“I run… because it puts me in better touch with nature, both mine and the world around me.” RT
With the run up to the NYC Marathon occupying the focus of so many runners in the area (and beyond), it’s easy to forget about the great races that exist outside the NY training bubble. A classic example of this is the Marine Corps Marathon; the 3rd largest marathon in the US, and 8th largest in the world. As it is open to runners of all shapes, sizes and levels (14 years and up), it has been known as ‘The People’s Marathon” since it’s inception in 1976.
Several Whippets made the run a goal race for the fall, among them Frederic LeCao. Fred is well-known and beloved by Whippets on both sides of the river for his good humor, dedicated training, and his tenaciousness in the pursuit of running excellence. While it could be said that Fred’s initial marathon experience wasn’t exactly the one he had envisioned for himself, his story still highlights one whose bravery and persistence in the face of mental and physical challenges defines in every way what it means to be a “runner.” Enjoy Fred’s description of the race, and when you see him, don’t forget to let him know how very proud we are to have him on our side…
Five years ago, I told my running friends that I’d rather get into a cage fight than run a marathon. Little did I know that I was going to eat my words five years later.
Six months of training with the Whippets made me run faster and longer beyond my wildest dreams. I was hoping to just finish a marathon in one piece, then changed my goal to sub 4, then to 3:45, then to 3:30. Running made me happy even at 5:30am and the long runs became something to look forward to.
Race day finally came. It was a crisp fall morning and the opening ceremony was amazing. Wounded warriors parachuted with the largest American flag ever used in a jump while the Liberty Voices a cappella group sang the national anthem. And then, the starting howitzer went off at 7:55am.
I was so happy to see my teammates John Timmons and Rich Hsieh in the start corral. John and I linked up with the 3:35 pace group to ensure a negative split. The congested start did not clear up until well past mile 4 after going through Georgetown. But something felt wrong. Our pacer was running a 7:50 split instead of an 8:12. I tried to keep the pacer within sight and knew I had to dial down. In the back of my mind, I had a feeling I had committed a fatal error.
As I looked around, I could not find John and realized I lost him. It was time to slam on the brakes and save my energy. My split was now floating between 8:00 and 8:10. I started passing the pacer who had realized he was going too fast and slowed down his group. With the narrow streets still creating congestion, I decided to stick to my pace and run on my own.
Miles 6-13 felt great and I cruised at my target 8:00 pace. One thing could have been better though: more water stations. Running NYRR races spoiled me and I became used to hydrating every mile. For this marathon, I was just going to double up at each station.
At mile 14, I could feel my calves tightening up so I tried to alter my form and frantically looked for a water station. My last water stop was at mile 13 and I still did not see a water stop at mile 15. I could finally see a water station at mile 16 and popped in a salt pill and an early gel to avert a possible cramp.
Then my worst nightmare happened at mile 17: Charlie horses on both my right and left calves drove me into the ground. Then both arches in my feet cramped, then both my hamstrings. I screamed out in pain lying in the middle of course and two spectators came to help. As I tried to reach for my toes to stretch, my biceps and forearms started to cramp.
I remember lying on the ground and seeing a race coordinator accompanied by a Marine standing over me. They asked if I required medical attention. All of a sudden, I realized this could be my first DNF. And it would be in my first marathon. I looked at the Marine and something in his eyes just screamed: “you can do this, son!” There was no way I could continue running and even walking would trigger more cramping but I could not quit.
After a few more minutes of stretching and chugging two water bottles, the Marine pulled me up. All runners had to beat the bridge at mile 20 by a certain time to be allowed to complete the marathon. Still in a daze, I set out to beat the bridge. This was going to be my toughest walk.
The cheering kept me going but I was mentally broken. My dreams of a 3:30 marathon vanished and all I could hope for was a finish. Every time I tried to pick up the pace, the cramps would resurface so I had to walk slowly.
Once on the bridge at mile 20, I felt other runners tapping my shoulder. They would say: “you beat the bridge, you’re going to finish this!” Then someone from Front Runners yelled out “Let’s go Whippets!”
At mile 20, running became a team sport. Runners started to drop like flies but everyone supported each other. I was not able to respond to everyone but every tap on the shoulder and every word of encouragement gave me strength.
The bridge finally ended at mile 22 but I still had 4 miles to go. I slowly felt my legs coming back to life and decided to jog very slowly. Then I started to see a number of runners passing me with pictures of their loved ones who died serving our country. I needed something bigger than myself to continue, so I decided I would run for them too.
I ran past the Pentagon at mile 24 but Charlie horse #2 decided to make an appearance and I nearly knocked over another runner. No more jogging. It was going to be a tough walk to the end.
Mile 26 was finally in sight. The crowd swelled, the Marines were out in force and the Iwo Jima Memorial was within reach. Out of respect for my teammates and the Marines, I had to charge the final hill and run. The cramps crept in, everything hurt but it did not matter anymore because I was now a marathoner. And then I cried. May be it was because I had nothing left in me, or may be it was because I did not hit my goal.
Then a Marine saw my head hanging low and yelled out: “Hold your head up son! You just finished the Marine Corps Marathon!”
Yes, I did! And I will finish many more marathons.
There are many people I have to thank for making this marathon finish possible:
– My Dear Dashing Whippets: I never believed in my ability to run until I joined this team. Your camaraderie made me feel welcome since day one and I look forward to continuing training with you.
– The US Marine Corps: This was an amazing and inspirational race. I can’t thank the Marines enough for putting this together and for the support throughout the course. The wounded warriors on the course were an inspiration to us all.
– The Spectators: Thank you for getting out there and cheering. Even though runners may not have the energy to acknowledge you, you give us strength every step of the way.
– The Runners: Thank you for the encouragement and pep talk at mile 20. That final stretch really taught me the meaning of running community and that a few words can make a difference.
This post is the opinion of the author and does not necessarily represent the opinion of the Dashing Whippets Running Team, its board, or its captains.