Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us,--Hebrews 12:1

Sunday, October 30, 2011

My Marine Corps Marathon Experience

Today I ran my first full marathon. Not in the time I was hoping for, but still, by the grace of God I finished. It took me 5 hours and 22 minutes to cover the 26.2 miles. I had dreams of a 4:30 finish, but set out this morning with a goal to finish under 5 hours. Even though it took 22 minutes longer than I'd hoped, today was a great day.

The Marine Corps Marathon, aka the People's Marathon, is the 5th largest in the United States and 9th largest in the world with 30,000 registered runners. Starting just north of the Pentagon, and ending at the Marine Corps Iwo Jima Memorial in Arlington National Cemetery, the race winds through Arlington and Georgetown before leading runners by the major monuments of our nation's capitol. Those who finished the race numbered 20,985 and my finish time placed me 16,107th to cross the line. Janice said to look at it from another perspective, I beat almost 4,000 other runners.

No matter which way I look at it, it feels great to have crossed that finish line and have that Marine hang the medal on my neck. Throughout the race, but especially as I climbed that hill to the finish, the primary event that brought me here weighed heavy on my mind. My friend and USMC brother Jesse, with whom I'd served 20 years ago, challenged me to run this race the day before my daughter Amanda's funeral, a little over 9 months ago. As I charged up that last hill, I wondered if and I hoped that my performance today had made her proud.

"And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose." -- Romans 8:28

I was also overwhelmed by the awesomeness of God and His ability to bring good from the most evil of human acts. In the days immediately following Amanda's death I staggered around in a thick fog, unable to see or think clearly. Many thoughts came to mind, few of them rational and many of them would have sent me to prison if I'd acted on them. But Jesus Christ laid it on the hearts of two very good friends from the Corps, Pat and Jesse, to travel across the country to join me in my grief, to help in whatever way they could. It had been 16 years since any of us had seen each other, and not much less than that since any of us had spoken with each other. But they dropped everything to be with me in my hour of need. This weekend we held a reunion for our platoon that deployed together in 1992 and I got to see several of those guys for the first time since we left the Corps. We scheduled the reunion to coincide with the marathon, and either one would have made for a great weekend. But combined, they made a fantastic one.

The weather was beautiful for the race, a little cold at the start, but beautiful nonetheless. Saturday was cold, windy, and wet. If that weather had persisted into Sunday, it would have made the race much less enjoyable. But God pushed the precipitation out of the area and left the skies clear for race day. Even with the temperatures in the low 30's at the start, I shed my sweat pants before the gun went off and shed my sweatshirt before mile 5. Temps had warmed enough by then that I didn't feel cold again until after the race.

"Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us." -- Hebrews 12:1

We weren't pushing real hard, trying to maintain an 11 minute 20 second pace per mile. That proved easy for a big part of the race. At the 10K mark, I told Jesse I hadn't felt that good after running six miles in a long time. The usual pain in my ankles and the occasional pain in my knees was noticeably absent. After 10 miles, I recalled the way I felt at that point in my first half-marathon a year and a half ago. In that race I was suffering terribly by then, but today I felt as if we'd just begun the race. We passed the halfway point and I was still amazed at how great I felt.

But I've heard it said that a runner should never expect feelings to remain constant over the course of 26.2 miles. The saying goes that if you feel bad at some point, you'll feel good later and if you're feeling good, expect things to go South before the end. That proved true for me today.

"Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope." -- Romans 5:3-4

It was around mile 17 that I felt the first twinge in my right calf, a warning that it was trying to cramp. It wasn't long before I felt it in my left calf, my right hamstring, and my left thigh. I started praying and concentrating to try and keep them at bay, but they were the initial signs that feeling good wasn't going to last through mile 26.2. By this time, Jesse's knee had started to bother him a little too. Still, we kept pushing onward.

By mile 20, our pace had fallen off quite a bit as we hobbled, running as much as we could and walking for a minute or so every once in a while. Right about then, my wife, daughter, friend Pat and his son, greeted us on the course and cheered us on. That gave us a much needed boost at a point when we were struggling to maintain motivation.

But after we crossed the bridge back into Arlington after mile 21, things got even worse. A lot of friends who run marathons had told me miles 21-26 held a lot of misery, and today I learned how right they were. Before mile 22, we were walking more and more, and walking every incline, even the slightest. We kept telling each other we were close enough there was no way we wouldn't finish, but doubts were creeping into my mind.

We crossed 23 miles and I was feeling even worse. I passed by the Dunkin Donuts offered by the Marine volunteers because I felt like I'd throw up if I ate them. Only 3.2 miles to go, a distance that I thought I could have crawled if necessary...before today. Right about then, I was thinking it seemed like 32 miles to go. But still, Jesse and I kept telling each other we had it made.

Somehow we made it to mile 24 and I started again to think that reaching the finish might actually be possible, not certain but possible. By now we were walking more and more. When we were running, it couldn't have been at a pace much faster than our walk. Though I'd successfully fought off the cramps to this point, the twinges that warned of their attempts to take control of my muscles had become almost constant. Keeping them at bay required constant effort and almost all of my focus by now.

We hit mile 25 at the off ramp to the Pentagon, at the top of a pretty good downhill stretch. Even on the downhill, our pace was severely retarded because by now our legs were screaming in pain. When we reached the bottom, we started walking again and I suggested we walk until we reached the turn into Arlington National Cemetery. That turn began the last good hill, 2/10 of a mile uphill to the finish line. I honestly didn't know if I would be able to keep running all the way up it, even after our prolonged walk just prior.

"I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me." -- Philippians 4:13

But we stepped into the climb at a run...a very slow run and maintained it all the way across the line. Jesus had breathed the strength we needed to mount our final charge to close out the race. We crossed the line, accepted our medals, and had our pictures made at the foot of the Iwo Jima Memorial. It was over.

"And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him." -- Colossians 3:17

I owe many thanks to a lot of people for getting me to this point, and getting me through this race. First, I thank God for giving me the desire to run this race, the motivation to keep training for it, and the determination to finish it. I also have to give thanks to my wife and daughter who encouraged me and understood the long hours of training and recovery time over these past 9 months. I thank my friends and USMC brother Jesse for challenging me to run this race and for running it with me step for step. I also want to thank my other friends and brothers who came this weekend for our reunion, making this trip even more memorable than the MCM could have. I owe many thanks to all who donated to our supported charities. This was a great source of motivation and inspiration through the hardest training periods. I'd like to thank New Balance, Inc. for sponsoring us with shoes and donating $5000 to help us start a chapter of K-Life Ministries in Vilonia. And I'd like to thank all the volunteers, organizers, spectators, and runners who made this race so memorable and such a wonderful experience!

This race I ran in memory of my beautiful daughter, Amanda Marie Allison, who was stolen from us way too early in January of this year. Nothing will ever erase the pain of losing her, but I have the peace that comes from knowing I will see her again one day. Until then, I'll keep running marathons and shorter races to keep her memory alive.

Yes, today was a good day to run a great race.

If you don't know Jesus as your personal savior, if you're missing the faith, hope, and love written about here, if you want the peace that we as Christians have in our lives, please visit our Got Jesus? page for step-by-step instructions on how to accept Jesus Christ as your personal Savior.


  1. John, Thank you for sharing your story. You are an such a strong person.
    Take care, Laura

  2. OMG my eyes were sweating after reading this! Amazing journey and I am so sorry for your loss! Congrats on finishing MCM!!!


All comments are subject to moderation. Comments containing hateful speech, profanity, or other inflammatory remarks will be rejected.