By Jim Hage
Just before 7 a.m. yesterday outside RFK Stadium, 1,656 runners started in the inaugural National Marathon and half marathon. And when the last runner returned to the stadium and crossed the finish line hours later, after touring the District and western portions of Prince George's County, race organizers breathed a sigh of relief and declared their efforts if not perfect, then a success.
"We've got the first one behind us," said Bob Sweeney, president of the Greater Washington Sports Alliance, the race sponsor. "We'll just get better from here."
Nearly all of the runners echoed those sentiments, choosing to ignore last-minute controversies over who would pay costs for traffic control that far outstripped figures allocated in the $750,000 budget. Instead, they focused on the cool and dry weather, good for long-distance running, and a course that ran past attractions including the Capitol, the White House and then visited lesser known neighborhoods along the waterfront, Anacostia and District Heights and Capitol Heights in Maryland.
Prerace favorite Michael Wardian, 31, from Arlington, won handily in 2 hours 30 minutes 55 seconds, and earned $1,000. The prolific marathoner ran 2:28:23 to win in Virginia Beach six days earlier.
"This is a challenging course, a good course," said Wardian, who took the lead in the opening miles and ran alone once the half marathoners turned toward their finish at Mile 11.
"I'm really pleased to win the first race here, because I think this is going to be a great event."
Susan Graham-Gray, 37, from Greencastle, Pa., won the women's marathon in 2:58:05. Graham-Gray, who is legally blind and was accompanied by a bicycle guide, finished nearly 12 minutes ahead of runner-up Beth Moras, 47, from Ridgewood, N.J.
"I started conservatively," Graham-Gray said, "and that was fortunate because it got really hilly the second half. I wasn't expecting it to be that tough." [emphasis mine]
Gurmessa Kumsa, 27, moved to Oxon Hill one month ago and easily won the half marathon in 1:08:29, despite a wrong turn that he said cost him about a minute. Kumsa, who is training in the United States on a visa obtained with the help of the Ethiopian athletics federation, quickly dropped his competition and ran ahead of all the runners unopposed.
Milligan Grinstead, 26, from Charlottesville, won the women's race in 1:26:08.
But the half marathoners had it relatively easy, running long, flat stretches along the mall and in Southeast. The going got tougher during the second half of the race on the east side of the Anacostia River, when fatigue set in and many competitors familiar with downtown events entered uncharted running environs.
" 'Where are we?' I said to Ben [Cooke]," marathon runner-up Mike Smith said while navigating the hills in Prince George's County with his training partner. Smith, 25, ran track at Georgetown but was competing in his first marathon. "All the logistics were well done, with gels and drinks every few miles," Smith said. "But I'd never been out there before."
Cooke, 28, a former all-American cross-country runner at James Madison, ran with Smith for 21 miles before fading and then struggling to finish in seventh place. Smith ... entered the race because he had been closed out of the popular Marine Corps Marathon, a common occurrence that race organizers hoped would swell their ranks.
But the relatively modest turnout -- approximately 600 marathoners finished -- and sparse crowds throughout did little to dampen enthusiasm. Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D), who made disparaging remarks last week about race costs and organization, enthusiastically sent the runners on their way at the start.
Even Cooke, who finished his first marathon with a trip to the medical tent to salve blistered toes, cramping calves and a battered ego, said, "I really think this race is going to be a big one someday soon."