Marathoner runs to support wounded warriors
November 28, 2011
REDSTONE ARSENAL, Ala. (Nov. 28, 2011) -- Victoria Leavell's association with Homes for Our Troops took her on the run of a lifetime.
Leavell, a contract specialist for the Air and Missile Defense Directorate, Army Contracting Command-Redstone, is a runner who likes to train for half marathons as a way to keep a svelte figure without worrying about her diet. A couple years ago, when she began working at Redstone Arsenal, Leavell and a running buddy -- Stephanie Crosby, also of ACC-Redstone -- set a goal to run a half marathon in each state and a marathon in the U.S. capital.
So, last February, Leavell, 24, registered for the Marine Corps Marathon, which is set each year for the last Sunday in October with a course through Washington, D.C. Started in 1976, the Marine Corps Marathon is the fifth largest marathon in the U.S. and the ninth largest in the world. Leavelle prepared to start her marathon training in the summer.
But then a chance meeting while volunteering for Homes for Our Troops in June turned Leavell's marathon plans into something bigger than a personal goal.
"I got involved with Homes for Our Troops because they are building a highly accessible house in Madison for an injured Soldier -- retired Cpl. Jeffery Williams. They needed volunteers for a wall raising, so I took the day off and went out to help," Leavell said.
"I have a big heart for this organization because of what they do, and because I am the daughter of a retired colonel and I have two brothers-in-law now serving in the Army."
While helping at the home site, Leavell met the project coordinator who found out she was in training to run in the Marine Corps Marathon and told her that Homes for Our Troops had a fund-raising team registered with the marathon.
"So, then my marathon also became a fund-raiser for Homes for Our Troops," she said. "I emailed and "Facebooked" a bunch of people and that's how I got most of my donations from friends and family and co-workers. I was able to raise almost $500 in a very short amount of time."
Leavell went on to complete the Marine Corps Marathon and help raise more than $50,000 as one of 37 runners on the Homes for Our Troops fund-raising team. She finished the marathon with a time of 4:49:02, putting her at about the 12,000th runner mark in a marathon of 20,895 finishers.
A University of Alabama graduate and a Tuscaloosa native, Leavell decided early in her career to balance her professional work at Redstone Arsenal with her personal running goals.
"When I moved here, I started running a mile a day because I wanted to be able to eat whatever I wanted to," she said. "I wanted running to be a part of my routine. I wanted to build it into my adult life so that it is as common as brushing my teeth."
Leavell is also a person who likes to set goals. So, she set her sights on preparing to run in her first half marathon in April 2010 with a couple girlfriends. A knee injury during training sidelined her for a while, forcing her to postpone her goal until a half marathon in Virginia Beach, Va., in August 2010.
"The Virginia Beach half marathon was part of the Rock'n'Roll series of half marathons and marathons that are organized all over the country," she said.
To prepare for her first half marathon, Leavell followed an eight to 12-week training program that she found on the Internet.
"You have to train your body up to a half marathon," she said. "Even with my training, I was a nervous wreck because I didn't know what was going to happen. I didn't know if I would finish."
She completed the Virginia Beach half marathon in 2:08, and went on to run a half marathon in Huntsville in November 2010 and a half marathon in New Orleans in February 2011.
And then she signed up for the Marine Corps Marathon.
"A couple of friends had done it the year before and I heard from them how awesome it was. I was completely amazed with them for doing it," she said. "I thought about how wonderful it was to reach that goal."
Once signed up, Leavell found another training program online that she followed to ready herself for the October marathon. The program is a series of short runs -- about six miles -- three to five days a week and then one long run -- as short as 12 and as long as 23 -- on the weekends.
"I got to a point where I was so sick of running," she said of her training. "It is a big time commitment. It's like having another job because you know you are required to do it or you'll pay for it on race day."
Leavell arrived in Washington, D.C., the Friday before the Oct. 30th race. Her boyfriend, Army contractor Joe Tripiano, made the trip with her to provide support.
On race day, she got up at 4:30 a.m. to eat breakfast and get ready. The morning was cold at about 35 degrees, so she dressed in layers.
"You have to be prepared to take stuff off and toss it along the route," she said. "Runners will wear cheap gloves, hats, sweatshirts, and then they will just toss them to the side while they are running. There is a crew behind us that picks it all up and donates it to charity."
Even though she had trained for the marathon and had studied the route, Leavell questioned whether she was ready.
"The entire week beforehand, I was a train wreck. I was nervous. I was in limbo," she said. "You want to be really prepared, but you don't want to be over prepared. I didn't know what to expect. But the actual race itself was fantastic."
The Marine Corps Marathon begins at the Pentagon, and travels into Georgetown, Crystal City and Alexandria, and around the National Mall. One of the highlights is the Beat the Bridge mark, which spans miles 21 to 24.
"It's a really long bridge and it comes at such a point where your body is totally over it and hating you," Leavell said.
"Mile 24 to 25 and a half was the loneliest part of the race for me. My body was ready to stop. But I was too close to the end to stop. Then we had to go up a kind of ridiculous hill for mile 26 and finally we finished at the Iwo Jima Memorial. It was a really awesome finish. But it makes you not want to do it again."
At three different points, Leavell was able to see her boyfriend, her sister and her sister's friend cheering her along the route with a homemade sign. But for Leavell the best part of the marathon was seeing all the Marines, Soldiers, retirees and wounded warriors running in the marathon.
"There were handicycle racers. Seeing those guys who have been injured in the war and they are out there hand cycling their bikes for 26 miles. It made the entire thing worth it," she said.
"There was a retired Marine who carried the American flag for the entire race. And it was neat seeing all the Marines out there giving us water and food and our medals. When I started to get bored along the route, I would think about the guys in harm's way in Afghanistan. I wanted to hug every Soldier and Marine in uniform that I saw along the race. It all really reminds you why you do a race like that, especially when you run for a cause like Homes for Our Troops."
Leavell actually surprised herself with her finishing time of 4:49:02. Her goal was to finish at five hours. And she impressed herself by never falling into a walking pace during the race.
"I felt amazingly good afterward," she said. "I was sore just like any other race, and I was ready to have something to eat and get my shoes off. Otherwise, it was amazing because I know I've done it and that I can do it."
Yet, there are no other marathons in Leavell's running future right now. She is currently training for a half marathon later this month in Georgia.
"I'm going to stick with halves. They are healthier for your body. Marathons and marathon training is very harsh and it demands a lot of time," she said. "But I might consider doing a triathlon."