Christopher Juarez introduced himself to marathon veteran John Sence at approximately Mile 3 of yesterday's 27th Marine Corps Marathon, and more than two hours later, Juarez introduced himself to "The People's Marathon" list of champions.
Juarez used some sage advice from Sence when the pace quickened during the first quarter of the race, and pulled away from Ethiopian Retta Feyissa during Mile 20 near the Lincoln Memorial and West Potomac Park. Juarez held on during the final three, arduous miles and covered 26.2 miles in a personal-best 2 hours 25 minutes 1 second, the first of about 14,100 to cross the finish line yesterday.
Juarez's time was just more than three minutes shy of his goal of qualifying for the U.S. Olympic Marathon trials in 2004, but exactly a minute and a half ahead of Sence, who finished second in 2:26:31.
Running for the Army, Benjamin Sandy, 27, of Fort Riley, Kan., finished third in 2:29:20, followed by 1999 champion Mark Croasdale, 37, of Stubbington, England, who was fourth in 2:30:46.
As a contracting officer at Ellis Air Force Base in Las Vegas -- "Home of the Thunderbirds and home of the fighter pilot," Juarez said -- the 32-year-old orders supplies and takes care of service and construction requests. By the time he crossed the finish line with his first marathon win and the Air Force's first champion at the most prestigious military service race in the country, he was flying high as well.
"My goal was to qualify for the trials, which was 2:22, but I have a win," said Juarez, a veteran of 12 marathons who finished 14th at the Marine Corps Marathon in 1999 and 22nd in 1998. "I can say I won a major marathon. That's something no one can take away from me for the rest of my life, and I will take that."
Liz Scanlon, 31, of Alexandria, overcame a scheduling miscalculation and local favorite Alisa Harvey to win her first Marine Corps Marathon in four tries. Scanlon placed third at last Sunday's Army Ten-Miler, but the short rest between races didn't seem to hurt her as she passed a spent Harvey in the 18th mile and finished in 2:57:27.
"I didn't know [the races were so close]," Scanlon said. "I was kind of nervous that it would tire me out. I didn't think anything of it. Then everyone was like, 'Oh my gosh. You ran the Army Ten-Miler right before the Marine Corps.' I'm like, 'Oh, is that a bad thing?' I didn't know."
Juarez was part of a foursome of runners that took the lead almost immediately after a blast from a 105mm howitzer and the release of 25 doves signaled the start of the race, and the group stayed together until the runners passed the Pentagon in Mile 5.
Juarez and Sence dropped approximately 25 to 30 meters behind Feyissa and Mike Farrell, a 30-year-old from Belleville, Ill., but they had already talked race strategy several miles earlier.
"I just saw his name in the paper and we were talking," Juarez recalled. "He said, 'Hi, my name is John.' I said, 'John Sence?' He said, 'Yeah.' I said, 'Well, I am going to follow you because you know what you are doing. We let them get a little bit of ahead and us . . . and he said, 'Don't worry. They are going to come back to us,' and like I said, a guy with a 2:16 personal record, I am going to listen to him."
Sence had run that personal record four years ago in Chicago, but because his training was limited this year, the Cincinnati native let Feyissa and Juarez take off during the 12th mile. Farrell had dropped off the pace a miler earlier.
"He [Juarez] felt like he was trying to go a little hard and I said, 'Let's just take it easy. We will catch them. Be patient,' " Sence said. "I tried to hold him back a little bit but he was smart and held back and had a lot of gas in the tank. He looked great. He looked better than anybody else out there, even the Ethiopian guy. He just looked smooth. He was ready to go."
Feyissa, a native of Ethiopia and experienced marathoner now living in Northwest Washington, hung off Juarez's shoulder until the 20th mile. When Juarez made the turn onto the 14th Street Bridge, his lead was more than 100 meters, and Feyissa eventually had to stop running. He was passed by Sence at Mile 23 and did not finish.
Exhausted, Juarez continued on, slowly fading as he headed toward the U.S. Marine Corps War Memorial and the finish line.
"I never looked back until [near the end] because I was too scared, because I knew I was falling apart," said Juarez, whose finishing time was the fourth slowest in race history. "I was too scared. I knew I was shutting down and I was nervous."