PEASE AIR NATIONAL GUARD BASE, N.H. - The morning of Sept. 13, a bus of endurance athletes from around the globe left Nairobi, Kenya, and rumbled hundreds of miles into the vast wilderness of East Africa.
After their seven-hour journey, the cramped and sweaty passengers stepped off the bus and into their base camp at the Lewa Conservancy. That was just the beginning. The runners would embark on a 143-mile ultramarathon across four wildlife conservancies to support wildlife rangers who protect Africa’s most endangered species.
First across the finish line was Air National Guard Senior Master Sgt. Jeff Delorey, the superintendent of health services with the 157th Medical Group. He finished 41 minutes ahead of the second-place competitor.
“It was challenging, the heat we were in, the environment, the mental grit, all of it,” said Delorey. “When I crossed the finish line, I was emotional. My heart and mind couldn’t be fuller from this journey.”
Over five days, Delorey trekked along winding dirt roads through baking grasslands, rocky hills, riverbeds and mountain forests teeming with East African wildlife.
“We were out in the wild with all of the beautiful animals, following the roads and paths that the rangers use to navigate around while they are protecting the wildlife,” Delorey explained. “A small percentage of the time, we were running through very small rural villages and meeting the people and the children that lived there.”
The race legs varied from 24 to 30 miles each day. The runners passed three checkpoints during the daily stages with available water and medical care.
“We had the checkpoints for security and refueling,” Delorey said. “A couple sections we were running within feet of these enormous baboons, Cape buffalo and elephants. The rangers and directors did everything in their power to make the course safe, but you still had to be vigilant running on the animals’ land.”
The runners finished the first four stages at temporary base camps built by teams of race crew. The tents were settled around a community structure and a fire pit.
“There was a ton of value in the nights by the fire, sharing stories and hearing about the lives of people,” Delorey said. “It makes you realize how important and how much value there is in connecting with humans from other parts of the world.”
“We learned more about the whole reason why we were there, too,” he said. “The rangers who are protecting the wildlife knew anything and everything about the plants we saw, the landscape and the animal behaviors. It was so inspiring. They were wonderful humans and just true warriors.”
The For Rangers Ultra raises money for the welfare of wildlife rangers. According to the Wildlife Conservation Society, poaching of rhinos and elephants has reached catastrophic levels in the past decade.
“It’s an incredibly dangerous job,” Delorey said. “The rangers risk their lives every day protecting the beautiful populations that have been decimated through poaching and industrialization. The whole race gave me a better understanding of conservation and appreciation for the rangers’ work.”
Delorey originally planned to compete in September of 2020, but the race was postponed two years in a row during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“There were a couple times during his training that he would share setbacks, but they never got in his way,” said Maj. Michelle Mastrobattista, the administration officer for the 157th MDG. “He was bummed when the race was postponed, but he took it as a chance to train more. He was always positive and had a great attitude.”
After waiting through global setbacks and becoming a father in the year before the event, Delorey said the journey felt surreal.
“I felt very prepared,” he said. “I think there are a lot of similarities to how you approach goals in the military and how you approach them in endurance races. You have to constantly go through your checklist and it’s all really strategic. You can’t let your mind wander too much because there are so many things going through your head to make sure you are running efficiently and safely. The same way you do in the military.
“I think my experiences in the Air Force have made me stronger for this race that certainly tested my resolve,” he added. “[The Air Force] has taught me how to cope with challenges, navigate obstacles and adapt in real-time.”
Delorey said he felt relieved as he crossed the finish line, but this race was just the beginning.
“I loved it and I think I found my niche in terms of athletics,” he laughed. “It’s a challenge personally and I love what I gain from being around the other athletes competing.
“My wife is so supportive and my family is really the reason I’m able to do this,” he added. “They make me excited for what is on the horizon. My biggest takeaway is I want to keep going.”