As snowflakes drifted down Friday afternoon, six cadets from the U.S. Military Academy - one cradling a football - ran into Lot K at Lincoln Financial Field.
"Stop right here," said Lt. Gen. David H. Huntoon Jr., West Point's superintendent, smiling and pointing to the ground at 3:38 p.m. "You did it."
The football never touched the ground through a frigid night in New Jersey, passing a turkey along the road in Bucks County, scores of honking cars, a couple of near misses on the road, plenty of "Go Army" yells, and the occasional spirited "Go Navy."
A relay team from West Point - the academy's marathon team - had cradled the ceremonial Army-Navy game ball for 165 miles after leaving Thursday night. From Annapolis, Md., a separate group from the Naval Academy's 13th Company is running the ball for 125 miles, taking it through Maryland and into Pennsylvania on Friday night, planning for a game-day arrival at the Linc.
The football relay, in its third decade, is another symbol of commitment and sacrifice before the 111th renewal of Army vs. Navy.
"The game, it's unique to the United States," Huntoon said after handing commemorative medallions to each member of the marathon team, including an "exchange student" from the Naval Academy. "These are two service academies that produce the same outcome, what we call leaders of character. . . . Their pro career is taking command of the burden of the nation, its security."
At Navy, the entire ball-relay operation is run by midshipmen. The commandant sent the 13th Company off with a speech Friday at noon. The 125-mile trek was broken into 13 legs, each leg carrying about 10 midshipmen. By Friday night, the operations center for the run had shifted to a firehouse just over the border in Pennsylvania.
"My company is very, very close," said Natalie Woodward, the senior in charge of the logistical operations of Navy's ball run this year. "The drive to get this accomplished just brings us closer and closer."
Saturday morning, 33 midshipmen seniors will be on the field to hand the ball to the referees and Navy's captains.
"It's sort of your rite of passage as a class," said Navy senior Marilyn Pendlyshok, from Medford.
For Army, the entire marathon team - 14 men and six women - will present the ball to Army's captains in front of a capacity crowd.
"I think it's like the Olympic torch - a buildup to the game, to make the event a bigger deal," said Army senior Matt Ryan, a captain of the Army marathon team from Littleton, Colo.
The Army marathoners traditionally run the Boston Marathon each year. It's part of the criteria to stay on the team. Members are supposed to meet Boston Marathon qualifying standards - 3 hours, 10 minutes for men, 3:40 for women.
For the run to Army-Navy, the marathon team splits into three shifts each with a van with "Beat Navy" written on the windows. The first group of upperclassmen left a pep rally and bonfire, running until 3 a.m., when another van took over. "The graveyard shift," joked one of the runners, sophomore Nathaniel Einfeldt.
"I think I started at 4:40 in the morning one year," said Army senior Ben Troxell. "I saw the sun rise, and then I was done."
Navy senior Mike Hersh, from Schwenksville, remembers his first year running at 4 or 5 in the morning. It was on a highway, "but no cars even passed."
Sometimes runners ran in pairs, sometimes the whole group. More often, alone.
"We passed a sign at one point by a bank, and it said it was like 13 degrees," said Army senior Kelly MacDonald, from Carlisle, captain of the women's team, who figured she ran for about 45 minutes late Thursday night. "It's not that bad after the first 10 or 20 minutes. It's just the lungs and the face. Some of the guys coming back in had ice forming on their hands and their gloves."
It wasn't as bad as two years ago, MacDonald said, when it was so cold her iPod froze up and stopped working after five minutes.
Each year, Army's marathon team practices for the run by handing off a large rock.
"We don't really need to. It's kind of a joke when we do it," MacDonald said. "But the deeper message - we can't drop the ball."
Army's Troxell spent last fall semester as an exchange student at the Naval Academy. Exchange students at each academy traditionally have a fun week leading up to the game.
"They definitely stole a lot of my clothes," said Troxell, who remembers hiding a spare change of clothes "in a secure location."
Can that location now be revealed?
"A physics lab," Troxell said.
In fact, the Thursday night before last year's game, Troxell hid himself in the physics lab, which required a pass code to get in.
The relay got to Pennsylvania Friday just before 11 a.m., passing into New Hope, where the runner and ball were shielded by a state police car in front and behind, with an unmarked car also along. Local police cars often stopped traffic at side roads, as traffic often slowed behind the caravan on two-lane Route 232 in Bucks County.
The van carrying team members took a pit stop at a Hess Express in Richboro as Sean Robinson kept running with the football.
"I was like, 'Where did they go?' " Robinson said after he got back in the van. "I thought, 'I hope they know about this right turn, or I'll be running to Philadelphia by myself.' "
A state police car waited for the van and gave them the sirens-on treatment to catch up to Robinson and the other police car in front of him. Cars pulled over on both sides of the road as the van sped through.
"This is awesome," said Maj. Shoshannah Jenni, driving the van with the final group. Jenni, who grew up in Egg Harbor Township, teaches German at West Point now, but she also flies helicopters, including during a tour in Iraq. She's also a legit Philly fan: "I wish they didn't get rid of Cliff Lee. Can you imagine him and Roy Halladay?"
With WRFF-FM (104.5) playing on the radio, the van followed the runner and ball from the woods outside New Hope into the closer Bucks County suburbs, passing subdivisions and strip malls and then the Bryn Athyn Cathedral.
"This church is epic," Robinson said in the van. "Welcome to Hogwarts."
Most of the runners ran between 15 and 20 miles.
"At West Point, everybody has to be an athlete - same at the Naval Academy," said Huntoon, a runner himself, who scored some points with the runners because he is believed to be the first superintendent to meet the marathon team at the end. "It's our nature, it's intuitive."
Friday night, about 75 midshipmen were headquartered at a fire station in Oxford, just across the Maryland border. Some of the members of the 13th Company had just finished running. Some would begin after midnight. The ball never stopped.
"It's kind of the same tradition and a completely different tradition at the same time," Woodward, the Navy senior in charge of the logistics, said of how Army and Navy do their ball relays.
Navy had to worry about transporting an entire company in groups of 10, many of them funneling through the firehouse, where Chipotle donated burritos and midshipmen shot pool and watched a big-screen TV. Few planned to sleep Friday night. They were to be up, dressed, and ready for a bus to take them to Philadelphia leaving Saturday at 6:30 a.m.
Woodward sounded up to the task of keeping everything straight, even after she had to figure out how to transport 20 more people than a bus could fit from Annapolis to Oxford early Friday evening. She will graduate and become a surface warfare officer on a ship. After 18 to 24 months, she then has a direct transfer to become a communications information professional, "working in cyber warfare," Woodward said.
At 8 p.m. Friday, Leander Nunez, a senior midshipman from Los Angeles, arrived at the firehouse after running a 10-mile leg in Baltimore. He said he looked at this as a way to give back to the academy, that it was a kind of neighborly act to run through Baltimore, explaining what they were doing when locals asked.
"I see it as as a kind of recruiting tool," Nunez said.
Since 1982, the midshipmen of 13th Company have run the ball. It originated from a desire to get the "unlucky" 13th Company off the yard, the Naval Academy said in its tongue-in-cheek information sent out on Army-Navy activities.
For Army, Jenni, a coach of the women's marathon team, took a five-mile shift along North Broad Street, realizing all the team members in the final group wanted to run the last leg together to the stadium. Team members took in the sights of Philly. ("They're just parking in the middle of the street?") Just south of Olney Avenue, an older man wearing an Army PT jacket nodded at the caravan, smiling but not saying a word. Somebody in the van pointed out they'd been running as a group for "five hours and almost 13 minutes."
By Temple, a student high-fived cadet Adam Irons as he ran with the ball. Just south of City Hall, a woman on a bicycle rode by Irons, took his photo, and then rode off. Two children with backpacks ran along for a block on the sidewalk. With 2.9 miles left, the final group of six got out and ran together: Irons, Robinson, Jessica Cattley, Morgan Kuchan, Keith Buell, and Ben Karn.
The group got applause at Broad and Oregon. But as a Philadelphia Highway Patrol car led them into a left turn onto Pattison right by the stadium, there was a last reminder of the rivalry that never ends.
"Go Navy! Beat Army!" a man yelled out from his Honda as he waited for the light.
"Go Army!" Jenni yelled back from the van.
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