Thursday, November 18, 2010

Race Report: Marine Corps Marathon, or Getting Opus on Y'all!

It has taken me a couple weeks to process everything that went down in D.C. over Halloween weekend, but I think I have finally arrived at a spot where I feel like I have sorted through everything and can at least attempt to encapsulate the experience in a single post.

Be forewarned, if you are not a runner, some of this might not make much sense, but take the literary journey nevertheless, there may be something in what follows that might resonate and slightly inspire, if I may be so bold.


I flew down to D.C. on Friday morning... actually, check that, I flew down to Baltimore Friday morning, and took the regional commuter rail from BWI, which actually isn't even quite in Baltimore at all, down to Union Station in D.C.  When we arrived in D.C. we had a general idea of where we were in the city and what we could possibly do before we headed over to our hotel, which was actually not in D.C. at all, but in Alexandria, VA.  Even having scoped out the Fodor's on the train from BWI to D.C., I still felt like a perilously lost tourist gripping my luggage extra tight as we looked for someplace for lunch.

It is actually sort of interesting how much my anxiety came out during these initial phases of being down in D.C.  It wasn't a particularly hard trip, with a quick trip from Boston to BWI, and the train ride was smooth and simple, but I think just being away from all of the safety of familiar environments was enough to dig deeper than usual.

Polished off a burger and fries at Johnny Rockets and headed out of Union Station.  We figured since we had a few hours to use before check in time we'd see some of the sights.  We headed over to Capitol Hill and saw the Supreme Court, Library of Congress and the Capitol Building.  I don't think it really registers or resonates until you are standing tall in front of these massive structures.  Sure, they are only buildings, but they are truly national landmarks and have so much history tied to them.
We moved on to the front of the Capitol and got the amazing long view of the National Mall all the way down to the Lincoln Memorial.  It was interesting to see all of the activity on the Mall in preparation for the John Stewart and Stephen Colbert rally on Saturday.

Next we decided we make our way to the nearest DC Metro Station and head over to Alexandria.  By this time, all of the walking and handling my bag, which had a broken wheel, was getting to me.  My hip started to get increasingly sore, which was not a good sign, and then my shins decided they'd also get into the act.

Leading up to the race I had the shin injury which kept me entirely off my feet for most of the last two weeks of September.  Having seemingly survived and recovered, I was able to get some good training in during October, but once I began to taper my hip and glute issues were acting up, as was my IT Band problems (seemingly out of nowhere!), and with all of this happening I was even questioning making the trip to D.C. at all.

We actually were about to head in the direction of the Metro when a Capitol Police Officer started hollering at my Mother about her New England Patriots sweatshirt.  Talk about surreal, given that moments earlier we saw a Capitol Police Officer on a Bike speed past us and pull an near endo getting off the bike to simply tell a guy with a camera and a tripod he needed a permit to be filming!

Turns out this Capitol Officer was laid back and we asked him where we might find a restroom, and he pointed us to the Botanical Gardens.  Now only a trail runner would initially think that it is quite odd that I'd be encouraged to do what I typically do out on the trail - pee on the bushes - but my mind quickly stepped back into reality.

Capitol Rotunda from the Desert Room in the Botanical Gardens
The gardens are actually incredibly amazing and I highly recommend that anyone heading to DC take at least a little time to check them out.

We finally made our way to the Metro, to the Hotel, and at long last I was able to sit down and get a little settled in after what was a long day using almost every form of transportation.

As I sat in our surprisingly posh digs for the weekend I decided it might be nice to head out and see the neighborhood, as we were staying in the heart of 'Old Town' an uber ritzy section of Alexandria that holds a median home value slightly north of $500,000.  Historic brownstone heaven if you have a cool half mil to throw around.

Lacing up my shoes I wasn't sure if I was making the right choice given all of the carnage walking had done to me earlier in the day, but I figured I would leave my 20+ pounds of luggage at the hotel for this journey.

As expected, running through the neighborhood was very interesting.  Passing every type of luxury sedan while trying to make sure the brick and cobblestone sidewalks didn't prove to be my marathon Benedict Arnold.

Just as I was about to cross a street I was cut off by two surging dogs taking their owner for a walk.  Abruptly stopped, we exchanged apologies, as here I was running in the twilight without a light, and she feeling bad that her dogs nearly took out a runner.  In Boston this would most likely be the end of the encounter, but we struck up a conversation, and when she found out I was a visitor I got a 15 minute personal listing of all of the places to find good food in the area.  In all honesty, the good outlets for eats was taken well, but I was secretly looking for a running store I knew was in the area.  Yeah, just what I need, gear hunting whilst on vacation!

After a few turns, I finally found 'Pacers', the spot for runners in the D.C. Metro area (

To put it simply, for a trail runner that has had his share of experiences with running stores and gear, Pacers was THA BOMB.  I could have avoided my anxiety of packing Gels in my TSA liquid and gel bag, which happened to be Carb BOOMs - not a flyer friendly brand for the TSA agent without a sense of humor, as Pacers had an amazing selection of Gels and Energy edibles, along with a few different types of electrolyte drop tablets.  They also had an amazing selection of packs for hydration or otherwise.  It was a little piece of heaven for me, and I ended up solving one of my raceday problems by picking up a Spibelt ( for my gel packets, since I was opting for the CWX compression shorts instead of the RaceReady's.

Gear acquired, I happily headed back to the hotel, save a trip to a local Trader Joe's I found on the way home.  Once I got back I figured the only thing left to do in the day was to go on a recon mission to the Pool and Gym to see if there was perhaps a hot tub on the premises, and to my job I did indeed find one!

As I sat soaking my soreness, I had the chance to meet a few other marathoners staying at the hotel, one of which was also into trails and ultras, and was following up his Marine Corps Marathon with the NYC Marathon the following weekend.  At least now I had one other person in the world that made my goal of two marathons in one week not so crazy!

Saturday I woke up feeling decent, not too sore from the previous day, which was a good sign.  After getting ready, old friend and fellow Marathoner Josh Hill swung by the hotel to pick me up for our trip into DC for the Marathon expo.  After arriving, I was blown away by the level of production and pomp that is a large marathon expo.  If my experience at Pacers the previous night was a light slice of heaven, this was Nirvana!

The Marine Corps does a fantastic job with all aspects of the race and it isn't a Marine Corps branded marathon, it is a Marine Corps production full on.  In fact, as I went to obtain my number and race packet I wasn't sure if I needed to salute the two Marines at the booth.

 During the expo it was just cool to see all of the offerings, and after a while the whole Turkish bazaar atmosphere wore thin, but before I was ready to bug out with all the essentials taken care of, I made sure I got in line to meet one of the top U.S. distance running stars, Ryan Hall.  It was very cool to meet Ryan, and he took the time with everyone, not just to say hello and sign an autograph, but also to ask about our preparedness for the race.  I have had the chance to meet a few pro athletes in my life, and distance runners all seem to be universally cool and down to earth, which isn't all that surprising given we all seem to start at the same place and all have to log the miles to succeed at whatever level we are on.

Following the marathon expo we were on our way out of D.C. and amazingly found a parking spot literally steps from the Lincoln Memorial, to which Josh swerved into the spot asking, "Hey, this doesn't happen every day!  Oh, wanna see the Lincoln Memorial?"

Not wanting to do too much walking the day before, given the toll the previous day seemed to take, I agreed it would be cool, since this was my first trip to D.C., as was the case for my Mom, who was with us.  I didn't want to be that pre-race diva, either!

The sightseeing progressed from the Lincoln Memorial to the Vietnam Wall, to the Korean War Memorial, to the World War II Memorial, and eventually over to the White House.  By the time we were heading over to the White House, both hips were now sore and achy, as were my shins and lower back.  I didn't complain, but I was seriously starting to wonder what I was doing down there.  This was not the way I had hoped I'd feel less than 24 hours before I was supposed to run 26.2!

After the sightseeing, which was TOTALLY worth the aches and pains, Josh and his girlfriend invited us over their place to have a lovely carbo-loading dinner.  Following the dinner, we headed to the hot tub at the hotel, as I needed one last desperation soak before the main event.  We met a few other marathoners, as well as some of the people that were in DC for the Stewart/Colbert Rally.

Read to Go!
Back in the room I went through my usual race prep and anxiety, which was heightened due to all of the 'what ifs' with my physical state.  I hadn't run a sustained 20 miles throughout the whole training cycle, but I did have three long ultra training runs that were 20+ miles and ranged from 3 hours to 4h, 10 mins. in length, so I had the time on feet locked in for sure, but there was still that anxiety of getting to 10 or 16 miles and having everything stop working and not being able to move to at least slog my way home.  I just wanted the finish, not just for me, but for my Dad, and for my Grandfather, and for the many service men and women that gave me the freedom to run like a fool in our Nation's capital.  

Bag packed, alarm set, and it was off to dream land... well sort of, given that I woke up every two hours like clockwork!

Race Day

The alarm went off at 5 and I sluggishly got ready and met Josh in the lobby to take the hotel shuttle to the Metro Station.  I must say, being SUPER hydrated in an unfamiliar place, with few pit stop options is not a cool place to be in!  Thankfully the Metro ride to the Pentagon, where the Runner's Village was set up, was quick and before I knew it we were among the throng of people streaming from the Pentagon Metro Station over to the parking lot where the security check in and pre-race holding area was located.

I was reluctant to start the process of warming up because it was still dark and cold.  The temps for the day would be very nice, but the 8 a.m. start, combined with a 7:30 sunrise made it difficult to shed layers and check bags, especially when the plan was to run in a sleeveless t-shirt.

Nevertheless, I began the process of making myself bionic.  I had the compression tights on for the hip and IT band issues.  For good measure, I put on the IT band strap under the shorts just to make sure that behaved, and I invested in some KT Tape, and braced my knee in that respect as well.  I felt ready, and strangely with a desire to find and terminate someone named John or Sarah Connor... or run for governor of California.

The minutes passed by quicker and quicker, and I made the decision to try to use the porta potty one last time before heading over to the start, which was a bad move.  By the time I got out of the porta potty and across the parking lot to the road that led to the start the gun went off.  I would have been upset if it didn't dawn on me that a.) I had a chip in my bib, and b.) there was no way I'd be crossing the start line anywhere near the gun. 

As I walked the half mile or so to the outskirts of the corrals, I just tried to relax and get focused.  I passed about 200 porta potties on the way to the start line, which made me feel silly that I waited in line, but I chalk that up to a first timer mistake.  All said and done I made it to the masses still walking like herded cattle to the start line.  Things were getting exciting as we could hear the music and the PA announcer booming, and the yellow and red arches of the start drew near.

And then it began...

There was surprisingly plenty of space early on to maneuver and get into a decent rhythm toward the back of the pack.  As I started passing runners and moving up things got progressively more congested.

The first couple of miles are actually quite challenging as we headed into the Virginia city center of Rosslyn, which is directly across the Potomac from D.C. this initial stretch is definitely high energy, but it includes 30 feet of gain in the first mile, and a gradual climb that gains 70 feet to the second mile marker. 

The adrenaline of the start definitely helped as I made it to the mile marker in 9:05, but from there I definitely backed off the pace for the next few miles.

My body felt good at 2, and we entered the chaos of the first water stop.  I was carrying my Nathan Handheld bottle the whole way to make sure I was properly hydrating throughout the race.  At first the thought of having a hand held bothered me, but it allowed me the luxury of having roughly an hour of fluids at hand, to have liquid to wash down the gels, and any time lost trying to get my bottle filled at the tables was gained when I could take the express lane through a few of the other water points.

On that note, the Marines at the water stops were awesome when I came with my bottle and asked for a refill, and it doesn't get more efficient than the Corps!

From two to three the course gains another 40 to 50 feet of elevation, but I honestly didn't feel any of it based on my slower pace and training on the trails.  In fact, after this initial climb to three miles there is one more big elevation gain from 6 to 8 (120 feet), and the final .2 to the finish is uphill to the Iwo Jima Memorial. 

During the 4th mile I meditated on my splits, as I was averaging about 9:30 pace, which seemed far too slow to start things off.  I also was thinking about how the initial plan of running 8 minutes and walking 2 was sort of out the window since I had been running for close to 35 without any walking breaks.  As we came toward the four mile mark I looked down at my watch and saw 38:26 which was down toward 9:35 pace, and I knew it was during the next mile that I needed to make a decision about what kind of day it would be.

Just about that moment I had a bit of déjà vu.  I looked at the scene and the thoughts running through my head and I thought, "Hey, I dreamed this!".  I honestly had a dream earlier in the Fall that I was at this very point in the race, thinking about how slow I had started.  I don't remember how the dream played out, but I know that the gist was that I turned things around and picked up the pace and had a fantastic finish. 

I am not sure if the déjà vu triggered something primal, but as I ran the 5th mile, I ate a gel and tested out what the body would do if I started to gradually increase the pace.

We crossed the Francis Scott Key Bridge into D.C. and ran north along the Potomac.  There was a bagpiper, which also got deep into me.  As my Great Aunt says, "You know you have that Scotch blood when the pipes make you stand at attention!"  In this case they made me run a little faster, and upon arriving at mile 5 in 47:38 (9:31), I knew it was game on.

Back in the summer I ran the Yankee Homecoming 10 miler with the strategy of using surges every mile to help my split times and eventual pace down to a slightly faster level.  The idea was to run at a reasonable pace, but then surge at every mile marker for 45 to 90 seconds.  Not an all out sprint, but a slight push to another gear.  After the allotted time, I backed off to the reasonable pace.

I found this does help to get split times down, but one of the other benefits is that I actually find my 'reasonable' pace becomes slightly quicker because it feels easier than the surge pace.

This was a good strategy for the 10 miler, but the last 1.5 miles of that race was pure hell.  Certainly not something one wants to incorporate in their marathon race strategy, right?

Well, staring at 5 miles in the books, a decision I would not use walking breaks, and decently fresh legs, I thought, "Well there is only one way I know of gaining back time, and that is running faster".  At this point I resolved that I'd use the next few miles to throw in these surges, and see how long I could handle it, and how much time I might gain.

The next five miles brought us back toward D.C. through Georgetown, back along the Potomac again, and toward the Lincoln Memorial.  Georgetown was crazy with people packed along the side of the road screaming so loud you could not hear yourself think.  It was really a huge lift.

I really wasn't too concerned with individual mile splits at this point, as I really only checked my watch when we cleared a mile marker. 

The surges seemed to be agreeable, and I resolved that the 10 mile mark would be an easy point to see what kind of progress I was making.

10 miles arrived as we passed the Kennedy Center of the arts, just a half mile outside of the next major scream tunnel at the Lincoln Memorial and I looked down to find 1:31:10 as my 10 mile split!  In retrospect, I ran the second 5 mile segment in 43:32 with my 10th mile split at 8:03!  I checked all my systems at this point, and things felt good.  We got a huge lift in the chaos of the spectators at the Lincoln Memorial, and I realized then that I had a shot of reaching the halfway point at 2 hours.

I continued to throw in surges, figuring that at the very least if I crashed and burned over the last 10 miles I could go home with my head held high explaining that I at least got to the halfway point in sub 4 hour pace following a slow first 5 miles. 

The 5k from 10 to the half was a bit more remote as we headed on an out and back to Hains Point, which is at the tip of a DC island in the Potomac, which makes up East Potomac Park.  As we arrived at the turnaround at Hains Point, we also hit the half timing mat and I looked down to 1:59:01!
I felt like I had accomplished my mission and settled in for most of mile 14. 

I felt good, and there was a little voice inside of me that was whispering, "So you made it here, but are you willing to push a little more to put some time in the bank?"  As we passed a bluegrass band twanging away I started to agree with the voices in my head (did I just say that?), and at mile 14 I resolved that I'd try to surge each mile for as long as I had the gear, and could make it happen.

From here things got a little less clear, and much more primal. 

I hit mile 15 at 2:13:01, which, I didn't realize at the time was a 41:51 five mile split from 10 to 15.  From 15 we headed off the East Potomac Park Island and back toward the Lincoln Memorial again.  I started to have a little trouble here with my mental state and my legs were beginning to show some signs of fatigue.  This was quickly spelled when a pounded a gel, filled my bottle with more Powerade, and cruised by the furious fans at the Lincoln.

From here the course takes runners the length of the National Mall toward the Capitol Building.  When we arrive at the Capitol we head back down the other side of the National Mall toward the bridge that carries us over the Potomac one last time.

This was also a tricky section for me, and I think over these four miles I surged only a couple times.  Mentally I was cracking a little because it felt like the longest two miles to the Capitol.  Once we rounded the turn I got a little bit of a lift seeing the 19 mile banner and knowing I was only 1 mile from 20, which would be a mere 10k from the finish.  It is a wonder what little mental tricks you can play when things start getting rough!

20 arrived just before we hit the bridge across the Potomac and I was elated that I had run 20 without stopping, which was a huge victory considering what I had thought might happen on this day, I also noticed I made it to 20 in 2:55:38!! 

I didn't even think about it in terms of sub 9:00/mile pace, and I definitely didn't think about how my split for the five miles from 15 to 20 was 42:37.  I simply thought I might have another surge in me, but beyond that I wasn't sure.

I took the surge at 20, and a very short surge at 21, and from there it became a pure guts race.

This stretch was perhaps the most barren, as there was no shade since we were running on a closed section of interstate highway, which also meant there were no spectators.  The drop demons came swooping down and were eating at my confidence.  I began thinking about how I only had one gear, about how this section of the course was miserable, about how maybe I had worked way too hard earlier and the race and I was now about to pay dearly for it.  Each step felt tougher than the last, but I refused to walk.

Finally we came down off of the interstate, crossed the 35k timing mat and the 22 mile marker, and into Crystal City, which is another city center across from D.C. in Virginia.

Crystal City was filled with cheering spectators and music, but it was all just a whirl of an unintelligible cacophony to me.  I wanted to stop and walk, I felt wrecked, and this little out and back section was getting on my nerves.  I wanted to head toward the Pentagon, where I knew the finish was near, and instead this race is taking me into a canyon of yahoos telling me how fantastic I look.... whatever!

At the turnaround in Crystal City I must have missed the 23 mile marker, which didn't help my mental state.  Nevertheless I pushed on, and at this point I started feeling a little tightness in my chest, which brought on a whole different level of concern.

It wasn't much, but it was there, and it bothered me.  The last thing I wanted was to drop dead at mile 24 of the marathon, so just as we were crossing the 24 mile marker I decided to walk for about 30 seconds.

This seemed to help, so I started running again, and made it just past 25 miles when I had to walk for another 30 seconds.  Passing the Pentagon at mile 25 I looked down at my watch to see 3:37:56, and I knew sub 4 hours was in the bag.  Ironically, my five mile split from 20 to 25 was still an impressive 42:18 amid the rough miles and little bit of walking.
Mission Accomplished

I walked one last time just around mile 26 and then charged up the final hill toward the finish and the Iwo Jima Memorial.  Moments later it was Mission Accomplished in 3 hours, 52 minutes, and 21 seconds!

As I walked through the chute I began to lose it, as I was overjoyed with the finish.  I ran with my heart pinned to my jersey, without fear of giving too much too soon, and in my own little way I felt like it was the only way I knew how to run the race to honor my Dad and my Grandfather, both Marines.

As I got my medal and space blanket I was just lost in the moment, it was so surreal and much different from my finish at the Hyannis Marathon back in February, which was also quite fulfilling and emotional in its own right.

Post Race 

The finisher festival was definitely an experience, but what sounded like a good time (beer garden and live music) the day before the race, was an entirely different concept following the marathon.  I just wanted as much water as I could handle, since the temperature had climbed all the way to 65 during the last hour of the race and even my habitual hydration during the race left me feeling dehydrated at the end.  I used a porta-potty and confirmed said dehydration.

As I stretched out I made my way over to the family and friends meet up area and eventually met my Mom, and Josh's girlfriend Danielle.  Finally Josh made his way over to us, and we drifted off to find some food.

As the day went along I stayed in a place of sheer amazement over the accomplishment.  I didn't have any stats or splits at hand, but the final product was all I could have asked for.

After retiring to the hotel I was able to see my stats and was blown away with my progressive 5k splits:

5k - 29:47 (9:35)
10k - 29:11 (9:23)
15k - 27:43 (8:55)
20k - 26:31 (8:32)
25k - 26:18 (8:27)
30k - 26:47 (8:37)
35k - 26:35 (8:33)
40k - 27:10 (8:44)

After winding down, I hobbled out for a couple beers and some recollections of our old home town with Josh.  Running MCM was a fantastic experience, but it was made so much more memorable because I got to share it with an old HS friend and track teammate.  You really know your real friends when you can fly into town for a weekend and pick right up like the time and distance between that last H.S. track workout or college XC meet or previous marathon didn't exist.  I am blessed.

I also have to thank my Mom for all her support throughout the experience.  I am glad I had a travel buddy for the trip, because there were certainly moments where my usual mental wrinkles came out and it was very important to just have someone there to simply listen when I wasn't doing so well... again, I am blessed.

A view North along the banks of the Potomac.
Monday morning arrived and it was check out and travel day for us.  I woke up early and got my running gear on to head over 4 or 5 blocks from the hotel to take a couple pictures of the Potomac.  I tried light jogging, but after 3 or 4 minutes my body violently protested, to which I replied, "Listen, it wasn't like I made you run an ultra!"  Muscles don't listen, they simply stop working, remember this, and ye may live a long and fitful life!

Regardless of my soreness and lack of mobility, we visited Arlington National Cemetery, which was certainly worth the time and effort, especially considering we were among the many, many graves of those that had paid the ultimate price for our freedom.  I simply wish we had more time to take all of it in.

We actually cut it pretty close when we arrived at Union Station in DC to hook up with the commuter rail train to BWI, and had to 'jog' to make sure we were on the train as it pulled away from the station, at which time my legs reminded me of the big FAIL that was.

Beyond that and a brief delay at the gate because there was a problem with the landing gear... not a big deal, right? ...we were landing at Logan just after sunset, and it was back to the very real world of trying to navigate all of the hustle and bustle of home.

Recovery and Reflection

Running my second marathon of 2010 was a fantastic success, mostly because it was an ex nihilo experience.  I came into the race expecting basically nothing, and left D.C. with something that I will never ever forget.

Thought it was technically the third marathon of my life, it felt like the first.  I ran it much more differently than the GAC 6 hour, where I got 27 miles, thus, technically a marathon, and it was nothing like my experience at Hyannis in February, which I trained for on short notice and used a run/walk strategy throughout.

Thankfully, my legs felt pretty good by Wednesday and Thursday of that week, but due to a chest cold or respiratory virus/infection, I was having trouble breathing when I went for a run.  With that, I never made it out to Stone Cat, but I was at peace with all of that.

So now the question lingers, "What's next?"

For me, ultra running is still a very real desire, and the more I long 3 and 4 hour trail runs, the more accessible the marathon has become.  I certainly respect the distance, but I have had lots of success this Fall logging 20+ mile ultra training runs and only having to take one or two days off following the run to recover.

Obviously 50k is the next logical step for me, and maybe it will be, but I look to 2011 as the year I run 50 miles, and hopefully log a qualifying time for a 100 miler.

It is funny, when I was 235, and what trail running friend Steve calls a BGR "Big Guy Runner", the marathon seemed impossible.  Eventually I ran 13.1, and marathon seemed accessible.  Now that I have run the distance a few times, 50k seems like it will be cake, and 50 miles, where it was once beyond my belief, is now visible on the horizon.  It will be a challenge, but I believe I can do it.  100 miles... well, we'll wait and see.  If I learned anything from my Marine Corps Marathon experience it is this:

Never say never.