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Pounding the Pavement

Forget the tour bus or the foldout maps. The greatest on-foot tour of the nation's capital happens every October. This year was no exception.

Sunday marked the silver anniversary of the Marine Corps Marathon, or "The Marathon of the Monuments," which is the only way you can see the sites of Washington, D.C., while running 26.2 miles amidst a diversity of runners - some of whom dress as their favorite superheroes.

You may ask yourself, what on earth would possess a rational person to run 26.2 miles without being chased by some sort of man-eating creature?

For some people marathon running is a challenge undertaken several times each year, and winning is the goal. For others it is a one-time thing, a lifelong goal or a way to get in shape. Many people do it for a cause. They raise money for AIDS or cancer research, or they honor a deceased friend. Whatever the reason, they display it proudly on their running attire.

It may have been temporary insanity or crazed ambition, but six months ago I lost control of all common sense and started training for the October Marine Corps Marathon. For me, it was all about the challenge. I read somewhere that completing a marathon was something only a small percentage of the population could accomplish. That was enough to inspire me.

Related Links
  • href="">Marine Corps Marathon Web site

  • I am not a "hardcore runner" by most standards. I was not a high school cross-country track star, and I am not fast. I admit to being one of those "University runners," a crazy breed of students seen running through Grounds several times a day. But running a mile or so down McCormick Road a few times a week certainly doesn't prepare you to run a marathon, as I soon discovered.

    Two girls from my first-year dorm that year ran the Marine Corps Marathon, as did a neighbor of mine from home. Oprah Winfrey finished it in 1994. Al Gore and his daughters Karenna and Kristin finished it in the rain in 1997.

    So hey, I thought to myself last February as I registered for the race, why not? I dished out a $60 registration fee for a T-shirt, refreshments during and after the race and a finisher's medal (assuming I finished). As I pounded the pavement, my mantra was, "If they can do it, why can't I?"

    After six months of early-morning runs and a painful case of shin splints, the moment (or rather, the hours) of truth finally came this past Sunday. After weeks of self-doubt, I set out from the Iwo Jima Memorial with 18,000 other crazed individuals to test my will and see just how much damage my body could handle.

    One of my big concerns, and that of many runners at the starting line, particularly females, was when and where to go to the bathroom.

    "I'm so worried I'm going to have to pee," one woman said anxiously.

    My sentiments exactly.

    The beginning of the race was great, with friendly people striking up conversation and comparing pacing plans for the race. There was determination, camaraderie and fear in the air as people ranging in age from 18 to 80 embarked on the first of 26 miles.

    "One down, we're in the home stretch!" yelled out a runner after the first mile was completed, causing ripples of laughter from runners and spectators who crowded the roadside.

    As we trotted around the Pentagon, on the third mile, I spotted a woman in a bridal veil running with a man in front of me. They sported matching T-shirts with the words, "Just married - October 21, 2000." How sweet.

    I wondered who was going to have to carry whom over the finish line.

    On mile four, we all stuffed orange slices into our mouths and guzzled water out of paper cups, provided by U.S. Marines, who also shouted encouragement.

    As I cleared the five-mile marker ahead of schedule and feeling strong, I thought, "Hey, I can do this ... no problem."

    The atmosphere of encouragement mixed with humor throughout the marathon shaped an experience I will never forget. With homemade slogans like "Iwo Jima or Bust," "Passing Zone" and "Big Ed," the runners' T-shirts were a constant source of entertainment. One man broke all barriers of morbid creativity with a T-shirt that said, "I'm gonna die," on the front, and on the back, "If this side up, call ambulance."

    It was at mile six that the over-consumption of sports beverages and water turned into an emergency for many runners. Not wanting to waste time waiting for a Porta-Jon, runners crowded around bushes on the side of the highway to relieve themselves, creating an interesting scene for spectators and other runners.

    I felt refreshed and excited as we pounded the pavement down mile 10 on Constitution Avenue and absorbed scenery like the Reflecting Pool and the Washington Monument. On the National Mall, little kids held out high-fives of encouragement and spectators waved brightly colored signs.

    The oddities in the runners' appearances were endless. One man was dressed entirely in the design of the British flag, while another was sweating through a tuxedo shirt with a bow tie. Two women gave the crowd a show in matching leopard-print sports bras. My sisters and father, who trekked out to the Mall to watch me, said they saw a male cross-dresser (complete with a blonde wig) and a man dressed as Waldo from "Where's Waldo."

    Mile 17 brought a street-side bagpipe performance as well as the long-awaited GU, a carbohydrate energy gel.

    GU is ... an experience. It is a truly disgusting concoction that tastes like salty Gatorade-flavored icing. Gross, yes, but it definitely did the job and perked me up as my energy started to wane.

    At mile 20, I spotted a runner in a full Kermit the Frog costume as well as runners posing as Superman and Batman.

    Somewhere between mile 21 and 22, the fun just stopped. My legs turned to cement and my mother shoved Advil into my hand from the roadside. At mile 24 things got even tougher, and I had to remind myself to keep moving.

    The crowd support was especially awesome at this point. If you had your name on your shirt for people to call out, the encouragement was even better.

    The biggest cruelty of the race was the hill at the end of mile 26. What idiot puts a hill at the end of a marathon, I thought as I heaved my cinderblock legs up the incline.

    As I crossed the finish line, I felt a surge of adrenaline. I may not be able to walk or sit for a few days, but I did it. And I got my money's worth with a really cool finisher's medal. Pain aside, I have never been so happy to accomplish something in my life.

    I may take a temporary break from those McCormick Road runs until I am ready to gear up for the next marathon. It may take awhile for me to design a cool T-shirt or figure out which superhero I want to be.


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