Well, the Marine Corps Marathon has come and gone… and fortunately, I’ve survived to tell the experience! Since I knew what I was getting into this year, I thought it would be a pretty drama-free training season. Between twisting my ankle while walking through a parking lot (not even while training, I might add) and having to make up as much of a 23-mile run as I could by myself, though, there was still some excitement. Before I knew it, though, the training was over and it was time to do this crazy thing all over again.
One nice thing about the timing of the marathon is that Daylight Savings Time hits the night before… so you get an extra hour of sleep for the big day! (And if you forget to reset your clock, well, you’ll just get to the race an hour early!) Even then, I didn’t put anything to chance, laying out everything I needed the night before and using a checklist developed several weeks ago with the rest of my pace group. By 7am I was heading out the door, wondering if I’d still managed to forget something, and driving over to the Metro.
When Julie and I got on our train, it was already packed full of runners and their families; it was a fun sight to see all the people getting ready for the race. The one or two people on our train who weren’t going to the marathon must have been wondering what the heck was going on! When we got off at Rosslyn, the lines leading up and out of the Metro station were gigantic, and started giving me the first hint of just how big the Marine Corps Marathon really is. When I ran the Baltimore Marathon last year, there were 6000 participants. For the Marine Corps Marathon this year, the number I kept hearing tossed around was 18,000. By the time we got to the starting point (the Iwo Jima Memorial), the difference was staggering. There were a lot of runners in Baltimore, but this… this was something else.
My pace group quickly found each other (Julie, Madelyn, Leslie, Debbie, and Chris, although Chris was going to run with a slightly slower one to keep from burning out) and we all headed over to the starting line. The starting gun went off, and we… didn’t go anywhere. This was actually expected; with this many runners, and by lining up based on our projected finishing times, there were a lot of runners ahead of us that had to move first. So instead we listened to the various inspirational songs that the Marines kept playing (my favorite was Tom Petty’s "Runnin’ Down a Dream") until, about fifteen minutes in… we started moving! Hurrah! We crossed the starting line just over twenty minutes after the race began, and we were off!
It was tough for the first couple of miles to not race off as fast as we could, so we kept trying to pull back and reserve our strength… with not a terribly high amount of success! By the time we started rounding the Pentagon around mile 5, though, we had all settled into a pretty good groove. It was right around there that my parents first showed up, which was a nice boost to my spirits—it makes such a big difference to see people you know in what is often otherwise a huge sea of strange faces, and knowing that they really are cheering you on and not just shouting random names.
Before too long, we were heading up near Arlington National Cemetary and towards Key Bridge, which we’d cross to head out of Virginia and into Washington DC. It was around there that we seemed to have found a pretty good pattern for our group; Leslie and Debbie would be about 40 feet ahead of Julie and me, while Madelyn was about 40 feet behind us. Julie would shout out to the ladies in front of us when it was time to walk, since neither of them had a watch that had a timer function. My parents showed up again (and gave me a sandwich bag with much-needed pretzels), before heading home to pick up the video camera and come back later on in the course. It was soon after that where we began to approach the Key Bridge and I started getting extra-special excited; that’s where several of us last year cheered on friends running the Marine Corps Marathon, but this time the situation was reversed. My friend Jeff was there, and with his words of encouragement we ran over the Potomac River and into the city.
Julie and I caught up with Leslie and Debbie as we headed through a two-and-a-half mile stretch in Rock Creek Park. It was around then that clouds finally showed up, to our delight. A bright sunny day, which is what we’d been running in up until then, is not ideal weather for a marathon; overcast and cool is much better, since it keeps you from overheating. By the time we left the shade of Rock Creek Park, we’d been cheered on by my friend Marc and Julie’s mother, and with our good spirits we also finally had the weather we’d been praying for. As we did so, we also hit the halfway point; our time for the first half was looking really good, and everything seemed in place for a really good finishing time.
It was actually around then, though, that we lost our two speedy members; they’d been saying earlier that they were going to try and pick the pace up at the halfway point, and that’s exactly what they did. I wasn’t terribly surprised, and we wished them luck as the distance between us and them grew. It was also around this point, though, that we first began to pass people. Not many, but it was definitely happening. There was one person from another run site (who’d acted we ran too slow for him when he was visiting) that we zipped past near the Lincoln Memorial just past mile 14. It’s a little petty, but it was sort of nice to get the ego boost of passing by someone who kept saying how very slow we were. (Our entire group ended up finishing before this person, as it turned out.)
From there it was across the National Mall; the Marine Corps Marathon is sometimes called the Marathon of Monuments, and it’s easy to see why. Running down the Mall was a big thrill, passing all the different museums and monuments that I’ve grown up with. My parents showed up again in this stretch, as well as friends Karon and Andy who were taking pictures. Before long, though, they were just specks on the horizon as we headed towards Union Station, before getting ready for the big trek up Capitol Hill. I can’t remember who commented later that you never really think of Capitol Hill actually being a hill until you have to run up it, but that thought is very true! Julie and I were getting a little weary at this point, and the hill was just looking more and more daunting with every passing second. So, we decided to take a minute off of our run cycle and add it onto our walk cycle. We walked as quickly as we could, but that extra minute of walking made our run cycles a little stronger than they had been up until then.
It was at the 19-mile point right as we headed back onto the National Mall that our friend Laura showed up. She decided to head with us on our return trip across the Mall, and her good spirits really helped us keep going. We saw Marc and then Julie’s parents again as we zoomed across the Mall and down towards the Tidal Basin. By now we were definitely feeling a little beat, but we couldn’t give up because of our big nemesis, the 14th Street Bridge. You’re supposed to get across the 14th Street Bridge by 2:00pm, or get scooped up by the dreaded Slowpoke Bus. (At that point they’re supposed to open the bridge back up to traffic.) Now we knew that you can refuse to get on the bus and that there’s a pedestrian footpath you can take in case of emergency, but if that bus is bearing down on you, it can crush your spirit pretty well, and the idea of having to stick to the tiny footpath with traffic roaring by is not my idea of a good time.
So we were pushing forward as best as we could, and all around us were other people from the AIDS Marathon training program. Everyone kept saying, "Are we going to make it? Are we going to make it?" We could see the 22 mile marker, and we knew that we were almost there, since the bridge is just half a mile past that. It was right around then that Carolyn, one of the AIDS Marathon Program Reps, came running up to us. "Do you see that?" she said, pointing ahead to a side street… with three large school buses. "Those are the slowpoke buses! You’ve got to get in front of them before they start moving! Don’t stop running until you get to the bridge, you can walk then!"
And so we ran. And ran. And ran. Our friend Pam (who did the program with us last year) was there to cheer us but we couldn’t stop even for a second because after all of this, we were determined to beat the bridge! By the time we got onto the ramp leading up to the bridge (just about half of a mile since we started our panicked sprint), I was starting to wheeze and gasp out of exhaustion and terror and I felt like I couldn’t go any further. About fifteen feet ahead of me, I could see Laura urging Julie to keep going forward. One of the AIDS Marathon staffers ran up to me and said, "You’re almost there! Don’t give up!" She grabbed my arm and just going a couple of steps with her was all I needed—I pulled ahead (she promptly went back to help someone else in need) and we officially made it onto the 14th Street Bridge before the cut-off point. Victory!
Ok, victory was still over three miles away, but short of utter disaster we’d made it. We walked for a little bit on the bridge, and everyone else there seemed to have the same idea; that half-mile sprint had knocked the wind out of everyone’s sails. As we were on the bridge we ran into Thaphne and Angie (plus Thaphne’s adorable dog Kelly) who were there to give us some very badly needed cheering. Finally, though, I suggested that we start back up on our running. As tempting as it would be to walk the rest of the way in, that rest period had done a lot of good and I knew we still had enough energy for a strong finish.
As we went across the rest of the bridge, we started passing runners again—and then I noticed that we were quite possibly the only people in sight still running! It was a great feeling, even at our creaking pace, to be passing people again, and to hear a bunch of the other marathoners saying, "Good job! Keep going!" as we passed them. We finally dropped off Laura at the Pentagon—five miles after she first met up with us! Wow! (I think Laura secretly wants to run marathons as well.) She was such an amazing source of inspiration to keep moving as fast as we could during that stretch, and it made all the difference in the world.
Because the course doubles back on itself a bunch, we were actually on pretty familiar ground at this point. This was good, because before we’d been able to see the 25-mile marker when we were really only just past mile 7, but this time it was for real. As we approached it, we saw my friend Britt walking along the course. Britt and Steve were doing the program this year, but were in a slightly faster pace group. When we caught up with her she ran with us for almost half a mile before dropping back a bit to conserve her energy.
That energy would no doubt be needed for the final obstacle of the course—the infamous hill up towards the Iwo Jima Memorial. It’s short, but boy is it steep! We had one final surprise waiting for us there, though. Last week we’d gone up to Baltimore to cheer on fellow AIDS Marathoner Barbara, and she was on the hill giving us the support and encouragement we needed to head up it. It was great to see her there, and we pushed our way up that final distance and into the home stretch.
Before we knew it, the race was over. We’d run across the finish line, and I had a medal around my neck while a Marine untied my shoe to remove the timing chip that tracked my progress across the course. Leslie and Debbie had both already finished (with some wonderful finishing times), and Madelyn and Chris finished not too far after us. Before long I was ready take the Metro back home and take one of the best showers of my entire life.
I was absolutely delighted with my time this year; I’d said that I wanted to just be in the 6-hour zone somewhere, but I was really hoping to break the 6:30 barrier. My final time ended up being 6:25:02, so I managed to hit that goal and have trimmed 40 minutes off of last year’s time. I wish my second half of the marathon had been as strong as the first half, but overall I’m still very happy.
So, now what? Between now and next summer I’m going to keep running (taking a couple of weeks off first, though!) and maybe do some 5Ks and 10Ks races here and there. (In non-metric, 3.1 and 6.2 miles, respectively.) Then when summer rolls around, the plan is to train for the Virginia Beach Rock ‘N Roll Half Marathon for the end of August. It should be a lot of fun, and it’s only 13 miles instead of 26! Piece of cake, right? Julie and Britt have also signed up for it, and hopefully some other running buddies will do so as well. Depending on how I feel about it, I may also do the AIDS Marathon program one more time starting next September, in a program that would culminate in the Mardi Gras Marathon down in New Orleans.
Right now, though, I’m planning on just trying to get through this bad cold that I picked up yesterday. Bleah. Hopefully I’ll have kicked it by tomorrow! Oh well, at least I waited until after the marathon to get sick!
Last but not least, though, a huge thanks to everyone who was able to help with my fundraising efforts for the Whitman-Walker Clinic. In a time when their funds are lower than ever, it meant a great deal to raise just over $2000 for them. No matter how beaten down I may feel today, there are a lot of other people out there who feel a lot worse, every day, and it’s good to know that a little pain at my end is going to make their lives a lot better. Thanks again!