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Marathons: What happens before the starting line

Lenny Bernstein was disappointed by his marathon time. But if the 51-year-old, for whom running is a middle-age obsession, got the same professional training as elite athletes, would he improve?
By Lenny Bernstein and Vicky Hallett
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, October 21, 2010

Overcoming obstacles -- physical, mental and spiritual -- is the essence of marathon running. The 30,000 participants in the 2010 Marine Corps Marathon have conquered heat, humidity, hills, fatigue and in some cases injuries to reach the starting line of the 35th annual "People's Marathon." Still others have surmounted more personal challenges to get there. Here are a few of their stories.

'Life after cancer'

When Judy Laufman turned 49 in February, the Vienna resident couldn't have felt better. Those last 10 unwanted pounds had finally dropped off, her six-day-a-week exercise routine was helping her run faster than ever and her younger son was preparing to ship out to Parris Island, S.C., to become one of the few and the proud. To give herself something to focus on while he was at boot camp, she signed up for the Marine Corps Marathon (which she'd done once before) and started raising money for the Injured Marine Semper Fi Fund.

Two months later, she found herself in a doctor's office hearing a diagnosis of Stage 3 metastatic breast cancer. "The first thing I said was, 'I'm running this race,' " recalls Laufman, who was advised to keep her expectations in check by her medical team. "But none of them said give it up," she says.

And she hasn't. Through months of chemotherapy treatments, Laufman and her husband -- who, despite a bad back, is running with her -- have stuck with the plan to get ready by Oct. 31.

There are horrible days. Ones with joint aches, numbness in her fingertips and flat-out fatigue. Ones with no appetite, which makes a long jog impossible. But there are also good days. "I squeeze a lot out of those days," Laufman says.

Is it fun? Nope. But the training has built up her mental fortitude as much as her physical strength. It's given her a reason to get out of bed in the morning and a way to channel her frustrations. "Defiance is the best word for it," she says. "There will be life after cancer. It's just a giant pothole along the way."

If she can make it through the first 20 miles fast enough to beat the stragglers' bus, she knows she can accomplish two goals: "I want that finisher's medal. And I want to poke breast cancer in the eye."

-- V.H.

'I started to heal inside'

Let's not mince words about this: Chris Hatton took up marathoning in prison, where he served 14 years for beating a man to death with a claw hammer.

He trained and then ran on his 26th birthday, around and around a track in the recreation yard in a Petersburg, Va., facility, 72 laps in all.

"That was a turning point in my life," says Hatton, now 34. "I started to heal inside. Running was an outlet for me, a way to release all that stress."

Released a year ago, he will run the Marine Corps Marathon as part of his rehabilitation and reintegration to society. Running and yoga have given him a discipline he once lacked, he says, and he wants to show others who are incarcerated what is possible.

"I'm really running it for those who are still locked up . . . and might not have much hope of getting out and may be down and out," Hatton says.

Hatton is aided by Back on My Feet, an organization that uses running to help homeless people regain their confidence and self-sufficiency. The group, founded in Philadelphia by Anne Mahlum, who passed a homeless shelter on her morning run each day, has helped hundreds of homeless people in five cities train for and run races of various distances. It also enrolls them in job and education programs and assists them in their search for housing.

After living in a series of rehabilitation facilities, Hatton moved into his own apartment, a basement rental in Northeast Washington, earlier this month. He would be the first member of Back on My Feet's D.C. chapter to complete a marathon.

-- L.B.

22 surgeries later . . .

Will Reynolds took up marathoning while stationed in Korea and completed two races there. But when an improvised explosive device went off about six feet away from the infantryman in southwest Baghdad one day in 2004, it shattered his lower femur and knee, severed two large arteries and ended Reynolds's running days not long after they had begun.

Twenty-two surgeries later, Reynolds walks with a cane and handcycles with a passion you'd expect from someone who lost a sport he loved -- and nearly lost his life. His left leg is fused at the knee, making walking difficult and running impossible.

But he swims, rides his bike 12 miles each way to work and on Oct. 31 expects to cover the 26.2 miles of the Marine Corps Marathon in a little more than 90 minutes on his handcycle. He placed fourth in that division at the Boston Marathon in April and expects to compete with the best in his division at Marine Corps.

"I just really love cardio work," Reynolds, 29, says matter-of-factly. "I just like being able to step out your door and get some cardio in."

He bicycles primarily with one leg and says he would never give it up. "A lot of times you clear your head and frame your day and do a lot of planning that you want to do. The endorphins . . . I think are a big reason a lot of people do it. I always feel great when I get to work. I always feel great when I get home."

The Rockville resident is part of Team Red, White and Blue, which raises money through endurance events to help wounded vets.

-- L.B.

Go to our full marathon coverage here.

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