Potomac River Run Marathon 2009

May 3rd, 2009

What do you do when your race is cancelled halfway through the experience?

I suppose I should backtrack a bit. After scratching the Philadelphia Marathon in November 2008, followed up by gallbladder removal surgery in early December, I more or less had to start over when it came to training this January. I knew I would need about four months to really get the distance back up, so I signed up for the Potomac River Run Marathon scheduled for May 3rd. It’s a small marathon, in its sixth year, with less than 1000 people signed up.

I got up to 18 miles in early March, then ran the National Half Marathon with pretty good results. Since then, though, I’ve been having some slight issues between a strained tendon and just general free time. After the marathon I tried the run-two-12-milers (instead of one 20 miler) plan, and while I’d hoped to get one more long distance weekend in between it and the marathon, other problems kept it from happening.

So, I knew going into the marathon that I wouldn’t pick up a PR. It was a little disappointing because while 2007’s PR was a good finish time, I also knew I could’ve done better had it not been for the infamous "Greg almost gets hit by a car" incident and I was looking forward to break it. But it just wasn’t in the cards, and with feeling sick and run down the day before, it more or less cinched my feelings that I shouldn’t even try to do so.

Meanwhile, in what was a strange turn of events, seven days before the marathon, the race director sent out an e-mail about the start of the race. It was scheduled to start at 7am and run until 1pm. However, the National Park Service had issued them their permit and instead they had to be done by 11am. So, the start time of the race was changing; there was now an "open start" and you could head out any time between 5:30 and 7am. (The sun itself doesn’t rise until a little after 6am, I might add.) Now, I knew I wasn’t running a sub-4 hour marathon, it just wasn’t in the cards. So, I talked it over with Charlie, and we got to the race site (he was running the half marathon) a little after 5:30, and headed over the start line at 5:44am even as we were drizzled on.

The Potomac River Run Marathon is a slightly odd course; you run along the Mount Vernon Trail, and if you’re tackling the half marathon option you head out approximately 6.55 miles, turn around, and run back. If you’re running the full marathon, you do that twice. Once the rain stopped about two miles into the course, it was actually really pretty. Just a lot of beautiful scenery involving the Potomac River and wildlife. A lot of rolling hills, unfortunately, but oh well. Also, bizarrely, no mile markers aside from miles 1, 13, 14, 25, and 26. (And of course, me without my Garmin.) So, I just look my time, and enjoyed the experience.

I got back to the start and prepared to head out a second time, when Charlie ran up next to me and started jogging along side. "I need to let you know something," he said. "They cancelled the race."

I almost stopped dead in my tracks. "What?" I sputtered. Was my attempt to run my eighth marathon forever doomed to failure?

"The National Park Service shut them down and they turned off the clock," he said. "But the water stations and such are going to still be out there, so don’t turn off your watch."

I was flabbergasted. And for a split second, I seriously thought about quitting, I was so angry. Had I been going for a personal record with this race, I might have actually done so (and regretted it later). But instead I shook my head and kept going. But the wind was definitely out of my sails. The second half was a bit slower in spots for me, especially because I was worried about the mystery calf twinges that happen if I push too hard on hills—and this is one really hilly course.

So, I took it easy on the hills, taking short walk breaks sometime as necessary to make it up their inclines. I had a nice surprise around what may or may not have been mile 19, with Julie at one of the aid stations. I’d not told anyone to come out, because of the whole rain factor. I hit the turn around, got a salt packet from Julie on my way back through and then pushed on.

That’s when it started pouring rain. Between the rain and needing to take some walk breaks on the hills, it was an ugly return; it rained the entire way back, over six miles of it. But the one nice thing was that because I wasn’t pushing myself as hard as I might have otherwise, I wasn’t exhausted or beaten down. One knee was a tiny bit sore, but nothing that would’ve kept me from running. Mostly I was just trying to avoid injury, and heading through. I ended up running part of the last mile with Charlie who was waiting for me there; it was with maybe half a mile to go that I finally got my first "calf twinge" of the race, and all things considered that’s not too bad. I hit the finish line at 4:43:05. Not a PR, but also faster than my second-best race (4:46 in Florence, Italy), and that other race was one where it was pulling teeth to get that finish time.

One funny thing was when I hit the mile 25 sign, I looked down at my watch, and it said 4:29:06. In other words, my PR from a year and a half ago. If only there was some way to skip that last 1.2 miles.

After the race was over, Charlie had some additional information about the race closure. A Park Service employee told him that there were too many people compared to what their permit said, and that there were problems with some of the other technical aspects of using the trail. I haven’t heard the race’s version of what happened, and no doubt the reality is somewhere between the two. (For instance, the NPS employee told Charlie that the number of people was "600 more than allotted" but with all the threat of rain, and having actually been out there, if there were even 500 people actually running this morning I will be shocked and amazed.)

Apparently Charlie saw about five full marathoners come to the turn around and discover that it was officially cancelled (but that they could keep running), and three of them promptly quit. Which does, if nothing else, explain what happened to the two really fast runners I saw heading back while I was heading out the first time. (I’d figured they were just running the half marathon.) I can certainly understand, especially since the two I saw were both clearly professional runners. Why push yourself when you can save the effort for a different marathon in a week or two instead and try and pick up that cash prize?

Afterwards, I picked up my medal across the street from the hastily erected post-race tent, tried to warn people away from the nasty HEEP sports drink the race director kept pushing on people, and went home. If the Potomac River Run Marathon survives to next year, will I run it again? Absolutely not. It’s too bad, it’s a beautiful course if difficult. But honestly, just the lack of mile markers is reason enough to avoid it in my book. All the rest of the difficulties this year just flags it in my head as a race to skip, unfortunately. And for all I know, it won’t even exist next year. Time will tell, but it’ll do so without me.

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