Freedom’s Run

I’ve run 11 marathons, but of all these my favourite is the Marine Corps Marathon (MCM), which begins and ends in northern Virginia. There are many things I love about this race, which we call ?the People’s Marathon?: the crowd support; the beautiful route that winds through our nation’s capital and along the Potomac River; the smell and sight of autumn leaves; and the thick, well-constructed finisher shirts and medals. But most of all, I love the men and women who make the marathon possible: the Marines.

From the first mile to the finish line 26.2 miles later, throngs of Marines in uniform handed out water, lemon-lime Gatorade, gel packs, oranges, and even donuts. Marines gave runners high-fives, manned the traffic barricades, screamed ?Ooo-rah? at any runner who smiled just right, and performed a multitude of jobs unseen and unnoticed by the 23,515 finishers at this year’s race. And yet as much as I appreciate the Marines who stood along the course, even more do I appreciate the ones who are no longer standing there.

At mile five, I looked around and saw a gorgeous woman named Veronica Ortiz Rivera. On her white t-shirt was a picture of her husband, Staff Sgt. Javier Ortiz, who died nearly two years ago in Afghanistan. Veronica didn’t see me as she ran past me, but I saw her, and when I got home later I read that she had completed the MCM in her husband’s honour.

Veronica Ortiz Rivera was not the only wife, brother, daughter, cousin, relative, or dear friend who trudged along the muddy, brown-green waters of the Potomac in honour of fallen Marines, soldiers, or other members of the armed forces. Indeed, I’ve often wondered if the date of the MCM is chosen to coincide as closely as possible with Veteran’s Day, which always falls within a week or two of the race. Every quarter of a mile or so, I spotted yet another runner honouring a fallen comrade, and each time I saw this tribute, my eyes welled up with tears of gratitude.

Later in the race, I shed a few of these tears. At the halfway point, the course runs parallel to the Potomac River for about three miles, and for some reason there are almost no spectators here. No live ones, that is. But every few yards, we runners came across posters, each bearing the picture of a dead service man or woman. Underneath each photo was the rank, age, and service branch. There were too many veterans to memorize, but I tried to give a silent ?thank you? to each one as I ran past.

Toward the end of this phalanx of the fallen, a woman said aloud, ?This is so sad.?

Wiping the tears that burned hot on my cold cheeks, I murmured, ?It’s such an honour to run this race. It’s not sad so much as it is beautiful that they gave so much, and now we can do something to remember them by.?

She was looking at me funny, so I stopped talking. But before I could get a handle on my emotions, a man with one leg and one arm ran beside me, and then lope-limped past.

How do you thank someone who’s given an arm and a leg to keep you safe? I tried, I guess, to do it the one way I know how. I gave that race, and all of those living and dead members of the armed forces, my best effort. After all, my freedom to run this race is something some gave all for, and for that I will always give thanks.

Writer E.L. Farris blogs at Running from Hell with El.

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