On Sunday, 30,000 runners from a broad range of ages will line up near Arlington Cemetery at the starting line of the annual Marine Corps Marathon. The elite runners will finish in about 2 hours 15 minutes. But for most, the daunting task of running 26.2 miles isn’t about a finishing time but about the motivation behind it.

Each participant was driven to train for months for Sunday’s run. Some run for the exercise. Some are adrenaline and competition junkies. Many run for a cause or in someone’s memory. These are the stories of three runners who will push their bodies far past exhaustion Sunday and what will drive them to take that next step.


Michael Munn, 14, of Berryville, Va., is blind and has been in the United States for just five months, but he’s planning to run the Marine Corps Marathon with a guide at his side Sunday morning. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)
A truly long journey

Five months ago, Michael Munn was living in a group foster home in Beijing. On May 1, Munn was due to turn 14, an age at which orphans in China are no longer eligible for adoption. He is also legally blind, so life without adopted parents would have been even more difficult.

In Berryville, Va., B’Lynn Munn came across a nonprofit’s Web site seeking donations for Michael. B’Lynn, who has three daughters, wasn’t looking to adopt a child, but she read that Michael had taught himself to speak English and read Braille. He also played the piano, drums and flute. She saw a video of him jumping rope. He loved running.

“He was just amazing,” she said.

Thus began the race to adopt Michael. Agencies told B’Lynn that adoptions take 12 to 18 months; she needed it done in seven weeks, before Michael’s birthday. She found a McLean agency willing to help.

“We basically drove every day to Richmond or the State Department or Chinese Embassy or for birth certificates,” said B’Lynn, who also solicited help from her local congressman. “Everything. It was really hard work.”

The Munn family picked up Michael in Beijing on April 28. He landed in the United States on May 8 and enrolled at Clarke Middle School. And little by little, his new family has helped him tackle his bucket list. He wants to go to the White House and the Pentagon, ride the Metro — and run the Marine Corps Marathon.

“It’s a hobby,” Michael said. “I like running.”

So two weeks ago, even though registration was closed, B’Lynn called the marathon offices and explained Michael’s story, and organizers granted him a spot. Michael has been training with a volunteer coach, who runs alongside him, connected by a tether.

During the day, Michael’s eyes can make out the shapes of houses and trees and see the yellow lines on the road but little more. At night, he can’t see. He will run with a guide as always Sunday. Michael’s orphanage in China let him run in the 2012 and 2013 Beijing Marathon, but he couldn’t finish.

Asked how far he hopes to run Sunday, he replied, “The whole marathon. Maybe in six hours.”

Added B’Lynn: “Michael told me he’s running for the other kids that can’t be over here running for themselves because their birthdays came and nobody took them.”


Kyle Balduf, 31, will be wearing a photo of his slain brother while running Sunday’s Marine Corps Marathon. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)
Running together

Growing up in Nashville, Kyle Balduf ran track in high school, but in his words, “anything over 200 meters made me really angry. I didn’t want to do it.” Yet the darkest moment in Balduf’s life motivated him to take up running again and train for his first marathon.

Balduf’s twin brother, Kevin, joined the Marine Corps right after he graduated from high school. He served a tour in Afghanistan and then one in Iraq. He returned to the United States, got married and started a family but then rejoined the Marines and went back to Afghanistan. On May 12, 2011, Kyle received word Kevin had been killed training Afghan forces.

Kyle struggled emotionally for months. He wasn’t in good shape and wasn’t exercising, but one day he decided to go for a run. Feeling awful afterward, he remembered a story told at Kevin’s funeral about his brother’s devotion to running. Kevin would run at Camp Leatherneck despite the Afghan heat and his friends’ refusals to join him because he ran too fast and too far.

The brothers had run together during their senior year of high school. Kevin aspired to run a marathon one day, but after joining the Marines, he never got a chance. So Kyle, lacking his brother’s love of the sport but driven by love of his brother, began running.

“I realized as I started to run again that I started feeling closer to Kevin because I thought about him when I was running,” said Balduf, 31. “I would think about running with him and having him with me. It was really comforting.”

In December, Kyle got a new job at the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS), a nonprofit that works with families who lost a family member in the military, and moved to Washington. He signed up for the Marine Corps Marathon and began training.

Kyle officially is racing to raise money for TAPS, and he has received more than $1,000 in donations so far. But he really will be running the marathon his brother never got the chance to.

Running this marathon is “a way to overcome the worst time in my life,” he said. “It’s a way to prove that I can actually thrive and do better than before. And that brokenness doesn’t have to stay broken forever.”


Chirstian Fazio, a former Marine and Iraqi war veteran, faced many demons upon his return to the United States. (Photo by Checko Salgado)
‘I need to turn this around’

When Christian Fazio returned to the United States in 2005 from his nine-month tour with the Marine Corps in Iraq, he couldn’t adjust to normal life. He was in the Marines for six years, and combat messed with the mind.

When he was in Iraq, he drove the bodies of 14 fellow soldiers to the airport to be shipped home. After returning to the United States, he saw his fallen soldiers referenced on TV when he was working as a hotel bellman. He broke down crying and left work for the day.

He slept near the front door of his house, keeping guard like a soldier in a combat zone.

“I had a fully furnished house and a family and still felt alone,” said Fazio, 30.

And his body was in rough shape. The Las Vegas resident gained 40 pounds. He turned to fast food and alcohol too often. He couldn’t sleep, so he would write and create art. A few years later, around 2009, he started running, another outlet from his high school days when he was on the cross-country team.

“I was just going down this dark road,” he said. “I really don’t remember the day or what I felt, but I thought, ‘Enough is enough. I need to turn this around.’ I started running a mile around the house. Then it built up. I didn’t even think of a marathon. I was just running for me. It got my mind off of things.”

Fazio’s stamina improved. He ran a half-marathon. Then obstacles runs. He ran his first 26.2-mile race last year, the Las Vegas Rock ’n’ Roll Marathon.

His life improved, too. He got help for his mental distress. He completed his college degree in art last year, too, and is now a graphic designer at a fine arts studio in Las Vegas. He also works with a nonprofit,Home Deployment Project, which helps those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

“I feel like I was running from something,” Fazio said. “Now I feel like I’m running to something. Now I have inspiration and motivation.”