Soldier aims to run 100 miles while wearing a gas mask

FORT STEWART, Ga. (AP) — The soldier in the gas mask goes by "Unbreakable."

He's been seen along Ga. 144 on Saturday mornings, determined and steady as he runs, oxygen intake dramatically reduced and heat building between the black plastic and his face. The black Special Operations gas mask doesn't leave his head until he gets to his unit's Fort Stewart compound — 18 miles later.

That's nothing compared to what the 3rd Infantry Division soldier, Sgt. 1st Class Augusto "Tito" Piñeiro, plans to do Friday. The 37-year-old aims to run for 100 miles straight in Greenville, South Carolina, while wearing the oxygen-restricting device. If Piñeiro succeeds, he will, by default, surpass the 41-mile world record for distance run in a gas mask.

"I'm not doing it to break the record," he said recently before donning the mask at Fort Stewart for a sweltering 3.2-mile lap. "I just want to run 100 miles with the mask on and say I did it."

It's partly a tribute to a friend, a Navy SEAL who was killed in action but whom he won't identify. The two pledged to one day run 100 miles together wearing gas masks.

And he's also doing it to raise awareness of Operation Enduring Warrior, a nonprofit that seeks to "empower and motivate" wounded veterans.

Spokeswoman Kelly Farmer says Enduring Warrior offers athletic courses, certificates in skydiving and scuba diving and just pushes wounded veterans to realize "they have many reasons to keep going and the support to keep living active and prosperous lives."

Farmer said many Enduring Warrior volunteers plan to attend the race in Greenville and post live updates on Piñeiro's progress to the nonprofit's Facebook page — especially when he breaks the record, something Guinness World Records has been invited to verify.

Piñeiro is a member of Enduring Warrior's Masked Athlete Team — athletes that compete wearing gas masks to stay anonymous while drawing attention to the recuperating veterans.

When wearing the masks, the team members use code names.

"When we put the mask on, that's what we go by," Piñeiro said. "I go by 'Unbreakable.' They won't be calling me Tito."

Piñeiro got involved with Enduring Warrior while stationed at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, after a deployment to Afghanistan in which he was awarded three Purple Hearts.

Now a platoon sergeant with an engineer battalion of the 3rd ID's 2nd Infantry Brigade Combat Team, Piñeiro told his unit's public affairs office that the 2012 deployment deeply affected him.

He was in several explosions there, and members of his team were killed. Running, he told his public affairs unit, helped him cope.

And he has been preparing for Friday's race for months, running five to six times a week in the mask and wearing it during physical training with his unit.

Friends and family have been nothing but supportive.

"Everybody thinks I'm crazy because it's so hot — especially May — running with it, but everybody knows I can do it," Piñeiro said. "Mentally I'm ready. Physically I'm ready. Now I've got to put everything I've trained up for and just go out there and do it and finish it."

So far, Piñeiro's record in the mask is 32 miles from last year when he ran a 50k.

Friday's race, called the Knock on Wood 100, is a 3.2-mile loop — one that runners will have to complete more than 30 times to finish. Rain is forecasted in Greenville for most of the week, and the hilly upstate South Carolina terrain is a far cry from the flat ground of coastal Georgia.

Piñeiro, who's been training for months, thinks he can knock the course out in 32 hours, with a few breaks for necessities included.

Race Director Matt Hammersmith calls that "a heck of a day."

Hammersmith said 300 people had signed up for the "ultra running" event by Monday and he expects more to join.

The race is in its third year, and Hammersmith says it's typical for about 20 percent of the runners to finish all 100 miles. Ultra runners, he said, have an awful lot of fortitude.

"They understand that there will be things that can go wrong," Hammersmith said. "There will be things that they didn't expect, but at the same time, they have the mental grit to overcome those adversities. It's a cool thing to watch when somebody's 70 miles in and they want to call it quits but they take a five minute break and just go back out there."

Hammersmith said he didn't know about Piñeiro's plans to wear the mask, but said he believes the soldier can go the distance: "When he gets finished, he'll have two questions: 'Can I do it faster?' and 'Could I go farther?'"

Piñeiro, though, says the first thing on his mind will likely be climbing in a bed and passing out. That and putting his mask away for a bit.

"I've gotten so used to it now it's normal for me, but I've been getting really claustrophobic lately because I've been wearing it so much," Piñeiro said. "I'm just ready for it to be over with so I don't have to wear it anymore for a while."