Update: Richmond retired from running the Marine Corps Marathon before the 43rd race, set for Oct. 28, 2018.
Elisa Zwanenburg is in awe of her father, as he nears 80 years old.
“He’s very determined,” she said. “He’s very competitive. It may be the Marine in him.”
Determined is one way to describe it. For over 40 years, Alfred “Al” Richmond has laced up his running shoes and competed in every Marine Corps Marathon in Northern Virginia. He is now the last “Groundpounder” to have completed every race.
“Honestly, I just didn’t want to be the next one that dropped out,” he joked. “It kind of ended up being a rite of fall.”
Richmond doesn’t gloat, nor does he relish in this distinction. It doesn’t seem ingrained in his identity, it’s just fact: He’s the last of the elite group.
“There were six of us that were given the label of Groundpounder, and one by one they dropped out,” he said. “We used to tease that we would lock arms and walk across the finish line together. Of course, that didn’t happen.”
Some Groundpounders have died, others have had scheduling conflicts and some just couldn’t finish, including North Carolinian Will Brown, whose streak ended in 2016.
“The Marine Corps have a favorite expression that, ‘There’s always 10 percent that never get the word.’ That could be us,” Richmond said. “We never got the word that we don’t have to suffer this pain or this discomfort and do this year after year.”
The starting gun on that first race went off on Nov. 7, 1976, with just under 1,000 racers. And now it’s one of the biggest races in the world.
At the 41st race last October, Richmond ran with his daughter in a time of 6:39:47. The temperature was a little too hot for his tastes. His great-nephew, a Los Angeles firefighter, also ran the race and joined Richmond for a while.
“It was just not my kind of day,” Richmond said. “Elisa was a big encouragement.”
“I love running with him,” Zwanenburg said. She has run with her father for four years, and before then used to watch him race. “When I was a kid, I remember going down to the course and passing out oranges to him.”
Richmond, 78, has 51 marathons under his belt and countless 5ks and 10ks. At his peak in the 1980s, Richmond was running high-mileage weeks and completed several Boston Marathons. His fastest MCM was 3:16:21, set in 1979. But, he wasn’t always a runner–in fact, he never had a desire to run a marathon.
After graduating from Lehigh University in Pennsylvania, Richmond, a Northern Virginia native, joined the Marine Corps and later landed an office job. After 10 years working for a large corporation, Richmond reenlisted as active duty in the United States Marine Corps in 1976.
At this time, his colleagues were planning the very first Marine Corps Reserve Marathon — it became Marine Corps Marathon two years later.
Richmond’s athletic skill lied in football and sprints. He ran no more than three miles, but he saw how energized a colleague was after a 10-mile run. Richmond wanted some of that, so he balanced training with work. He finished his first marathon in just over four hours.
As part of race preparations, Richmond was in charge of athlete tracking and finishing times. Instead of fancy timing chips that attached to bibs or shoes, Richmond used numbered tongue depressors.
“As the person came across the line, the first person was handed No. 1. The 300th person was handed number 300,” Richmond explained . “When they took this through the line, someone wrote their bib number on the tongue depressor. I then took all those tongue depressors and lined them up and compare the runner’s number to the master list.”
It took Richmond nearly three weeks to compile the final results of the marathon.
It was the 15th MCM that tested Richmond’s determination. Months before the fall race, Richmond was mugged at gunpoint and shot three times while vacationing in New Orleans. Recovery was hard and training fell by the wayside. As the race approached, he wasn’t sure he was going to compete.
“There was an article in the newspaper, and this guy was bragging that he was the only Marine Reserve Officer who had run every marathon,” Richmond said.
The race was a week away. And as he sat at the breakfast table reading the newspaper, his wife interjected, reminding him that he, too, had run every marathon and needed to compete.
“Of course, my reaction was, ‘Where the heck have you been the last three months?'” he said.
With his longest training run at six miles, Richmond laced up and ran the race. It felt good to run again, he said, a kind of homecoming. And he’s kept the streak alive ever since. “I’ll do it as long as I can,” he said.
There is one runner, much younger than Richmond who has run every marathon except one, he said. “When I stop running, the Groundpounder label will be over.”
As any marathoner can attest to, training takes a lot of time. This past cycle, Richmond didn’t hit the roads as much as he wanted and worked his way too fast into his long runs.
As he plans to lace up for MCM 42, Richmond wants to train smarter. His goal is to commit to at least four runs per week, with at least two 20-mile runs, and several runs over 15 miles. That’s a tall order to fill with commitments as a grandfather and husband, but Richmond wants to be more disciplined in 2017.
“And I’m not necessarily a morning runner. It’s tough to get myself motivated and go out and do it,” he said. He used to run in the afternoon, but now it’s just too difficult. “I would love to break six hours, and I can do that.”
But, he stays very active throughout the rest of year by cycling doing shorter runs. And, in his entire football and running careers, he’s never had an injury. That speaks to his longevity.
Richmond just isn’t sure when he’s going to stop. Zwanenburg mentioned that the number 47, however, is special to him–it was his jersey number in football. Racing up to the 47th MCM would put Richmond at 83 years old.
“I don’t know if I can go up to 47,” Zwanenburg joked. “I’m getting too old. He laughed at how old he is, yet he’s still out there running them.”