LONDON – Even in a crowd of 105 runners, people spotted Guor Marial before the men’s marathon began Sunday at the London Olympics.
“Maaarrr-eee-aaalll!” a man shouted to his right, drawing out every syllable. The runner who once competed for Iowa State looked up, smiled and waved.
“Guor!” someone called from his left, drawing more recognition from the onetime refugee from South Sudan.
Marial heard the refrain, and saw the South Sudanese flag wave, throughout the next 26.2 miles. He was never more content to finish in the middle of the pack in a road race.
The time – 2 hours, 19 minutes, 32 seconds, good enough for 47th place – was beside the point.
Running under the International Olympic Committee banner because his homeland of South Sudan was so recently formed that it doesn’t yet have its own Olympic body, Marial said he was hoping to serve as an inspiration to displaced persons everywhere.
Guor Marial runs in the 2011 Dam to Dam road race. He finished 47th Sunday in the Olympic marathon.
After, the 28-year-old who fled Sudan during its civil war and settled in America in 2001, said:
“I have no problem. I live in the United States. I have running shoes. I’m fine. What about the people that are out there? This is the reason I was finishing today. For those people. They are in a rough condition, and I hope that the world is able to help them.”
Marial didn’t find out that he would be able to compete in London until three weeks ago. So training to win a marathon of this caliber was impossible.
Instead, he just wanted to complete the race, to focus whatever attention he could on displaced persons everywhere.
“I said, ‘Hey God, make me finish. Just let me finish,’” he said. “I was not worried about the time.
“It doesn’t matter how long the marathon, whether it was 40 miles. I would finish. Because this moment was for them.”
Finishing was no small task, seeing as how 20 of the 105 starters did not, including two of the three American entrants.
Stephen Kiprotich of Uganda won the marathon in 2:08:01, with Kenyans Abel Kirui and Wilson Kiprotich taking silver and bronze.
Cruising along in a pack well to the rear came Marial, 28, an all-American while running for the Cyclones from 2006-09. He said 10 kilometers into the race, he realized his body was not up to the challenge of running up front.
So he focused on the bigger picture, on the people who might draw inspiration just by watching him.
“In my heart here, I feel like I was carrying the flag of South Sudan,” he said.
Among them were the parents he hasn’t seen since 1993, who trekked some 30 miles to the nearest town where they could see the race on television. Marial still hopes to return home for a visit someday.
In Ames, his former coach Corey Ihmels gathered early with his family to watch Marial complete an epic journey. Ihmels told the Register in an email that it was particularly poignant to view the marathon with his children, ages 5 and 3, who both remember Marial.
“I know he understands the bigger purpose of what he accomplished today and I know he isn’t finished spreading this message and running to the best of his ability,” Ihmels wrote.
“Just as proud as any parent would be; he is just a very special person.”
Marial already was looking ahead to 2016. He has no idea if he’ll qualify for the Rio de Janeiro Games. And, if he does, whether he will represent South Sudan or the United States.
“This is for them, especially,” Marial said of his parents. “If they will be still alive, 2016 is another chance. And hopefully, there I will be in a better place, a better time. And I’ll be able to know that I’m training for the Olympics.”