On October 26 I ran my first marathon. It was the famous Marine Corps Marathon held annually in DC. I’ve been meaning to document my experience for a while and felt that the post-election lag would be ideal. Some parts of this are gross, I apologize. And it is rather lengthy, but it’s necessary for me to write it down while it’s still fresh. Hope you enjoy.
I didn’t realize I would be so nervous. Why the nerves? Isn’t this a leisure activity? I guess it has to do with the fear of not meeting a particular challenge. I set this goal in May – at a time when I was running no more than 1-2 miles. Here I am, five months later, about to begin my first full marathon. It’s a cool, crisp morning and sleeves would be nice but I know that soon I wouldn’t need them. The runners – thousands of us – are gathering in our respective start corrals as the clock approaches 8 AM. A Marine Osprey does a flyby. Very cool. I can hear Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run” playing somewhere in the distance. Then, I hear a countdown over the loudspeakers and at zero a howitzer fires, thundering the start of the wheelchair participants. Ten minutes to go. I do a few last minute stretches. To my right, a guy is hugging his wife and son. Another supporter has brought their dog. I start to finalize my early strategy – go easy until the pack thins then open it up, make it to mile 16 and the tourist attractions will distract enough to get me to the final 5 miles. The howitzer fires again and the lead corral is off.
We slowly start to walk towards the starting line, the pack lurching forward. I’m a mid-level runner so there’s about an equal number of runners in front and behind – 30,000 in total. I notice some around me trying to break into a sort of walking jog. Conserve the energy, I told myself. Just walk until you reach the start. It took me about 4 ½ minutes to finally reach the starting line and I pick up into a light jog. The pack simply doesn’t allow for anything faster. I resisted the urge to start weaving between runners to quicken my pace. Conserve the energy, be patient. We passed the 26 mile marker – the finish line is very close to the start – and it gave me a chuckle. Miles 1 and 2 went by fast with the excitement and the pure adrenaline. We ran through Rosslyn in front of huge crowds. It was amazing. We turned onto Lee Highway and began the first of two big climbs. It was early and I was pumped, so this wasn’t bad. Plus, the crowd drowned out any effect a climb would have.
We turned onto Sprout and headed back towards Georgetown. The previous climb became a downhill run and the pace quickened. By now I was at a steady 10 minute/mile, which is what my target was. This was an isolated part of the course and for a while it was just us runners. People began darting off into the woods to relieve themselves of some excess pre-race fluids. At first, I thought this was pretty gross, but it became such a common sight on the course that I eventually figured it was normal for a race this size.
The course merged onto Washington Parkway and we got our first glimpse of the Potomac as we approached mile 4. A heavy fog had set in and the opposite shore was barely visible. As we climbed up to the Key Bridge I could see the tower of Healy Hall at Georgetown Univ. peeking above the fog. It was breathtaking and I wished for a camera. Later I would find photos from other runners on the web. Great stuff.
We crossed the Potomac and turned north up Canal. Again it was an isolated part of the course but the pack had begun to spread out a bit. I passed marker 5 and 6 and was able to stretch out my stride, quickening to a 9 minute pace. By this time I was feeling good. The early stiffness typical of any long run was gone, along with any early jitters. The blood was moving through my legs, I was loose, my breathing was steady. I was at a good place. Soon the others runners started to fade away and I slipped into my own little world, just me and the road. That’s always a good place to be, even for a rookie like myself. But it was about to change.
At mile seven the course turned onto Reservoir and MacArthur and headed into Georgetown. We began the second big climb, and this would ruin my day. Dreams of darting across the finish line with a triumphant smile would soon be dashed. I trained on hills at home, in the Texas heat, and thought I was adequately prepared. I was wrong. For one, the climb was steep, steeper than I expected, and it was long. Nearly one mile uphill. That was longer than I had previously run. Plus, the road narrowed a bit, which bunched us up. We also began to surpass the wheelchair racers at this point, which meant further bunching. The bunching meant shortening my stride, thus more steps, uphill for over a mile on a pretty steep grade. By the time we reached the top I could feel my calves really tightening, like I just finished with 1000 calf raises in the gym. To make things worse, we started on a downhill run that took an equal toll. Seeing Georgetown was cool, but the tightness in the calves took away from any appreciation of it. I had to hop over the remnants of someone’s nausea, apparently I wasn’t the only one who felt the effects of what on paper seemed like a simple climb.
We merged back onto Canal and passed by the tail-end of the pack heading the opposite direction. I took pity on them for what they were about to endure. We turned onto M Street, through the heart of Georgetown. It was wider here and I was able to stride out some, relieving some of the tightness. Despite this, my pace remained steady at about 10 minutes/mile. A few more turns, another short downhill run (rather steep), past markers 9 and 10 and we were on Rock Creek Pkwy. At some point we passed the Kennedy Center and Watergate, but I didn’t notice. I was too concerned about my legs, hoping they wouldn’t start cramping this early. So far, so good. Tight, but still functioning well. I could’ve done without that climb, but overall I still felt pretty good and I was happy with my pace.
We merged onto Ohio, through East Potomac Park and then West Potomac Park, beginning a long isolated stretch along the perimeter of the golf course. The tightening in my calves was getting worse. We passed markers 11 and 12 and for the first time I began entertaining the notion of walk breaks. Way too early for that…not a good sign. Thus began the mental battle that I learned would be such a part of this kind of race. Near marker 12 I passed a woman walking, on her cell phone. I heard “come get me, I’m done”. No way was I at that point. Keep going.
We turned at the point and headed back up Ohio, passing the halfway mark along the way at a little over 2 hours. Not bad at all. Despite the tightness and the bundled pack, I was still on a good pace, much better than I expected. I was shooting for 4 ½ hours and so far was on target. I retrieved an energy gel from my pack and downed it with some water. I passed marker 14 still feeling okay, but somewhere near marker 15 the cramps hit. Both calves locked up in spasm. It hurt…badly. This was a first. In all my training runs, some as long as 20 miles, I have never cramped up, even when consuming less in fluids. No doubt this was due to the previous climb. I pushed through to about halfway to mile 16, and then had to walk for about a tenth/mile. I started back running, hoping the cramps would ease but they didn’t. I did an intermittent run-walk through miles 15-17. This was a bummer because as we approached the Mall the crowds grew substantially, 4-5 deep in places, and I had to walk past them. That sucked. Also somewhere at this point we passed the Lincoln Memorial, but I never saw it.
Near marker 17 we passed the White House, and I was able to take a good look since the pack was rather thin and my cramps were easing off. I started back running and was able to tolerate it a little better but was by no means pain free. And then the stomach cramps hit. This wasn’t muscular pain, it was intestinal pain. I had to go. Not sure why, again this was something that had never happened during my training. Maybe it was too much pasta the night before, maybe it was the energy gel. I don’t know. But I contemplated stopping at a porta-potty. I didn’t want to lose the time but I wasn’t sure if I could hold it in to the finish. I was literally trying not to crap my pants in front of thousands of people lined along the Mall.
We passed the Capitol building and I resisted the urge to give Congress the finger, instead refocusing the energy towards my bowels. I saw a group of porta-potties on the right near marker 18. The line was short so I stopped. My stomach was feeling a little better so I opted just for number 1. Maybe relieving some bladder pressure would help my gut. I had already lost time walking and didn’t want to lose anymore. Surprisingly, it helped.
I got back on course and was able to maintain a slow jog, about an 11-12 minute/mile pace. My stomach pain was gone, but the calves just wouldn’t leave me alone. At marker 19 I stopped and stretched them on the curb, hoping to buy some distance. An onlooker gave me a word of encouragement and I could only respond by saying “ouch”. We turned off the Mall and headed toward the Rochambeau Bridge, past mile 20. This is where I felt every ounce of energy completely drain from my body. I’ve heard people describe “the wall”, the moment where you feel like you literally can’t take another step and I always thought the reports were exaggerated. They aren’t. The science behind it is the body has depleted all glycogen reserves in the liver and muscles, leaving only fat as an energy source, which is inefficient, thus the lack of energy. The thought of another 6 miles was overwhelming and I wondered if this was it. Was this the moment that I quit? I though about it. Then I thought about all the training, those early AM runs where I would have rather slept in. The runs in the Texas heat where I questioned my own sanity. The fact that I travelled all this way to challenge myself. Was I going to quit? Hell no.
Instead, I walked across the bridge to mile 21 while fighting myself. My brain wanted to quit, my body sure as hell did. But I recalibrated my strategy and settled on a timed run-walk. 4 minutes running, one minute walking. Surely I could do this for 6 miles.
We turned off the bridge and headed into Crystal City. So far my strategy was working. It got me through miles 21-23 and the larger crowds helped. But soon 4 minutes of running was too much. I adjusted to 3 running, 1 walking. Then 2 running, 2 walking. I had no energy…none. It was the most bizarre thing I’ve ever experienced. I’ve been tired before, but this was totally different. Keeping to the 2-on-2-off strategy became difficult, but I pushed on as we exited Crystal City, back under the interstate. I passed mile 24, and saw a young girl probably mid-teens leaning over and vomiting profusely. Her entire body was heaving, this girl was hurting. I wanted to say something encouraging but couldn’t. By this time the pain in my legs was excruciating, I was completely wiped out and the noon sun was starting to beat down on me. My will was starting to wither. My feet were sore, my knees swollen and tight, my hips and ankles hurting. I silently wished her well and kept on.
Downhill to mile 25 and I decided to walk ½ mile to prepare for the finish. It was getting warm. One mile to go. The intermittent walking was no longer working. The pain in my calves had surpassed anything I had ever experienced. By this time crawling was becoming a legitimate option. I retrieved a photo of my kids and looked at it. Their faces, smiling. I looked at my youngest and remembered his battle against meningitis. He faced something much tougher than what I’m facing, and triumphed stronger than before, stronger than I will ever be. The photo was my last option for motivation, my “broken arrow”, to be used when I was near the end, and it worked. It was exactly the final motivation I needed and I started running again, slow and wobbly, but running nonetheless. Every step felt like a knife in my calves, every breath burned. As we drew close to mile 26 the crowd began to swell and I mustered every ounce of strength I had for the final push. We passed mile 26 and turned into Arlington Cemetary. The crowd was huge and loud. The final 1/10 mile was straight uphill towards the Iwo Jima Memorial. The crowd was deafening and this climb sent explosive pain into my calves, but it finally leveled out and I finally crossed the finish - clutching the photo - at 4:46:50.
Shortly thereafter a Marine officer hung the finisher’s medal over my neck and they took my picture in front of the Iwo Jima Memorial. I finished. No, it wasn’t the time I wanted and it was painful, but I finished. Sure, there were moments where I wanted to quit, where I no longer thought it was worth it, but I finished. I raced against myself, challenging my body, mind and spirit like I had never challenged it before, and I finished. I was a marathoner!
That night was painful, but my body recovered. And my spirit had been given a taste of accomplishment. I am a marathoner, but I have a time to beat and on February 1 in New Orleans I intend to do just that. People have told me that running is addictive, but I disagree. Running itself sucks, it’s the feeling afterward that’s addictive and I can’t get enough of it. It's amazing what I will go through to get it. I got a taste on October 26 and even though I was temporarily miserable, I want more.
Special thanks to all the Marines and volunteers along the course. What a great job and what an amazing event!