The Pieta of the Blue MileThe 30-something woman is sitting on the ground, inconsolable even though two friends are with her, one on either side. She is crying and sobbing, and her shoulders heave while her hand reaches out to the picture of a service member near the end of the long row of pictures along the Blue Mile. Brother? Husband? Friend? All we know is that the heartbreak is fresh and raw and not what she ever thought she would have to face at mile 12 of the Marine Corps Marathon.
I try to say something to Emaad but the words stick in my throat. The human cost of our endless wars is on display in its rawest emotional form. There really are no words to say.
The Blue Mile is at mile 12 on the long, straight flat stretch of Hains Point, with the Potomac River to the right. About 250 pictures of fallen warriors line either side of the course, arranged in chronological order. The runners, who had been chatting along, spontaneously fall silent through the sorrowful gauntlet. Each sign is the same: a picture with a name a date a location and an age in a blue bordered-frame. Some are in combat gear, others in dress uniforms, others in family portraits. The dates roll on - 2014, 2015, 2016, February 2017, June 2017, September and October 2017.
The woman is near the end - a September picture likely, or maybe even October. When she signed up for MCM, she thought she would honor him by running the race. There was no way should could have known that his picture would be there on the Blue Mile, for he must have been - he had to have been - alive when she signed up for the race in the Spring.
Some runners stop and take pictures with some of the signs, but they are near the beginning of the Blue Mile, and they have had a chance for their losses to develop scars.
But not her. It has only been a few weeks when she received notification and the pain, the loss, the grief is still fresh. And she ran 12 miles knowing what lay ahead. Every step coming closer to the picture of the man that she would see or hear again. A long journey with no hope, no chance of a different outcome.
And the rest of us run by, by the tens, or hundreds, or even thousands depending on how long she sat there with her hand on the sign of the man who would never come home again.
The Evolution of a Plan
Emaad and I do a 20-mile training run several weeks before MCM. We find ourselves running some and walking some. I suggest that for MCM maybe we should regularize it rather than our current ad hoc approach of walking when we feel like it. He agrees and we decide that a run 5, walk 1 minute approach might be right.
The next week I see a report from Kenny on his performance at the Hartford Marathon, He runs 3:01 and keeps a nearly perfect even pace throughout. Karsten congratulates him on his ability to stay focused and implement his plan and not try to chase a sub-3 hour goal at the end. This gives me two more ideas - run an even pace (no fly-and-die, banking time at the start) and stick to the plan.
Our goal is rather modest - to finish under five hours. It hasn't happened in 2017 for me, with a catastrophic collapse at the GW Birthday Marathon and a less spectacular but still dreadful final four miles at the Edinburgh Marathon. Emaad agrees on the plan.
Amigas Fall by the Wayside
For the past several years we have had the Cinco Amigos at MCM, with Jennifer and Rebecca joining Emaad, Barry and myself in carpooling to the race. But Jennifer is having heart issues and decides that prudence is the best course of non-action. Rebecca has started a new career as a law professor some distance from Washington and determines that it would be wiser (that's why she is a professor) to stay at school and prepare for an upcoming evaluation than drive hundreds of miles round trip and be exhausted in the classroom upon her return.
|Tres Amigos, or as Barry said, Three Blind Mice|
Implement the Plan
The weather promises to be warm, with highs in the 70s so we dress and prepare accordingly. Shorts are in order and Emaad and I decide to carry hand-held bottles to increase our ability to hydrate. I also carry gels for energy and Succeed! salt tablets.
At the start Barry hangs back to meet up with Sako and Emaad and I go on. We go out easy, partly because it takes nearly a mile for my chronically sore right knee to stop complaining. But that is a blessing in disguise as it prevents us from getting caught up in the initial excitement of the start of the nation's fourth largest marathon, with V-22 Ospreys doing flyovers, rows of troops holding flags and the iconic howitzer blast of a starting gun.
|Headed down Spout Run, about mile 3|
|Northbound on Rock Creek Parkway, about mile 6|
Every mile I compare my watch with the pace band and announce how we are doing. Since mile 5 we have been about two minutes ahead of the five hour pace, and we retain that difference all the way to the halfway mark which we clear in 2:28:06.
This is the point last year that things started to deteriorate, but I feel good now. This is partly due to the walk every five minutes and partly due to carrying a bottle which enables us to have it topped up at the water stations rather than trying to drink from half-filled small cups.
Circling the Tidal Basin just past mile 15 I spot a penny in the road and circle back a couple of steps to pick it up. That may have been inspired by a spectator sign earlier on the course: "You paid $160 for this. That's $6.11 per mile. Run like it's worth it."
In just a bit we spy An on the side of the course. He gives Emaad and I cookies, which Barry had asked him to bring down.
Just after making the turn at the end of Independence Avenue to head back toward the Mall and the Capitol, I hear, "Dad! Dad!" It's Andrew, who deferred his entry to next year. He's down there with his bike to cheer on a friend who has come to town from the Southwest. He trots along for awhile, pushing the bike while chatting with Emaad and me. Finally he peels off to seek his friend who is ahead of us.
Through mile 15 we maintain our two minute cushion, but now we are starting to struggle. At mile 16 we are a minute to the good and at mile 17 we are even. Emaad is starting to fade and when we reach mile 18, even with the pace card, we have a brief discussion. I tell him I'm feeling pretty good and he urges me to go on.
|Approaching the Capitol, just past mile 18|
Being even with eight miles to go means there is no margin of error, no cushion, no "time in the bank." And the old joke about a marathon being a 10K following a 20 mile warm-up still lies two miles ahead.
But I have a plan, I feel good and decide that I need to go as best I can in the parameters of the plan. I put Kenny and Karsten's comments on replay in my mind.
At the water stop just past mile 19, across from the Smithsonian Castle I unscrew the top from my bottle and thrust it toward the USMC lieutenant manning the table. "Thank you, sir," I ask. As the bottle is filled the lieutenant says, "That's thank you ma'am." I babble an apology and run off.
Making turn onto 14th Street to approach the eponymous bridge, I spy a nickel in the road. But it is truly "in the road" and after a couple of tries I can't pry it out and abandon the effort.
Passing the mile 21 marker on the far end of the bridge I note that I'm a minute behind the pace card, and I stay a minute behind at mile 22 headed into Crystal City.
The Man in the Arena
I recall Theodore Roosevelt's speech to the Sorbonne in 1910: "The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat."
Although I am familiar with the quote, it doesn't actually come to mind. But the spirit of it does. And then something happens that convinces me that I cannot give up.
I hit the wrong button on my watch.
At some point in Crystal City, amidst the cheering crowds and runners going in both directions I realize that I hit the stop button rather than the start button to reset the mile timer. I don't know how long ago it was, just that my watch is no longer going to tell me how long I have been running and hence, how much time I have remaining. And to compound the mistake I miss mile markers 23 and 24, so I don't even have a recent mile pace.
All that remains is to stay mentally strong, and execute the plan. I "need to get my mind right."
I keep enough of my wits to get some beer from the Hash House Harriers, though. Hydration is important.
Nothing to do now but implement the plan. Run 5, walk 1. I even do it on the small hill of the ramp onto Route 110 and the downhill toward mile 26 and the left turn up toward the finish at the Iwo Jima Memorial.
Only there, on the steep first part of the climb, do I walk during what should be a run interval. But at the top, with the finish in sight I run and cross the finish. The clock says 5:10, but that is gun time, not chip time. I'll have to wait until I get home to see if I broke five hours.
|Thank you, Lieutenant!|
I collect my medal from the Marine lieutenant at the end, gather my food box and a bottle of water and head back toward the hotel. I stop to get watermelon from the Delaware-Maryland Watermelon Queen (2017 was a good year, I'm told) and give the bottle of water to a woman hovering over a nauseous runner on his knees. At the hotel I change, and get some beef stew, cookies and a beverage from the buffet while I wait for Emaad and Barry.
Emaad finishes in 5:31, saying he mostly walked the last eight miles. Barry finishes in 6:03.
That night I check the results. I finished in 4:59:56. Mission accomplished!
My splits were 2:28/2:31. Overall, I was 50 of 204 in my 65-69 AG, 6131 of 10776 males and 9980 of 20042 overall.
|Watermelon from a Queen|
|Swag: shirt, bib, medal, patch|
|Program, snack box, pace band and cool-down jacket|