ARLINGTON, Va. – “I’m a little nervous, have some butterflies; it’s the final stage of prep,” said Capt. Richard Jennings, 12 hours before the start of the 35th annual Marine Corps Marathon.
It was hard to see any nerves from Jennings or the rest of the All-Marine running team while they communed during the annual pasta dinner held the night before the marathon.
According to Jennings, 70 percent of his meal consisted of pasta with meat sauce in order to give his body the carbohydrates it would need to complete the 26.2-mile course around and through the nation’s capital.
“I ate salad, pasta with meat sauce, broccoli, two rolls and a chocolate chip cookie,” Jennings said. “I’m feeling good, ready to go – got a full stomach.”
The rest of Jennings’ evening consisted of stretching and packing items such as apples, bananas, water and sports drinks for the race.
The All-Marine running team began training for the marathon June 1, after a three-day training camp.
“I’ve had a lot of 100-mile weeks,” Jennings said. “From June 1 to now I’ve ran almost 1,300 miles. [Although] our coach gives us a time to run and not a distance.”
All the Marine Corps’ runners need to fulfill their daily duties as a Marine, so running an allotted amount of time instead of a certain distance makes it easier for them to fit into their individual schedules, Jennings added.
The training and hard work is for more than just their individual goals and race times on marathon day.
“We have one goal; to win the Challenge Cup,” said Joe Puleo, the Marine Corps running team coach for the last four years, going 2-2 in Challenge Cups prior to this year.
The Challenge Cup is an annual competition between the U.S. Marines and British Royal Marines and Navy. It combines the times of the top three male marathon finishers from each team to determine the lowest total time and the winner of the cup. The top two female finishers from each team have their times combined as well to find the lowest total and the winner of the female Challenge Cup. The challenge has been issued for more than 30 years, and with the Brits winning it last year the U.S. Marines were thirsty to drink from the cup again despite some lingering injuries.
Nagging injuries and pains are a part of any runners’ life, but Jennings has been really low key about a hip problem he has been dealing with for the last week or so, Puleo said.
“We did some active release therapy, chiropractic therapy and took some extra days off,” Puleo said.
With Jennings being one of the top runners for the U.S. Marine team, their hope of winning the Challenge Cup could be determined by how well his hip holds up. However, the hip didn’t hurt Jennings’ confidence level.
“We should have no problem winning the Challenge Cup,” Jennings said. “Woke up, ate some oatmeal, a banana and a bagel with some peanut butter on it,” Jennings said. “I’m feeling good and rested.”
Jennings could not be seen without a bottle of water or sports drink the previous night or the morning of the marathon.
“I drink the water now, and get it out of my system. I can’t afford any bathroom breaks,” Jennings said with a smirk.
After stretching on his hotel room bed and watching some TV, Jennings began to pack up his final gear to include water and his racing shoes.
“It’s the calm before the storm,” said Jennings just two hours before being at the starting line.
Runners, like other athletes, take different mental approaches before an event.
“I stay pretty much internal, don’t talk to too many people,” Jennings said. “It’s funny, you never know who to talk to. Are they going to be mad if I talk to them?”
All 14 of the U.S. Marine Corps runners piled into three vans and headed over to the race around 6:15 a.m., an hour and forty-five minutes before the start. Music was playing and the conversation was casual and seemed to be about anything other than the race.
Once the team arrived on scene and changed into their racing gear they went for a jog to loosen up and then moved to the starting line.
Jennings ran short sprints underneath the Arlington Memorial Bridge, trading barbs with a few friends.
The 34-year-old said he could feel some tightness in and around his hip before the race started, but it wouldn’t change his approach. Jennings was shooting for a personal best time of between 2 hours, 34 minutes and 2 hours, 36 minutes.
“I believe I’m fit to run that time,” Jennings said. “I just have to be smart in how I run it. I want the first and second half to be around the same time. Once the cannon shoots, the race is on.”
As the race began the conditions were ideal for running.
“It’s perfect weather, low wind and a little brisk,” Puleo said. “It’s going to come down to execution.”
As the minutes and miles ticked away it became clear the U.S. Marines were executing as planned.
U.S. Marine 1st Lt. Sean Barrett was the first in the Challenge Cup to finish. He was third overall with a time of 2 hours, 24 minutes and 8 seconds.
“I was running it to win it,” Barrett, 25, said. “I wanted to get it done and win it. I told the [commandant of the Marine Corps], I have two more years on deck to win it.”
Jennings came across third on the U.S. Marine Corps team in a time of 2 hours, 36 minutes and 20 seconds. A personal record by two minutes and 40 seconds for the Marine from Marine Corps Logistics Base Albany, Ga.
“I feel great, Marines don’t make excuses,” Jennings said just moments after crossing the finish line. “My hip worked out well. I felt a little weak in the beginning, a little sluggish from the time off, but today everything went well.”
After the race Jennings continued to stretch and get some energy back in his system by eating a sandwich. It was mostly smiles, laughs and storytelling from the 26.2-mile journey in the armed services tent after the race.
The U.S. Marines had little problem winning the Challenge Cup this year with all three of their top finishers beating the first finisher from the British Royal Marines and Navy team. The U.S. female Marines also took home the Challenge Cup.
Jennings wasn’t able to stick around too long, as he had a 4 p.m. flight back to Georgia to catch, but did express his feelings on the Challenge Cup victory shortly after the race.
“We destroyed the Brits,” Jennings said with a smile. “It was something we really needed to do this year. It’s always nice to beat the Brits.”