Marine Corps Marathon returns to DC after 2-year pandemic hiatus

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Like many runners, Kyle King was preparing to run the Marine Corps Marathon last year. But the coronavirus was still too widespread, and a month before the race organizers canceled it for the second year in a row.

“It was tough,” said the 33-year-old.

But in another sign of life returning to normal, society reopening, King and about 11,400 others took off on Sunday morning near Arlington National Cemetery for the 26.2-mile run past monuments and most historic buildings in the area. The crowds cheered. The runners pushed each other. No one was stuck in their house or running away alone.

“I loved it,” King says. “It was really very energetic.”

The active duty Marine, an artillery officer, certainly had a good point of view. He led the entire course and finished first. “I was looking forward to having full-fledged races again,” he said.

King’s mood was echoed by countless others on Sunday. The race, which has been a part of Washington’s fitness and social calendar for nearly five decades, was canceled in 2020 and 2021. A sense of unity — and shared pain — was everywhere.

“The sense of community is coming back,” Justin Huemme, 29, said moments before starting the race with his wife Sierra, 27. “People aren’t afraid to go out and be social and be part of the race.”

The couple, both serving members of the U.S. Coast Guard, also ran to honor Sierra’s grandfather, a Marine. They had to wait two years.

“We were preparing for it last year, we were looking forward to it,” said Justin Huemme. “Then it became like a lot of things: weddings, family reunions, friends, vacations. All those things that make life a solid journey. There’s so much you can do without being outside of your house.

The race dates back to 1976, when it began as the “Marine Corps Reserve Marathon”. Responsibility was transferred two years later to active duty Marines. The race has become the nation’s largest marathon that does not offer prize money, race spokeswoman Kristen Loflin said, and as such is known as “The People’s Marathon”.

Large crowds came for memorable moments.

In 1989, according to race officials, Bob Wieland, an Army doctor who lost both his legs in Vietnam, started the marathon several days early. He completed it, on his hands, in 79 hours and 57 minutes, with his last mile accompanied by 100 Marines marching in time.

Five years later, Oprah Winfrey ran the race to celebrate her 40th birthday. Vice President Al Gore ran the race with his daughters in 1997. And in 2006, 20,000 runners in a race crossed the finish line for the first time.

As covid swept the world, shutting down road races, Marine Corps Marathon organizers held “virtual” races in which participants could chart their own routes. But it was hardly the same.

This year’s winner King was certainly aware of the impact of the virus on racing.

He raced competitively in college and graduate school, joined the Marines, and around 2018 began training for high-level racing again. In 2019, at the World Military Games in Wuhan, China, King finished 8th in the marathon.

Then came the covid shutdowns.

They haven’t slowed down King’s training. He’s moved a bit – more towards trail running and ultramarathons. But he certainly missed the camaraderie and competition of the big races.

And he naturally had his eye on the Marine Corps Marathon, a race that, beyond its name, has the corps stamped all over it. Uniformed Marines line the course, encouraging runners, distributing water, providing security and picking up litter. “It was great to race ahead of them,” King said after the race, “and bring victory to the home team.”

Masks were virtually non-existent on Sunday. Interviews with runners – including those still masking in some indoor settings – said this reflected their vaccination status and what they knew about limited outdoor transmission.

Becca Ebert, a law student at Georgetown, was more worried about her belated decision to run the race – and a lack of preparation – than the crowds or covid. His longest recent training run was a half marathon last month, and since then his runs had been much shorter.

“We all have to live with the decisions we make,” she joked moments before the start.

Ebert said she was tired of being locked up and taking virtual classes. Vaccinated and boosted, she felt safe on Sunday. She ran about 75% of the course and walked the rest. “There’s something good about people being together,” she said of the crowds surrounding her, “just being part of a community — and it’s a beautiful day .”

About Ethel Partin

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