Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Marine Corps Marathon Recap

A Runner's Ramblings: Volume 5; 34th Edition 
907.4 miles raced; 350 yards swam and 9 miles biked in 2010
Race: Marine Corps Marathon
Place: Arlington, VA
Miles from home: 2079 miles
Weather: 60-70s; Bright sunshine; windy

The Marine Corps Marathon has always been a race that has been rather significant to me.  In 2004, it represented a marathon that almost was my last ever as I ran a rather disappointing race and thought maybe marathoning was not my thing.  The next year, it was the last marathon before my taking on 52 Marathons in consecutive weekends and also, a new personal best.  In 2006, it was the second fastest marathon of the 52 (and my life at the time) and showed me the previous race (the actual fastest of the year) wasn’t a fluke.  In 2007, it was my last marathon as a resident of Virginia and again a new personal best.  After a two year hiatus (I did run the first 9 miles last year with a law school classmate before stopping and cheering runners until the last one passed me in Georgetown), this year would be the first time I would go into the Marine Corps Marathon knowing beforehand I would not be going for my fastest time ever.  However, I was hoping to run a 3:02 this year, and if I did, I would have run every time between 3:00 and 3:30.  Not as significant as in previous years but still fun nonetheless.

As I had previously lived in Virginia when I had run the MCM (and right at the mile 2.2 point) I would simply walk from my apartment to the start. Simple as pie.  This year, staying in Alexandria, I knew it would be a little more complicated.  I thought I had it solved.  Unfortunately, I was wrong.  With the morning breaking a little chilly (47 degrees) I decided I would wear a jacket to the start and for the first time ever use the drop-bag situation.  So after driving to a metro station, parking my car and riding the train to the area from which I always walked passed on my way to the start, I began searching for the drop bag station.  As time ticked down to the start, I simply could not find it.  After getting wrong answers from a few people, one Marine manning an aid station definitely told me where the UPS trucks holding the bags were located.  Great!  However, with 10 minutes until the start, they were 1.2 miles away from where I was standing.  Not so great.

I began sprinting toward the trucks.  If this was any other marathon, I would have stashed my bag behind a tree and hoped for the best.  But with so many people around and knowing that you just don’t leave unmarked bags near the race course lest they get thrown away as looking suspicious, I knew I had to get to the trucks.  Finally, after weaving my way through approximately 25,000 people I saw the trucks.  Based on my bib number, I was in truck 00.  The trucks, lined up next to each other were in numerical order.  The first truck was number 34.  Frick.  Sprinting to the last truck, I threw the bag down, thanked the volunteers and began praying that somehow I would make it back to the start before the howitzer fired to start the race.  At top speed, in and out of runners I headed. No where near the start, I heard the big ole gun fire.  Normally, in a chip-timed race this wouldn’t matter. However with thousands of runners between me and the start, I knew I had to try and get as far forward as possible before crossing the starting line. Otherwise I would spend miles upon miles stuck behind hordes of people. 

First 6 miles: 13:46, 6:39, 6:17, 13:34

With 2.5 miles of sprinting prior to the race start under my belt, I knew the day was going to be a challenge.  This could not even be considered a warm-up (something I never do before a marathon anyway), given the intensity with which I was running. Fortunately, I knew every single inch of this course and did not have to think about twists or turns and where they would lead me.  I knew the rises and falls, where to run the tangents and how to run the course. This would save mental energy spent usually on the unknown. I only needed to figure out how to get around all the runners in front of me so I could run those tangents!  I missed the first mile marker in my weaving but when I hit the second mile I could see that even running up the biggest hill of the course I was already ahead of my desired pace for the day.  Then my shoelace came untied.  Seriously?!  That has happened only once like every 30 marathons for me.  However, I took care of it quickly and soon was cruising down Spout Run Parkway toward the Key Bridge.

Man hugs are OK after 202 miles.
Right at mile 4 before crossing said bridge, I passed the 3:10 pace group.  Normally I would have stayed with this group for a bit looking for a few faces I may have known. But with the group being so large I knew I had to use the wide lanes of the Key Bridge to get past them, which I did.  Heading down Canal Road and past miles 5 and 6, I looked to my left at the C&O canal.  The last time my feet were on that crushed gravel was in April during the last few miles of my 202 mile running of the American Odyssey Relay.  I had spent the two previous days at the marathon expo at the AOR’s booth promoting the race and meeting runners who either had run the relay or were planning to do so.  I saw a few of these runners out on the course and exchanged pleasantries where I could.  But I had a race to run and a pace to maintain.

To the Half: 7:07, 6:37, 13:48, 7:06, 7:00, 7:10

Running past the Georgetown Reservoir, I realized I really had to use the bathroom (darn you, large body of water.)  However, I wanted to utilize the downhill portion leading back to Canal Road and slowing down was not an option here.  At the 8-mile marker, a runner asked a volunteer what the running time for the race was.  She answered him and I looked at my watch, trying to figure out how far behind the actual gun time I was.  It appeared to be about three minutes on the nose.  The other runner saw me look at my watch and asked if the volunteer was right.  I told him I was not 100% sure and told him I had started a little late.  He asked my goal for the let him know I was going for 3:02.  His raised eyebrow at such a random goal was not unexpected and I said: “Just go with it.”  Dan was this runner’s name and he was an ultra runner who had just completed running the Vermont 100.  We would spend the better part of the next 6 miles or so running together and enjoying the crowds.  Dan mentioned he would like to run near me and hit a potential three hour time goal.  I welcomed the company and we would speed past the Lincoln Memorial.  The crowds lifted us up and carried u on toward the loneliness of Hains Point together.  But not before I had to stop and retie my other shoe.  Come on!

This would mark the first time I would be running on this flat spit of land in the Potomac River this early in the race, due to course changes.  It would also be the first time I would run the course where Hains Point would be missing the statue called the Awakening.  Moved in early 2008, this statue had always been a bright spot on a part of the course which always seemed to be tough physically and mentally.  However, as I was finally getting myself calmed down after being on hurry-up and pass people mode for miles upon miles, I found a quiet serenity here on this island. A serenity that reminded me I really had to pee. So, I stepped off the course and quickly watered a tree.

As we went through the halfway point, I know I had purposefully pulled back the reins on some of my early mile speeding but I was hoping to hit the half a little faster.  I did not hope this because I was trying the ill-fated “time in the bank” trick which never works but because I simply felt that my effort had garnered a faster time than my 1:29:45 told me I had run.

Beating the Bridge: (Mile 20): 6:52, 7:12, 7:01, 7:07, 7:12, 7:14, 6:46

Mile 14 is, to me, a very significant mile.  After getting through the first half, there is almost inevitably a letdown.  If the mile after that point is a well-run mile it can really set the pace for the rest of the entire second half.  Looking at my watch, I was pleased with this mile - and the next three actually.  I know my pace picked up a touch when I ran through the backside of the Lincoln Memorial and onto Constitution Avenue. I was hoping for a few 6:5x miles but settled for 7:0xs.  However, the crowds were once again in full force and I used a quick wave of the hands and flexing of the biceps to whip them into a frenzy. One must always use the cheers of a crowd wisely.  Let the energy carry you but not carry you away.

I learned that on Thursday the RD of the race found out road construction had closed a 1.1 mile section of the course. He said something akin to “Please. If you wanted to give me a challenge, you would have done this the night before the race.” The course was diverted onto a crushed gravel path next to the street, wooden planks were adhered to street curbs to allow for no tripping and the race went on. Blam. No worries.

Passing in front of the Capitol Building I giggled a bit.  This part of the course has been the same for quite some time and from the air, the outline of the course looks, let’s just say “naughty”.  (Man, are you scurrying to the website to check this out right now aren’t you? I will wait.) Turning back away from the Capitol we ran into the windiest portion of the course so far and I ran my slowest mile of the day.  I had never felt great on this day but I had never felt bad.  This mile took a lot of effort to simply get the time I did and the seeds of doubt were planted.  As we neared the 14th Street Bridge, one of the cruelest portions of any marathon I have run that is also extremely innocuous at the same time, I passed a young man flipping one of those big arrows that said “Mile 20! Beat the Bridge!” I was shocked at my time for this mile even though I had picked up the pace. Then about 30 seconds later I saw the actual mile marker where runners had to get to before 1:45 PM in order to not be moved to the sidewalk for the reopening of the bridge. Nevertheless, I felt if I just maintained 7 minute miles I would get my coveted 3:02.

To Iwo Jima: 7:35, 7:06, 7:09, 8:18, 18:24, 2:01

I knew the 21st mile would be askew a touch given I had hit my watch early on the last mile. But I figured I was right on my desired pace after I did the extrapolating math in my head.  Following a female runner who had passed me at mile 19, I was picking off as many runners as she was as we mowed through the competition. Runners were slowing down and in some cases stopping, as the wind picked up a little bit, the sun sucked energy out of us, and the miles run tired the legs. Mile 22 was just a few seconds off what I wanted but given the rises and falls of the bridge I felt good.  It is quite crazy how many rises and falls there are on this bridge. I have always wondered why it is not either an arch or a straight bridge and why the heck do we have to run across this long ass thing anyway. The grouchies were definitely kicking in.

At mile 23, when we passed through Crystal City and could see runners heading back our way on the other side of the street I though how happy I would be if I was just about a minute ahead of where I was presently, running alongside them.  But alas, I was where I was and I pressed forward.  I was really beginning to tire and the female runner I was following had put a little more distance between us. I was using her as a yardstick as I could not use those I was passing to gauge my speed as many were slowing themselves.  Then it happened.

I have used this metaphor on a few occasions about my sudden loss of energy.  As I approached the 24th mile, I felt like someone stuck a need into my body and sucked out all my energy in one fell swoop. Gone.  I don’t even call it “hitting the wall.” I call it falling through a trap door.  Suddenly, ferociously and without any real warning, my race was done. Or was it?  I walked through an aid station drinking fully from the PowerAde on the course hoping it would sustain me for roughly 15 more minutes of running.  I knew I had slowed a touch and thought that if I hit mile 24 in a 7:45 I could power though, use my endurance and run two sub-7 minute miles to get my 3:02. (I was right on the cusp until this last mile) when I passed mile 24 my watch told me my fate: 8:18 for this mile. NOW, the race was done. I had never had my energy sapped so late in a race before. This usually happens earlier and rarely so swiftly as it did here.

I began to shuffle and walk and jog and curse.  Around the lonely Pentagon parking lot, up an off ramp and down another lonely stretch before coming down an off ramp on the other side of the Pentagon, I trotted.  I was pretty peeved, to be honest. I knew that right around mile 26 of running my body had stopped (if you count my two miles of sprinting right prior to the race.) For all intents and purposes my body had done its part and had delivered me to the 26.2 mile mark right on time. Unfortunately, I had  used two of those miles when they don’t count running to the drop-off bag area.

I passed the 25th mile and just wanted it to be over.  I could see the long stretch of highway in front of me and passed the spot where I had dropped my bag about three hours prior. I knew exactly how much further I had to run. Time slipped away and my 7:00 miles became 9:15 minute miles. Oh well. One last hill. No victory celebration for me today. The only saving grace was to run another 3:09 and qualify for Boston again.  I am not pooh-poohing that achievement but it definitely was not what I was shooting for. I crossed the finish line and almost instantly stopped. Actually, I think I stopped about a foot in front of the finish and my momentum carried me forward. Don’t believe me? Watch the video!

In either case, any marathon finished upright and official is a celebration. I met a plethora of fantastic and inspiring people over the course of the weekend with many potential ideas for new and exciting challenges.
122 marathons down and only one more planned for the rest of the year.

Thank you, Marines for what you do.

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