The history of the Woodrow Wilson Bridge Half Marathon is short but impressive.
Four years ago, in its debut year, the women’s race was won by Catherine Ndereba, better known as “Catherine the Great.” In its second year, a new course record was set (1:02:37) and four American men notched qualifiers for the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials.
The prize purse includes $1,200 for the male and female winners and $600 for top Americans. The race also hosts the Road Runners Club of America National Half Marathon Championships, the Potomac Valley Association USATF Championship and the National Industries for the Blind Visually Impaired National Half Marathon Championships. And with a fun yet challenging course that starts with eight miles on the George Washington Memorial Parkway, climbs over the Woodrow Wilson Bridge, and finishes with a big loop around National Harbor, the race draws more than 3,000 runners of all abilities.
Oh, but those eight opening miles on GW Parkway, a national park …
On day two of the federal government shutdown – four days before the Woodrow Wilson Bridge Half Marathon – Race Director Steve Nearman was forced into making a tough decision.
Due to the shutdown, the race was postponed until November 10, more than a month after the original date. Deferrals to next year’s race were offered and about 600 were processed, Nearman said, while 1,739 runners came out to race on the new date.
Meanwhile, Nov. 10 was as good as Oct. 6 for Kellyn Johnson. The 27-year-old professional runner claimed her second straight win in 1:13:02 and earned prize money in both the overall and American-only divisions.
“It just gave me a little more time to train,” she said. “It was something that was on my schedule before and then it happened to fit perfectly into it after.”
Johnson trains in Flagstaff, Ariz., with Team USA Arizona and said she is still experimenting with distances between 5K and the half marathon. She ran the 5,000- and 10,000-meter races at the 2012 U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials, and was 4th in this year’s national 10-mile championship hosted by the Cherry Blossom 10 Mile Run. She will return to the area Nov. 17 for the .US National Road Racing 12K Championships.
Johnson was followed by Desta Tadesse of Ethiopia (1:13:53). Waynishet Abebe, an Ethiopian runner who lives in D.C., was 3rd in a personal best time of 1:14:10, just a few weeks after winning the Atlantic City Marathon.
Lindsay O’Brien of Washington, D.C., in her second half marathon, finished 7th overall and was 2nd American. Her time, 1:18:54, was more than a minute faster than her last attempt at the distance.
O’Brien was a three-time cross country All-American at Yale who took a break from competitive running and now trains with Georgetown Running Club.
“I’m trying not to be daunted by the distance,” she said. “This was a good step in the right direction.”
The men’s race was led by a pack of three: Girma Gebre, Siraw Kebede, and Nahom Mesfin, all from Ethiopia.
They raced side by side, charging together up a tough hill in National Harbor. But at the 12-mile mark, Gebre made a strong move to win decisively in 1:04:40.
Gebre has been living in New York with his manager, Alem Kahsay, who said Gebre’s background is in the middle distances. Mesfin, though, is no slouch in the leg speed department, either: He has competed in two Olympics in the steeplechase, and said he spent most of the past nine months training at altitude in Flagstaff, Ariz. Mesfin, however, admitted that Gebre’s move was simply too strong to match.
“Anyway, I’m happy,” he said, smiling after his third-place finish.
The men’s chase pack of four included Georgetown Running Club’s Kieran O’Connor.
O’Connor, 26, has only been running competitively for a few years. But he has already won a marathon and was the 8th American in Boston in 2012. After earning a master’s degree at a university in Cairo, Egypt, O’Connor recently moved to D.C., joined Georgetown Running Club, and – for the first time – started doing speed work under the eye of coach Jerry Alexander.
Going into today’s race, O’Connor’s half marathon best was in the 1:09s. He took it out easy, he said, on the opening downhill from the start in Mount Vernon; men and women were flying ahead of him. But then they started coming back – 5:05 miles clicking away.
At the top of the hill in National Harbor, O’Connor knew his goal of breaking 1:07 was within his reach. And rather than be intimidated by the professional runners surrounding him, O’Conner dropped them on the way to running 1:06:49 – good for 4th overall and top American.
In the visually impaired national championships, Aaron Scheidies, like Johnson, appreciated having extra time to train.
Scheidies won the men’s division last year in 1:18:05. This year, in the week’s before the original race date, Schiedies finished 2nd in the visually impaired division of the triathlon at the London Paralympics. Afterward he took a vacation.
Guided by Georgetown Running Club’s Dave Wertz, Schiedies won his second straight national championship and claimed a new personal best and event record of 1:16:24.
“I didn’t expect it, so I’m really happy with the time,” he said.
Adjusting to a New Race
The Wilson Bridge Half Marathon was supposed to be Briana Whelan‘s tune-up race for the Marine Corps Marathon, her first attempt at 26.2 miles.
When it was postponed, Whelan did not find a replacement race. She nonetheless had a great experience in her first marathon, which she ran with her cousin and uncle.
As for this morning, the Washington, D.C., resident and running newbie ended a two-week break to finish her third half marathon of 2013.
Chris Beeler, a U.S. Army colonel on a year-long assignment in the District, has been training with DC Road Runners and planned to use the Wilson Bridge Half Marathon as a confidence booster for the Army Ten Miler, held on October 20. Her goal race complete, it was hard to stay motivated to run another race, she said.
“But in the end,” she said, “it is what it is, and it was a beautiful day today.”
Miguel Gonzales of Manassas, Va., said the shutdown and the postponement it forced derailed his training. In the 1990s, he ran professionally, but with a busy job and four daughters between 2 and 9, Gonzales – until about a year ago – had more or less stopped running altogether.
“I got to 200 pounds and said I need to lose some weight,” he said. And while today was tough for him and he “felt horrible,” Gonzales said he thought of today’s race as a fresh start.
Mark Geiger of Waldorf, Md., finished his first half marathon, culminating several months of training. He said he could not remember the exact reasons he started running about a year ago – only that he started with walking and, week by week, added a little more running.
“I think it worked out better because the weather today was better,” said Geiger, referring to the rescheduled date.
The weather this morning was perfect for racing. October 6 in Washington, D.C., on the other hand, was a hot day. And let me tell you: This runner has woken up on many such race days and thought to himself: Man, if there’s any way this race could be postponed …
The inaugural Lauren’s Run was less of a race than a reunion. At 9 a.m., race time, the starting line in Rock Creek Park was clear as Jerry Alexander, the coach of GRC Racing Team, gave a short speech about Lauren Woodall Roady’s “indomitable spirit.”
That spirit powered Lauren’s fast rise from recreational to elite runner. But it wasn’t just running. It was the balanced yet tireless way Lauren lived her life, applying her talent and energy to her training and racing, her work as a lawyer at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, her baking, her commitment to family and friends, and more. As one of her close friends, Jennifer Harris, who met Lauren in second grade and now lives in Connecticut, said at the event, Lauren “could multi-task like nobody’s business.”
Last December, Lauren was struck by a vehicle and killed in Lexington, Ky., hours after competing with her GRC teammates in the National Club Cross Country Championships, her first cross country race. But her 5K memorial run Sunday, organized by her GRC teammates and well attended by Lauren’s family and friends, was clear proof that her spirit lives on. All proceeds from Lauren’s Run will benefit an organization that supports Cades Cove, a valley in the Great Smoky Mountains where Lauren spent many summers hiking and camping with her family.
“It’s hard,” her father, Jack Woodall, said. “We still miss her every day. It’s great to be here and see her friends. … She had a lot of joy in her running, and that’s what you see [here].”
Jack and Sharon traveled from their home near Knoxville, Tenn., to take part in the event. They were joined by their son, Nicholas, a graduate student at UCLA, Jack’s brother, and family friends.
From an early age, Jack said, Lauren loved horses. “We knew nothing about horses,” he said, “but she wanted to ride horses so bad that she learned everything she could about them and did all that herself. And I think that really taught her a lot of organizational skills because it’s pretty complicated to go to school, and look after a horse, and ride.”
Through college and law school, Lauren’s passion for equestrian sports became more difficult to maintain. She started running recreationally, gradually re-applying her dedication to equestrian sports into distance running. In 2009, she ran her first marathon, qualifying for Boston. In early 2012, Alexander observed Lauren doing a workout one night at Bethesda Chevy-Chase High School, where the club practices, and invited her to join the team. In one of her last races, Lauren raced head-to-head at the Navy Air-Force Half Marathon with an Olympic trials qualifier, nearly breaking her personal best for 5k along the way.
This 5k, really, was about bringing people together.
When Lauren’s husband Peter Roady, a budding triathlete, told friends about the event and they in turn told him they “weren’t really runners,” Roady told them, “It’s not really about running a race. It’s about being outside, being active” – celebrating the essence of Lauren’s dedication to the sport. His good friend, Anand Prakash, who does not think of himself as a runner, was convinced to run and walk the course the day after returning from a work trip to Bangladesh.
While James Pagano of Arlington was top male in 17:14 and Michelle Miller of Damascus was top female in 20:12, participants also walked and pushed strollers. Before and after, participants and GRC members who helped put on the event gathered around the Meadowbrook Park Activity Building’s picnic tables – near the start and finish – to socialize and share memories over baked goods supplied by club members.
“It’s always great to see everyone celebrating her,” Harris said. She then added, “I think the hardest thing is, you expect to see her there. I think that still catches me by surprise.”
GRC’s Lindsay Donaldson O’Brien, Laura O’Hara, and Patrick Murphy chose to stage Lauren’s Run where they did because it was near the park’s horse stables, which the route passed twice as it looped through park roads and bike paths.
Roady, who was joined at the event by his parents, sister, extended family, friends, and co-workers, added that the race’s location was Lauren’s favorite place to run. They lived near the park and often ran the trails together. Lauren also liked to do long marathon training runs on Beach Drive, Peter said.
“If it were any Sunday morning and she were still around,” he said, “this is exactly what she would have been doing. It just probably would have been 20 miles, not [5K].”
Four years ago, Lauren inspired Peter’s mother, Celia, to start running. She completed a 5K, and has been running four or five days a week ever since. Weeks ago, at 62, she completed her first triathlon.
For Rockville’s Jeff Lynch, Lauren’s Run was his first 5k in 28 years, when he was in high school. He was one among several dozen of Lauren’s co-workers at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission who participated in the event – walking, running, getting across the finish line. Lynch and other NRC employees had learned of Lauren’s running accomplishments through an article in the agency’s newspaper.
Lynch was joined in the event by co-workers he meets at the end of the day to workout in the NRC gym, where Lauren used to sneak in a second workout on her lunch breaks.
“Maybe I’ll have to start running more,” he said.