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Runner stories

Marine Corps Marathon 2021: Running in solidarity, virtually

Four people running on a sunny street

While runners had high hopes for an in-person Marine Corps Marathon this year, the pandemic had other ideas. Runners are a resilient bunch, however, and those who planned to run are adjusting plans to race virtually, yet together in spirit. Here's how four past participants are using their race-day memories to motivate themselves in 2021.

Held annually in October and known as the "People's Marathon," the Marine Corps Marathon (MCM) is about as good as it gets for racing. When in person, the course winds its way through the beautiful streets of the nation's capital, giving runners a tour of historic and awe-inspiring sites along the way. At the finish line at the United States Marine Corps War Memorial in Arlington, members of the Marine Corps greet you to place a well-earned, shiny medal around your neck, just one of the special touches that set this race apart.

Now entering its 46th year, the marathon had plans of returning live and in person. In September, however, Marine Corps Marathon organizers opted for a virtual event for 2021. But with a storied history and past experiences to keep them inspired, thousands of participants will run together in solidarity, if not shoulder-to-shoulder.

What makes the Marine Corps Marathon special?

When race day hits, I'm all about the people that are around me.

There's no shortage of inspiration in the People's Marathon, and 51-year-old Dave Cook of Washington, D.C., knows just how special the Marine Corps Marathon is. He's run it 13 times and says, "Each year offers a fresh wealth of surprises."

runner in a marathon with group
marathon finisher sitting with sign and dog behind him

Photos: Dave Cook

While he had hoped to return to the live version in 2021, Cook has already adjusted his attitude to run on his own in 2021. Part of what will motivate Cook are his memories of past years. He has drawn his encouragement from the groups of firefighters and soldiers running alongside him. He has also looked to the course's "wear blue Mile," which features 225 Faces of the Fallen posters and ribbons honoring service members who lost their lives, to inspire him. "We run to remember the fallen," he says. "Showing respect and perseverance is honoring their sacrifice."

Likewise, 41-year-old Mary Dalton-Baker, based in Maryland, knows that running virtually can have its own special feel. Last year's virtual event proved that point.

marathon runner standing in front of Marine Corps Marathon sign
group of runners in a street

Photos: Mary Dalton-Baker

"In August 2020, friends of ours coordinated a virtual MCM race for our dear friend Francis Moats, who had glioblastoma," she says. "Knowing that my close friend was battling brain cancer and going through intense chemotherapy and radiation treatment gave me the push to do this race for him." "Races are more than just the run; it's the feeling of being together and cheering on random strangers who turn into friends."

Races are more than just the run; it's the feeling of being together and cheering on random strangers who turn into friends.

Some 200 people turned out to cheer Dalton-Baker's group over the virtual finish line, which she found "incredibly emotional and overwhelming." This year, while she's disappointed to miss live racing again, she will use her past experiences as motivation to move forward.

Racing = lasting friendships and memories

Jackie Purcell, a 38-year-old Florida resident who has run the race three times, is also motivated by her incredible Marine Corps Marathon memories.

mascot with marathon runner
Runner standing beneath USA balloon arch

Photos: Jackie Purcell

Self-described as the "world's most OK-est runner," Purcell says running the Marine Corps Marathon as a middle-of-the-packer means she is always surrounded by other runners, which helps when those tough moments come along. "My middle-of-the-pack people are amazingly supportive," she says. "We know we aren't qualifying for Boston, and I have seen people stop to check on strangers, offer gels/salts, strike up small talk, and just as a collective body, embrace the suck together."

It was just what I needed, someone else to take me out of my own head and inject some fun in those miles."

In fact, it's alongside another middle-of-the-pack runner that Purcell experienced what has been her favorite race memory to date. "I ran into another runner who I had met briefly before while running another race," she says. "We were both wearing 'Wear Blue' shirts and that was our instant 'Hey, runner friend!' connection."

That year's Marine Corps Marathon was a hot one, and Purcell was suffering as she moved along. "I happened to look over and see Susan," she says. "She was celebrating her 65th birthday at the race and I learned her congressman had flown a flag over the White House for her that day. It was just what I needed, someone else to take me out of my own head and inject some fun in those miles."

The day only got more special as the two women entered the final miles of the course. "We added a young lady to our group who had just lost someone in Afghanistan and didn't think she could finish," Purcell explains. "Susan and I looked at each other and said, 'We've got you — come with us.' We made sure she crossed that day, and that was a better feeling than my own finish."

Meanwhile, local runner Elyse Braner, 37, made MCM her first marathon back in 2006, and it remains her favorite to this day.

Runner waving during Marine Corps Marathon
runners smiling after marathon

Photos: Elyse Braner

"It is the race with the most amount of memories for me," she says. "I am always so proud to finish my hometown marathon. It is a feeling that I wouldn't get at any other marathon."

Her love for the Marine Corps Marathon goes beyond it being in her backyard, however. "I run every year I am able," she says. "I am struck by how much energy there is on the course, from both runners and non-runners, everyone working together to get through 26.2 miles."

There's nothing quite like the running community

No matter where you run it, you are going to be an inspiration and reminder to those around you that you are part of a great tradition."

At the end of the day, in-person or not, the Marine Corps Marathon inspires runners like no other event. As runners get ready to toe the line virtually, they'll carry their memories with them, apart but together.

Cook puts it all in perspective: "Even if it's not (live) this year...the marathon is greater than the sum of its parts," he says. "It's hundreds of thousands of stories and steps, and no matter where you run it, you are going to be an inspiration and reminder to those around you that you are part of a great tradition."

Feeling inspired? Check out our special edition Marine Corps Marathon gear. Need more time to prepare? The lottery for the Marine Corps Marathon opens in March, giving you plenty of time to prepare for next year's race. Whatever your race goals, though, the shared experience of running side by side with others can quickly turn the simple sport of running into something much greater — a way to find common ground in an increasingly distributed world.