Ever thought about running the Marine Corps Marathon?
It’s one of the most popular 26.2-mile marathons in the world that draws an estimated 30,000 people to the starting line in Arlington, Va.
But there’s something about the Marine Corps Marathon that makes it different from a lot of other 26.2-mile races...The Blue Mile (more about the Blue Mile in just a sec.)
When Pennsylvania runner Jen Zeigler stepped up to the starting line to run the Marine Corps Marathon a few years ago, she knew she’d reach the Blue Mile half-way through the race.
But something happened during that one-mile section of the Marine Corps Marathon that changed her forever…
Just a few years ago, running wasn’t even on Jen’s radar.
Not exactly the training plan to follow for health and fitness, let alone run an epic race like the Marine Corps Marathon.
“I started a Couch to 5K program with walking and running,” says Jen. “I was so out of shape, it felt like I was going to die. But I did it.”
“Hey Jen, I’m going to run the Hot Chocolate 15K,” her friend said. “You should run it with me.”
That sounded like a pretty lofty goal for the self-described desk jockey (now she’s a massage therapist), but Jen decided to give it a shot.
“I was pretty tired by the end of that race,” says Jen. “I didn’t train all that well for the race, but I finished. That felt pretty cool, and I decided to just keep going.”
Not long after that she started racking up half-marathon medals and finishes. But running a 26.2-mile race like the Marine Corps Marathon still seemed out of reach.
“I never thought I’d get past the half-marathon distance, “says Jen. “I really couldn’t wrap my head around the marathon distance. Why would someone even want to run that far?”
Run enough miles, finish enough races, and your mind starts wandering, thinking, asking questions….
After some stops and start, pushing through self doubt, and even overcoming some running-related injuries, Jen couldn’t resist the pull of the Marine Corps Marathon.
She stepped up to the starting line in 2018, laser focused on putting one foot in front of the other. And she finished.
When the reality of her accomplishment set in, Jen signed up to run the Marine Corps Marathon again.
But this time, something unexpected would happen.
Ask anyone who was there...the Marine Corps Marathon in 2019 was the monsoon year.
Jen took off from the starting line near Arlington National Cemetery and the Pentagon.
She navigated her way through the crowd of 30,000 runners, and settled into a comfortable pace
She tried to make her way around standing water and large puddles along the course.
She kept pushing forward even in the face of heavy wind and rain.
And then she reached the Blue Mile around the halfway point.
It’s a one-mile section along the Marine Corps Marathon dedicated to honor fallen military service members.
Gold Star families line the 1,064 steps of this section of the race to remember their loved ones, along with American flags and posters of fallen military service members.
“When I reached the Blue Mile, it was just pouring,” says Jen. “And that’s when it hit me. It was really emotional. I was glad it was raining, because I was ugly crying. I really felt the heartache of the families who have lost someone fighting for our freedoms.”
She pushed her way through the Blue Mile and kept going, checking off another 26.2-mile Marine Corps Marathon finish.
But something was different this time.
“The Blue Mile was so overwhelming,” says Jen. “I just couldn’t stop thinking about it, and all the people who have died serving our country. Even after the race, it was weighing heavy on my heart, and I knew I needed to do something about it.”
She joined a local Wear Blue Run to Remember group, and started running every Saturday to honor fallen military service members. Then she volunteered to be a Saturday Run Coordinator.
“We get together and hold a circle of remembrance,” says Jen. “We start every run reading off the names of service members who have died on the dates for the weekend since 2001."
"We say a prayer and run or walk about three miles. It’s a living memorial to make sure these people are never forgotten and recognize their service and sacrifice.”
Being part of Wear Blue Run to Remember started to help Jen feel like she was doing her part after such an impactful experience at the Marine Corps Marathon. But it wasn’t enough.
Every day, she visits The Fallen Military Times website and looks up the names of the fallen for that date.
Then she laces up her running shoes and heads out the door for her own “run to remember” the fallen.
“I won’t do anything less than a 5K run or walk to honor someone,” says Jen. “And I post their name and picture on Facebook. It’s one small way I can honor their sacrifice and let their families know they’re loved ones aren’t forgotten.”
When you stop and take a minute to learn a little about fallen military service members, you’ll be reminded that each person lived a life outside the military with family, friends, hobbies, and other pursuits.
Every fallen service member has a story to tell. And Jen soon learned too many die by suicide.
“I met one local mother who’s son, a veteran, died by suicide,” says Jen. “That weighed heavy on my heart again, and I felt like I needed to do something.”
Not long after that, she became an ambassador for Mission 22, an organization dedicated to helping veterans heal and prevent suicide.
“Sometimes veterans just need someone to talk to,” says Jen. “If they’re in distress, there’s a lot of different programs out there they can get in touch with. But sometimes that takes someone reaching out to let them know they matter.”
COVID-19 forced the Marine Corps Marathon to go virtual the last two years, and Jen was among the participants to go the distance.
“I will go every year as long as I can,” says Jen. “This is my race.”
But she isn’t running just to check off another marathon finish, collect a medal, and wear the T-shirt. She runs with a purpose.
“I find it helps to run for something bigger than me,” says Jen. “When it gets hard in the middle of a marathon, I think about all our fallen service members and those currently serving."
"And I’m reminded it isn’t so bad, and it will be over soon. But for them, they’re either still out defending our freedom or they’re gone. It gives me perspective.”
Why do you run?
I run to burn off the crazy. I run to stay in shape. And I love the camaraderie of the running community.
Injury-prevention advice for runners
Foam rolling, stretching, and strength training. It changes everything, but runners are the worst at doing this.
New sport you’ve tried recently
Rucking. Running with a 20-pound pack. Longest I’ve done is 20 miles.
Marine Corps Marathon
Favorite running shoe
Brooks Ghost 14
Last book I read
Can’t Hurt Me: Master Your Mind and Defy the Odds by David Goggins.
Favorite movieI’m not a TV or movie person, I’m just not. When I’m running with friends, and they’re all talking about some show or movie, I have no clue.
Favorite distance10 miles to the half marathon. It’s the perfect distance to get warmed up and enjoy a long run, without getting to the hard part later in a marathon.
Favorite running fuel
UCAN. It’s unbelievable. I have absolutely no stomach issues and plenty of energy.
Just get out there. You don’t have to run a marathon. Just go. People in the running community will embrace you, support you, and help you keep going.
Do you run to remember fallen military service members? Tell us about it in the comments.