Grab a chair and a glass of wine; this is probably going to take awhile. For the weekend of October 25-27, The Lady and I journeyed to Washington, D.C. to see our fall marathon training to its apex.
I’ll break this sucker down by day.
Friday, October 25
I had a surprise research meeting (is there any other kind) at 8:30am. The Lady picked me up directly from the meeting to start our drive down to D.C. GMaps indicated a 4-hour drive; with our D.C. hosts busy until 6:30pm, we figured leaving at 10am meant we could afford to poke around and take our sweet, sweet time driving south. We stopped for coffee at a rest stop, and hardly an hour later stopped for lunch at a Bob Evans to do some carbo-loading.
We ended up spending quite a bit more time on the road than planned, especially when we started hitting the Friday afternoon traffic around the outskirts of D.C. Consequently, we didn’t end up getting to the Expo until nearly 5:30pm, a full three hours later than planned. Oops.
Still, we were in luck: the long lines that The Lady had been tracking through the MCM app all day seemed to have vanished temporarily, or at least for the time that we were there. We walked right into the first tent to pick up our bibs, and within minutes were in line to enter the main floor of the Expo.
After a reasonably quick security check, we entered the main floor. Now I’ve been to a lot of race expos, and even a marathon expo before (Philly), but I can’t say I’ve ever been to one with 30,000 runners. It was a sight to behold.
The Lady and I bummed around for a bit, checking out the sights. Brooks was the major sponsor for the event; consequently, they had the entire rear quarter of the floor space to themselves. Despite having literally dozens of registers set up for check-out, the line for purchasing Brooks gear snaked all the way back to the entrance. A poor Brooks employee stood with a brightly-colored stick to demarcate the end of the ever-growing checkout line. While The Lady and I perused the items (Brooks has some pretty quality stuff!) we made sure not to purchase anything, as we had to depart fairly soon.
Around 6:45, we left to meet up with our hosts for the weekend: Emmarie and Chris. They very graciously allowed us to stay with them for the entire weekend. I went to high school with Emmarie, who now works for the NY Times right in D.C. (follow her on Twitter if you like!). We hit up the D.C. food scene, going to a delicious sushi restaurant for dinner and getting caught up with everyone’s lives before passing out for the night.
Nervousness hadn’t quite set in; there was still plenty going on to distract me.
Saturday, October 26
I slept pretty badly that evening. I’m still not sure why. But that certainly started making me nervous: sleep is notoriously hard to come by the night before a big race, but two subsequent nights of fitful sleep just before a big race? I tried to put the thought out of my mind.
Thankfully, with the Expo out of the way, The Lady and I were free to spend the day pretty much how ever we wanted. We went with Emmarie to a local diner to pick up some delicious fruit, beignets, and other brunch-y foodstuffs before meeting up with Emmarie’s parents.
I’ve also known Emmarie’s parents since high school, and they are incredibly warm and lovely people. They hugged and welcomed The Lady–whom they’d only met briefly once over a year ago!–and we gabbed for the hour we spent with them. Sometime in the early afternoon, we had to bail: Emmarie and Chris needed to work on their Halloween costumes for an evening party with a D.C. power couple, and The Lady and I were going for a late lunch with her fundraising group followed by a little touring around the city.
The fundraising lunch was actually quite nice. It’s always a little awkward sitting down with a group of people brought together for only a short time by one particular event, but that very event guarantees some common ground. Plus the restaurant was family-style Italian, so there was plenty of carbohydrates to go around. Everyone we met was very friendly, and we had a lovely time. After filling up on bread, pasta, and just a little bit of salmon, we said our goodbyes and started our trek through the city.
Unfortunately, GPS led us somewhat astray: instead of walking to the Martin Luther King, Jr. memorial, it led us to his library. Completely different parts of town, also. So we opted to hit up the main landmark: the White House.
It was a gorgeous day out, and short though our walk was (didn’t want to be on our legs for too long the day before running 26.2 miles), it was nice to be outside. We took the Metro back; the recommended travel routes to and from the marathon included the Metro and surrounding bus system, so we figured it’d be best to familiarize ourselves with the system before the rush of 30K+ people hit the next day.
The evening was quiet. The Lady and I whipped up our usual pancake dinner, while Emmarie and Chris put the finishing touches on their Halloween costumes for the party (they went as Sydney Leathers and Carlos Danger, respectively). Once our hosts departed for the evening, we pretty much crashed.
Sunday, October 27
Amazingly, I actually slept, and pretty well. No idea how or why, but I certainly wasn’t going to look a gift horse in the mouth (what a bizarre idiom). The Lady and I woke up right around 4:30am and quickly donned our race gear. We had to strike a happy medium, given the low-40s morning temperatures but also considering that it would warm to the mid-50s by the end of the race. Emmarie and Chris were unbelievably awesome, driving us to the Running Village where buses were waiting to take runners to the starting line right next to the Pentagon (they both had work later that day!).
On the bus ride over, we watched a video that started off with a Marine drill sergeant yelling at all of us. That got my adrenaline pumping, to be completely honest.
Soon enough, the Pentagon came into view; we walked through a security checkpoint manned by more Marines; we hit up the porta-potties; then we sat in one of the tents trying to stay warm while hatching our strategies for the race.
My A-goal was still 3:45; unfortunately, my quads had been feeling very run down for the last 48-72 hours for reasons that were unclear. Ultimately, I was gunning for a sub-4 marathon. I figured I’d start with the 3:45 group and hang on for 20 miles if I could, then fall back, ideally still coming in well under 4 hours. The Lady, though in my opinion much more ready for the race than I was, took a more conservative approach due to the ankle injury she sustained not two days before (incredibly, extremely unfortunate timing).
The sun started peeking over the trees, and we found our way to the starting line in time for the National Anthem.
The corrals were self-organizing, set up by expected finish time. The Lady and I situated ourselves right in between the 3:45-3:59 and 4:00-4:19 groups. We were packed in pretty tight; hearing that the race has 30k people and actually seeing it are very different things.
Right at 8am, they fired the howitzer, and the race began!
The Lady and I found the first part of the course confusing: the road was split as you see above. We were on the right-hand side of the image, but the pace groups were all on the other. Soon after, in fact, our route turned into an onramp while the other looped below! After a few seconds of panic that we were on the wrong course, the two met up and merged.
Still, the first five miles were very slow going. We were elbow-to-elbow for most of it. The part that annoyed me was that, despite the corrals being established explicitly by projected finish time, we still passed / almost ran into dozens of walkers who for reasons I cannot fathom lined up way in the front. It was enough of a fustercluck being squeezed together for the first few miles; having to dodge people who should have lined up much further back made tripping a very real possibility (and several did, in fact).
[Important: I have absolutely nothing against folks who want to run their own pace at marathons, whether it’s a 6-minute mile or a 12-minute mile. What I do have a problem with are 12-minute milers lining up next to 6-minute milers at packed racing events. It makes everyone involved unhappy. Just don’t do it.]
Once we crossed the bridge over the Potomac around mile 4, things started to thin out a little bit. The scenery also blossomed: it felt almost like we were running through trails. There was foliage and greenery everywhere; it was beautiful! We did an out-and-back along Potomac Parkway (the turnaround was another fustercluck; it was very narrow, and we both had to slow to a walk for several steps) and made our way to the Lincoln memorial.
Somewhere around this point, The Lady made the executive decision to stop at a line of porta-potties. She and I had both been feeling an urge since the race began, but had chalked it up to pre-race nerves. Unfortunately, the feeling wasn’t going away. I considered stopping as well, but decided to see if a few more miles wouldn’t fix it. We wished each other well and split off.
The scenery just kept getting more and more beautiful. We ran southeast into East Potomac Park, bordering the river every step of the way. At some point near mile 11, I made a similar executive decision and stepped off into some bushes. I cannot describe how much better I felt after the fact.
It was around this time that we started passing a memorial set up by a group of MCM volunteers to commemorate the Marines who had died in the line of duty. There were pictures of each, often with family or pets, with descriptions underneath. Some runners stopped off in front of one or another to pause for a few minutes before continuing. In the grand scheme of things, it made this marathon seem trivial; or, put another way: the least I could do is put my heart and soul into this race and be satisfied with the outcome, no matter what.
The halfway point came and went: 1:59:58. I’d been hammering an 8:30 min/mi pace ever since mile 5 without even realizing it. After months of ignoring my watch, it’d become ingrained in me at this point to run by feel. But with The Lady having dropped off, I was having a harder time gauging how fast I should be going. I would latch onto runners, only to pass them and latch onto another one.
As we made our turn out of the park and into the mall near mile 15, I caught a glimpse of something ahead: the 4:00 pace group! My heart leapt and I got really excited. I knew those first few miles had really pushed us pretty far back by virtue of sheer volume, so the fact that I’d caught up to the pace group was exhilarating. Furthermore, it guaranteed that I could stick by someone without glancing at my watch, without worrying if I was going too fast or too slow. There was even another SCRR shirt in the group; we chatted for a bit.
I was feeling tired, but still pretty strong. We passed right in front of the Capitol building.
Now, before I go any further, let’s take a quick aside to the Philly Marathon from last year. It was a bad performance for me; I’d dealt with a lot of stress in the month leading up to it, not to mention a pretty severely twisted ankle a month out that kept me off my feet for a week. This affected my running quite a bit. Couple that with an utterly sleepless night right before the race, and my performance as a function of mileage looked something like a linear function with negative slope; I felt progressively worse as the miles wore on.
Back to MCM: I felt really good, riding a solid 9:05ish pace for the first 20 miles (really, the last 15 miles were closer to 8:40, with the first 5 miles having been 9:30-9:45 due to volume). But right around mile 20, something went wrong. Having never really happened upon this before, the most likely explanation would seem to be that I ran smack into The Wall. For those familiar with the curve, it felt much more like the charge-discharge lifecycle of lithium-ion batteries; I was fine until, suddenly, I wasn’t.
Both quadriceps seized up, forcing me to walk. I had just arrived at “the bridge” (CTRL+F “beat the bridge”). I saw the 4:00 pace group move ahead…and I knew I wouldn’t be able to follow, so I focused on breathing and letting them go.
I suppose this is where all the stress-reduction techniques I’d been working on the last couple of months came into play. I’d been in this situation before: I knew I was ready, that I was physically capable of conquering the task I’d placed before myself, but that something wasn’t clicking quite right. And in some of those previous situations, I reacted by trying to reject that reality entirely (and substitute my own), which frankly almost always resulted in intense anger and frustration. [sarcasm] And we all know how much burning the candle at both ends helps! [/sarcasm]
I could have done that. I could have said: f this, I’m pushing to beyond the breaking point, because if I don’t beat my own B-goal that makes me a BAD PERSON. And when I inevitably failed to achieve that goal (negative feedback loops, etc), I would have berated myself and drowned the positives of the entire event into one simmering heap of self-loathing.
That never happened. And the decision for it not to happen was never really a struggle, either. My best guess?
Marines were everywhere. They manned every single aid station, stood along the course with the spectators, and participated in every single aspect of the race from packet pick-up to finish line clean-up. And their enthusiasm never once wavered: they absolutely loved high-fiving runners, and were just as enthusiastic for you as they were for the runner just before.
I had 6.2 miles to go; I was far, far ahead of the sweeper buses that we had to “beat” over the bridge, so I was in absolutely no danger of not finishing, even if I walked the rest of the way (which I knew I wouldn’t). I was on the course until I finished.
Those 6.2 miles would be really hard, I knew. But damn, just look at where I was! Running a marathon with 30,000 other people, thousands more spectators–many of whom put their lives on the line as a living, by the way–and to boot, it was a gorgeous freaking day in the nation’s capitol.
You better believe I pressed on.
Of course it was bloody hard. I walked/ran those miles; sometimes I walked because one or both quad was seizing; sometimes I walked because I was out of breath; sometimes I walked because I had absolutely nothing left in the tank. But I always started running again, albeit at an 11-12 minute pace. I was determined to finish standing up in whatever the best time I could possibly finish in, even if it was 15 minutes over my previous time. There was no specific time that would make me proud; rather, that I finished standing up, knowing I couldn’t have possibly gone any faster; that’s what would make me proud.
The miles clicked by. so. slowly. I was convinced that The Lady had already passed by and I just hadn’t seen her. As mile 25 came into view, I told myself: run this last mile, the whole thing. Even if it’s slow, just run it.
There must be something about this level of pain that makes your brain forget it a few months later. I know the last 6.2 miles of the Philly Marathon hurt, but in retrospect you can, remarkably easily, convince yourself that you “still could have pushed a little faster.” No. No you couldn’t have, and no you can’t. I was doing a 9:30 mile–normally my super-easy, super-relaxed pace–and absolutely could not push any faster. My calves, my hamstrings, and my quads were all on the verge of total failure; on each step, they threatened that it could very well be the last one they cooperated on.
The turn into the finish was the hardest: the last 0.2 was straight uphill.
But as anyone who knows me is aware, I don’t walk the hills. I summoned everything that was left and powered up the hill, past quite a few people who stopped to walk. With so many spectators and Marines surrounding us, cheering and encouraging us, my adrenaline was peaking: there was nothing left to do except power up this hill!
I finished with a time of 4:17.23, 8 seconds faster than my Philly time.
We walked for a bit, going through several passages where we picked up extra sleeves (temperature regulation), water and sports drinks (FYI, the Gatorade “recovery” stuff is actually kind of gross), food (MRE-like packages stuffed with high-protein snacks, bananas, other fruit), and what we all came for: the medals.
Marines were handing them out personally. Some even saluted us after putting them around our necks. Countless other Marines lined up to shake our hands and congratulate us as we passed. It was, in a word, incredible: these people do something far more dangerous and exhausting for a living, and yet they were congratulating all of us. It was humbling.
I spent the next hour trying to keep my legs from locking up. I walked around quite a bit, but also sat to drink and eat. Eventually they calmed down enough that I could get from one place to another with relatively little trouble. The Lady had ended up stopping around mile 18 due to complications with her ankle injury; I and everyone else knows it was the smartest decision possible on her part–live today to run tomorrow–but if you know her in any respect, please go and wish her a speedy recovery. She was in far better shape than I to kick MCM’s ass, but DNF’ing always sucks. She arrived at the finish line sometime around 3pm, at which point we headed back to Emmarie and Chris’ place to clean up.
At almost 5pm, we hit the road for home…but not before stopping at Buffalo Wild Wings for some well-earned beer and wings!
I’ll admit: I wanted a better time at this race. I really thought I could snag sub-4 hours (though coming within 8 seconds of a previous marathon time is impressive on its own; try planning to exactly match any previous marathon time). There are a lot of reasons why this didn’t happen. I’m sure, given all the issues with stress I was having back in July and August in particular, those were underlying my performance to an extent. But to be perfectly blunt, I think I may have inadvertently sabotaged my own marathon performance during the track workout I mentioned in a previous post. After that workout, my quads never quite felt strong again, and they were the first muscles to give in the final 6.2 miles of the race.
But, I don’t regret it. 2013 has been a difficult running year for me; by comparison, 2012 was a year of invincibility. Everything I ran turned to PR. This year also started off strong, but began to crumble with my IT band injury just before the Pittsburgh half in May. That sidelined me for nearly a month before I finally started getting my mojo back in late June. Of course, by then it was full-speed-ahead for my thesis proposal, which was likely the trigger for the stress-related problems that plagued the first half of marathon training. 2013 has had precious few bright spots for me running-wise; I wouldn’t take back the psyche boost of running a 5:58 mile.
There have been other bright spots in 2013, including both 5K and 10K PRs. But my long-distance confidence definitely took a hit, and it’s been slow going rebuilding that. Even so, I can honestly say I’m proud of my MCM performance. While it’s true I ran it in basically the same time as Philly, that’s pretty much where their similarities end. As I mentioned before, my performance at Philly tapered off by the mile; by contrast, I was strong through 20 miles at MCM. Furthermore, I didn’t freak out when things took a bad turn. Instead, I stayed solidly in the moment, which has easily been my biggest problem throughout this training cycle. I soaked up the crowds, the signs (my favorite being “If it was supposed to be easy, it’d be called your mom”), the sights, the music, and most of all, the Marines who came out to support us. And even when I did physically implode, my confidence never wavered: I knew I’d finish eventually, but in the meantime I was going to enjoy being among my fellow runners doing what I loved.
In some sense that I can’t really explain, I wanted to stay out there as long as I possibly could. I was loving every minute, which is a very healthy shift away from the “finish as fast as possible” mantra my brain had settled into previously. Simply put, MCM was an improvement over my Philly performance in every facet except the finishing time (ok so technically an 8-second improvement there, too). I call that a resounding win in my book (especially after reading this article from Runner’s World [credit to The Lady for pointing me to it!]).
As for what’s next, I honestly don’t know. There are a couple 5K/10K races in late November / early December. I know The Lady wants a crack at another marathon when she gets healthy, so the possibility of a summer marathon isn’t out of the question. We’re already registered for the Pittsburgh half, and over New Year’s we’ll likely register for the Air Force half again. I know I’ll be focusing on my mid-range game; my half marathon PR is going to turn a full two years old come the next half, and I want to make sure I’m in a position to crush it. I’d also like to finally nail the elusive sub-20 minute 5K.
Ultimately, I want to build on my MCM performance. There are a lot of things I liked about it. Of course I’m disappointed in my time, and it’s still tough when people ask how the marathon went; saying “Great!” isn’t true, but neither is “Ugh”. The most accurate one-liner is “I didn’t get the time I wanted, but it was still an awesome race and I’m proud of my performance.”
Such is life, I suppose!
(you can read The Lady’s report here)