- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 26, 2003

After two tense years, the Marine Corps Marathon finally could relax this year.

Runners, spectators and race officials alike at today’s 28th edition do not have to concern themselves with the aftereffects of September 11 as they did in 2001, nor do they have to worry about the sniper attacks which ended in arrests days before last year’s race.

“Things have been very, very smooth this year,” race director Rick Nealis said earlier in the week. “That’s pretty scary.”

Entries closed in the spring at 18,000 runners. Those athletes who actually made it to the starting line today should take to the streets of Northern Virginia and Washington at 8:30a.m., two minutes after the wheelchair and hand-crank athletes are given the green light.

The course has changed a bit, adding more distance near the Pentagon early in the race.

But there are other additions that the runners and spectators will notice this year, as Nealis had to find somebody to run with the big dogs.

First, he has brought in an official rabbit, a pace-setter for the lead men. “Because of the Olympic trials, this is something we have never done,” said Nealis of runner No.13, who is supposed to lead the first 13.1 miles at 5:15 pace to help the American men finish under the 2:22 Olympic trials qualifying time.

Pace-setters are common in the large prize-money marathons with time bonuses, but there is no prize money awarded here. “This is our first sanctioned rabbit,” said Nealis, “and the first one with shoes.” This is an obvious reference to barefoot Brazilian Eron Ferreira, who paced alongside eventual winner Darrell General for 20 miles in 1997.

The other addition is a large brown canine in rather large running shoes. His name is Miles, the marathon’s mascot.

“Back in February or March, we were doing some outreach with children,” Nealis explained. “Children react to the mascot. We are trying to get people into track and marathons. What a way to get the word out with a mascot, when we go to the kids’ schools and other events.”

Nealis assigned Miles race bib 1775, the year the Marine Corps was founded.

Defending champions Air Force Capt. Chris Juarez and Elizabeth Scanlon are not entered.

There will we plenty of personal triumphs long after the new champions have crossed the finish line.

Pam Penfield, 56, of Colorado, will be running her 100th marathon. Penfield’s first 26.2-mile race was the 1982 Marine Corps Marathon so she wanted to return to Washington for her anniversary run. She has run an average of five marathons a year.

“A lot of it is mental,” said Penfield, who has had no major injuries, of the grueling pace.

She was surrounded at the base of the Iwo Jima Memorial on Friday by 19 friends and family members who also will run the marathon. Penfield hopes to run the course in 4 hours, 30 minutes.

“It’s a good course,” she said. “I really like running past the Korean War Memorial. Once I get to the 13-mile marker I know I’m home.”

The oldest runner in the field will be Jonathan D. Mendes from New York City. The 83-year-old Harvard Business School graduate is a retired Marine Corps pilot and colonel who flew more than 200 missions in 16 years, several of them with baseball legend Ted Williams and former astronaut and Senator John Glenn.

“Glenn is an outstanding human being and a professional,” said Mendes, who traded in his smoking habit for running shoes at age 57 and has completed the New York City Marathon 10 times.

Mendes said: “The rest of us accepted [his greatness] because he had the right degree of humility.” He praised Williams for fulfilling his patriotic duty and fighting instead of bucking for an exemption, but said he found him “difficult.”

Mendes said Williams was treated like the rest of the pilots because one’s civilian glories have no importance when flying combat missions.

He has prepared for his last marathon today by running near his home in New York’s Central Park and hiking mountains in Tuscany, Italy.

“I’m calling this race my retirement party,” Mendes said.

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