(The following is a massively massive diary of my experience running the Marine Corps Marathon last year. I post it now because (a) it has taunted me from my hard drive long enough, and (b) I'll be running the 2008 race tomorrow morning and basically want to give myself an excuse for under-participating at LF this week.
Content is safe for work, but contains many annotations, a few YouTube clips -- none of which are mine or include me -- and a smattering of gearhead jargon. Read at your own
peril leisure, thanks in advance, and wish me luck. -- LM)
Sunday, October 28, 2007
The Run (-Down)
The howitzer echoes at 8:00 AM. The race begins. Nobody moves. Nobody...moves...
It's no surprise to most that it takes 20 minutes to get 22,000 runners over the starting line, but first-timers are thinking aloud that something's wrong. The PA is blasting music, the announcer's announcing, and whoops soon rise from the waves of runners as cold leg muscles finally get into motion. Our shoe-mounted timing chips
cause a ruckus of beeps from the roadside sensors as we pass beneath the arch
: It's a traffic jam of bodies, steadily climbing uphill past Arlington National Cemetery
. Spectators are on overpasses and along the highway
, holding up signs and cheering. It's the first best experience of the race...the next, we'll each have to work for.
: The course turns left into an older, unmodern business block, and begins yet another long climb. I can tell quickly who loves hills and who doesn't. There aren't as many spectators until we reach the summit and head down toward a more residential section.
: The first water/Powerade station (one dots the course about every two miles) is a madhouse. Carrying some water with me, I keep going. The course turns back toward DC.
: The course is a long downhill on tree-lined Spout Run Parkway. I resist the temptation to fly downhill, partly because there are too many people ahead to navigate through easily, but also because I'm thinking I don't want to waste energy this early. Before long, more uphill action brings us back to earth. This is not
a flat course (more on that later).
: We cross the Key Bridge
going into Georgetown
. Spectators always line this scenic stretch across the Potomac River. This year, instead of going east on M Street -- the upscale shop-and-dine row -- we're diverted west, along the Potomac and past the University
. The female race winner
-- who I later learned was a first-timer marathoner and ex-Hoya
track and field member -- no doubt had her crowd here.
: We can see the faster runners on the other side of the road where the course doubles back. This new section of the course takes us from urban roadway to residential neighborhood. In the Palisades section
of town, spectators view from the front porches of older, pricey homes, and I swear I see a runner making a pit stop at a house.
I've been on Claritin-D since my seasonal allergies came back last Sunday. I'm sniffling more despite three days of rain, but at least I'm not stopped up. Maybe it's just the cold.
I soon sense a hotspot (uh, no
) on the bottom of my left foot, near my small toe. I'm thinking one, this isn't typical, and two, this'll probably nag me for the rest of the day.
: We pass Georgetown Reservoir and head downhill to a turnaround, taking the course alongside the thick stone wall bordering the C&O Canal
. After an hour of running, I stop, take an energy gel and check my left foot.
: Looking across the canal, I watch as older walkers -- and some saner runners -- traverse the towpath
. I'm just a little envious as I get more annoyed at my left foot. I've never had a blister on the sole of my foot before...hoping it doesn't worsen, I try to put it out of my mind.
: I top off my water supply as the course intersects again with the Key Bridge. No runners on the opposite side of the road...we slower runners are it
: We're running along the elevated Whitehurst Freeway, which overlooks the Georgetown Waterfront
. The sun is bright over the course, the temperature doesn't feel cold anymore...it's a gift of superb weather for a marathon.
Later, there's a food station handing out orange slices. Nice...something solid after a diet of water and energy gels. I grab a slice, and find myself negotiating a minefield of squashed orange peels on the road. Sprinting without a pratfall, I wolf down the fruit and throw the peel clear of the foot traffic (I apologize back to the two spectators who narrowly missed getting hit).
: We exit the Freeway, running past the Watergate Hotel
and along the roadway over which extends the Kennedy Center
...familiar turf for most runners and cyclists traveling through Rock Creek Park
to the historic part of town. I pass the water station near the Lincoln Memorial.
: The race heads along Constitution Avenue, with the Washington Monument to the right, and the Ellipse and federal buildings to the left. I've run this stretch weekdays after work on many occasions, only it's nicer to take it by asphalt instead of concrete. One of many bands along the course is playing here. As the high-schoolers perform Louie Louie
, I thank them mentally for not choosing the Chariots of Fire
: We run alongside the National Mall
toward the Capitol Building...another familiar training route for me. I'm starting to question my reserves a little earlier than anticipated. My GPS
split has gone from a 12:00 pace to 13:00. I park just past the water stop to fuel up and check my still-annoying left foot. A runner I once trained with for a previous MCM recognizes me and we briefly chat (he was the second such runner who'd literally run into me today). As I eat, one of MCM's traditions
goes by (another, if he was there today, had probably leap-frogged
past many of us).
Across the street from the Capitol dome, another high school band
r0xx0rs us along.
: The course heads down the other side of the Mall, past the Smithsonian castle
toward the Washington Monument. There's always a gauntlet of spectators here...you can't stretch an arm without slapping someone. A runner with their name on their singlet can count on personalized shouts of encouragement. Today, I'm satisfied with the occasional yelling of 'Diabetes Action!', but my concern continues over my slow decline.
Was this where I heard the bagpipes? There's bagpipes every year. Yeah, I think it's where I heard them.
As we pass the CLIF Shot
food station, I decide to take a packet for insurance. I'm thinking I can entertain myself later with a taste test. My current favorite energy gel is Apple-Cinnamon Carb-BOOM!
. The Apple Pie CLIF Shot I'm handed will have much to live up to, I think as I store it away for later.
: We round the Tidal Basin
, where there's a good number of spectators. My pace has dropped to below 13:00, with the grind of East Potomac Park still ahead. There's a hostile takeover inside me right now. Once energy reserves begin depleting, mental defenses weaken, and my body enters into hollow negotiations with my brain. A five-minute walk will make you feel better...are you sure that's not a blister...what do you hope to prove by all this...as long as you're slowing down...
Only halfway through my marathon, and I'm playing chicken with The Wall
: Crossing over water again, I glance to my right and am somehow able to appreciate the scenery of the Jefferson Memorial and the Washington Monument before me. The route soon veers into East Potomac Park. The park is a peninsula ending at Hains Point, bordered by the Potomac and Anacostia Rivers, over a straight, flat, forever-long mile on either side. Its timing in the marathon almost guarantees tough going for runners low on muscle fuel and/or motivation. Of course, the race's official photographers, hovering on a scaffold above the entrance, are wringing Kodak moments out of people in spite of everything.
Laboring too long through the park isn't a good idea. Three miles ahead, beyond the park, lies the last critical checkpoint of the marathon...the 14th Street Bridge connecting DC and Virginia. Any runners who haven't reached the bridge (short of Mile 20) by about 1:00 PM will be swept off the course, shuttled to the end by straggler's bus to an official non-finish. 'Beat The Bridge' is the unofficial mantra for the MCM.
: I'm stuck in the mid-13:00's for pace, and have shifted into survival mode. My only promise to myself for this marathon was not to walk when I could otherwise run, and that promise is being kept under much duress (the only exception for the day involves coming to a full stop whenever I ingest fuel, so as not to gag comically while in motion).
There's surprisingly few breezes across the Point today, a lucky break for runners who would otherwise get hammered by headwinds.
: We're near the tip of Hains Point
, at the water station before turning around to exit the Park. I grab a couple of cups of water for drinking and bottle-topping when I suddenly go light-headed for a few seconds. I'm willing this away with all my effort. Just last year, there was a fatality -- unknown to me until after I'd gotten home -- back at the entrance to the Park. I've never had a medical episode in any of the marathons I've run, and am not keen on getting pulled aside. I refocus for about 15 seconds (yeah, I checked my watch), water up, and get back to the grind.
I'm passing some runners, other runners are passing me, but I'm able to maintain forward motion in search of that elusive second wind. One good thing...by now my attention is not as focused on my nagging left foot.
: Halfway out of the Park now, and my mind is time-traveling to Mile 20. I'm certain that despite this low point in my race, I'll be crossing the bridge in plenty of time. But the challenge still looms ahead. I thank a lady enthusiastically cheering runners onward the bridge, when just ahead a see a food station, dispensing small bright-colored packets.
. Thank you!
I was doubtful when I first heard of Jelly Belly's carbs-and-electrolytes energy fuel, but an unopened, discarded packet at Mile 21 of my 2006 MCM changed my mind. I had a single packet with me for emergency use much later, so getting an extra pack was double-plus great. I took a packet of orange-flavored Beans and upended the whole thing, chewing laboriously through the sweet Beaniness. I hope soon my brain can rewire itself to climb out of its hole.
Back to work...just eight miles to go. I'm convinced that the 5:27 finish I imagined is out of the question for today...unless I can auto-magically regain a 12:00 pace.
: Out of the Park, and headed for the approach to the 14th Street Bridge. Plenty of spectators there, cheering on those who've practically sealed their marathon deals. A live band riffs The Police's Bed's Too Big Without You
. I'm as pumped as I can get at this stage. To the right, a short, steep ramp leads to race-finishing safety. I think of South Park
as I drive upward.
The four-lane bridge crossing the Potomac is sun-baked and slowly inclining. In my first marathon, I remember seeing wiped-out runners taking fluids intravenously and/or wearing oxygen masks. Medical staff, traveling the shoulder on motorized carts, stays alert here. I'm still able to put my body to work for me, as I continue past others who are reduced to walking, and attempt to play catch-up with younger, faster runners.
: The center of the bridge signals I'm home free. I can technically walk the rest of the way to the finish line with impunity, but I've got running -- slow jog, whatever -- in mind. I'm back up to a 14:00 pace from the two miles of 15:00 I slogged through back at Hains Point. The spectators here, as at Hains Point, are heroes to the runners. A couple offers sugar wafers, which I gratefully accept. Ahead, the bridge descends back into Virginia. I remind myself that I've run the remaining distance before many times...albeit in more comfort.
: Back on dry land, we're headed toward Crystal City's shop-dine-work section. It's an all-day block party here, with a full sound stage and food booths and spectators with BBQ grills. I remember the Apple Pie CLIF Shot energy gel I picked up ten miles earlier, and stop for refueling. The resulting flood of super-sweetness reminded me why I don't prefer CLIF Shots.
: Looping around a building's plaza, the course doubles back past the festival. As I approach the towering stage, Welbilt rocks a swerving, four-bar earworm
which frees my brain of its rice-sugary obsession.
: The Pentagon is dead ahead...only a few more doglegs before I'm running past its parking lots. I note that the lot was the finish line for the Army Ten-Miler
I ran three weeks earlier.
: One last water stop...I grab a cup from one of the many servicemen doing an outstanding job of support and encouragement to the participants. The course then immediately heads down to a familiar stretch...I'm back on Jefferson Davis Highway, the road at which the race began.
It's said that the marathon is two races -- a 20-miler followed by a 6-miler. I'm completely lost in the second race by now. Forgetting about a time goal, less concerned with gear and food. I'm ready for this thing to be over.
Where'd that headwind come from?
: One mile to go, and there are plenty of runners around me. Faster finishers, sporting their medals, have been walking in the opposite direction of our four-lane for a while now. Up ahead, I see other runners turning back toward the Iwo Jima Memorial and the finish line. I swear for a micro-second at being so close to the finish, but having to repeat the uphill of Mile 1 to get there. The course flip-flops at the top of the hill, and takes us down to the home stretch. I'm working hard to keep my form from degenerating due to fatigue. I'm no role model, but I'm thinking I've earned a point or two for my efforts.
: If you're the United States Marine Corps, and you sponsor a marathon, it's not enough to give runners 26 miles of scenic challenge and make the home stretch a piece of cake. Uh-uh. No. There's a short, steep, ass-whuppin' of a hill between runners and the finish line. Either the sight of it reduces you to a head-hanging walk, or it entices you to scrape the bottom of your jelly jar for whatever you've got left. I lean forward and pass my share of others as I put forth my final gut-check of the day. At the top of the hill, toward my right, less than a minute away, lies the promise of a thousand virgins...no. wait, that's not right...
: On another day, I'll remember to exercise the right I'd earned to sprint toward the finish line, or pump my fist in the air and w00t. Today, I'll settle for having come to terms with the marathon an even dozen times. As I lumber across the finish line, the event PA is playing...The Pretenders' Back on the Chain Gang
?! Hang the blessed DJ.
The Aftermath. Or Afterglow. Whichever.
Through a final gauntlet of servicemen, I receive a commemorative space blanket, a finisher's medal placed around my neck and congratulations. With the statue of the Iwo Jima flag-raising as a backdrop, an event photographer takes my picture...the second best experience of the day. Afterwards, I slowly walk through the crowds to the Diabetes Action tent, where I introduce myself to the director, fortify with Gatorade and snacks, and chat with another finisher who traveled from Florida to run (and wrangled a PR for herself). Others are receiving post-race massages...as tempting as it is, I decline and make my way out of the staging area to claim my possessions from baggage check-in.
I put on some outer layers and arrange my super-sized medal over it all. I'll sport this bad boy all the way home, thanks. As I make my way home on the train, a wave of beatdowned-ness comes crashing down. I shouldn't have skipped that second bottle of Gatorade.
Once home, I shower and lay down for what I intended to be a few minutes. Two hours (that felt like six) later, I wake up, check the race results online, and call my folks to let them know how the day went. My celebratory post-race beer can wait another day, I think another two hours later as I Benadryl up and bed down. Next day, I'm at work, relating the race and showing off my racing swag. Sure, my legs are tired, but there's no running for anything
Gun time (from 0800 howitzer to finish line): 6:34:52
Chip time (start line to finish line): 6:14:35 (14:18 pace)
Time moving (start line to finish line): 5:54:22 (13:08 pace)
Time not in motion (start line to finish line): 20:13
My finishing time was neither my best nor my worst, but I got a lot out of this particular race.
What worked against me this year? I've done marathons before where I hadn't hit the Wall. I've also run races through nagging injuries. My 2006 race was the first in a while in which I wasn't hampered by any pain. I'd set my goal very conservatively for that day -- no time goal, and walking when necessary. I had even walked more to support a training partner who was dealing with nagging leg pain. With all that, I managed a 6:05 finish. So, what's with the extra ten minutes of suckage in 2007?
This year, instead of training with an organized group, I trained on my own, which lessened my cross-training with cycling (typically, I'd ride up to eight miles before and after my weekend long runs). I'm convinced that this lessening of activity made a difference in my endurance over six months of training.
As for pace, I also blame myself for having a laissez-faire relationship with my watch. I've known that the only real way to run faster is to train faster. With that, I only worked on speed sporadically and informally all summer. For my long runs, I focused on endurance, but didn't gain enough speed to benefit my overall performance.
From my crash mid-race, I learned more of what my body is capable of. I'm hoping to pull all these lessons together and see if I can benefit next year.
Tinkering with gear this year also made this run interesting:
-- This was my first marathon run in Injinji Tetrasocks
. These socks seemed to lessen chronic toe-related blistering problems in the month before the marathon. However, it apparently means that I have to lubricate my feet differently with them...the left-foot hotspot that nagged me all day long ended up not
turning into a post-race blister or injury.
-- During the summer, I tested the Yankz
elastic lacing system. It was ridiculously handy to be able to turn my running shoes into slip-ons. They worked great in the Army Ten-Miler, and came through again when my left foot cried for attention.
-- Carrying a small amount of water with me made a difference at crowded water stations in 2006. This year, I upgraded
-- For carrying fuel, the SPIBelt
worked insanely well for holding a boatload of gel packets and not getting in the way.
While the marathon itself is a worthy challenge to its runners, it's a bonus to be able to help others in the process. Thanks to everyone who helped me toward my fundraising goal for the Diabetes Action Research and Education Foundation.
And now, your moment of zen