Steady Garcia Defends Marathon Title

Ruben Garcia
Halfway through Sunday's Marine Corps Marathon, defending champion Ruben Garcia thought he wasn't going to repeat. He was wrong. (N. Ghanbari - AP)
By Eli Saslow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 30, 2006

Ruben Garcia watched a pack of five runners break ahead of him at the start of the 31st Marine Corps Marathon yesterday, and the defending champion spent the next 20 miles trying to accept defeat. The men ahead of him were faster. They had more experience. They had built a two-minute lead.

About halfway through his race, convinced that his chances for a first-place finish had all but evaporated, Garcia set his sights on a new goal: finish almost every mile in less than 5 minutes 30 seconds. "I knew they were faster," Garcia said through an interpreter. "So I decided to just be consistent."

With his unwavering steadiness, Garcia surprised himself by catching the front pack and seizing the lead 21 miles into the race. The 35-year-old Mexican maintained his pace to the finish line and won by more than three minutes with a time of 2 hours 21 minutes 17 seconds. After he caught his breath, Garcia called the race the highlight of his running career. He became the first Marine Corps runner to repeat as champion since Jim Hage in 1988-89.

Laura Thompson, from Boise, Idaho, won the women's race in 3:00:22. More than 32,000 other runners lined up to start the largest-ever Marine Corps Marathon. They enjoyed perfect marathon weather: temperatures in the 50s, clear skies and a cool breeze.

The day was marred by the death of runner Earl Seyford, a 56-year-old from Olney who collapsed near the 17-mile marker. He was the fifth runner who has died during 31 Marine Corps marathons. A sixth runner, Hilary Bellamy, 35, of Bethesda, died from hyponatremia -- a sodium imbalance brought on by excess fluid consumption -- two days after dropping out of the 2002 race.

Garcia made the most dramatic pass of the race at the end of 14th Street Bridge. With a short, furious stride and white breathing strips taped across his nose, Garcia flew by Jared Nyamboki of Kenya about an hour and 45 minutes into the race. Filled with momentum from his pass, Garcia sprinted the next mile in less than five minutes to secure an insurmountable lead.

"I always wanted to win this race two years in a row," said Garcia, who said he plans to run the race for a third time next year. "This is probably my best race ever, because I had almost given up. It was a surprise."

Garcia saw his top competition -- four Africans who train together in Georgia -- sprint away at the starting line, and he never glimpsed them again until the start of the 14 Street Bridge. Nyamboki led the group. And, for the first 10 miles, he ran under the Marine Corps Marathon's record pace.

Nyamboki wore silver sunglasses on his expressionless face, and he stretched his lead to almost three minutes at the halfway mark. The 30-year-old Kenyan had stated earlier in the week that he expected to finish in about 2:12, which would easily have broken Jeff Scuffins's 19-year-old course record of 2:14.01. Nyamboki had recently overcome an Achilles' tendon injury, but he said he felt confident running in the District after winning the Army Ten Miler on Oct. 8.

Nyamboki might well have maintained his record pace if not for a questionable training decision two weeks earlier. He had planned to warm up for the Marine Corps Marathon by running an easy half-marathon in Des Moines on Oct. 15. Instead, halfway through that race, Nyamboki decided to run the entire 26.2 miles and won the event.

"That was a crazy decision, and I was angry at him," said Sue Bozgoz, Nyamboki's coach. "He still has the aches and muscle issues from just running a marathon. I wish he had rested, because he's not fresh right now at all."

With about 10 miles left in his race Sunday, Nyamboki slowed his pace to almost six minutes per mile. He gasped for air and regularly turned to look behind him, as if expecting someone to overtake him.

Meanwhile, about a minute back, Garcia ran next to Carl Rundell, last year's second-place finisher. The two men maintained a steady pace. Garcia felt fresh, he said later, since he had not run a marathon since he won the ING Miami Marathon in January.

"It was like Ruben could somehow sense that we had a chance late in the race," Rundell said. "He doesn't say much, but you could see him turn it on. We were pushing the effort, but it was hard to tell how much ground we needed to make up."

About a minute after Garcia passed Nyamboki on the 14th Street Bridge, the Kenyan stopped running. As he bent over on the side of the road and shook his head, Rundell -- who would finish second -- passed him also.

"Now I can have confidence that I can run my own pace and win," Garcia said. "It was hard to see people run out in front of me. But I stayed calm, and I still had my energy at the end."

© 2006 The Washington Post Company