By Richard Rhinehart
Arlington, Virginia, November 2, 2016 – Washington D.C.’s 41st annual Marine Corps Marathon October 30 attracted 30,000 competitors from 55 nations, including eight adaptive and able-bodied athletes from national non-profit World T.E.A.M. Sports.
Led by World T.E.A.M. Sports’ CEO and President Van Brinson, the organization’s team included both military veterans and civilians. “Take a few moments on the course and really enjoy the experience,” instructed Brinson to his colleagues prior to the early Sunday start in Arlington. “Think about the events that have aligned to put you on the course. Then take a moment and think about those that can’t be here with us. Make this event for them.”
Jeanna Buck from Washington D.C. competed as a member of the World T.E.A.M. Sports team. A past participant of the organization’s inclusive Face of America bicycle ride to Gettysburg and a staff member of the 2012 Sea to Shining Sea cross-country ride, the 25-year-old Buck was competing in her second Marine Corps Marathon.
Enthusiastic about the event, Buck noted she enjoyed it more than her first. “The energy was great, the runners were great, the spectators were encouraging,” said Buck. “It’s definitely my favorite race. Despite the heat, I was able to beat my record from the previous year, running a 4:29.”
Competing in her first Marine Corps Marathon, Jean Altomari of Brookhaven, Pennsylvania placed first in the handcrank division for women aged 35 to 39 and second in overall female standings for handcrank competitors, only 33 seconds behind the overall female finisher. Altomari competed in World T.E.A.M. Sports’ 2015 Adventure Team Challenge North Carolina in Charlotte.
Marina Libro from Lenexa, Virginia, a participant of World T.E.A.M. Sports’ Face of America and the organization’s 2014 CanAm Veterans’ Challenge, finished first in the handcrank division for females aged 55 to 59. At just over two minutes behind Altomari, Libro was third overall for women in the handcrank division.
Other participating World T.E.A.M. Sports team members included Dijon Schroff and Sherry Hill of Bloomington, Illinois; Terry Plickebaum of Hudson, Illinois; Evan Odim, of Scotch Plains, New Jersey; and Van and Allyson Brinson of Creedmoor, North Carolina.
Altomari was impressed with the level of support at the Marathon for competing adaptive athletes. “During the race, there were other hand cyclists who had gear issues, flat tires and I watched as spectators, volunteers and even people out for their own run stop and assist. I was on a hand cycle I had never ridden before that morning and twice on hills, my chain got stuck. Almost before I even looked up from the course in front of me each time, there were people coming my way to help or hold me still while I dealt with the issue.”
At the starting line for the Marathon, Altomari found her competition to be inspiring. “I looked across a sea of hand cycles to see behind them, a sea of racing wheelchairs with their racers already settled inside them and their designated runners behind them prepared to push them the entire way. As far back as I could see, it was an ocean of adaptations arrived at by people determined to participate in life.”
From her hand cycle, Altomari experienced many inspiring moments along her 26.2 mile ride. One encounter stood out more than the others.
“As I got towards the end of the course, and went through Crystal City Marriott area, I came up behind a man walking on the course. He had a person on his left and one on his right pushing an empty wheelchair. The man I am describing also had on an exoskeleton that I immediately recognized, ReWalk. I participated with ReWalk during its trial and testing phases and went before Congress and the ADA and AMA to get it approved for rehabilitative use. I remember how happy I was when it was approved and then to find out the first places it was going to be used were VA medical centers. I have spoken to people who have been able to use it in the years since and have always enjoyed hearing how it benefited them. But watching this man take on part of this race in front of me, knowing the work and effort that goes in to becoming efficient at it … all I could think to do was cheer and all that came out was ‘keep walking!’”
A total of 19,724 participants finished the Marine Corps Marathon, including all members of the World T.E.A.M. Sports team. The Semper Fi Fund provided assistance to World T.E.A.M. Sports at this year’s Marathon, including registration and event services.
Experiencing the 2016 Marine Corps Marathon
By Jean Altomari
This was my first Marine Corps Marathon. I had heard from injured veterans that I have met over the years that it is a very moving and emotional experience beyond just being a race. I had a desire to participate in the race, but had just never made it come to fruition. I was so excited when World T.E.A.M. Sports contacted me about entering the race.
After registering, I talked to more and more people that had either run or ridden in the Marine Corps Marathon before. Each person had different specific details to convey but all had one similar sentiment, it felt like more than a marathon when you are there.
I knew I wanted to enjoy it and take in everything I could when I went. That began on race morning with bringing my wheelchair to the start line with me as well as my hand cycle. I rode my hand cycle down and my mother pushed my chair all the way from the car to the start line. I got myself and my hand cycle into a slot at the start and then got back into my wheelchair with an hour to take it all in.
Just getting from the car to the start was fantastic. I have participated in many events and races as an adaptive athlete. I have experienced being the only one numerous times and having to make all sorts of last minute adaptations the day of to make my participation happen. I have participated in events where I have been advised that all the arrangements were taken care of to make it accessible or at least there were people aware that some accommodations or assistance might be needed the day of only to show up and basically have it be a hot mess with random individuals stepping in to help me out. Usually my saviors are other entrants who are just nearby and step in. And I have had experiences like with World T.E.A.M. Sports where almost everything was thought of ahead of time and if it wasn’t, there was plenty of help there to deal with anything that came up.
Marine Corps Marathon was another fantastic experience just like I had with World T.E.A.M. Sports. I was notified in advance via email that there would be parking closer to the start line that did not require boarding a shuttle or transporting my hand cycle. I was allowed to bring someone to assist me even with that parking being on the secured military base provided I gave all names ahead of time and we brought proper identification. The pathway from parking my car down the hill to the start was a massive hill and yet still so easy to maneuver. As racers reached the security check in, all of the adaptive athletes were directed to stay to the right and kept separate, which not only got us in quickly, there no stress over anyone stepping back or sideways and landing on me on my hand cycle only a few inches off the ground.
After the security check point, there was a hoard of Marines in uniform directing the adaptive athletes. Once again we were guided, this time to the left, into a completed sectioned off path to the road and straight into the start line. There were volunteers from numerous groups that I could also see had members racing at the start line. As well as lots more Marines in uniform there to help lift and turn athletes already in their hand cycles and line them up, packed in like sardines, to await the start of the race.
I have never had such an easy time getting set up at a start line. Not even for the Broad Street Run in Philadelphia!
I felt a little guilty asking my mother to bring my wheelchair to the start line. Especially when I got there, pretty much all the other hand cyclists did not have theirs. But then I got to get out of my hand cycle and meander back and forth around the start area and take it all in. I found myself holding my breath more than once as I caught parts of conversations; watched injured veterans see familiar faces come to the start line; observed family members and friends help, hug, encourage and simply love the person in their life that was setting up at the start line.
I looked across a sea of hand cycles to see behind them, a sea of racing wheelchairs with their racers already settled inside them and their designated runners behind them, prepared to push them the entire way. As far back as I could see, it was an ocean of adaptations arrived at by people determined to participate in life.
Some of this being assumption of course as to what applied to each person in a hand cycle at the start line there were paraplegics, quadriplegics, AE’s (above-the-elbow amputees), AK’s (above-the-knee amputees), BE’s (below-the-elbow amputees), BK’s (below-the-knee amputees). Individuals with single amputations, bilateral amputations, trilateral amputations, and some with paralysis and limb loss.
And the energy coming from the group was amazing. With all the different stories behind why each person was there that day in a hand cycle, a racing wheelchair (running behind one) or in a recumbent bicycle, the only things I could hear and feel was a calm excitement about the race.
I rolled around the starting area for about thirty minutes talking to people, taking photos and videos, just watching what was unfolding. Then everything went still and quiet and the National Anthem began. I still had my phone out recording it. I left it on even as the race began to make a record of what it was like to be right in the middle of the start. With no sense of urgency or competition, I was on my way.
I took more photos during that race than I have taken since the beginning of 2016. And I think more video, and I have a 4-1/2 year old nephew that I get into all sorts of fun and interesting things with. I stopped at the bands on the route and rocked along to the music they played. I took photos of the amazing views along the waterways, in front of the Washington Monument, the Capitol Building. I passed the World War II Memorial, the Reflecting Pool and rode straight at the brand new The National Museum of African American History and Culture among other noted buildings and locations. Mile 4 was a fast, curvy, scenic, empty stretch of roadway where I got to just let the hand cycle do its thing and fly down the roadway and enjoy the moment.
I slowed down from mile 10 through 11. It was where every racer passed through the corridor of people lining both sides of the roadway for the Wear Blue: Run to Remember Mile. It was a mile that began with blue signs on both sides of the road every few feet with the photograph and name of a fallen military member. Once you pass all the signs both sides of the roadway are lined with volunteers, who are often the friends and family members of those fallen military members’ pictures that you just passed. They are there holding an American flag with a ribbon attached with the name of the fallen service member embroidered on it.
Just seeing a roadway lined with flags is moving. But I was already aware of the Run To Remember – I participated in an event associated with the organization once before. I did not know they would be out on the course. Riding through there I found myself either holding my breath or finding it hard to breath. Knowing the likelihood of why each of those people that was there holding a flag, and all the adults and children alongside them were there, it could stop you in your tracks. And, at the same time, fill you with endless gratitude and pride.
Every water station I passed, the volunteers and uniformed Marines there would kneel down, all of them, on both sides of the road, with their hands out stretched with water or Gatorade or whatever else they were offering that I might decide to try to retrieve as I rolled by. Such a simple thing as getting on my level was awesome. I have never taken a drink or item from an aid station in any event before. I took something from almost every station I went past.
During the race there were other hand cyclists who had gear issues, flat tires and I watched as spectators, volunteers and even people out for their own run stop and assist. I was on a hand cycle I had never ridden before that morning and twice on hills, my chain got stuck. Almost before I even looked up from the course in front of me each time, there were people coming my way to help or hold me still while I dealt with the issue.
Cheers from all the spectators the entire way. Endless signs created for encouragement for specific individuals or nameless for the masses. Musicians, bands, Marines, law enforcement, every soul I rode past had a smile, cheer, thumbs up, word or sign of support … for every rider that went by.
As I got towards the end of the course and went through Crystal City Marriott area, I came up behind a man walking on the course. He had a person on his left and one on his right pushing an empty wheelchair. The man I am describing also had on an exoskeleton that I immediately recognized, ReWalk. I participated with ReWalk during its trial and testing phases and went before Congress and the ADA and AMA to get it approved for rehabilitative use. I remember how happy I was when it was approved and then to find out the first places it was going to be used were VA medical centers. I have spoken to people who have been able to use it in the years since and have always enjoyed hearing how it benefited them. But watching this man take on part of this race in front of me, knowing the work and effort that goes in to becoming efficient at it … all I could think to do was cheer and all that came out was “keep walking!”
Before I knew it, I saw the sign for mile 24! I was almost done. I had passed a number of other hand cyclists during the race and always to a welcome face and some fun comment or exchange of words. As I came into the last two miles of the race someone yelled, “hurry up catch them” from the roadside. I could see two other hand cyclists in front of me a few yards. With no desire to pick up the pace and take the focus away from the enjoyment I was having of just being there, I found myself appreciating the rhythm of their arms as they worked their way towards the finish.
I crossed under the giant inflatable finish line I could feel my cheeks almost pushed back to my ears from smiling. I wanted to find a spot just over the line to watch as others completed the same course when suddenly I was stopped by a Marine and told to make a 90 degree turn, towards a fence! Not being one to even consider questioning as Marine, I stopped, leaned back and put my hands behind my head as he lifted my front wheel off the ground, waist high, and dragged me up the hillside.
To my shock and surprise, I was being told I had placed second for my division and the news wanted a quick sound bite. If I was not there with World T.E.A.M. Sports, I would have refused, the focus is not where I enjoy being. As I waited, I called Van, twice, because he did throw me into voicemail the first time. I forgot he was running the 10K, and he actually answered the second time, oops! As I sat there, I got to watch the winners for the runners of the Marathon and 10K come through. And see many amputees completing both runs as well.
This was such an amazing experience; I am so grateful. And I will be back next year, and likely many more years after that. And as I have the thoughts in my head of returning for another Marine Corps Marathon, and anything else I think of trying, I know it is because of the support I get from all the people in my life – my family, friends, co-workers, different organizations for adaptive activities, and acquaintances and strangers that send their positive thoughts, words and efforts my way. Feeling like I can never appropriately thank every person directly, I want to single out my mother, Kathy Cardinuto.
My mom came along for me on yet another adventure, at the very last minute. A friend that was supposed to attend with me was unfortunately unable to at the last moment, so the day before the Marathon, I asked my mother if she wanted to come along. As always, she said yes. The countless things I have been able to try and succeed at are a direct result of the love and support I get from my family and friends and above all others, my mother. For my entire life, before and after my injury, she has been a constant center for support and a pillar of strength for me. Reliable is an understated way to describe her. As always, she stood by me for the task I had set out on, not even knowing all the details. Even when what I am attempting leaves her stressed out and worried, she supports me and will actually show up and participate. This weekend was no big departure from other adventures we have had together since my injury. The hotel was a mess between construction, accessibility issues, no parking and my hand cycle not fitting inside the room. We adapted to all of it because we always work until things work. And it was by no means a short walk from the car to the start on race morning, down a very large hill, in the dark, and my mother patiently made her way pushing my chair, chatting to people and smiling, right beside me.
To everyone in my life that has ever given a kind thought, word, and effort – thank you. I am so very grateful for it all.