Riding a handcycle almost 4,000 miles from San Diego to Washington, D.C., would seem like a lofty goal for even the most adventurous. Ret. Marine Sgt. Toran Gaal, who accomplished that feat last summer, didn’t stop there. He returned to the nation’s capital this month to tack on another 26.2 miles in the 40th annual Marine Corps Marathon.
“(This race is) special to me — we go through a part of the ride,” said Gaal, a 28-year-old Valley Center resident. "It’s kind of honoring the heroes that have fallen and paid the ultimate sacrifice. That half mile stretch (by Arlington National Cemetery) is kind of quiet, and you start to remember why we are here, and why we do what we do.”
Gaal himself paid a heavy price. He lost parts of both legs and his hip. And he suffered severe brain damage after stepping on an IED while deployed in Afghanistan in 2011.
Since last summer, the Purple Heart veteran has been riding across the U.S. to raise awareness for fellow injured veterans. Joining with 30,000 Marathon runners Sunday, he was one of 83 competitors using handcycles or wheelchairs in the 26.2-mile course rolling past the Washington Monument, Lincoln Memorial and other landmarks.
“To finish and see the people cheering you on at the end and reunite with the team that you’re here with,” said Gaal, who represented Achilles International, a nonprofit that assists disabled veterans. “If you can find within yourself that you’ve inspired one person in that 26 miles then I think we’re doing our part and I think that’s what I get out of it the most.”
Inspiration from individuals is not in short supply at the annual event, which features thousands of active service, retired, reserve and disabled from all four branches of the military. The race, which highlights the start with the hand-cycle participants pedaling past red arches, celebrates and brings together the military community.
“Being surrounded by thousands of motivated runners, military members, and supporters makes an atmosphere that is hard to match,” wrote 28-year-old staff Marine Sgt. Emily Farris, who came from San Diego to run in the 10k race, which sets off just before the Marathon. “Being a Marine I am often pulled away from comrades and friends alike as we move duty stations, and it was nice to meet up with so many of them.”
Despite the early morning rain, Marines wearing beige camouflage uniforms lined the course route as supporters cheered on participants who raced by Washington’s famed monuments and the National Cemetery just across the Potomac in Virginia.
Gaal, with steam still rising off his back, compared the festive atmosphere at the Marine Corps Marathon to the Boston Marathon.
“It’s fun to integrate the general public,” Gaal said. “You know, the Boston Marathon there’s people from start to finish along the route, and this is very similar. There are people along the way, almost the entire 26 miles.”
Elizabeth Patrick, who traveled from San Diego to compete in her second consecutive Marine Corps Marathon, said the community atmosphere, energy from the military-centric crowd and the sense of patriotism instilled by proud veterans like Gaal make the Washington race stand alone.
“It does make you feel good about your country,” said Patrick, 34. “A lot of the people running were running in memory of people that died for this country. It’s the People’s Marathon for a reason, and you get it once you run it.”