The Marathon Blues
By Rusty Manes
During the winter, there are the usual reasons for people to head south to Florida, such as the warm weather, the gulf waters, and relaxation. For me, it was to run my 11th marathon state and 17th marathon overall. Pensacola just seemed to me like a nice, warm spot for a late winter marathon within a day's drive from home. Wow, was I surprised by just a warm weather marathon! The folks at the Blue Angel Marathon really have their stuff down to a fine performance.
First of all, the Naval Air Station in Pensacola, where the marathon is held, was easy to find - you just follow the road signs for the NAS when you get into Pensacola. You can't miss it, because there is water on all three sides of Pensacola and I-10 lies to the north. All you have to do is head south from I-10, and you're going to run into the Blue Angel expo and marathon starting area. If you happen to need directions for anything at all, i.e., motel, restaurant, or post office, just ask anyone around the area and they will raise their arm and point in a direction, and that is all you need to know really, because it is so true in Pensacola. If you just head in any direction towards what you're trying to find, it will eventually appear. I was just amazed how this worked, but it did. I don't know if you could do that here in the Ozarks without mistakenly sending someone to Arkansas, but it does work there.
The weather on race morning was iffy for a "dry" marathon, but thanks to the angels - blue ones I'm sure - the sun came out, with nothing but blue sky all around it, just in time for the marathon start. Retired Navy Captain J.B. McKamey was the grand marshal of the 20th Annual Blue Angel Marathon. Over twenty years ago, he envisioned a marathon that would include civilians as well as navy personnel on the NAS base. McKamey was always an advocate of running at a time when not many others were. He liked how it didn't take a whole lot of other people to enjoy the sport, and that you could just do it when you had enough time. This year's event featured 1,600 runners from all 50 states, and the countries of Algeria and Nigeria.
After a short speech by Grand Marshal McKamey, devotion, and the singing of "The Star-Spangled Banner", a squadron of four FA-18 fighter jets flew over the race start in perfect winged formation, with one after another falling out of formation to the left in front of us, as we began the race. Unfortunately, the Blue Angels that normally would start the race were away on maneuvers in California, but that didn't lessen the impact the squadron had on the runners at this race start. If you didn't already have a half-lump of pride in your throat from the singing of "The Star-Spangled Banner", then this patriotic showing of power and courage put the whole lump in your throat. What a sight! And if that wasn't enough to make you proud of your tax dollars, as we were heading off on our 26.2-mile journey down Radford Ave., the FA-18's came from behind us, one at a time, without the slightest warning. You didn't know they were anywhere near you until they were directly over your head, and by directly over your head, I mean they seemed to be within a tall tree's reach on top of you! The first three screamed past us in a horizontal winged fashion, and then whisked briskly to the left, turning the air black around them from the violent air turbulence they created as they cornered. The fourth FA-18 fighter jet came over the crowd of cheering runners in a vertical winged position that was just the wildest display of winged flight I've ever witnessed! Needless to say, the crowd was "pumped up" and ready to tackle anything a marathon could throw at them. The price of the entry fee was returned in full before we ever made it to the 1-mile mark - and it didn't stop there. All the while you were running on the NAS base, you were time and again escorted by the FA-18 fighters. I never felt safer from terrorism than I did at that moment.
Later, during the return trip from the farthest point away from the marathon start, which brought you back along Pensacola Bay, we were subjected to 25 mph winds and warming temperatures, and the warm, fuzzy feeling the marathon start gave you just stayed with you, and made the marathon fun the whole way. It did help that most of the course was flat as the kitchen table, with only one large, arching bay bridge to cross - twice, out and back. There was a lot of protection from the traffic too. You were pretty much at least a lane away from any motor vehicles for the whole marathon. And the onlookers along the route were also very friendly and supportive. Drinks, gels, and port-a-potties were where and when you needed them, for the most part, as well. And like at most 26.2-mile endurance events, I talked with and met new marathon friends along the way, too.
At the finish line you were greeted with a Blue Angel Medal of accomplishment, handshakes from those you ran along side with for the past 26 miles, and some of the best jambalaya you've ever eaten! I plan on doing this race again, because there's nothing blue about this marathon - except the angels.