On Saturday, October 25, 2008 Team Hope For The Warriors formally assembled for the first time as a group. After months of preparation for the Marine Corps Marathon we met face to face, many for the first time, for the pre-marathon ritual, the pasta dinner.
T- and I used the opportunity to meet with our curb crews, our family and friends, and go over our support strategy. I wanted to cross the finish line with T- to fulfill a pact we had made two years prior. The coordination would be difficult as she would cross the starting line about thirty minutes after me and my speed would be much slower than hers going up the hills. I doubted I would make up much speed on the downhill because of the volume of runners I would have to pass. I predicted I would finish around 6:20. I expected T- and I would pass each other about four times before we converged and could stay together at the flat part of the course. We charted times and Metro stations so our crews would know where to find us. My coworker, SL, was there with members of his family from several states. They had made the journey together to sightsee in DC before being there for him during his first marathon.
We were honored by the presence of NYFD firemen who are greatly supportive of Hope For The Warriors. These everyday American Heroes have been helpful to Hope For The Warriors in their fundraising efforts and in carrying out their Warrior Hope and Morale program.
The greatest honor was to be able to participate alongside four wounded warriors. Chris is an active-duty Marine and the Operations Officer at the Marine Wounded Warrior Battalion Detachment East. Ed is a former coworker and a Guardsman and after losing a leg in Iraq is active around the country as an advocate forthe needs of the wounded warriors.
Our special honorees were AJ, an Army Captain and Zach, a Marine, both amputees. The four men all handbiked the race. Zach was honored with a “birthday” cake to celebrate his first anniversary of his “alive day.”
The day started off with perfect weather. After getting to bed late, I had a fitful night’s sleep. When the alarm clock went off, my eyes were wide open. I said to my teammate, “This is the day we have been working toward for two years!”
We knew it was cool outside. We peeked out the window to see if the wind was blowing. The flags at the hotel were limp. Things were looking good. We got dressed and went downstairs for some breakfast. I was still full from the night before. Or maybe nervousness made me feel that way. In any case, I couldn’t eat like I usually do before a big ride.
We got me loaded onto my bike. The Achilles group was staying at the same hotel. They had about twenty handbikers and wheelchairs. I wanted to follow them to the start since I wasn’t sure of the way. They were off before I was ready, so I set off on my own. I should have just backtracked the course down Wilson Boulevard but I ended up following a gaggle of runners and meandering through the finish area. I had to get some Marines to lift the bike over a curb but I eventually made it out to Highway 110 and rode down to the start.
I saw Zach, AJ, and Chris out at the starting line. They looked like they were going to have as much fun as me. I also saw Dr. C- again at this race. He is another source of my personal inspiration and today he had come out to take pics on the course. It was great to see him. I looked at my watch and started getting nervous. We were 10 minutes away from starting. A lone V-22 Osprey did the opening fly-by. A Marine color guard presented colors and the national anthem was sung. I could hear Ken Berger over the PA announce, “Get set!”
A salute gun fired and we were off. I yanked on the cranks, but in my mind I savored the moment. This was the world’s fourth largest marathon. This was my dream and the object of my toil for two years. And this quadriplegic was rolling across the starting line!
I make no bones about not being fast. I tell friends I’m only half fast (don’t say that too quickly). In a blink, all the wheelers were gone and I was bringing up the back of the pack. But I was just beginning to have fun. My teammate yelled to me and took some pictures. She was having fun, too. After all, this had been the object of her toil for two years, too.
As I approached mile one I ran into the first of the hills that would occupy my efforts for the next hour. Again, I savored the moment. There was no one else around. I was in a low gear and crawling up Wilson Boulevard toward Lynn Street. The spectators were all shouting. In my mind I remembered my thoughts two years ago when I was a spectator: “I think I can do that!”
As I crawled up to Lynn Street, the lead runners approached from the rear. This was not like most races I had run. Instead of a trickle of elite runners at the head of the race it seemed like the entire field was comprised of elite runners. Normally the spectators were yelling at this point. Today all the runners were yelling too. The sound was almost deafening. I know I was plodding along slowly up that first hill. Many probably wondered if I would even finish at the speed I was going. There was no doubt in my mind with support like this.
I’ve heard the term, “the spirit of the race,” before but never experienced it like this. The cacophony from the other runners continued up Lee Highway until nearly the entire field had passed me by. Several of the other Hope For The Warriors charity runners stopped by to check on me and offer their support. About three-fourths the way up, my niece, T- came along and stopped. She was doing great so she kept going. I had planned to catch her later along Canal Road. I was going slowly but I wasn’t tiring. At several dips along Lee Highway I had the opportunity to make up some time. I’d yell at the top of my lungs, “passing on your right!” Even now the runners helped me along by relaying the warning on up the street. They would even grab the “iPod zombies” by the arm and lead them away from interference.
By the time I crested the peak of Lee Highway, I was well in the rear of the field of runners. It had taken the better part of an hour to get here, but that was exactly what I had expected. I had trained by going back and forth over the Atlantic Beach Bridge for several laps before embarking on some long rides in high winds on Bogue Banks. I was still hyped up, I had great inspiration from other runners, and I was about to get a welcome rest down Spout Run and GW Parkways.
If I hadn’t been in a race, I would have loved to lollygag and sightsee. It was a GORGEOUS day and the trees were ablaze with their fall colors. This, in my opinion, was one of the most beautiful stretches of the course. I was not coasting as fast as gravity wanted me to. I yelled at the top of my voice to warn the other runners and had to stop for a few comatose iPodders that couldn’t hear me. By now I was losing my voice and as of this writing, it still isn’t fully recovered. For the most part I was not going much faster than the runners.
I think my 5K split was right around an hour, but that was OK; it was about what I planned. I don’t know my splits because I inadvertently turned off my GPS at some point. Also for some reason, the timing mats weren’t picking up splits either. The Hope For The Warriors crew was getting worried about me and called my teammate to find out if I was still in play. By mile four, everyone was pretty well thinned out on the Key Bridge. I saw my sister and my teammate. They gave me an update on T-. They said she was not far ahead and was doing well.
Along Canal Road I made good progress, much as I had predicted. I was able to work my way through the other runners and we were beginning to chat and recognize each other after we had passed each other a few times. Up ahead I recognized the familiar crimson and gold running outfit of 82-year old Nick Irrera. He is a regular inspiration at many of the local races I take part in. This was his 28th MCM. He was featured in the MCM program and had been inducted into the MCM hall of fame. I slowed and shared a few moments in his run, expressing my appreciation for his inspiring example.
At Reservoir Road I extended a bit to make a wide turn without cutting off any runners. I got in my lowest gear and began grinding up a very steep climb. T- caught up and passed me again. So did hundreds of other runners with whom I had been leapfrogging. Even though I got past the really steep part, there was a steady climb until McArthur Boulevard. Somewhere along the way someone was cooking bacon in their home and the delicious aroma was wafting through the runners. At McArthur I tried to pick up speed again as the course turned steeply downhill. It seemed like the road narrowed. The runners were too thick to pass in spots.
When we got back to M Street, things opened up a bit and I was able to add some speed. I saw my teammate and stopped to chat. I was about two minutes ahead of my predicted schedule. I took off, trying to chase down T-. When I finally caught her I planned to hang with her, at least until late in the race. The course opened up and I poured it on to try to chase down T-.
Water stops are always a problem for me. On the open road, everyone moves pretty much in the same direction and, for the most part, at the same speed. At the water stops, people start, stop, and run sideways. I’ve learned to slow down to a walking pace and stay as far from the tables as possible. All of the water stops were manned by Marines in this race. The water stops were a good opportunity to slow down and thank the Marine volunteers.
Along the Potomac Parkway I began to get a little panicky as I searched for T-. As a result I tended to go faster to catch up with her. I thought I would have seen her by this time. All of the sudden, Dr. C- came running alongside. He said he would be in this area to take pics but I hadn’t been able to find him either. It was great to see another familiar face out on the course.
About mile 10 a water stop was set up with a table in the middle of the street. All of the runners seemed to be going through one side. All of the Marines were on that side. It looked awfully crowded to me. It also looked like I could go through the other side without having to slow down. That was exactly what I did. Maybe all the water stops need an “express traffic” lane.
Haynes Point was a great ride. Maybe I’m biased because it’s flat. Most runners don’t seem to like it because of the lack of spectators. I made good time, but still no T-. The next spot my teammate and I planned to meet was at Maine Avenue after exiting Haynes Point. It turned out she didn’t get there in time from the Metro. I did, however, see T-'s boyfriend. He gave me an update.
Back at the water stop with the “express lane,” T- was IN the water stop on the right when I went AROUND the water stop on the left. As luck would have it, the spot where I opted to make up time to catch her was where I passed her. She seemed to be doing fine and by now I was far enough ahead of her that it didn’t make sense to wait up. Oh well, plans for coordinating times and speeds between runners in a marathon never seem to work.
The trip through downtown DC was, in a word, monumental. The spectators were great (and loud). Sometimes they were so enthusiastic I couldn’t pass because I couldn’t yell loud enough over their din to warn runners in front. Hey, this day was about finishing and having fun, not passing everyone out there. Many of the spectators were handing out candy. My teammate had brought along about five pounds of Snickers which she handed out on the mall. Some of the runners looked at her like she was crazy. Most grabbed them with the gratitude of a starving person.
As I came back down Jefferson Dr. I was beginning to feel a little tired for the first time. I speed dialed my teammate and asked her to meet me at 14th Street with a Snickers. I could hear a big “oops” in her tone of voice. She had just given away her last Snickers. Fortunately, the Snickers folks at the expo had given her a Marathon bar that she still carried in her backpack. They don’t taste as good as the candy bar but I think I could have eaten an old asphalt shingle at that point. Off I went again down 14th Street.
The 14th Street Bridge isn’t as much fun as I wished it would be. I had the same experience at the ATM. It’s a hot stretch. It was really the first time on the course that I felt like I might overheat. I wasn’t worried about heat stroke at these temperatures. I was only worried that a little bit of heat would sap a lot of my energy. I wanted all my energy at that 14% grade at the finish.
Ray, a runner that carries a big American flag, stood in the center of the bridge waving the flag and cheering the runners. As I came by, he offered a salute to the flag I bore. We exited the bridge into Crystal City. I pulled into a water stop and pulled over at the end of the farthest table. I asked a lieutenant to pour a couple of cups of water into my helmet. As I told the Marines all along the course, I said to this Marine, “Thanks for being here!” It seems like Marines do that; they are there when we need them.
Being pretty well soaked, I didn’t have to worry about overheating anymore. I went on through Crystal City. If you thrive on spectator noise, this leg was for you. The sounds echo off the tall buildings and make the spirit even more powerful. On leaving Army-Navy Drive I pulled over for the last time to drink my last energy drink. I wanted to be ready for the hill. For the rest of the ride back to mile 26 I took it easy.
Miles 25 and 26 were somewhat reminiscent of mile 1. They were kind of quiet. Most of the runners were depleted. No one had the energy to chat. As we looped around the Pentagon and returned past the starting line, it was another time to reflect. In the dark hours of the morning we had all crawled out of bed and made our way to this point. We were all driven, not only the last twenty-six miles, but through all the days of our training by a motivating influence.
For this quadriplegic the driving motivation was two-fold; first, a chance to personally pay tribute to our Nation’s brave men and women wounded while protecting our liberty; and secondly, to personally make a public statement that life with a disability is not a life filled with despair. It is a life filled with hope.
My own thoughts from two years prior again echoed in my head, “I think I can do that.” And now I’m doing it!
My mother is eighty. She can’t make it to most of my races but has been a tremendous supporter. I had been trying to devise a means for her to share my finish for weeks. Suddenly an idea came to me. I speed dialed her on my Bluetooth earpiece. “I can’t talk to you right now, but in a few seconds you’ll hear a lot of noise. That will be the sound of the finish. I’ll leave the phone on so you can listen in.”
Already I could hear shouts from my teammate and the Hope For The Warriors staff waiting near the finish. At the intersection of Highway 110 and Marshall Drive, I put my handbike in its lowest gear and turned left. “I KNOW I can do that!”
The ascent to the finish took eighteen minutes (I know from my phone’s call timer). Teammates Cory and Chris walked out on the course to assist me. Another runner who I don’t know stopped running and walked alongside and asked if he could help. I asked Cory to walk behind me to keep other runners diverted. He, Chris, and the unknown runner stayed right with me all the way to the finish line.
Because of paralysis in my arms, I can use my biceps but not my triceps. That means I have good strength pulling with my arms, but almost no strength pushing. When I crank my handbike I pull on the cranks at the bottom of the stroke and coast as my hands go over the top and down the front of the cycle.
On a steep hill such as this I can’t quite generate enough momentum to carry me forward on one pull for my hands to coast all the way over the top of the cycle. A little over a year ago I learned I could yank the cranks and pull myself forward a few inches at a time without making a full cycle on the cranks. I end up rocking back and forth but I gain a few inches on each stroke. Depending on the grade, sometimes I can even garner enough rest in my arms doing this to occasionally get in a strong enough stroke to make it through a complete cycle. Often, though, I don’t make the full cycle and end up rolling backwards and losing ground.
It’s not a pretty process but it works for pretty steep hills. My problem this day was that the road surface on this steep stretch of the hill was somewhat slick. When I tried to get in a strong enough stroke to make a full crank cycle, my tire would slip on the pavement. The process was nerve-wracking to watch as was evident from the excitement it generated in the crowds. My Hope For The Warriors teammates admitted to being on the verge of tears as they watched. I have to admit to being so, too as the energy from the urging of my teammates, the staff, the announcer, Chris, Cory, the unknown runner, and all the runners who passed all combined seemed to be enough to virtually lift me up the hill.
All the while, my mother, who had no visual cues, listened in to what had to sound like maddening chaos. The only coherence to the entire din for her was that as I passed each Marine that lined the climb, she could hear, “Thank you for being here, Marine.” Chris kept talking to me all the way up the hill, much as I would envision he has coached many a Marine through difficult tasks before. Today, it was an honor for me to be on the receiving end of such encouragement previously shared with men and women far braver and more deserving.
At the top of the hill I was done. Crossing the finish line would be a formality. But the spectators were not finished and the announcer was not finished. I had carried our flag for 26.2 miles through our Nation’s Capital as I had done in nearly every race so far. As I passed the bleachers, the announcer asked all present to remove their caps as our colors passed by. Everyone stood and the runners joined in a thunderous ovation as each Marine I passed snapped to attention and crisply saluted the national ensign. I could not have been honored greater by trophies or prizes than the privilege of carrying that flag across the finish under the salutes of US Marines. It was my own way of honoring those wounded men and women who have sacrificed so much in service to our country.
The pictures may give the reader a small sense of the spirit at the finish that day. Note the support from the runners, the spectators, the announcer, from Chris, Cory, and the unknown runner in the gold T-shirt. Also note the ladies with the lettering on the back of their legs. One reads, “5 Years cancer free.” One had only to open their eyes and ears to be inspired.
My time was 6:00:47. It had been my slowest marathon. It had been my most difficult. It had been the most fun. I joined my teammates in the Hope For The Warriors tent at the Charity Village.
T- finished a few minutes later. We all savored our accomplishment and laughed and cried and took pictures. Everyone that wore that finisher medal around their neck seemed to stand a little taller that afternoon.
For six months the team had raised over $60,000 for Hope For The Warriors’ programs. For one day we came together from across the nation as a team. For 26.2 miles in The Peoples’ Marathon we ran to demonstrate our gratitude for the selfless service and sacrifice of our Nation’s wounded warriors. Under the shadow of the monument of uncommon valor we said our goodbyes taking with us a lifetime of memories.
Curb crew Melissa
Teammate Ed with Hope For The Warriors Co-founders Robin Kelleher and Shanon Maxwell
Big supporter and Li'L sis LL
Team Hope For The Warriors Coordinator, Toni
Hope For The Warriors President and Co-founder, Robin Kelleher
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