Washington, DC
Roman Gurule. Photo: Niamh Brennan

As a gregarious extrovert, Roman Gurule met a number of his friends through happy hours and dinners during his time as a federal government employee. He joined his colleagues whenever they drank alcohol and Gurule went out about five times a week to relieve stress from work. It felt like a normal thing to do, even if he would wake up the next morning with a pounding headache and a scant memory of what happened the previous night.

He repeatedly told his friends he would cut back on his self-proclaimed “rockstar lifestyle” that he started after college, but then it would happen again the following weekend. And the next. “I think that nobody took me seriously,” Gurule says. 

Finally, he had enough. Drinking all week began to negatively affect all aspects of his life. 

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Natalie Bardach, her iron levels back to normal, raced well at the Third Battle Invitational in 2018. Photo: Charlie Ban

It was seven months.

Seven months of torturous unknowing. Seven months of never-ending fatigue and sluggishness for George C. Marshall High School alumna Natalie Bardach. Seven months of doubt and disappointment. Seven months of just surviving a sport she had once thrived in, helping to win team conference, regional and even state titles.

For a high school athlete with only four years — twelve total seasons — of running available to them, seven months is 20 percent of their career. It feels like an eternity.

“I [didn’t] even know what to do anymore,” Bardach said. “I [was] training so hard and working so hard and I [was] not feeling any better. I was telling myself that it was my fault.”

For Robinson Secondary School alumna Seneca Willen, it was three months. A three month long agonizing descent from a freshman phenom who was running at the front of the pack to a slumping sophomore languishing in the back. Three months of “it’s all in your head” and wondering if freshman year was her peak.

“It was very sad,” Willen said. “I thought it was all mental and just thought, ‘I’m never going to get any better.'”

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Bethany Sachtleben tightens her watch band before the 2019 Credit Union Cherry Blossom Ten Mile. Photo: Dustin Whitlow/DWhit Photography

Spot her two letters and Fairfax’s Bethany Sachtleben can rearrange her name to spell “schedule.”

Her daily routine dictates how she fits in her 100+ mile weeks around her full-time work and coaching, but even farther removed from that, she was trying to figure out where all those miles were going. Yes, the 2020 Olympic Marathon Trials Feb. 29, but more immediately, she was supposed to race a marathon on July 27. For Team USA.

But less than a week before she was due in Lima, Peru, she wasn’t so sure. Told in early June that she was on the Pan American Games team, she was now apparently off. She found out on Friday; Her flight was the next Wednesday.

“I heard, ‘we’re offering your spot to everyone on the 2019 (performance) list,'” Sachtleben said. Her last marathon was a month before 2019 started. Everyone else would have to decline, including runners whose times were slower. “Then I started getting calls from friends saying they had been offered my spot and they turned it down. I felt awkward and uncomfortable for everybody because it’s a huge opportunity, but nobody is going to decide to jump into a marathon the week before.”

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Caroline Alcorta navigates the pack during the 10k at the 2019 NCAA Track and Field Championships. Photo: Mike Scott

Caroline Alcorta had an even bigger lead than anyone expected. She came into the 2013 Virginia AAA track championships with a 3200 season’s best more than 10 seconds faster than anyone else. And with a half mile to go, she had what West Springfield coach Chris Pellegrini estimated was a 20-second lead.

“I heard people around me saying she had it in the bag, but with that weather, I just wasn’t sure,” he said, more than six years later. 

That Newport News morning was humid, and he wasn’t sure how well any runner could get much into their system that early in the day. Having run a leg of the 4×800 relay the night before, his plan for Alcorta was an assertive but measured start to give her enough of a cushion to not have to kick for the win.

She came through the mile a little fast, but the plan seemed to be working. And then it didn’t. 

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Runners pass through Georgetown during the 2018 Marine Corps Marathon. Photo: Dustin Whitlow

Marathoning remains popular among D.C. area runners, but the number of domestic marathon finishes dropped 7.5 percent in 2018, down to 12,981 from 14,044 in 2017.

At the same time, the number of those marathons dropped to 686 in 2018 from 704 in 2017. As you would expect, the Marine Corps Marathon topped the list with 5,053 local finishers. On the other end, 400 races had no local runners, while 67 had just one. There were likely more, but 147 races did not report the residences of their finishers, many of which were smaller races far from the D.C. area.

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Willy Fink closes in on the first sub-four-minute mile run in Washington, D.C. at the 2019 DC Road Runners Track Championship at Dunbar High School. He ran 3:58.84. Photo by Dustin Whitlow/DWhit Photography

Willy Fink came into Saturday’s D.C. Road Runners Track Championship wanting to accomplish something great. He accomplished something monumental.

Competing in a heat with nine runners who had previously broken the four minute mile barrier, Fink led from wire to wire at D.C.’s Dunbar High School and ran the first sub-four minute track mile recorded on D.C. soil (3:58.84). The race had its share of drama, however. Instead of the quick pace many spectators and athletes anticipated, the field started off conservatively and kept the audience in suspense as to whether the four-minute barrier would actually be broken.

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District Track Club runner David Timlin (left) charges to the finish of the 800 meters at the Mason Spring Invitational. Photo: Courtesy of the District Track Club

Even as the number of male American milers to hit that mark approaches 550, a sub-four-minute mile is still a middle distance runner’s milestone, bolstered by the stark difference between 3:59.99 and 4:00.00. For the 65 years men have been running sub-four miles, nobody has done it in Washington, D.C.

With a loaded field, that may change July 13 at the D.C. Road Runners Track Championship, when the race’s momentum, a national developmental effort and new track league converge at Dunbar High School. Eight men entered in the mile have broken 4:00, with Trevor Dunbar’s 3:55.54 PR leading the way. A field of more than a dozen women will race the 1,500 meters, several chasing the world championships qualifying standard of 4:06.50. Elinor Purrier (4:02.34) and Shannon Osika (4:06.17) have met the standard, with four more runners within two seconds. Abbey D’Agostino Cooper, a 2016 Olympian at 5,000 meters, is a late entry. Georgetown alumna Katrina Coogan and Lake Braddock alumna Katy Kunc will race in the elite field.

Brian Danza has been directing the meet and recruiting runners for years and watched the men’s mile times steadily drop over the last seven years down to 4:03 – in a deluge – from 4:16 in 2012. He feels like the meet has something to prove.

“New York and Oregon have a few big meets each year and D.C. doesn’t,” he said.

He saw no reason why the DCRR Track Championships could not be that meet for D.C.

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Mike Wardian runs through Prince George’s County, Md. June 29 while circumnavigating the Capital Beltway. Photo: Phil Hargis

Try as he might, Mike Wardian wouldn’t get to run on the Capital Beltway.

“There’s no way in Hell anyone was going to be able to do that,” said friend Phil Hargis.

So, like a lot of drivers, he took a detour. 

Almost 18 hours later, Arlington’s Wardian circumnavigated the D.C. area’s iconic roadway on foot, covering just short of 90 miles on a sweltering day. The Fastest Known Time organization ratified his June 29 run, which started in McLean, Va. and ended across the Potomac River, east of Carderock, Md. His GPS tracker counted 89.99 miles, taking 17 hours, 54 minutes and 58 seconds; he was moving for 15 hours of that time.

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Runners start the 3,000 meters at the Sept. 21, 2016 Tidal Basin Run. Photo by Karsten Brown

It may be older than the Marine Corps Marathon, but the Tidal Basin Runs might be the best kept secret in Washington’s running community — and its tight-knit group of members seems to like it that way.

Every month since April 1974, the club has met for what can only be described as the most covert race you’ve probably never seen or heard of. Yet the meticulously kept race results date back over 15 years and some runners have been participating for over 30.

There’s no entry fee (other than the club’s $10 annual membership fee), no bibs, no timing chips or race clock, no awards, and no commemorative t-shirts. In fact, there’s barely a start line — just a faint white line drawn across Ohio Drive SW that’s been slowly erased over the years by the elements and countless runners, cyclists, and vehicles that have made their way around the tip of Hains Point.

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The team arrives at the Roanoke River Lighthouse in Edenton, N.C.

Tim Schleining agreed to take part in the White House to LightHouse Relay before he knew anything about it.  

His friend Jennifer Miller just asked him if he was free, and after checking his calendar for the dates she’d asked about, he said yes.

A day or two later, Schleining learned more. And his reaction?

“Initially shock at the audacity of it, but I was really intrigued and excited to participate,” he said.

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