The U.S. Marine Drum and Bugle Corps, dressed in full red-and-white marching regalia, was standing at attention when the cannon went off. It was promptly 9 a.m., the sun had come out from behind the clouds and for the next three minutes until everyone had crossed the starting line, a sea of 9,753 brightly clad bodies flooded Rte. 110 by the Iwo Jima Memorial.
It was the sixth annual Marine Corps Marathon, and unlike the previous five, this one went off with the precision the Marines pride themselves of having.
One year there had been no cups for the runners to drink from; the next, there had not been enough portajohns; another year there was a messup at the finish line, and last year, runners were steered off the course inadvertently by Marine sentries, taking almost two minutes off many of the runners' times.
This year, it was perfect. "The Marines are known for organizing, and they really proved it today," said Dean Matthews, who won the race in a course record 2:16.30. "This is one of the best-organized races I've ever run in." Marine Capt. Rick Goodale echoed Matthews' sentiments: "The whole thing went exactly as planned."
Most of the runners had planned to compete in the Marines Corps race months in advance. Others, like women's winner Cynthia Lorenzoni, "decided to run it two weeks ago and get my first marathon out of the way."
Some were doing it for the enjoyment, others to get first-hand experience at pain. Eddie Benham, a 74-year-old ex-horse jockey, and a veteran at this type of pain, was there because "it's something to do." He just wanted to finish, regardless of time, as did many people.
Earl Skelton had a different reason. He had finished last year's race in 3:02 and this year decided a world record was his goal, albeit Guinness-style. Skelton wore a radio receiver, transmitter and headphone set and became the first man to maintain two-way radio contact across an ocean, while running a marathon.
With the help of his friends at the Naval Research Lab Radio Club, Skelton, a 41-year-old Washington resident, spoke into his headphones and had brief conversations with people in Moscow, Sweden, Green Bay, Wis., and North Dakota. "The guy in Moscow's English was about as good as my Russian, but we did make contact," he said.
People had come from all 50 states and 28 countries to compete. While the majority of the day's runners were pursuing their own goals, many Marines were making the trip to do something together. Teamwork "is real big in the Corps," said Capt. Bob Stephens of the Marine Barracks at Eighth and I Streets SE, who organized a team called Marine 1. "We're not expecting anything as far as placing. We're doing it for fun."
For 10 miles he and teammate Emmett Taylor, who did 36-mile runs as part of his training, paced each other stride for stride. "We helped each other get through the runners, gave each other words of encouragement." Most runners used other competitors to overcome the distance -- a grueling 26-mile, 385-yard course.
Two Marines, Capt. Ron Sirmons and Capt. Bill Jones, have been running together since 1975 -- in Japan, South Korea, and the Philippines. Both are bombardier navagators from Pensacola, Fla. As they moved along the course, the sight of other Marines was a boost. "One Marine was running and playing the harmonica. Some others were running in formation and carrying their banner. It made you feel good," Sirmons said.
Jerry Traylor had competed in New York and in the Bank One Marathon in Ohio a week earlier. He finished yesterday in 5:27:22, a remarkable accomplishment for a victim of cerebral palsy. Struggling over the course on crutches, Traylor drew cheers of encouragement from spectators and other runners alike. When Matthews, a good friend, ran by him just before the two-mile mark, he slapped him on the back.
"A lot of people think I inspire others because of my handicap. I do 'cause I enjoy it. I really have two choices, I could sit in a corner and feel sorry for myself, or I could have fun. Now which would you choose.?"
For Edie Smith of Oxon Hill and Benjamin Fishburne of Washington, who were the final two of 6,534 finishers, there was the enjoyment of finishing, even if it took them 6 hours 12 minutes 8 seconds. They crossed the line hands held high, smiles on their faces. They had worked their way along the scenic course and up the final hill to the cheers of several hundred Marines, waiting for their arrival. They had also developed a new friendship.