Mark Rotundo finishes his shift every day, removes his body armor and equipment weighing about 60 pounds, and grabs his running shoes.
Rotundo’s Illinois Army National Guard friends stationed at Camp Phoenix in Kabul, Afghanistan, are eager to kick back and watch a DVD. Not Rotundo. For him, running is sacred, a necessity for psychological survival.
The 31-year-old Lake in the Hills resident heads to the base’s half-mile track, one of the two places where he is not required to carry a weapon, and escapes for an hour.
“They think I’m kind of crazy for doing that,” Rotundo said. “I just make it a priority. It’s always been a part of my life, so [running] helps me balance out everything. It’s definitely a stress reliever, and it gets me some regularity too, like what I do back at home.”
Rotundo is an E-4 Specialist in Delta Company’s 33rd Brigade Combat Team on the base. His National Guard unit was deployed in September, four months before his three-year stint in active duty would have been up.
The unit trained two months in Fort Bragg, N.C. and was sent to Afghanistan’s capital in December.
Rotundo recently returned home for two weeks to see his wife, Erin, and three children, Nathan (5), Lynda (3) and Nolan (2 this month). One day after he returned home, just for fun, he ran in the Cary Hillstriders Half Marathon. He was pleased, given his jet lag and training schedule, to finish 18th.
“Nathan actually thinks Mark’s home because he sent him a birthday invitation,” said Erin, 28, the third of 12 children from the Badgley family which is known in the area for producing standout pitchers. “They don’t recommend running [in Afghanistan] because the air’s so bad. Mark’s come back with a really bad cough, real deep.
“[The other soldiers] call him ‘Runtundo.’ ”
Mark Rotundo grew up in Elgin and ran cross country and track at Elgin High School. He also ran cross country one season at Elgin Community College. Three years ago, he joined the National Guard, which requires an eight-year commitment (three active and five inactive).
He began hearing rumors last year his unit might be deployed. Since everything was in motion, Rotundo, who would have fulfilled three years active duty in December, had to go to Afghanistan.
“I knew he was going to go, I just knew,” Erin said. “Somehow, I knew he wasn’t going to get out without going.”
Rotundo said he could be in a worst place in Afghanistan. The Afghan National Army has a training camp in Kabul and the Afghan National Police also has a great presence there.
“I won’t say it’s safe, but it’s safer than out east or down south,” Rotundo said.
Rotundo works on the security force for the base. The shifts are eight hours each, either running from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m., from 2 to 10 p.m. or from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. Sometimes he works Mounted Combat Patrols, where the soldiers patrol villages.
When his shifts were over, Rotundo used to grab his Nike Pegasus shoes, a going-away gift from the Health Bridge Roadrunners, and head to the track. The track and the gym on Forward Operations Bases are the only places where personnel are not required to carry a weapon.
Rotundo puts in 5 to 9 miles on the track, and while the circles can be monotonous, the mountain scenery helps. He returned to Afghanistan last week with a new pair of Nike Zoom Vomeros, courtesy of Dick Pond Athletic Inc. in Carpentersville.
“I’d been getting his e-mails and thought we should adopt him as a soldier with the store,” said West Dundee resident Paul Turnbaugh, who helped with the store’s recent remodeling. “When they get cookies or shoes or something from home, it’s a big deal. Mark’s passion for running kind of keeps him sane over there.
“It wasn’t really marketing for the store, it’s more of an inspirational thing taking care of the soldier. We want to inspire people to do something for a soldier.”
Dick Pond also gave Erin, who became hooked on running last year, new shoes.
“Since I’ve been gone, she started running more,” Mark said. “She always dreaded it, but for whatever reason, she got inspired to try it, and she’s really enjoying it.”
The mild winter in Afghanistan was good for Rotundo’s running workouts, although he’s not so sure how it will be this summer. He’s heard that summer temperatures can get well in excess of 100 degrees. But he plans on running as much as possible until, hopefully, he returns in late September.
At that point, he plans to resume working at Midwest Decorating in Hampshire, get back into his normal running regimen and enjoy time being a father. In his eyes, Erin has the tougher job for the next six months.
“Erin’s done an awesome job with the kids while I’ve been gone,” Mark said. “I don’t know how she does it.”