Race Report: 2012 Marine Corps Marathon

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By John Andersen

Dr. John Andersen after the race.

I had the pleasure and extreme challenge of running the 2012 Marine Corps Marathon (MCM), held on October 28 in Arlington and Washington, D.C. This was my second running of the Marathon, which is truly a special race. With an entry field of 30,000 runners, the MCM is the country’s fourth largest marathon behind the NYC, Chicago, and Boston Marathons.

Walking up to the starting corral, the sheer number of runners positioned to start this race was overwhelming.  From the fastest runners at the starting line to the slowest runners trying to finish under the seven-hour cutoff, the crowd  stretched a half-mile along Jefferson Davis Highway just north of the Pentagon.

There was a buzz in the air,  as the big story was the looming arrival of Hurricane Sandy. Although not predicted to endanger runners, strong winds and light rains were expected throughout the race. Fortunately the overcast sky and a temperature around 55 degrees made conditions perfect for running long distance.

The energy at the start was elevated by blaring pop music to keep spirits high. Prior to the start, there was an emotional performance of the National Anthem, followed by a low flyover of two V-22 Ospreys—incredible military aircraft that are capable of vertical takeoff like a helicopter and horizontal long-distance flight like aircraft. You can’t help but stare in awe at American military firepower.

This introduction set the stage for the underlying theme and tradition of the Marine Corps Marathon—appreciation of our Armed Services.  Thousands of Marines lined the course, handing out water, food, and cheering “Ooh Rah!” as we passed by.  Many runners were active servicemen and women, and the entire course is lined with signs giving thanks and appreciation to our Armed Services members.

Fifteen minutes before the runners started, the wheelchair and hand-cycle participants were off with the very big starting gun—a howitzer.  Many of these participants were wounded veterans, and their determination to finish the distance without functioning legs was inspiring to say the least.

Further setting the stage away from personal glory and toward those who served were the thousands of runners who ran in memory of deceased servicemen and women.  During the race, I was constantly surrounded by runners with pictures on their race jersey of their parent, son, daughter, spouse, or friend who had died in the line of duty. This gave every runner of the MCM an up-close and personal look into the sacrifices made by not only our service members, but also by their families and communities.

The start of the race.

The first four miles of the MCM took us through the streets of Rosslyn and Arlington and the largest and longest hill of the course on Lee Highway.  There were literally thousands of spectators screaming, banging cowbells, and dressed up in Halloween costumes.  After running on scenic Spout Run, the course took us over the Francis Scott Key Bridge and the Potomac River into Georgetown.  Right on cue, a patriotic runner in our pack started shouting out the history of how Key was inspired to write what became our national anthem—seeing our flag still standing after the British bombardment of Fort McHenry in 1814. Runners of the MCM were again inspired.

When we arrived in Georgetown, we felt as if we had just entered a party. Bands were playing and thousands of rowdy spectators greeted us as we trekked through miles five through nine.  Mile 10 took us behind the Kennedy Center and the Lincoln Memorial as we made our way to the most isolated part of the course down Hains Point, an island in the Potomac River, which holds miles 11 through 15. Passing by the Jefferson Memorial and the Tidal Basin, we then got a gut check when reaching the halfway point at 13.1 miles.  Making this part interesting was the 15-20 mile-per-hour headwind, Hurricane Sandy’s first influence on the race.

Along the Hains Point portion, there were large posters staked in the ground over a half-mile memorializing about 50 service members killed in action recently.  This was a somber moment, as many runners were tearing up at the pictures of these men and women with smiling faces and their families and friends.

Miles 16 through 19 took us around the National Mall, passing by the Martin Luther King Jr National Monument and the Korean and WWII memorials before passing under the huge shadow of the Washington Monument.  No tour of the mall would be complete without a loop by the Smithsonian and the Capitol building.

Next came the “Trail of Tears,” miles 20 to 22 over the 14th Street bridge. It’s not a pretty bridge, but a concrete freeway devoid of anything living except the MCM runners, which at this point started to resemble a bunch of zombies. This was the breaking point for many runners. I passed by hundreds of people who were now walking or simply collapsed on the freeway. Here, one of the best spectator signs of the day read: “Worst Parade Ever!”

After surviving the bridge, miles 22 through 24 took us through Crystal City, which provided a much-needed burst of energy with loud music and thousands of cheering spectators. However most runners were so beaten up by then that there were few smiles and few conversations being had. They could sense that the end was close, yet so far away. Muscles were beyond tired then and pretty much everyone was running on fumes and mind power alone.

Miles 24 through 26 seemed the loneliest, most desolate in the race as we were taken through highway ramps, the Pentagon parking lot, and back to Jefferson Davis Highway.  About a third of runners were walking and nobody seemed to be enjoying themselves.

But alas, for the “.2” – lined with cheering spectators and Marines on both sides—we were insulted with a short but steep hill that challenged the last of our mental resolve. But with the finish in sight, few were walking. Finally I crossed the finish: exhausted, in pain, and cold, but comforted by the incredible feeling of completing a challenge that took months of hard work in preparation and hours of gut-checking mental and physical anguish in executing.

Many of us are in a health slump in our lives. The rigors of work, parenting, and personal struggles often keep us from taking care of our physical and mental health. We get busy and stressed.  We become inactive, gain weight, and become depressed.  We sometimes have nothing to cheer about.  And frankly no one is going to fix this for us.  We are often left waiting around for something to happen, and meanwhile life starts to pass right by.

Physical challenges, like training for and completing a marathon, 10 miler, or even 5K, are an incredible cure. There are few experiences in life like working hard to accomplish something totally outside your physical and mental comfort zone, and then accomplishing it!  Running is at first hard work, mentally as much as physically. But through it we can become active, lose weight, become healthy, and feel good again. And almost anyone can do it!

After finishing the Marine Corps Marathon, I am reminded how precious life is and how quickly it can be taken away. The survivors of the deceased service members at the MCM are living and inspired us all. As one sign read, “If you’re not challenged, you won’t be changed.”