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It’s unclear what the runners are doing at first. Instead of watching the road ahead with unyielding focus, Jeffrey Stein and Samson Mutua are looking at each other and laughing. “Are they talking to each other?” someone on the media truck asks, slightly bemused.
They are both more than halfway into the 43rd Marine Corps Marathon, and the pair of elite runners appear as if they are on a leisurely weekend run, rather than competing in one of the largest 26.2-mile road races in the country.
“It’s great,” Stein later says. “It’s like you got a racing buddy. It’s a lot easier to do stuff when you got a partner than when you’re by yourself.”
At this moment, Stein is doing anything to distract himself. He signed up for the race less than two weeks ago, thinking about redemption.
Twelve months earlier, at the 2017 Marine Corps Marathon, Stein took a wrong turn at the start. He spent the remainder of race trying frantically to catch up to the leader. Stein finished eighth, and says he suffered a heat stroke and stayed the night in a hospital.
“I felt I needed to reclaim my dignity,” he says. “I kind of had a chip on my shoulder after that.”
This time, as he crosses the finish line mid morning near the Iwo Jima Memorial in Arlington, Stein looks at ease. He has just claimed his first marathon victory in 2 hours, 22 minutes, and 49 seconds, and done so on the same streets he uses to train.
“This is like my home. This is my local marathon,” Stein tells reporters. “I couldn’t ask for anything better.”
Stein is 32 and a D.C. resident. For the past two months he has been working nearly 18-hour days as one of the public defenders in a notorious local trial, a quadruple-murder case dubbed the “Mansion Murders.” His client, Daron Wint, was recently found guilty of multiple counts of murder in the brutal 2015 slayings.
He explains how the all-consuming work left little time for running. He says he built up fitness by purchasing a run-commute backpack and running between 90 to 100 miles a week, 20 miles fewer than he would during a normal marathon training cycle, to and from his office. These runs helped Stein relieve stress from the long and emotionally draining work hours.
“Going for a run—whether it’s a 20-plus-mile long run on the weekend or a quick five-miler in between court and sitting down to work at your desk that night—is a reset button,” he tells City Paper. “It helps defuse whatever has been consuming you that day, piece through whatever puzzles or challenges are facing you, and it refreshes you so that when you sit back down, you can attack your next task with an acuity and vigor that you—or at least I—wouldn’t otherwise have at the end of a long day.”
Stein entered Sunday’s race with the strategy of “just stay on the shoulder of whoever was in front.”
Two and a half miles into the race, Stein discovered that person to be Mutua, a 33-year-old specialist in the U.S. Army who would finish in fourth place (2:24:51) after fading with a few miles left.
Stein and Mutua ran through the “wear blue mile,” which commemorates fallen service members, in silence. This section comes at around mile 12, in Hains Point. Once through, they began to chat: about their previous races, the lively crowd, the perfect running weather, and how Stein isn’t a fan of the gel that was given out on the course. At one point, according to RunWashington‘s Charlie Ban, Stein gave Mutua a fist bump after the pair accidentally missed a water stop and started laughing.
“It distracts you. When you talk to someone, you feel like you’re in control,” says Mutua. “It’s about the connection. Especially running, that’s what makes it fun. Each one of us has a goal. It doesn’t matter: I’m running for my club, someone else is running for their club, it’s just about doing my best.”
Stein and Mutua were alone in the front until Navy lieutenant Patrick Hearn surged past around mile 18 near the Capitol. Hearn, a 2012 graduate of the University of Maryland at College Park, ultimately finished second in the men’s division with a time of 2:23:26. Navy Lt. Cmdr. Will Christian of Chesapeake, Virginia also made a late charge to finish in third (2:24:23).
While Stein, who runs for Potomac River Running’s D.C. Elite team, needed a final surge at the 24th mile to separate himself from Hearn, the women’s winner, Jenny Mendez Suanca of Costa Rica, had no such challenger.
At exactly 7:55 in the morning, a cannon blast went off to signal the start of the race. Suanca pushed to the front of the pack of elite women, and didn’t look back.
On her left forearm she had the splits she needed to hit written in black ink. The race was between her and the clock, and no one else. Army Maj. Kelly Calway, the 2013 winner, dropped out at around mile 10, opening up the field. Defending champion Sarah Bishop, a former Fairfax resident now living in Dayton, Ohio, also let Suanca go and wound up in fourth (2:49:49).
Suanca, 38, finished in 2:40:19, her fastest time in the marathon. She also won the event, which she first heard about on Facebook, in 2015.
“I love the route. I love the people,” Suanca says through her translator, 2nd Lt. Camila Barney. “The people just fire me up. They’re all along the course, just the spirit, the excitement, the push, that’s what really separates this course from others.”
Minutes after Suanca claimed her second Marine Corps Marathon title, first-time marathoner Lindsay Gabow of San Antonio, a second lieutenant in the Army, crossed the finish line in 2:46:34 to become the second female finisher, followed by Lindsay Carrick of Fredericksburg, Virginia in 2:48:43.
At the awards ceremony after the race, the three women sat together, and Gabow and Carrick congratulated Suanca on her victory. It was the first time since the start that they’d seen her.