38th Annual Marine Corps Marathon

The 2013 Marine Corps Marathon was my 40th birthday gift/celebration. I turned 40 in September so about a year ago I started looking for a marathon to run around my birthday. Some folks from my local running group were planning on running MCM so it seemed like a good fit – a trip for my wife and me to DC, a chance to visit friends in Baltimore, and a chance to run in one of the premier marathons in the country. Knowing it would sell out fast, I started hitting the web site 1 minute before registration started and after about 45 minutes battling the web site I was registered. Training went as well as it could. I only missed 4 runs in 18 weeks. I did three 20-milers and each one got easier. The taper went great and I was doing all my short runs easily at my goal race pace of 8:10.

This was my first “destination race” so that added some additional excitement. My wife and I flew into Baltimore on Friday and spent some time with friends. I did a 2-mile shake-out run Saturday morning. Since all of my training was in flat Orlando, this was my only really hilly run of all of my training – something that I would later regret. The rest of Saturday was pretty hectic. My wife and her friend were staying in Bethesda the night before the race so we had to check into that hotel. Then we went into DC to check into the hotel I was staying in. We finally got some lunch around  3:00 PM and then headed to the expo to get my bib. 

Packet pickup and the expo were both a nightmare. It took about 40 minutes to get through the line to get my number and the B-tag checking system wasn’t working (I heard later that there was a power outage). The wait to get into the expo wasn’t quite as bad but I didn’t have a bag so I got to go in a shorter line. People with bags and purses had a longer wait. Once I got in the expo, they ran out of bags for the bag check about 10 people ahead of me. They said you would just have to find a clear bag if you needed to check something. At first I was panicked because I didn’t realize that the bag check sticker was on the back of my bib (Disney puts them in the bag). Then  a guy in front of me looked in a trash can and found a couple of bags so I ended up getting one after all, but not before getting stressed out about my plans for what I was going to take with me to the start area and what I would do with it.

We had dinner at “Founding Farmers” – a really great restaurant in DC – and then headed to another restaurant to meet my running group friends. This was a bit of a long walk (something my wife thinks impacted my performance but I’m not too sure). By the time I got there, only two of them were left (7 of us ran).  This was the first of several near misses with my group but it was good to chat with the two of them for a while at the restaurant and then while we walked to the metro back to our hotels. 

The night before the race, as usual, I got almost no sleep. It seemed like I could hear cabs honking out on the streets until about 2:00 AM. At 4:30, some guys were out in the hall singing Ricky Martin’s “Cup of Life”. Since I was going to get up at 5:30 anyway, I decided to get up and then had that song stuck in my head all morning. I had a Clif Bar, a dump, got dressed, took a selfie in my race getup, and headed to the metro. The weather was pretty cold (40s) so I had on a long sleeved shirt over the shirt I planned on running in. I put my number on my leg because A) I wanted to be able to get rid of my long sleeved shirt if I needed to and B) I’m used to wearing it there now. I tried putting it on my shirt but it just didn’t feel natural.  I also got myself some cheap football gloves and planned on tossing those too.

I got there plenty early. I had time to pee and sit in the hospitality tent for a while and wait for some of my running group friends. By the time they were heading my way, it was about 7:15 so I needed to check my bag and get ready for the 7:55 start. I was too anxious to wait for them any longer so that was my second near miss with my friends. I checked my bag and hit the port-o-let line one more time.  While I was waiting in line I set my watch for the marathon distance and my goal time of 3:35.  I had never used this particular setting before so I thought it might come in handy. Bad idea. It just gave me extra screens to scroll through when I checked my time throughout the race. 

Unfortunately that toilet stop put me way too close to start time. I headed to the starting line and tried to find the 3:30-ish corral. I got as far to the front as I could, but the start was the second thing problem I had with this race. They had corrals on both sides of a divided highway. I stood on the left side and after the Howitzer went off to start the race I watched the 3:45 pacer go running by on the other side while we stood still. The crowd at the beginning was ridiculous. I completely missed a water stop because water was in the back and by the time I was able to get over I was past the last person passing out water. Also, I must have been in the “long” lane because at the first mile marker, my Garmin already said 1.18 miles.  You placed yourself at the start so you had some very “optimistic” people toward the front. I felt like I was passing people for about 18 miles. By the time I stopped passing people I felt more like it was because I had slowed down and not because I found people at my pace.  I really enjoyed the race overall but the crowds and uneven pacing were a bit annoying.

So now for the fun part – the race. In spite of the MASSIVE crowds and a major uphill climb at the beginning I managed to keep my pace under 9:00 for the first 2 miles. That first climb was pretty impressive – 244 feet according to Garmin in about 2 miles. It didn’t seem too bad at the time and from what I had heard about the course it was all downhill from there.
I tossed my gloves at about 2 miles and then the climb turned into my favorite terrain – downhill. I love charging down hills. I was still in heavy traffic but managed to cut loose a bit and made up some serious time. Around 4 miles in I ditched the long sleeved shirt.  My favorite part of the race was Georgetown (between the 4 and 5 mile marks). Beautiful town to run through and my watch hit the 5 mile lap just at the top of the last downhill – a massive plunge down Wisconsin to Waterfront. I when I got to the bottom my watch said 6:00 pace for that lap and I believe it – I was flying down that hill. In fact I was a little nervous that I might blow out a knee at the bottom when we had to make a sharp left turn.  Somewhere around there was a group of drummers. They were playing big drums that seemed Asian even though the drummers didn’t. The sound was amazing and really gave me a boost.

Between miles 5 and 6, I caught a glimpse of some of the leaders. The road heading toward the zoo was an out-and-back section so they were heading back and at about the 9 mile mark. After hitting the 5k at 26:40 (8:34 pace) I averaged 7:48 for the next 5k hitting the 10k at 50:56 – 8:12 pace which is just what I needed for 3:35. After 6.2 miles I was right on track.  Interesting side note – this section I recognized after the fact as the road to the zoo. I went there on a previous trip (I think in high school 20+ years ago). There may have been road signs to plant the memory in my subconscious but it was really only after the race when I thought back to that section that I realized that’s where I was. I hit the 15k at 1:16:39 – 8:13 pace – feeling good and on schedule.

After mile nine we hit the waterfront. I ran by the Kennedy Center where I recalled going on a tour during that high school trip. We went on the roof and a friend and I raced across it. I thought it was interesting that I sprinted on that roof and here I was running by that building 20+ years later.

Miles 10-15 were kind of a blur. I was feeling really good when I hit the half. I remember thinking that doing that again was going to be tough and that I kind of wished I was just doing a half because I could have really killed it. I had no idea what my exact pace was but did know I was at 1:46 for the half – a PB by about 5 minutes. My original goal was 3:40 so at this point I had plenty of room to spare.  That was my only real pace check since my Garmin had me in the high 7s up to that point due to the long first mile.  Official pace for the half was 8:09 still 3 seconds under my goal for 3:35.

Next was the mall. I remember running toward the Capitol.  After scanning the crowds for my wife an her friend, I finally found them after mile 17.  It was a great boost to see my wife. I had almost given up on seeing her and figured I already missed her in my running daze. I remember being surprised at how tree-lined the mall was. I think the crowds blocked a lot of the view so everything looked very different. 

Circling the Capitol around mile 18 was where I first started to feel it.  Up to that point I felt like I could go forever.  I still felt pretty strong and just wanted to get to mile 20 figuring I could survive the last 10k. I eased off a bit and was averaging around 8:23 – about my original planned pace to hit 3:40. I felt like keeping that “easy” pace was workable and would definitely get me under 3:40 since I had a good head start.

The last few miles were not all that exciting.  We crossed the bridge back to VA and so it was just running on the highway. There was a girl matching my 8:20-ish pace around mile 21. I hung on her shoulder as long as I could but that is when I started to get some tightness in my legs. I managed to run through the first cramp and it seemed to go away. Mile 22 was 8:32 on my Garmin and mile 23 was 8:44.  The hills were mostly just overpasses and the bridge at that point but they were starting to take their toll.  I adjusted my goal to just finish without having to stop running – I hadn’t broken stride even once to that point. That’s when my legs were really getting angry. At about 24.7 on my watch I was making a left turn coming down an exit ramp when my leg completely cramped up. I had no choice but to stop and stretch. I never really recovered. From that point on I was doing the “marathon shuffle”.  Miles 24 and 25 were 9:42 and 10:11 on my Garmin.

Now the hills were real. They weren’t overpasses – they were actual hills. I managed to crank it back up to 9:52 for mile 26.  Thanks to my watch setting snafu, my watch stopped at 26.2 which was unfortunately before I made it to the official 26 mile marker. I had been dropping quite a few “F bombs” those last few miles so when I got to 26 and couldn’t see the finish, one was preceded with a “what the”.  Then I turned left and saw the most ridiculous part of the course. They had advertised a “flatter finish”. I would hate to know what the old finish was like. This last hill was so steep almost everyone I saw was walking and it seemed like you could put your hands down in front of you to help climb up. It was probably just a few hundred feet, maybe less, but it was brutal. I refused to stop running – something I only did once for that charlie horse – and made it to the top and the last right turn to the finish line.

I’m glad I had sunglasses on because I was holding back tears a few times. Coming up to the finish was the first, then getting my medal from the Marines, then thinking about seeing my wife. I had to climb more ridiculous hills after getting my medal and goodie bag so I stopped for a breather at the top of the hill. I found my wife through a fence and she passed me the phone to call my 5 year-old. She asked if I won (I knew she would). I told her I did “for me” and that I got another medal.

For me this race was a lot of victories. I had been training towards 3:35 on my Garmin. That meant an 8:12 pace on my watch. I had 10 miles in a row under 8:00, 4 more under 8:12, and another 5 under the 8:25 pace I needed for my secondary goal of 3:40.  My time for 26.2 on my watch was 3:39:14.  My official pace through 30k was 8:08 – fastest cumulative pace of the race after doing 8:34 for the first 5k. I ran a 7:57 pace between the 10k and 15k.  I was at 8:11 through 35k and 8:22 through 40k.  That means I was under my stretch goal for 35k and dropped under my goal in the last 2 miles.

During my training, when I stopped running on my long runs, it was because I was “too tired” to keep running. This time the cramps in my leg were a new experience for me (not something I would want to happen again) and I felt like I gave everything I had – my body shut down and I did what I could with what I had left.

Now it’s time to give my wife a much needed break from my training over the past 18 weeks. I may race a few more times this year to ride the wave of my race fitness, but no more hardcore training plans for me.

I don’t think anyone can go into a marathon knowing for sure how you are going to do. You can know whether or not you are prepared, if you are healthy, how fast you are able to run. There is no guarantee that will translate to performance on the day.  I think the best you can hope for is to finish without saying “if only”.  I’m not saying if only I didn’t skip training, if only I went faster/slower in the start/finish, if only the weather was better. I know I did my best and I know what that means today. I have no doubt I can run a marathon in 3:35, but I also am ecstatic that my PR is now 3:42:13.

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