Credit: Courtesy MCINCR-MCB Quantico CommStrat Office

An emotional silence greeted Army Maj. Kelly Calway at the 12th mile of the 2013 Marine Corps Marathon. Spectators lined the grass to her left and near the Potomac River on her right. No one made a sound. A few miles earlier, she had separated herself from the pack of elite female runners. Calway was suddenly alone in her thoughts and very aware of where she was, and where she was going.

Running through the “wear blue mile” that commemorates fallen service members at the Marine Corps Marathon can elicit different emotions from runners. Some may be taken aback to see the vast collection of black-and-white photos of fallen U.S. soldiers, while others may find inspiration from the somber, mile-long memorial. But for Calway, it reminded her of the significance of the first two words of the race. The week prior, she ran the Army Ten-Miler on the same streets of D.C., and three days after completing the marathon, she deployed to Kuwait.

“That mile, I’m telling you, if that mile was maybe at mile 20, I would’ve lost it,” says Calway, who would go on to be the first woman to cross the finish of the 26.2-mile race that year, in 2 hours, 42 minutes, and 15 seconds. “I probably would’ve been bawling.”

For a few weekends in late summer through the fall, the District welcomes tens of thousands of runners to its streets. Other major cities in the United States do the same. Chicago hosts a fall marathon, and so does New York City. Both of those races are sponsored by large companies—Bank of America and Tata Consultancy Services, respectively. In D.C., a major industry organizing races is the military. In September and October alone, race organizers put on the Navy-Air Force Half Marathon, the Navy Mile, the Army Ten-Miler, and the Marine Corps Marathon, which typically has a field of approximately 30,000 runners. The Navy-Air Force Half Marathon is hosted by the Morale, Welfare, and Recreation department at Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling. Smaller area road and trail races throughout the fall also benefit the military. 

That supporting the military goes over well in D.C. is hardly surprising. As of June 2018, there were 9,771 active duty military members stationed in D.C., 124,510 in Virginia, and 30,055 in Maryland, according to figures from the Department of Defense. Thousands of veterans and civilian Department of Defense employees also make their home in the region.

“I think there’s a lot of people that are like us, that are probably military members of organizations trying to do something worthwhile,” says Charlie Hautau, the chairman for the Navy Mile committee and a retired Navy captain. “You have an influx of decision makers, influencers on Capitol Hill and the Pentagon. This is the center of gravity for those type of events.”

Calway, 34, moved back to the area this past July—she graduated from West Potomac High School in 2002—and trains with the elite post-collegiate Georgetown Running Club. Almost every year since 2009, she has made it a priority to run the Army Ten-Miler, which routinely draws more than 20,000 participants. One year, Calway says, she even tried to plan her pregnancy around the Ten-Miler but was ultimately talked out of it. This month, she will run both the 34th annual Army Ten-Miler and the 43rd edition of the Marine Corps Marathon.

“It will never get old to run around D.C. and see the monuments,” she says, “and be reminded that I’m out there, I get to run with ‘ARMY’ on my chest, and I get to run for all the people who can’t be out there, the ones who are deployed or who have made the ultimate sacrifices. I take in those inspirational sights and really run for people more than myself.”

The Army Ten-Miler, which is produced by the U.S. Army, Military District of Washington, also serves as a reunion for Army service members. The Association of the United States Army’s annual meeting begins a day after the race, on Oct. 8, and runs through Oct. 10. A 2007 Army Ten-Miler survey and focus group study found that 57 percent of the race participants were affiliated with the military, government, or Department of Defense.

“I’d say a lot of people in the Army use the race as a family reunion,” says Army Ten-Miler chief of business operations Maida Johnson. “All or most have been stationed here at one point and there are so many [Army] installations in the District, Maryland, and Virginia.”

When the Marine Corps Marathon made its debut in 1976, the country was still reeling from the deeply unpopular Vietnam War. U.S. soldiers were called “baby killers” and the U.S. military struggled with morale. 

The marathon, seeking to capitalize off the running boom of the 1970s, served as a way to present the Marine Corps in a more positive light, says race director Rick Nealis, a retired Marine Corps Major.

“One of the mission’s criteria was to change the mindset of the America people coming out of the Vietnam War,” he says. “We went from a draft to going to an all-volunteer force, that was another thing. That drove the Marine Corps Marathon, having a good public relations vehicle.” 

Nealis also mentions that the race, which is organized by the Marine Corps and is one of the largest marathons that does not offer prize money, helps the service “showcase the Marines and our military skills,” spreads community good will, and promotes a healthy lifestyle. 

Both he and George Banker, the chief of race operations at Army Ten-Miler, cite the military as having the infrastructure and organizational skills to pull off large road races. 

“When a runner comes to a military event, they expect certain things,” says Banker, who served 20 years as a tech sergeant in the U.S. Air Force. “They expect a quality race, they expect everything to be done right. You can go to a civilian race, and they run out of water, and runners don’t think much of it. If we run out of water, everyone from the White House down knows about it.”

Dixon Hemphill has run the Marine Corps Marathon and the Army Ten-Miler several times in the past, and on a recent Sunday morning in downtown D.C., he participated in the age 70-and-over heat at the Navy Mile. The mile road race on Pennsylvania Avenue NW is presented by the United Services Automobile Association and benefits the Naval Sea Cadet Corps, the Safe Harbor Foundation, and the United States Navy Memorial. Hemphill has participated since it started in 2015. The race holds a special place in the heart of the Fairfax Station resident.

On the back of both of his minivans are white stickers with plain, black text that reads, “World II,” on one line and, “I served,” right below. Hemphill, 93, served as a lieutenant commander in the Navy and was on active duty from 1943 to 1946.

Close to the finish line right near the U.S. Navy Memorial, Hemphill received some of the loudest cheers. A volunteer handed him a race medal. Hemphill wore it proudly as he walked along the course to greet his 92-year-old wife, June, their friends, and other family members. Shortly after, he learned of another honor.

Next year, the Navy Mile will dedicate the 70-plus division to Hemphill.

“It’s a real honor,” he says with a bit of disbelief in his voice. “It’s a real honor.”