For those of you who want to cut to the chase, here’s the 30-second mini-recap: Race day weather for the 38th running of the Marine Corps Marathon was perfect and everything leading up to the race went smoothly. The first 30K went according to plan, but then I bonked HARD. I didn’t get my A, B, or C goal, and actually exceeded the time from my first marathon by 1 minute. It was a very disappointing race, especially following such a great training cycle. Since race day, however, I’ve been focusing on staying positive, gleaning valuable lessons, etc. Read on for the full story!
Stats – chip time: 4:33:57 (10:27/mile)
627/1680 AG, 3517/9992 F, 10733/23534 overall
The Gypsy Runner and I left for the east coast on Wednesday. On Friday morning, I took a long metro ride to the DC armory to pick up race goodies. There was a huge line outside the bib pick-up tent, where I waited about 45 minutes. Upon entering the tent, it only took me 2 minutes to get my bib. Then, I had to wait in another line to get into the expo to pick up my race shirt. The second line took 15 minutes. It was slightly frustrating to have to wait in so many lines but I was grateful for the relatively decent weather and that I had dressed warmly. After picking up my race shirt, I made a mad dash around the Brooks store because I was running late to meet the GR and my sister for lunch. I picked out a comfy hooded sweatshirt in 3 minutes, but then spent another 20 minutes in the checkout line! It seemed like endless lines, but I’ve heard that it’s usually worse on Saturday. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to check out many of the booths because I was already running late, but it seemed like a pretty typical big marathon expo from what I could see.
Day Before the Race (Saturday)
Since I grew up in the Maryland/DC metro area, I had a lot of friends I wanted to see while I was there. My sister graciously allowed me to host a potluck/BBQ at her house. It was a really low-key and fun gathering. I caught up with friends while carb loading like a fiend. KS even brought me a good luck cake — I was so touched! The party ended early enough for us to clean-up, come up with a spectating plan, and get to bed by about 9:30-10:00 p.m.
Race Morning! (Sunday)
I woke up at 4:30 a.m. to 42F temps (47 “real feel”) — a huge improvement over the 35 degrees I did my shakeout run in just 2 days earlier. I ate 1/2 of a PB & J on a Trader Joe’s English muffin and a banana and drank 1/4 cup of coffee and a glass of water. Nothing makes me feel more OCD than race day morning, from eating a very precise breakfast to applying and reapplying Body Glide. By 5:35 a.m., GR, JS, and I were at the Shady Grove metro station and on our way to the race. I covertly ate the rest of my PB & J during the metro ride because you’re not supposed to eat or drink on the metro. (Shhh! Don’t tell anyone!) We arrived at the Pentagon metro station a little after 6:30 a.m., but as soon as we stepped out onto the platform, there was a mass of bodies not moving anywhere. The bottleneck was at the fare gates, and it took us about 10 minutes just to exit the station.
Once we were out of the station, we followed the mass of people towards Runner’s Village. I was really happy to have GR and JS with me and my excitement about the race was growing. When we got to Runner’s Village, GR and JS had to get their bags searched, but there was hardly any wait. We came to a long row of porta potties and I got in line. 15 minutes later, I was done and ready to head to the start. I had already been warned about the walk — easily 1-1.5 miles from the metro station to the start, but in my excitement, I didn’t mind. Everything had been going so smoothly, and I hoped that it would continue on that same note for the rest of the race. Around 7:20, paratroopers jumped out of planes holding banners. One of them held a 7800 square foot American flag, which was pretty impressive. We gawked, then after taking a few final pre-race photos near an official MCM sign, I said good-bye to GR and JS and headed for the 4:00 pace group.
It was about 7:30 a.m., 25 minutes before the start of the race, when I began weaving through the crowd. I noticed that both sides of the highway were available, so I went over to the less crowded, left side and lined up across from the 4:00 projected finish tower. While I was waiting, I started conversing with a father and son next to me. It was the father’s 3rd MCM and the son’s first. The father advised that we get in front of the black barricades that were randomly only on our side of the highway – a wise move, since it did not look like they had any intention of removing them once the race started, and then we would’ve been stuck at a very tight bottle neck.
The howitzer cannon sounded for the hand cycle and wheelchair race to start, and then our race started about 5 minutes later. I wished the father and son good luck and they returned the favor. After 6 minutes of slow walking, I finally reached the start mat and thus began my 2nd marathon!
Mile 1-4: Northern Virginia Concrete Trails
I’m calling this section a “trail run” because of the elevation and the obstacles, er, I mean people. The first 2 miles are a continuous climb and amazingly, people had already started walking. Even though I was warming-up at a conservative pace and starting with a group supposedly much faster than me, there was a still lot of traffic to dodge. I dumped my Pepto Bismol-colored sweatshirt in mile 2. Once we crested the hill, I followed my game plan and concentrated on letting gravity take over on the downhill. I took my first Clif Blok at mile 3. There was a scenic stretch at mile 4 next to the Potomac River, where I finally felt like I was starting to settle into some kind of rhythm.
Mile 5-9: Georgetown and Rock Creek Park
We came out of the quiet, riverside scenery to crazy crowds on the Key Bridge and into Georgetown. I can see why this section is often touted as a favorite by many MCM runners — there are a lot of spectators and the more classical architecture is a welcome change of pace compared to Rosslyn.
Entering Rock Creek Park, the course narrowed and consequently, things got very congested again. This was the first of many out-and-back sections of the course, and the only time I got to see the race leaders heading the other way. After 6 miles, I took my first Gu. The “out” section seemed to take forever, mostly because I was looking forward to seeing AC and LGS, my first spectators, at the turnaround. About 200 meters from the turn, I heard someone calling my name. I looked left and saw AC and LGS screaming and waving, holding cut-outs of my face on the end of sticks. I got to see them again after the turnaround, and I cracked up at their crazy but awesome antics. It certainly got my attention! Seeing AC and LGS lifted my spirits for the rest of the way out of Rock Creek Park. I took my 2nd Clif Blok at 9 miles. Pace-wise, I was going pretty much according to plan (averaging 9:45/mile), but occasionally going a tad faster. My breathing was well under control, so I wasn’t too worried that I was going too fast.
Mile 10-17: Ohio Drive, Hains Point, and the Tidal Basin
I headed down Ohio Drive, behind the Kennedy Center. I was really excited about seeing JS and GR around mile 10.5. The only problem was that I didn’t know which side they would be on, and there were a TON of spectators here. I kept looking to my left, but I later found out that they were on the right side. D’OH. I kept looking for them even as I headed into East Potomac Park and the number of spectators dropped to zero.
I was pretty despondent about not seeing JS and the GR, then I got even more depressed as I saw all of the signs placed on the course in memory of fallen soldiers. This section was flat, monotonous, and nearly spectator-free, but I was grateful that at least it wasn’t windy since it was very exposed and right on the Potomac River. At 12 miles, I took my 2nd Gu. Right before the turnaround at Hains Point, I crossed the 20K mat, and then soon after that, the half marathon mat at 2:10. I also saw that I had run 0.2 miles more than I should’ve at that point. So much for running tangents and not weaving too much!
I was keeping pace, but I was starting to feel the first inkling of fatigue, which worried me. I felt a tap on my shoulder and turned to see the son I had met at the start. He must have pulled off to take a bathroom break and was running to catch up with his dad, who was about 15-20 feet ahead of me. I considered asking to join them for a stretch, knowing that they had similar time goals, but I could see they were keeping up a faster pace than I felt would be prudent. So, after a quick smile and a wave, I watched them pull away. About this point, I was starting to feel a bit gross (nauseous maybe?), so I decided to hold off on my 3rd Clif Blok by a mile (16 miles instead of 15). Even then, I ate the Blok in 3 separate bites because my breathing had become more labored, to the point I was afraid I might choke if I ate the whole thing in one bite. I slowed down a bit to grab a drink at the water station after mile 16, and that was when I felt a subtle change in my gait and a break to my rhythm.
Mile 18-20: The National Mall
This section, the crown jewel of the MCM course, included the Smithsonian museums, the U.S. Capitol, the Washington Monument, and huge crowds. I was really hoping for a boost by seeing the GR and JS here, along with my brother-in-law BO, my niece, and nephew. However, when I saw the immense crowds, I realized how tough it would be to find them. By some small miracle, I heard my niece yell my name just as I was passing them on my right side and I got to say hi very quickly to her and BO. As happy as I was to see them, I was also confused as to why JS and the GR weren’t with them. As I was pondering that, I heard the GR yelling my name — he had been screaming my name over and over, but I only heard him after I had already passed him and JS. I looked over my left shoulder, waved, and hoped to see them again on my way out of the Mall. (Sidenote: my sister made a short video of me running past them and I can tell that I’m really tired from my shuffling gait.) Somewhere in this stretch, the 4:15 pace group passed me. I tried to stay with them briefly, but knew I could not keep up. Is there anything sadder during a race than watching your target pace group gradually pull away?
I was starting to get very tired. I remember approaching the U.S. Capitol and thinking, “There’s the Capitol Building. Oh great, there’s a photographer. Try not to look like death.” I managed to see JS one last time as I left the Mall, but missed the GR entirely. My hopes for a smooth race were slowly unraveling as my pace dropped by almost a minute per mile by the end of this section.
Mile 21-24: 14th Street Bridge, Crystal City
The one cut-off for MCM is the 14th Street Bridge. If runners don’t make it to the bridge by 1:05 p.m., they’re forced to stop running and shuttled to the finish line. I was well ahead of the cut-off, but fading fast. I had read that the 14th Street Bridge was one of the most despised areas of the course, given the lack of spectators, the exposed and ugly expanse of highway, and its position in the course just after the dreaded wall. Sure enough, people started dropping like flies. There were many runners pulled over to the sides walking or stretching. Even though I was struggling mightily and was having a really hard time breathing, I ran onto the bridge determined not to walk. As the bridge went on, however, I was breathing so hard that I felt like I was almost having an asthma attack. My heart rate was through the roof, even though I was trudging along at 11:00/mile. Looking back, I don’t know what happened here — whether I started bonking (I was still taking in fuel, but at a very slow rate), freaking out about my fear of bonking and not PR-ing (and thus, hyperventilating), and/or if my head cold from the week before, partnered with fall allergies, finally caught up with me. I finally allowed myself a short, 30-second walk break. On one hand, taking a walk break was what I needed to reset. On the other, it set the stage for more and more walk breaks. I eventually took about 5 more, not including water stops. With every walk break I took, I felt my PR slipping away. I alternated between feeling defeated, being mad at myself, and feeling completely apathetic. I searched deep for mantras (e.g., “This Mile”, “I’m strong”) , which would carry me for about 30-60 seconds before I slipped back into negative thoughts. My inner drill sergeant yelled, “Is this what you trained 600+ miles over the last 18 weeks to do? To let your PR slip away so easily? Where is your PRIDE, Jen? Don’t waste all of the effort you put in to THIS day, THIS moment.” Unfortunately, instead of firing me up, it just made me feel more depressed and defeated. I should note that no point did I even think of quitting — I was definitely going to finish the race, so at least there’s that.
After finally making it over the bridge, I headed into Crystal City for the longest 2-mile out-and-back section there ever was. There was a slight but noticeable hill there too, which made it even more tortuous. The streets were lined with screaming spectators, but I had lost all ability to gather any energy from them. I was still holding on to my 3rd and final Gu, taking small bites at a time. Altogether, I think it took me 3-4 miles to finish that Gu, which seems like a pretty good indicator that I was bonking. The one thing I looked forward to were the water stops, so that I could take a walk break without feeling guilty. At one point, I saw an unofficial water stop and ran up to a spectator holding out a cup. As I grabbed it, he said, “Beer!” I didn’t think it was a good idea, but I also didn’t think things could get any worse, so I took a sip and threw the rest out. It tasted gross like cheap beer often does, but also kinda good. To balance out that indulgence, I skipped the Dunkin’ Donuts munchkins (donut holes) at Mile 24.
Mile 25-26.2: Highway to hell
Leaving Crystal City, I kept making little deals with myself not to walk, but then I would eventually succumb to walk breaks. If the 14th Street Bridge was a dead zone, this stretch was full of gimpy zombies. People all around me were struggling as we passed the Pentagon. I was getting passed by a lot of people, but I was also passing a few runners here and there. With only 2 miles to go, I was still hoping to at least match my CIM time (4:32:39), even if I couldn’t PR. It was technically possible, but not at the rate I was going. I allowed myself one final walk break at the last water stop before the final push. Unfortunately, my calf and foot started cramping and I had to take another break.
In my opinion, the most depressing section of the MCM course is having to run by the Runner’s Village/Starting Area after 25 miles, then having to push on a bit further. It was like a bad case of déjà vu. I continued to have trouble catching my breath and was audibly heaving. As I desperately searched for the 26 mile marker, I happened to look to my right and saw the one and only Bart Yasso, cheering on the mass of
zombies runners. I was so confused and wondered if I was hallucinating. (I did confirm later that Mr. Yasso was indeed cheering us on at mile 25.8.)
After finally hitting the 26 mile marker, the course turned left and up the infamous hill. Before getting to the hill, I thought I would run it, but after taking a few short steps, I knew it would be faster for me to walk. Slightly ashamed, I put my head down as I trudged up the hill… but I wasn’t too ashamed to give the Marines on the sidelines high-fives. They cheered me on, encouraging me with, “You’re almost there!” and “You’ve got this!” When I finally got to the top, I jogged the last 0.1 mile to the finish line. There were bleachers set up at the finish area for spectators, but I didn’t even look up due to my tired and despondent state. I focused on moving forward, relieved that I was finally crossing the finish mat, but also so exhausted that I could only manage a lack luster half-fist pump. (You can see some of the finish footage here. I’m crossing the first mat at ~2:23 in the video, on the very right hand side of the road, wearing a teal hat.) I looked down to stop my watch, which read 4:33:58, more than a minute off of my marathon debut at CIM last year.
After the race, I walked, walked, and walked some more. The first stop was to retrieve my finisher’s medal from a Marine lieutenant, who donned the medal around my neck and shook my hand. Instead of pride, I felt relieved to be finished. Even though I didn’t feel triumphant, I still decided to pose for finisher’s photos because I didn’t want to regret skipping it later.
My vision went really bright all of a sudden — it was as if I finally noticed how sunny it was and everything went white. It was bizarre and luckily went away after a few minutes. I got a phone call from the GR saying that he missed watching me cross the finish line despite his best efforts — as it turned out, he had a very frustrating 4.5 hours as well. It’s a long story, but I’ll probably write a separate post about spectating at MCM. Anyway, I was quite discombobulated, not understanding where he was or where my sister and her family were. I told him my location and he said he would try to find me. I thought we were supposed to meet up at the family link-up area anyway, so I continued through the finish area, gathering Gatorade recovery (gross), bottles of water, a Fitful box full of snacks, bananas, and a finisher’s jacket.
I hobbled over to the family link-up area — I had probably walked over a mile by this point — and found the GR. (My family was in another area. Like I said – long story.) We hugged and he tried to explain to me what happened to him at the finish area, but I was still in a pretty confused and self-pitying state. I will confess to shedding a tear or two due to my disappointing showing, while simultaneously recognizing that it was a bit silly to cry about not getting the marathon result I wanted. It’s definitely a first world runner problem. I allowed myself a tiny pity party, but also didn’t want those feelings to take over. After all, I had just finished a marathon in my hometown, in front of my family and long-time friends, on a beautiful fall day. I didn’t hurt myself, no acts of terrorism occurred, and I would (eventually) learn a lot from this experience. I didn’t best Oprah’s time, but as Mike pointed out, Oprah has only run one marathon and I’ve finished two now. Take that, Oprah! 😉 Anyway, I went out with big goals and fell short, but at least I tried and for that, I’m proud.
In the interest of keeping this recap from becoming a novella, I’ll write separate posts about post-race analysis/reflections (HERE) and spectator tips. Here’s the usual stuff re: logistics:
Organizers: The United States Marine Corps
Cost: $99, a downright bargain considering that it’s the 3rd largest marathon in the U.S. The 2013 race sold out in less than 3 hours. 2014 registration will be done via lottery, which opens on February 19, 2014.
Distance: 26.2 miles (my Garmin read 26.47)
The Course: The biggest hill is in the first 2 miles, followed by the hill in Crystal City. All of the other hills are very gradual, with the area around the National Mall being completely flat. There is a sharp incline at mile 26. The entire course is run on paved roads, though some are in better condition than others (e.g., potholes and cracks, etc.). Total elevation gain was ~1200′.
As mentioned above, I wasn’t a fan of some sections of the course, notably the areas in Northern Virginia and the out-and-back to Hains Point. Re-running a half-mile section of the course at the end of the race was another low-light. On the positive side, Georgetown, Rock Creek Park, and the Mall were very scenic. It was cool to finish just short of the Marine Corps War Memorial (a.k.a., the Iwo Jima statue). The number of spectators were amazing. I’ve never high-fived so many people in my life.
Gear: I started the race wearing a tank top, shorts, arm warmers (made from Target knee high socks), a huge throwaway sweatshirt, compression socks, a running hat, and a buff over my ears. I shed the sweatshirt in the first 2 miles and removed the buff after 9. The arm warmers were perfect and I kept them on the whole race. I wore Merrell Pace Gloves, which worked great; no problems or complaints.
Transportation: There was parking at Crystal City, but I didn’t want to chance taking a shuttle, so we took the metro instead. Besides the congestion getting in and out of the stations (both before and after the race), it worked out well. Getting out of the Pentagon metro by 6:45 a.m. gave me plenty of time pre-race to use the porta potties, walk to the start, and position myself in the corrals.
Aid stations: 12 water points featuring Gatorade at the front and water in the back, usually on both sides of the course. The food stations offered orange slices, Clif Shots, Jelly Belly Sports Beans, and Dunkin’ Donuts munchkins. They had huge tubs of Vaseline ready at the medical aid stations. I also saw spectators handing out everything from pretzels to beer to tissues.
Bathrooms: Plenty at Runner’s Village, in 2-3 spots scattered in the parking lot before the starting corrals. There were also plenty closer to the front of the corrals. Ironically, the Brooks VIP bathroom (if you spent over $200 at the expo) had the longest line!
Swag: A very unique mock turtleneck made out of heavy technical fabric, an iron-on patch with the MCM logo, and a very nice finisher’s medal with a rotating center.
Misc.: The one thing that really impressed me about MCM were the pre-race communications. They had an active and responsive social media/internet presence and emailed me about 3-4 times regarding the race. Race day logistics were great and the post-race food was decent. I appreciated that they gave us bags to hold all of our food and drinks. The disposable finisher’s jacket they gave us at the end was also a nice alternative to heat blankets.
Summary: MCM was very well-organized and the course is quite nice in parts but not so great in others. I’ve discovered that I’m not a fan of huge races — the crowds are just too much for me. That said, it was a great experience. I’m sure that if I had any ties to the military, it would have meant even more.