Charles "Chad" Ware finally found a marathon he could stomach, Sunday's 36th running of the Marine Corps Marathon.
On a bone-chilling clear and sunny morning, the 27-year-old Wheeling, Ill., resident broke ranks with two elite but frozen Ethiopian runners between 18 and 19 miles and strolled to a commanding victory in 2:19:16.
Teammates Tezata Dengersa and Getachew Shiferaw held up the Ethiopian pride in the women's race, however, with a 1-3 finish. Dengersa, third here last year, added a Marine Corps title to her Army Ten-Miler triumph three weeks ago on much of the same course, clocking 2:45:28.
But the brow-raiser of the day was Ware, not just to the estimated 100,000 spectators along the course but to the veteran marathoner himself. His time was not only a big personal best over his 2009 Chicago Marathon effort (2:20:47), but it also was the fastest winning time here since 1997.
"I've been running marathons since I was 17," said Ware, who was headed toward a career in the chaplaincy but has changed course and will go active duty in military intelligence in January. "I'd have to stop in my race because of my stomach, when I was on pace for 16 to 20 miles."
Ware said the cold temperatures - in the mid-30s at race time — might have helped. He maintained contact with the leaders throughout the race, except for a section along East Potomac Park and Hains Point where he fell back 50 meters coming through 13.1 miles in 1:09:36.
Ware estimated he would run 2:20, but midway through the race he realized he was on pace to run an U.S. Olympic Marathon qualifying time of 2:19 or better.
"After the half, I knew I had a chance," Ware said. "It's been a goal for the last three to four years. But absolutely it was not my game plan today. Actually, I was not going to even run a fall marathon because of my stomach problems."
By 19, Ware pulled away from Emiru Mekonnen, an Ethiopian who had run 2:12 at Dubai last year, and Temesgen Ilanso, another Ethiopian with a marathon best of 2:16. Both would fade hard, Mekonnen to seventh in 2:30:52 and Ilanso to 10th in 2:32:59.
Alone, he would cross the 14th Street Bridge to the turnaround in Crystal City at 23 miles. On the way back, that's the first time Michael Wardian, the local favorite from Arlington, would see him. For miles, Wardian had slowly been picking off runners in front of him as the crowd shouted his name on every portion of the course, until he was in second place just imagining that the leader was coming back to him too.
"I came here to win and I didn't win," said a disappointed Wardian, 37, with a 2:17 personal best this year. "I didn't think he'd run that fast. I mean nobody has run that fast here in a long time. I was running a 2:21 pace. That's the fastest anybody's run here in 15 years. But he beat me pretty good.
"I saw him in Crystal City, and I knew I wasn't going to catch him unless something happened to him."
Ware was all alone against the clock, with just the hill up to the Iwo Jima Memorial left to tackle.
"That hill killed me at the end, may have cost me the 16 seconds [for the U.S. Olympic Marathon qualifier]," Ware said.
Wardian followed more than four minutes back in 2:23:46, with Patrick Fernandez of Alexandria another three minutes behind in 2:26:37.
As Ware was crashing the finish tape, Dengersa was firmly in the lead for the women. She dispensed Shiferaw after 23 miles, when Shiferaw was hampered by her sciatic nerve problems on her right leg.
Dengersa ran only 2:45, but she has had a busy month. After winning the Army Ten-Miler, she then recorded a personal-best 2:37 at the Baltimore Marathon two weeks ago. And she said she is not done with marathons this season.
"Maybe I run in Richmond in two weeks or Philly in three weeks," said Dengersa, who was born in Ethiopia but is a Turkish citizen who trains in Washington.
Emily Shertzer of Jonestown, Pa., caught Shiferaw in the closing miles and made a run at Dengersa, coming up 27 seconds short in 2:45:55. Shiferaw was third in 2:47:30 as the top 10 women all run faster than 2:57.
Nearly 22,000 started the 26.2-mile race, including Drew Carey, the comedian and host of "The Price is Right."
In a word, Carey called his first marathon a "nightmare." Hoping to run sub-four hours, Carey cramped up miserably and struggled to a 4:37:10. But he was good-hearted about his morning at the finish as the Marines played "The "Price is Right" jingle.
"I'm happy I finished, I didn't quit," said Carey, a former Marine who has lost a sizeable amount of weight through running. "Sure, I'm disappointed with my time. I was ahead of the four-hour pace guy but at 15 miles, my quads seized up. I had to stop three to four times."
Nonetheless, Carey said he would give the marathon another chance, no kidding