This past weekend I ran the Marine Corps Marathon, my fifth marathon and second time running this race. TLDR: it went well, but the weather was completely bonkers. Interestingly, bad-weather races are some of the most successful ones for me—maybe because all I can do is what’s within my power and then I have to let go of any kind of outcome. (Hmm… that sounds familiar… oh right, it’s The Lesson I Seem Destined to Learn Over and Over Again for the Rest of My Life.)
My focus this training cycle has been on the JFK 50 Miler (not too late to give to NAMI!), so MCM snuck up on me. Ideally I’d have run a 50K (31 miles) during my JFK training. The Marine Corps actually debuted a 50K for the first time this year that ran concurrently to the marathon, but it was sold out by the time I signed onto JFK. So I decided to run 5 miles prior to the start of MCM. (Sometimes I don’t even recognize myself.)
I had my wonderful husband drop me early at Daingerfield Island in Alexandria so I could run the Mount Vernon Trail to the race. It worked beautifully, if anyone ever needs to do that… recognizing that the people who’d need that strategy are vanishingly small in number :-)
Daingerfield has flush toilets which open early—a nice beginning to a day of portapotties. The trail was DARK though, so I used my knuckle lights. One downside to running to the start was that I needed to carry my post-race bag with me somehow. I pared things down as much as possible, and stuffed them into my hydration vest: plastic drop bag, shirt and shorts, and money/ID/etc. But what about a change of shoes? I felt like flip flops would be too heavy and bulky in my hydration pack, but given the rainy forecast, I knew the running shoes would be soggy at the end. So I ended up carrying one in each hand, which worked OK.
The run in was uneventful, except I stopped for a drink at a water fountain, leaned down, pressed the button, and got sprayed squarely in the face. In case I was tempted to take myself too seriously… Then I’d almost reached the Pentagon parking lot when I saw a sign: Trail Ends 1100 Feet. I’d spent enough time with Google Street View that I thought I could pick my way to a side street that would be closed to vehicles, then join the people heading to Runners Village. That turned out to be the case, but because it was already raining, it was pretty soggy and muddy there. A sign of things to come.
The rest of the day went much more by the book though. The Marine Corps puts on stellar races—no surprise there. The logistics are top-notch and the inspiration levels are high. Security was a breeze, signage was clear, and the music was energizing.
Here’s a small thing, but it speaks to their focus on the little details: the portapotties in the Runners Village. Not only were they plentiful, but they were grouped into sets of 5-6 johns. Why is this important? Because lines form that feed into several portapotties at once, and if the portapotties are in one long row, it’s never clear exactly which ones your line is waiting for, as opposed to the line next to you. An aggressive person can effectively commandeer a john for their line when it really should be the other line’s. This sounds like a small thing, but when the minutes are ticking away until the start and you’re waiting for a diminishing number of portapotties, having sections of them with clear lines gives you one less thing to stress about. Anyway.
I had no time goal for this race. My hope was to run steady and not fade at the end, which can be common in long races. But the conditions made consistent splits a challenge. Did I mention that the weather was bananas? It was raining lightly at the start, but then it stopped. I love running in the rain—what I don’t love is running when it should be raining, when it wants to be raining. We had several miles of this oppressive humidity, through Georgetown and up Rock Creek Parkway. (This is a beautiful, underrated part of the course: no monuments, just lush woods and a few hills to keep things interesting.) Finally the skies opened again around Hains Point and the blue mile, which honors fallen service members with photos on sandwich boards and a line of flags held by cheering volunteers and family members. It’s a highlight of this and other big races, including Rock N Roll DC.
Whenever I run through the blue mile, I always remove my hat and hold it over my heart—it’s a small gesture, but helps me focus on these people’s sacrifice for our country, and making my own miles purposeful.
It was really pouring at this point… we’re talking squishy socks, heavy shoes, and difficulty seeing. And any gear not in a plastic bag is soaked through. At this point I started developing some hot spots in my little toes on my right foot—very rare for me. I am like Baymax—not fast, not built for it, never will be—but I am built for endurance in many other ways: I can eat almost anything for fuel. I don’t need a lot of bathroom stops once a race begins. I’m fairly injury resistant if I train right (knock on wood). And I don’t get blisters, despite not using Vaseline or Glide on my feet. I focused on making sure I wasn’t scrunching my toes together, and blessedly, the problem subsided.
Things got totally bananas on the other side of Hains Point. It was still pouring buckets, and now the road was filling with water—3 inches deep, all the way across. Thankfully, some funny inspirational Burma Shave-style signs along the path kept me entertained, the fun and motivating product of a friend of a friend. Several of the signs were directed at me personally and by name. Thank you P. You are the best. Then at the end of Hains Point, I met up with some friends from Moms RUN This Town, two of whom are Ragnar buddies. One ran with me for a few seconds, which was great. The other was dressed as a hot dog. As you do. (Signs: Nice Buns, and Are You Looking at My Weiner? Twelve-year-old humor is perfect for marathon signage.)
By this time, the rain had stopped, and the humidity was dropping a bit for our trip around the monuments: Lincoln, Washington, various Smithsonian buildings, and the Capitol. Lots of cheering and signs along the Mall, including a decent number of cheers of “Go ‘Stros!” A magnanimous gesture in Nats country.
There are various gauntlets that runners need to beat in MCM. I wasn’t in danger of getting swept, but it’s always a bit exciting when you make it through another one. The last one—the beast—is the 395 bridge. That’s when the sun came out. Gah. Mantra time. My favorite is “sky above, earth beneath, fire within” which got me through my half marathon and full marathon PRs a couple years ago. Sure enough, it gave me a boost, as did seeing more MRTT friends in Crystal City. But damn that bridge lasts for-ev-er. That’s also mile 20, which marathoners know is when the race really begins. (A marathon is a 10K with a 20-mile warmup. Or in my case, 25 miles. Good Lord! I do this voluntarily and with a smile.)
I remembered running through Crystal City three years ago, and how much I faded under a similarly warm sun. I was determined not to let that happen this time. In fact, I think after five of these dumb things I finally “get” marathoning. The last several miles really are mental, but that also means doing some mental work early on: keeping a comfortable pace, not peaking too soon, running smart and loose. I saw that I had a good shot at a course PR, so I gutted it out. Three years ago, I saw all these people walking miles 23-26 and thought “Oh gosh, that looks nice, don’t mind if I do.” This time it was motivating to slowly plug along and pass the walkers. (No disrespect, people. A finish is a finish.)
MCMers know that the last two tenths of the race are up a really rude hill to the Iwo Jima memorial. I was determined not to walk it, regardless of how tired I was. And as you can see from this pic taken by my mother-in-law, who was at the finish line with my husband and son, mission accomplished. Not pretty, but definitely a run.
After the hill is a right turn and a more level stretch for the final push!
All in all I’m happy with the day—I finished the second half only three minutes slower than the first half, which given the conditions, I will take. My pace felt comfortable, and is well within the parameters of what I need to maintain to finish JFK successfully. And before it was even over I was already plotting another MCM. I’m just hoping for overcast, dry, and 45 degrees, just once.