promoters sought an alternative location to host the time trials. In luck, the Omaha race was still on the schedule.
In September 2020, more than 137 Soldiers from across the country gathered in Omaha to compete for the coveted All Guard Marathon Team. The Kentucky Army National Guard Marathon Team brought eight Soldiers to represent the commonwealth, with Ensminger leading the team for the last time.
Of those eight Soldiers, three Kentucky Guardsmen qualified for the national team; Johnson, Parker, and Ensminger. Ensminger not only qualified but swept the field as the top female finisher.
Parker's story is also worth noting, as running is relatively new to her. She once claimed to struggle while keeping her weight down and felt defeated about her body. Parker had just started running when she met Ensminger. Ensminger immediately encouraged Parker to join the Kentucky Guard marathon team. Six years later, Parker finally committed to it and that decision changed her life.
"I knew in the back of my mind I wanted to do it, and I wanted to push myself for it," Parker said. "She [Ensminger] just had a way to encourage you and motivate you; no matter what your fitness level is; no matter what you can or can't do. When we met, she showed how she believed in me. And before long, I started to believe in me, too. So, I joined the [marathon] team. Even though it took a few years, the family we have has pushed me to get to that level. I owe it to them; they helped me make the All Guard Team."
The marathon team's family element directly reflects Ensminger's drive and passion for the team. Ensminger is affectionally referred to as "Mom" by the next generation of team runners. Her legacy is one that the team hopes to maintain and grow for years to come.
"This program allows soldiers to continue being athletes beyond their college and even semi-pro careers," said Ensminger. "It's tough to train and compete at a high level while still working a full-time job, being a Soldier, and still finding time for family and friends and the other things in between. That's what makes these Soldier-athletes unique and special. The reward for being able to accomplish it all makes it so much sweeter."
Since 2007, Ensminger ran and placed in the top five at the Lincoln Marathon—the All-Guard Marathon Team qualifier event—five times, and she stayed within the top ten nine times. Her average finishing time for the 26.2-mile run is about 3:12:00. She has always been the Kentucky Guard's top finisher in points.
In 2012, she could not compete at the qualifier, but she showed her passion for running and helping others even while on deployment to Afghanistan. She inspired the nation when she ran for the Team Hoyt charity at a special marathon event coinciding with the Boston Marathon that year.
Click here for the 2012 article: Soldier runs Boston Marathon in Afghanistan for Team Hoyt’s charity
"Running has brought so much good into my life. As I look in the mirror, I am proud of what I see. I look around my house and see all the awards and pictures; it overwhelms me with gratitude. I hope the running distance won't intimidate other Soldiers. Give it a shot because it's incredible what your body can accomplish when you put your mind to it," said Ensminger.
Any Soldier interested in joining Kentucky's Marathon Team or Endurance Team is encouraged to reach out to Chief Davis at (502) 607-3851, or by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
The only requirement is that the Soldier has completed a full marathon in the past.
The Kentucky National Guard and the marathon team thank Ensminger for her many years of hard work and dedication. Best of luck to you, your travels, and the next race in whatever life brings.