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Practical Partners: Marine Corps, Capitol Hill Running Club

Mac McKenney never thought he would run marathons. When he joined the Capitol Hill Running Club nearly 10 years ago, he could barely jog three and a half miles, the club’s shortest run.

Last month, the 58-year-old tax lobbyist ran his ninth marathon — the Marine Corps Marathon. He credits his success to the running club’s supportive atmosphere and its dedicated volunteers, many of whom are members of the corps.

He began training with the club in June 2003, when he was working for Rep. Amo Houghton, R-N.Y.

“I was overweight and out of shape,” he said. “Everybody else got a timing chip and I got a sundial, I was that slow. But I was made to feel as much a part of the club as anyone else.”

After his sixth marathon, McKenney had surgery to repair extensive cartilage damage in his knee. Doctors told him he would never run again.

For six months he didn’t. Then, for a year, he was limited to short distances.

Eventually, though, he was able to return to distance running. And the running club’s help and the friendships he developed there helped him pull through the hardest part of his recovery.

“There was a gunnery sergeant, Lorenzo Chance. He told me I looked strong, and I knew it wasn’t true, but I was so glad he offered me that encouragement,” McKenney said.

Doing Your Duty

Marines from the House and Senate Marine Corps Liaison Offices man the group’s water stops, plan their runs and educate them on injury prevention.

At the beginning of their marathon training season in May, the club organizes an expo for new runners and brings in nutritionists, sports physicians and the owners of Pacers, an Alexandria running store.

Longtime members, including White House Cabinet Secretary Chris Lu, outline the challenges of training for the marathon and how much fun the running club has.

Staff Sgt. Charles Aaron, a Marine from the House side who has volunteered with the club for three years, runs warm-ups at every one of the group’s practices — at the very Marine-like hour of 6:20 a.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays and 6 a.m. on Saturdays. It also offers yoga classes at 6:20 a.m. on Fridays.

Maj. Janine “Atis” Garner, a mother of two girls, plans the club’s routes and sends out weekly email blasts and Facebook updates.

“Staff Sgt. Aaron will be very modest, but he’s the backbone of the club,” Garner said. “He’s the one who’s out there with the water and the tables and the gear — he’s the one who, no kidding, makes it happen.”

Another of the club’s organizers and longtime members is Col. Ray Celeste, who recently ran his 50th marathon. He began running marathons in 1986 and helped create the Capitol Hill Running Club in 2000, as part of his job in the House Liaison Office.

“Where most people work 9 to 5, we don’t,” Celeste said. “It’s part of our duty and our responsibility.”

Unit Cohesion

Most members of the running club are not veteran marathoners.

Matt Lloyd, communications director for Rep. Mike Pence, R-Ind., ran his first marathon this year and said the club played a pivotal role in keeping him focused on his training.

“It’s a good support group,” he said. “I’ve always wanted to do the marathon, and it’s really been an honor to do it with these guys [the Marines]. I couldn’t ask for any better group to do it with.”

He added that running with a group made a big difference in his training because it’s hard to stay motivated past nine or 10 miles when he runs by himself.

“You make friends, when you’re putting yourself through torture like that. It’s a little bit similar to being in the military. That’s how they run it, which makes it fun,” Lloyd said.

Club members say the bonds they forge running long distances together help them survive the mental challenges of the marathon, not just the physical ones.

“I finished the Marine Corps Marathon in 2008, and I said never again,” Garner said, “because I wasn’t prepared for the mental challenge. The first 15 miles are training, and the last 10 or 11 miles is all mental. Everybody hits the wall.”

Part of that mental prep is bonding off the track.

The club socializes outside of training — grabbing lunch during the week or meeting at Bullfeathers for happy hour. The group is so close-knit that many runners, including Garner, bring their kids along to the early morning training sessions. Others persuade their spouses to hand out water or snacks.

McKenney summarized his experience with the Capitol Hill Running Club with an anecdote from his eighth marathon last fall.

“Someone was holding a sign at the finish line that said, ‘Some day you won’t be able to do this. But today is not that day.’”

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