Not everyone will finish the Marine Corps Marathon. That's what makes it a race.

By Alex Hutchinson
Sunday, October 24, 2010

The long loop from Arlington National Cemetery to the finish line at the Iwo Jima Memorial will take runners on a 26.2-mile tour next Sunday of most of the city's major icons. But the essence of the Marine Corps Marathon will be found at two more prosaic spots -- the corner of 14th and Madison Drive, in the shadow of the Washington Monument, and the 14th Street bridge. That's where, amid thinning crowds and impatient motorists, you can witness failure in action.

The race issues 30,000 highly coveted entries annually (they sold out in six days this year), yet last year's record-breaking field boasted only 21,405 finishers. For some of the 8,595 lost souls, their fate was decided at "The Gauntlet" (Mile 17.5) or "Beat the Bridge" (Mile 20), where runners are plucked from the course if they fall below a 14-minutes-per-mile pace.

To suffer such a humiliating end, presumably after months of training, is not something I would wish on anyone. But these time cutoffs aren't just a necessary evil to win approval for road closures. Whether or not the organizers realize it, they're a crucial part of the event's character and appeal. Year after year, the people who fail to meet them are the race's unacknowledged (and un-medaled) heroes.

Of course, not everyone sees this silver lining. Runners from a Canadian group called Jean's Marines cut four miles from the course in 2005 by dashing across the Mall after their coach, Toronto physician Jean Marmoreo, warned them that they were in danger of missing the 14th Street bridge cutoff. Even more than the cheating, what bothered people was Marmoreo's logic afterward -- that it was the effort that should earn a medal, not the actual result.

Still, course closure remains controversial. "I resent cut-off times," one reader wrote during a pre-Marine Corps Marathon live chat on the Washington Post Web site in 2007. "I think they're elitist . . . and they discourage participation. If I pay to enter a race, I should not be kicked off the course just because I can't run fast."

You could counter this argument by pointing to traffic concerns. Last year's final finisher, even with the cutoff times in force, exited Route 110 nearly 7 1/2 hours after the starting gun.

That's how I would have responded -- until this past May. That's when I went to South Africa to cover the Comrades Marathon, a hilly, 55-mile slog that's widely considered the most prestigious ultra-distance race in the world. It has five cutoff points along the route designed to ensure that the runners -- all of whom qualify by, at a minimum, completing a standard marathon in less than five hours -- will reach the finish line within 12 hours, a pace of about 13 minutes per mile.

As the sun set after a long, hot race day, exhausted runners continued to stream (or stagger) into Durban's cricket stadium, a few blocks from the Indian Ocean. As the final minutes before the 12-hour limit ticked away, the race director walked to the finish line, stood with his back to the oncoming runners and pointed a starter's pistol skyward, while thousands of spectators exhorted the remaining competitors to sprint.

With one minute left, a limping runner with knee-high socks stopped to stretch his right calf less than 100 yards from the finish. He hobbled a few more steps, then stopped again, leaning against a barrier at the side of the course. He wouldn't make it.

I was watching with a group of international runners who had already finished and were basking in the pleasant afterglow of a difficult job well done. Having devoted the better part of a year to preparing for the race, they knew how much the runners still out on the course had invested in this moment. A Canadian woman beside me turned away.

"I cried last year," she explained. "It's just too much to watch."

As the crowd counted down the final seconds, one man staggered across the line just as the gun fired, earning an official time of 11:59:59. Mere strides behind him, another man caromed off the burly course marshals who had linked arms to barricade the finish chute, while vuvuzelas sounded a mocking raspberry of defeat.

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