Navy Lt. Cmdr. John Mentzer Tops Field in Marine Corps Marathon

On a perfect fall day, the 34th Marine Corps Marathon winds through the metro area's streets.
By Jim Hage
Monday, October 26, 2009

With boldness and an unbridled confidence that belies his officer-and-a-gentleman demeanor, Navy Lt. Cmdr. John Mentzer led the 34th Marine Corps Marathon nearly the entire 26.2 miles Sunday and won by more than three minutes, finishing in 2 hours 21 minutes 47 seconds.

Air Force Capt. Jacob Johnson passed Salvador Miranda, a sergeant in the Mexican military, with a half-mile remaining to finish second in 2:25:02. Miranda, a 2004 Olympian, held on for third in 2:25:24.

Muliye Gurmu, from Ethiopia, shared the lead in the women's race nearly the entire way but didn't actually move to the front until just before the climb to the finish line at the Iwo Jima Memorial. Gurmu, 25, finished first in 2:49:48, outkicking Air Force Capt. Jaymee Marty, 42, who took second in a masters record of 2:50:15.

Mentzer, 33, said he felt sluggish at the start and extraordinarily fatigued during the final stretch, finding a good rhythm only during the middle miles.

"The first mile was 5:40," Mentzer said, "and there was only one guy [who planned on running only the first half] in front of me. I couldn't slow down from there. I knew I had to be aggressive if I wanted a chance to win."

Mentzer, a 1998 graduate of the Naval Academy, finished fourth in the 2005 race. "John is the most humble, salt-of-the-earth kind of guy," said Jim Felty, coach for the Navy team. "But he said he wouldn't come back here until he could win. So we've been planning four years for this day."

On hand to witness the race were Mentzer's wife, Amanda, and 10-week-old daughter, Estelle, who hiked back and forth across Memorial Bridge to see him at four points on the course. Mentzer is stationed in Portsmouth, N.H., and he and his family live in Kittery, Maine.

"The crowds were tremendous," Mentzer said, "and really got me too excited at times. Near the Lincoln Memorial, I had a couple of 5:10s, 5:15s, and I tried to relax. Hains Point [miles 12 to 15, with few spectators] was good for me."

At 20 miles, Mentzer still ran easily and had extended his lead to 2 minutes 30 seconds. As he took fluids and energy gel from Felty, he said, "10K to go, I'm okay." But on the 14th Street Bridge and beyond, the wind and burden of leading began to wear on him, and Mentzer had to coax himself to hang on. "I thought if I could make it to 25, I'd make it all the way," he said.

Johnson, the men's runner-up, led the Air Force team to a narrow win over Navy in the armed forces competition. Both Johnson's time and place were best efforts; he finished ninth in the 2006 race.

Third-place finisher Miranda, 38, took little solace in notching his best time of five Marine Corps Marathons, because he was passed by Johnson so late after running second nearly the entire race. "Right now, it's hard," Miranda said through an interpreter. He now has two third-place finishes to go with two fourths and one sixth since 2005.

The British Royal Marines ended a two-year losing streak to the U.S. Marines in the annual Challenge Cup competition; the Royals' combined time of 8:01:17 (the three best times count) beat the U.S. team by 2:30.

"At 20 miles, we were way out of it," said retired Cmdr. Al Rich, the British coach. "The pressure was on."

Mark Croasdale, 44, led the Royal Marines in 2:39:06, 74th overall. "The whole team finished within five minutes of each other," said Royal Marine Mark Goodridge, 83rd in 2:41:23. "We knew we needed to run a tactical race, cover their moves, and it would work out in the end."

The race featured 20,890 finishers. This year's Hall of Fame inductee, Lt. Col. Alex Hetherington, captained the Marine team in his 15th and final Marine Corps Marathon as an active-duty officer.

"From the start today, I knew that my goal pace [6:00 per mile] would be the top end of my ability," Hetherington said. "But at 42, this race keeps me going. It's why I train. The bigger goal every year is to come here and represent."

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