Washington -- Former Marine Lance Cpl. Josef Lopez completed his third Marine Corps Marathon on a crisp fall Sunday, one of about 60 riding hand-cranked bikes on a course that passes by memorials to Jefferson, Lincoln and Washington.
"I felt real good until the last two miles," Lopez said. "I couldn't move my arms much after that."
The final stretch, up a hill to the Iwo Jima Memorial in Arlington, Va., was awful, but the 23-year-old from Springfield did what Marines do. He grunted it out and finished in under three hours.
"Awesome," said Lopez, who has allowed his marathon training to slip while taking a full schedule of courses this semester at Missouri State.
Just over three years ago, Lopez lay in a hospital bed barely able to move. He had suffered a disabling reaction to a smallpox vaccination taken just before deploying to Iraq. About nine days after arriving in country, he felt his legs go numb.
He soon found himself paralyzed and in peril of dying. He was quickly transported to a military hospital in Landstuhl, Germany and then to the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., where he stayed for six weeks.
It was there, in Bethesda, that Lopez watched the marathon and told his mother he would be in the race the next year.
"I thought it was crazy," Barbara Lopez said. "At the time, he couldn't turn himself over."
Lopez was not an athlete in high school but enjoyed backpacking and was a percussionist in the marching band at Willard High School.
"I never really was much of a runner," he said, but the Marine Corps Marathon was a challenge he felt compelled to attack.
After returning home to Springfield, Lopez got a hand bike and began training. A year later, he finished his first marathon in around 2 1/2 hours.
The marathon itself is only part of the allure for Lopez. The weekend has also become a chance to catch up with friends, old and new. This year he met three of the nurses who helped care for him while he lay in a coma in Germany. He and his mother also met with Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., who has introduced legislation in his name.