The Many, the Proud, the Marathoners

Article excerpt

Byline: Joanne Lukens

Oprah Winfrey ran it in 1994. Al Gore crossed the finish line in 1998. So it's true that some of the new popularity of the U.S. Marine Corps Marathon can be traced to celebrity attraction.

But this 26.2-mile run through the nation's capital, whose 26th annual running is scheduled this year for Oct. 28, isn't called "the People's Marathon" for nothing. What makes it most appealing is that unlike other well-known marathons in Boston, New York and Chicago, this one does not require registrants to post qualifying times.

"It's a race that accommodates both the professional runner and the amateur," says Jennifer Robinson, public relations coordinator for the race.

Whatever the reason, the marathon is so far "in" that its official Web site, www.marinemarathon.com, logged 65,000 hits for 5,000 spots in the first minute of online registration last April. The second day's registration saw the next 5,000 spots go as quickly. The remaining were filled by lottery.

Marathons were relatively new in 1975, when the Marine Corps held its first to promote better relations between Marines and civilians after the Vietnam War. Fewer than 1,200 runners participated in the first race. This year, an estimated 17,000 runners will take their mark at 8:30 a.m. at the United States Marine Memorial, better known as the Iwo Jima Memorial, in Arlington.

Forty-six percent of them, Ms. Robinson says, will be first-time marathoners.

Partly because of such programs as the Jeff Galloway Marathon Training Program, which espouses a run-walk theory of long-distance running, novices of both sexes and all ages have flocked to the event.

Once a race of mostly men in their 20s and 30s, the Marine Corps Marathon now registers almost as many women as men. The mean age of runners has shifted as well, to the 30s and 40s, with runners well into their 60s and 70s crossing the finish line.

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The moral of the story may be: You, too, could run the marathon, if only you had registered in time.

"If Oprah can do it, we can too," Janet Gartlan recalls telling a cousin in 1995. Both women finished, and Ms. Gartlan did it again in 2000.

Tom Martin, 60, remembers that six years ago he could barely jog the distance between telephone poles. Using the combination of timed running segments and walk breaks developed by former Olympic marathoner Jeff Galloway, Mr. Martin recently completed his 10th marathon. He is program director of the local Galloway training group.

"Every season I hear new stories of how people are trying to change their lives," Mr. Martin said one crisp day last month as he congratulated his new crop of Galloway disciples after a long run that had begun at Jones Point in Alexandria. "I feel like I'm taking them on a six-month journey of self-discovery."

Many running groups in the area, including the Pacers from Alexandria, favor a Swedish method of distance training called "fartlek" ("speed play" in Swedish), which varies the pace during a run. Bill Stearns, coach of the Pacers - who also trained Rich Cochrane, winner of the 25th marathon last year - feels strongly that all participants in a marathon should run the entire distance.

"Pacers is made up of beginners to those who will qualify for the Olympic trials," Mr. Stearns says. "Through proper training, I've seen people who started out as joggers transformed into runners who are out there every day, even off season. I enjoy watching that transition."

Jim O'Sullivan goes it alone. A veteran marathoner with 14 races to his credit, he sums up his personal training philosophy with the Nike slogan, "Just Do It." "Everyone who runs a marathon has a different goal, and everyone can be successful," Mr. O'Sullivan says. That's the beauty of the marathon."

After reading the books, reviewing the Web sites and talking with other runners, Peter Meath devised his own training program. …