As many as 30,000 runners are expected to test their endurance in Sunday’s 37th annual Marine Corps Marathon here in the Washington area. The popular race, nicknamed “The People’s Marathon,” takes the runners past many of Washington’s landmarks like the Lincoln Memorial and United States Capitol building, as well as our Voice of America headquarters on Independence Avenue.
One of the most challenging sections of the marathon, which offers no prize money, is the uphill finish to the United States Marine Corps War Memorial. There, if an athlete can cross the line, they can look forward to a finisher’s medal being placed around their neck by a U.S. Marine.
My first Marine Corps Marathon in 1987 ended in disappointment. I did not put in enough training miles and I dropped out about Mile 20, cold, shivering and dehydrated. As I walked to an aid tent, a spectator said to me, “C’mon, you only have six miles to go!” It might as well have been 60 miles at that point. I was so demoralized I thought I would never run another marathon.
But I didn’t stop running. My younger brother, Ralph, and I joined a local running group, the Mid-Atlantic Dead Runners Society, and that helped inject both of us with new enthusiasm for training runs. I even wrote a poem about one of the running group’s more colorful members, Jeff “T-Bone” Reed.
In 1994, I was ready to give the Marine Corps Marathon another shot. My return coincided with popular talk show host Oprah Winfrey deciding to celebrate her 40th birthday by running the same marathon, her one and only attempt at the classic 26.2 mile distance.
Oprah had a wet celebration. As I write this, Hurricane Sandy is heading towards the East Coast of the United States, and rain is forecast for Sunday’s race. It rained throughout the ’94 edition, which for me and Oprah, meant almost four-and-a-half hours of slogging through wet streets. My socks and running shoes were soaked completely through and felt so heavy at the end. I had to tip my pink running cap to the more prepared and experienced runners who had a friend or loved one give them a pair of dry shoes to put on at roughly the halfway point.
I also saw more than a few runners wearing “Beat Oprah” T-shirts. She crossed the finish line in just over 4:29 and I came in at about 4:24. I have to give her credit for staying the course in less than optimal running conditions. Ralph finished almost 45 minutes ahead of me and Oprah. At the end, we were all soaking wet, but happy.
One of my favorite Greeks, Dean Scontras, who ran the Marine Corps Marathon in 2011, says his ancestors “believed the athletic experience was a step toward greater understanding of self. The training in the elements, at all hours of the day, reminds us that the human spirit is stronger than any physical limitation.” I believe my human spirit was renewed in the rain 18 years ago, and I believe we all deserve second chances.