Two-time Marine Corps Marathon champion Darrell General is running the event Sunday for the first time in six years, not to find out what his 45-year-old body can accomplish but what his burdened mind can unload as he travels 26.2 miles through the streets of his home town.
General’s goal is to come to grips with difficult times: the deaths in recent years of his brother, James, from kidney failure and his sister-in-law, JoAnne Jones, from leukemia. Those tragedies sidetracked the former Washington area distance-running star, one of only four male marathon runners to compete in five U.S. Olympics trials.
In the 1995 and ’97 Marine Corps Marathons, General broke the tape. Now, at the same event, he will try to patch himself together as best he can, to pay personal tribute to his lost loved ones and reintroduce himself to the sport he loves.
“Maybe it’s a healing thing for me,” General said this week on the track at Marshall High School in Falls Church, as the cross-country runners he coaches there skirted past. “This is more for my mental state than anything.
“Once I cross the line, it’s release. It’s not going to change a lot of things, but it’s going to be the next step in saying, ‘I have to accept what it is and move on.’ ”
James General died in Georgia in late October 2009, around Marine Corps Marathon time. Jones, sister of Darrell General’s wife Tammie, died about a year later.
In some ways, General has always run at least in part for James, his only blood sibling. Earlier, it was to pay back the supportive older brother known as “General” to Darrell’s “Little General.” James often found trouble in their Southeast Washington neighborhood but steered Darrell away from it.
The allure of the streets for Darrell General, a small, quiet boy, was how fast he could run them. His mom, Alice McLaughlin, worked at a Sears department store on Alabama Avenue and would call home and tell Darrell to come up and try on a pair of pants. General would run there as fast as he could. He would race the bus home from school. And he would run the alleys in Southeast, pretending to be Frank Shorter or Bill Rodgers or some other distance runner he had seen on ABC’s “Wide World of Sports.” He would run with his dad, David McLaughlin, at Oxon Run Park.
Darrell entered his first Marine Corps Marathon months after his graduation from Potomac (Md.) High School and eventually competed in about 35 marathons across the country and overseas.
James General “told everybody wherever he went that this was his little brother,” Darrell General said. “It was good for both of us that I was out there. . . . As long as I keep running and keep my name out there and keep it strong, I feel like I’m keeping him with me.”
Area runners have been encouraging General for years to get back on the circuit. He heard it all the time at the running store where he used to work, and the kids at Marshall also would inquire. In recent years, however, running was not a priority.
“Darrell is the type of person who likes to take care of everybody and everything,” said Tammie General, who was not aware of her husband’s status in the local running community until she saw runners approach him in malls and at expos. “He kind of put himself on the back burner and tried to take care of his family during the grieving time. Now he can kind of focus on himself again.”
General, self-coached since high school and now living in Landover, did not start training in earnest for this year’s Marine Corps Marathon until July. He originally set a goal of finishing in 2 hours 25 minutes, a time he is not sure he can attain at this point. That’s a tough admission for a runner who in 1995 posted the fourth-fastest time in event history (2:16.34) and was the top American finisher at the 1990 Boston Marathon.
“I’m nervous,” he said. “This is more nervous than usual.”
Since May, General has shed 33 pounds from his 5-foot-6 frame and weighs 145. He squeezes in much of his 65 miles per week running on the Washington & Old Dominion Trail, down the road from Marshall.
“For him to get back out there is a great inspiration for all the kids he’s coaching,” said Marshall track coach Clifford Wong, a longtime acquaintance. “The community loves him a lot and is happy to see him back running again.”
For Sunday’s race, some 28 years after his first Marine Corps Marathon, General plans to wear a customized shirt with his brother’s photo on it.
“Whatever I run, as long as I cross that line,” General said, “I think it’s going to be good for me.”