Thursday, November 15, 2012

Marine Corps Marathon - October 28, 2012

Concern about the effect that Hurricane Sandy may have on the running of  the 37th Marine Corps Marathon leads to much discussion during the week leading up to the race.  Race morning is cloudy and the drive to the MCRRC Hospitality Suite in Rosslyn sees a few misty drops on the windshield.  Before we set out on the mile walk to the start line, Rebecca R. and I go outside and check the weather.  It isn't raining but we decide that it will be prudent to carry jackets in case the weather changes.

Back in the suite I load up my Race Ready shorts with gels.  As I go to tighten the drawstring on the shorts, it pulls out of them.  Someone suggests pinning the shorts to my shorts and I put pins on either side.  I tie the lightweight windbreaker around my waist.

A group eight of us walk toward the start but gradually we become separated into smaller and smaller groups until only Jim Y. and I are together.  Since we approached toward the start line we  must walk past it and then away from it so that can get far enough back to be in a group appropriate for our pace.  We stop once we reach the 4 hour pace pylon and plan to wait there a bit to let faster runners cross the start line ahead of us.

While we wait I spot an wrapped disposable plastic poncho by the side of the road.  Not one to pass up a bargain, I pick up the 2x3 inch packet and slip it into another pocket of my shorts.

Promptly at 7:55 a.m. the howitzer marking the beginning of the race booms and the race starts.  Jim and I wait until we see the 4 hour pacer pass us and we start walking toward the start line. In about three and a half minutes we cross the line and begin to run.

Wardrobe Malfunction
Immediately I sense a problem.  Now that I'm running the weight of the gels and the poncho are pulling down  my shorts in the rear.  The pins on the sides are doing their job but the rear is sagging ominously.  Untying the jacket, I transfer the contents of my shorts pockets into the jacket pockets.  This takes enough weight off the shorts that they stay about my waist.

Through the streets of Rosslyn I pass several runners wearing fatigues and full packs.  I joke to them that they really didn't need to carry their things with them as they could have used the bag drop service and had the packs delivered to the finish for them.

On the uphill section around mile two we run pass one of the handcrank wheelchair racers working his way uphill. He's working hard - imagine having to lift the weight of your body plus that of the racing wheelchair up the 100 foot climb between mile 2 and 3 using only your arms without stopping to rest.

At mile 3 the course heads downhill on Spout Run to the GW Parkway. The course is only two lanes wide there and as it is early in the race it is crowded.  The wheelchair racer has a chance to pick up speed and enjoy the fruits of his labor from the long uphill getting there and maybe catch a bit of a rest while putting gravity to work.  His guide runner is yelling "Wheel chair racer, move left," but people are slow to get out of his way, some because they are wearing headphones and are oblivious to their surroundings.  I scream at the top of my lungs, "Move left! NOW!" and it helps a bit, but further down the hill there are still people who couldn't give a damn about being able to hear their fellow man.

Game On!
We cross Key Bridge into Georgetown and head out Canal Road, familiar territory and one I often drive on.  At mile 6 I look at my watch and then at the 4:30 pace band I picked up at the Marathon Expo on Friday.  Up until this point I had no plan for the marathon other than to enjoy the day.  I'm wearing the pace band mainly so that I can gauge my progress and not necessarily as a goal.  Last year I ran MCM in a PR of 4:29 but I have not set consciously set out to beat that today. But I see that I'm about two minutes ahead of the 4:30 pace and decide that since this is the Marine Corps Marathon, what better way to honor them than to run as hard as I can as long as I can, and when I get tired, to be mentally tough and overcome it.

Looking good before mile 19
(Courtesy of Ken Trombatore)
 This strategy, developed on the spot without any reflection is precisely the opposite of what I did at last year's MCM in running a PR.  In 2011 my pacing was even throughout the day, running  a nearly even negative splits of  2:15 - 2:14 and having enough left at the end to run mile 26 as my second fastest mile split of the day.

But today, in other words, I'm committing myself to the notorious - and usually doomed - fly-and-die strategy.  I try to convince myself that today it isn't a fly-and-die approach; it's the Marine-tough approach. "Today's pain is tomorrow's strength," I assure myself, even though I need the strength today, not tomorrow.

I run up Reservoir Road at mile 7, and clip through the slightly downhill mile 8 along MacArthur Blvd in 9:36.  Passing the Georgetown Pep Band in front of the University I yell "Hoya!" and get a "Saxa!" in return.

Along M Street I fall in alongside a woman running with a large knee brace. She's from Charleston, SC and trains cadets at the Citadel to run marathons.  This year she was challenged to run MCM.  It's her first marathon and she admits that her knee is hurting.  She also says that she has to have it operated on, but that she had to accept the challenge and that she would not be deterred by the knee. "That's the kind of toughness that this marathon brings out," I think, fitting her into my narrative of the day.

Through the cheering crowds along M Street, past the Kennedy Center and down towards Hains Point I continue the strategy of running miles at a mid 9-minute pace, appreciably ahead of the 10:18 pace of a 4:30 marathon.

A mile 12 there is a row of evenly spaced blue signs alongside the course.  Each sign has a photograph of a service member with brief biographical information.  The last line is always the same "KIA" with a place and a date.  When the signs end there is a row of 15-20 persons holding American flags.
Around the end of the point and the course turns northward.  The wind kicks up from the east. For a few moments rain seems likely to follow, but none falls.

Through the mid-teen miles my pace drops a bit into the upper 9-minute per mile range but I still feel good.  These are the dull miles of the marathon, after the exhilaration and freshness of the first quarter have worn off and before mile 20 when the end becomes achievable.  Run them, book them, and forget them.

Around mile 18, near the National Gallery of Art I move to the right-hand side of the course and begin looking for daughter Hilary who has said she would meet me there with treats. She spots me first. I take some Snickers from the offerings and she's off to the south side of the Mall to see me there as I head toward the Capitol to circle around the Reflecting Pool and the Grant Monument at the foot of Capitol Hill.

Before I get there I spot one of the legendary characters of the MCM, 70-year old Ray De Frees, better known as the Flag Man.  Ray is running his 20th MCM and he as carried the United States flag in each of them since 2001.  He encourages others to join him in sharing the carrying of the colors, and I ask him if I may.  He hands it to me and we run for some yards, before he says, "I can't run too far with you."  I thank him and return it to him.  This year he is featured in the MCM Program.

I realize that I may be getting a bit tired and I make a conscious effort to improve my form by picking up my knees.  It seems to work.  Just passed mile 19 I spot Hilary and she gives me words of encouragement as well as an offer of more Snickers, which I politely decline.

Mile 20 comes on the approach to the 14th Street Bridge as the course heads back to Virginia.  A glance at the watch and then the wrist band and I'm now about 10 minutes ahead of a 4:30 pace.  Thoughts of a 4:20 finish enter my mind.

Mile 20 is where a marathon starts.  The first 20 miles are nothing more than the preliminaries to get to Mile 20.  They are to strip the runner down to his core, to get rid of any stored glycogen, to introduce one to the place where body and will struggle for the upper hand.  There are 6.2 miles left, 10 kilometers. Not much by usual standards.  But it is where friend Jennifer S. described as a place where even thoughts of her only child could not make her happy or ease the pain.  Some runners talk about "hitting the wall" during this 10K.  That suggests a brief, sudden impact.  It isn't that at all.  It is more akin to falling into a well.  It isn't brief.  It doesn't let up.  It gets worse every step of the way.  And once there there is no way out other than to get to the finish.  The strong use that knowledge to press hard to get it over with more quickly.  The weak are left on the course longer to suffer more.  It comes down to how much pain can one endure now so one does not have to suffer any longer than necessary.  And sometimes the body doesn't care what the mind thinks.

MCM Mascot at finish
(Courtesy of Ken Trombatore)
Crossing the bridge brings mile 21 just a the Virginia shore.  It was a good crossing on a part of the course largely devoid of spectators and scenery - just a four-lane concrete roadway stretching ahead.  I'm back back to a mid-9 minute mile. The first mile of the last 6.2 finished and still on course for a shot at breaking 4:20.  "Stay strong.  Be tough," I remind myself.

It takes almost another mile of running on I-395 to pass the water stop entering Crystal City.  The four lanes of the highway yield to the one lane of the exit ramp and it becomes crowded.  Perhaps that contributes to taking more than 10 minutes to run mile 22.  Or perhaps it is the tightening feeling developing in my calves.

But the Hash House Harriers have their traditional aid station ahead and I grab a cup of beer and some pretzels.  To drink the beer I walk for the first time all day.  But the pretzels are dry in my mouth and after a few bites I spit them out and return to running.  The tightening calves slow the pace, but no worse than the previous mile.  At mile 23 I am still on pace for a chance to finish under 4:20.

Down through the streets of Crystal City I go.  There are big crowds here and they yell encouragement, clap, wave signs and make noise trying, it seems, to transfer their energy to the runners for the final 5K.

Rounding the corner to head back toward the Pentagon the 4:15 pacer carrying her balloons on a stick and accompanied by a pack of runners passes me.  It's a bit deceiving as they started behind me, so they are probably five or more minutes ahead of me based on their chip time.

I spot a woman wearing a MCRRC First Time Marathoner shirt and ask her how she is doing.  She's fine she replies and wonders about her pace.  I don't know when she crossed the starting line but assure her that she is well on pace to finish in 4:30.

Hell Begins Here
The truth for me is that things are not going well.  Both my calves are not only tightening up but feeling like they are on the verge of cramping.  I'm trying to stay tough and not let my body win.  While I've stocked and taken gels regularly I regret that I've forgotten to bring salt tablets.

I pass up the donut holes offered at the next aid station but drink down a couple of cups of water.  It's becoming harder and harder to keep up the pace and my calves refuse to stretch out my stride.  Passing under I-395 approaching the Pentagon I take a banana section offered at an unofficial aid station figuring the potassium may help.

I pass the marker for mile 24.  My pace has appreciably slowed - it is the slowest mile of the day.  So far. Then my right hamstring sends messages that it is on the verge of cramping.  I have visions of both calves and the hamstring all seizing up at once and dropping me to the ground.  I try to run but its any effort beyond a shuffle sends the muscles to the very edge of deep spasms.

The next two miles are sheer unrelieved agony. Any attempt to run up an incline, such as the highway ramp just beyond mile 25 threatens to lock up my calves.  Mile 25 is now the slowest mile of the day, and the first to take more than 11 minutes to complete.

As I walk, shuffle, try to run - do anything to keep moving forward that last mile one thought takes precedence over all others.  Get to the finish, and then I can fall to the ground.  Cross the finish line and I won't have to run another step.  Get to the end.  Be done. The quicker the better.

Mock turtleneck shirt, medal, bib and
USAA challenge medal
There are crowds the last half mile or so.  The path the last quarter mile or so is packed with spectators.  It is lined with them but I ignore them.  I don't look at them.  I don't acknowledge them.  I'm not sure I even hear them. They might as well not be there.  All I see is the road ahead.  Then the arch over the finish line.  Then the finish line itself.  Then I'm over it.

I don't collapse.  But I do go over to the railing on the side of the finish chute and lean on it.  I stay there for awhile.  One of the Marines lining the chute asks if I'm alright.  "I'm OK," I reply, "I'm fine."

I finish in 4:23:24, a personal record by more than six minutes.  I finish 82 of 395 in my age group, just out of the top 20 percent and 5729 of 13525 males.

A couple of days after the race I looked at pictures of me crossing the finish line.  My eyes are half closed.  My mouth is an open circle.  My shoulders hunch forward.  Both knees are bent.  It is not a picture that imparts the viewer with the joy of running.  But it is an honest picture, for at that moment, with left foot on the finish line and right foot above it I did what, 20 miles earlier I had determined to do. I ran as long as I could as hard as I could.  Then, when the day turned hard and the last few miles turned awful, both physically and in terms of performance, I persevered.   The reward was a horrible finish line photo in return for a PR.  And that is an exchange that most runners would make.


  1. Hi! I stumbled upon your blog while researching the MCM Marathon. I was wondering if you know what brand the black mock neck race shirt is? Your blog is great by the way.

    Thanks so much.


    1. The tag says "Marine Corps Marathon". Companies that manufacture, import, distribute, or sell products covered by the Textile, Wool, and Fur Acts must identify themselves on the tag or provide a WPL or RN number issued by the Federal Trade Commission. The shirt, and ones I have from several other years, carry the number RN#104679. You can look up that number at the FTC website to identify the distributor of the shirt.

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