Happy Memorial Day

I am always somewhat uncomfortable saying “Happy Memorial Day”. Memorial Day is dedicated to soldiers who left for battle and never came back, which is not something to be especially happy about. However, those brave men and women fought for the freedoms we have today, and of course, that is something to celebrate. As I am pondering this conundrum, I am also remembering my first and only visit to the Iwo Jima Memorial in Arlington, VA. I wish I could tell you that I ran 26 miles from Washington DC, past the Capitol Building and the Washington Monument, to Arlington to pay my respects to fallen Marines, but that would not really be true. The finish line of the Marine of Corps Marathon is just steps from the memorial sculpture. But that fact does not diminish the awe I felt when I actually saw it.
According the National Park Service website, the story behind the sculpture is as follows:

The tiny island of Iwo Jima lies 660 miles south of Tokyo. Mount Suribachi, an extinct volcano that forms the narrow southern tip of the island, rises 550 feet to dominate the ocean around it. US troops had recaptured most of the other islands in the Pacific Ocean that the Japanese had taken in 1941 and 1942. In 1945 Iwo Jima became a primary objective in American plans to bring the Pacific campaign to a successful conclusion.

On the morning of February 19, 1945, the 4th and 5th Marine Divisions invaded Iwo Jima after an ineffective 72-hour bombardment. The 28th Regiment of the 5th Division, was ordered to capture Mount Suribachi. They reached the base of the mountain on the afternoon of February 21 and, by nightfall the next day, had almost completely surrounded it. On the morning of February 23, Marines of Company E, 2nd Battalion, started the tortuous climb up the rough terrain to the top. At about 10:30 am men all over the island were thrilled by the sight of a small American flag flying from atop Mount Suribachi. That afternoon, when the slopes were clear of enemy resistance, a second, larger flag was raised in the same location.

The sculpture is based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph taken on that day by Joe Rosenthal of the Associated Press. Thirty-two foot high figures are shown raising a 60-foot bronze flagpole. The flag flies 24 hours a day, 365 days a year by presidential proclamation. The figures stand on a rock slope above a granite base. The entire memorial is about 78 feet tall. The entire cost of the statue ($850,000) was donated by US Marines, friends of the Marine Corps, and members of the Naval Service. No public funds were used for this memorial.

I find the part about the private funding of the memorial to be especially poignant. The lives we honor on Memorial Day were private lives. They were not public figures, but rather private individuals who paid the ultimate price for our ability to live in freedom. They were people with families: parents, spouses and children. Those families too paid an enormous price for our freedom.

The United States Marine Corps War Memorial represents our gratitude to Marines and those who have fought beside them. While the statue depicts one of the most famous incidents of World War II, President Dwight D. Eisenhower dedicated the memorial in a ceremony on November 10, 1954, the 179th anniversary of the U.S. Marine Corps, “in honor and in memory of the men of the United States Marine Corps who have given their lives to their country since November 10, 1775.”
I had the honor of having my picture taken in front of the memorial in 2013, as did all the approximately 24,000 Marine Corps Marathon finishers. I remember that race. I was not feeling well—I had a bad cold or some other seasonal respiratory ailment. The weather was frosty in Washington, DC at that time of year—much colder than I was used to training in Northern CA. And I had just run the Berlin Marathon 28 days earlier. I was planning to take it slowly—even slower than the 14-minute miles I usually ran. The race had a seven-hour time limit (an average of 16 minutes/mile) so I figured it would be OK to run/walk a 15 min/mile pace and still finish before the cutoff.

Early on race morning (around 5am Eastern time, which felt like 2am to my West-Coast body, despite what my watch said), in the cold and in the dark, I approached the starting corrals. As I found my place at the back of the crowd of runners together with the other expected 7-hour finishers, I overheard people talking nervously about “beating the bridge”. “Beat what bridge?”, I thought to myself.  I had not read anything about “beating a bridge” on the website when I registered for the race (or if I did, I had since forgotten about it). It turns out, that while you have seven hours to finish the whole race, you need to reach the bridge at mile 20 within five hours or they pull you off the course. This has to do with permitting and how long they can close the bridge to vehicle traffic. With only 1 hour to go before the race start, I realized my plan was in jeopardy. I quickly discovered that if I ran a comfortable 15 minute/mile, I might miss the cutoff and not have the opportunity to finish the race. And the race was starting…now…

So off I went, trying to maintain a sub-14 minute/mile pace, more than 30 seconds faster than my average pace of 14:31 in Berlin, when I was feeling healthy, not suffering from a respiratory ailment and had not run 26.2 miles less than 4 weeks prior. I do not recommend this methodology! In fact, this is an excellent example of very, very poor planning. To make a long, painful story short (actually, it was like a 4-hour, 59-minute story), I beat the bridge with just seconds to spare. The last 6.2 miles seemed to take an eternity as I walked slowly, feeling dejected and physically nauseous across the bridge to Arlington and the finish line.

This was no ordinary finish line. A Marine flag bearer in dress blues waited just before the final hill that would take runners to the finish line. When he crossed the finish line carrying the American flag, the race would be over. And anyone behind him would not be considered and official finisher and would DNF (“Did Not Finish”) the race. As I walked toward him with that sad-but-relieved-to-be finished face, he did what Marines do.  He told me to run!  I thought to myself, “Was that supposed to be encouragement, or was that an order?”  I told him that I had a few minutes left. And believe me, I was planning on making the most of them—I was completely spent! He then pretended to step onto the course in front of me, threatening me with a DNF, and encouraging me to give my best effort up the hill, which I did. And when I reached the top, I saw not one, but two rows of Marines (both men and women!), on either side of the approach to the finish line arch. As I ran toward the finish line, I ran between the two rows of Marines who were applauding, cheering, and giving high-fives to each of us as we finished the race, crossed the finish line arch, received our medals, and approached the Iwo Jima Memorial.
Races are not easy, and freedom is not free. And that is what is the Iwo Jima Memorial symbolizes. Thank you to all who have served, and may the memories of those who did not come back be blessed forever.

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