My feet said no. My legs said no. My mind said no. My heart said “finish what you started and show ’em what you’re made of.”
Well, it happened. Everything I’ve already written about – the moment I decided to go for it after injury, injury itself, or way back to the moment I decided to enter the lottery for the 2014 Marine Corps Marathon – all played into yesterday, but in the interest of brevity, I have to focus on this weekend. So much was a blur, but I’ll do my best.
The Expo was packed, but unlike previous races I wasn’t tempted to buy all the official race merchandise. There were moments I was sure I was going to finish the marathon, and other moments I was reminded that I have no idea what 26.2 miles are like, especially not with an injury. I had a limited budget and didn’t want to depress myself buying super-expensive race merch for a race I very possibly might not finish. I wanted one extra shirt because I’ll admit I do not like the brown mock turtleneck that is the official participant shirt, and I wanted arm warmers, a specific saying on a Bondi Band, and I gave into my temptation to buy my first Sparkly Soul headband when I saw the camo. So this was my takeaway:
It took 45 minutes to get inside the Armory and I spent about twenty minutes inside the Expo before metroing home to carb-load, arrange my things, go over finish line meetup with my parents, and get to bed early. Friday night had taken me forever to fall asleep, I was so keyed up about the race, but luckily that plus the Expo meant I was too exhausted to toss and turn Saturday night and fell asleep by 9pm. Before I knew it, it was go time.
I’m glad I chose the Marine Corps Marathon as my first marathon, because for all the nerves I had already going into the race, race day logistics and transportation didn’t have to be one of them. From previous big DC races – Army Ten ’13, DC Rock ‘n’ Roll 1/2, Cherry Blossom, and Nike Women’s – I knew the first metro of the morning is absolutely the one to get on to give myself plenty of time to go through security, bag check, and get in place. Which meant a 3:30am alarm to get out the door at 4:30am to be at the metro station at 5am for the first train. I’m extra-glad I knew this for MCM – the walk from the Pentagon metro to the Runner’s Village felt like forever. Security was easy enough, but I saw the lines quickly backing up.
Like I am wont to do, I peed in the trees along the Potomac River instead of waiting in line for a way grosser porta-potty. I would rather pull myself up by a tree trunk and squat over dirt than squat over the way porta-potties smell and touch anything in there, and we know how things can go wrong in porta-potties for me. After that I just checked my bag, tried to stay warm, and prayed.
Eventually I made my way over to the starting area, and was very glad when the sun came up.
Confession: I lined up in the area for my original goal finish time: 4:30-4:59. Yes, I knew that was completely out of reach given my injury and subsequent halt on training, but I also knew I wasn’t going to be starting out at a 14+ minute pace. Yes, one should try to go out easy and speed up. But that’s when all the odds are in ones favor. With only enough cardio that the recumbent bike can offer in the past few weeks, I could start out at my normal 10-11 minute pace, but no matter if I started at a walk, I was going to get extra fatigued further into the race. But I knew I could keep with that pace group long enough for things to start to loosen up and not cause anyone to trip over me. Plus it would provide me with a buffer for the straggler bus to “beat the bridge.”
The opening ceremonies were amazing, but I wish I hadn’t been so nervous and could have enjoyed them more. There were a bunch of parachutists flying in with huge American flags and very low-flying military-type helicopters (sorry, no idea what they’re actually called but they looked straight out of Pearl Harbor footage).
I didn’t take many pictures for the first part of the race. I was trying very hard to focus on my form, on my breathing, and just taking in the race. But the nerves took over for the “run happy” feeling I was hoping for. I did have several moments of “oh my God I’m out here doing it,” but I have to admit, for all the “I just want to start,” “I just want to get to the 10K,” “I’m already a winner” thoughts I kept trying to tell myself, I had this nagging feeling like I didn’t belong if I didn’t finish. And still today I have a nagging feeling of “it took you over 6 hours, you don’t belong.” I hate to say that. A few months ago I would have smacked a friend if they’d said that about themselves and their marathon time. But that’s me, always wondering what I could have done to be that much better.
Miles 1-5 were really tough, mostly uphill. First through Rosslyn, ironically where I struggled and seethed and winced through every step of the Clarendon Day 5K. I didn’t like being reminded of that agonizing experience, though I did remember looking enviously at the other pain-free runners and thinking I would never take a 5K for granted again. That got me through my first few 10 minute intervals of running, because even though my lack of recent cardio was already leaving me winded, I was pain-free! My hip wasn’t acting any differently than the rest of my body! I kept reminding myself to engage my core and not let my back slump, but I think I had done so much “10 feet and change” practicing of the form my physical therapist taught me that it was finally coming naturally. I averaged just under a 12 minute pace for the first 5 miles, and I think I hit the 5 mile marker around 58 minutes.
Miles 6-10 got tougher. I hit the 10K in a respectable pace considering my lack of recent cardio and injury, and kept on slow and steady. I can’t say I “clipped” or “ticked” off miles, because it did feel slow and steady, but I do know this part was a breeze compared to the rest of the course. It was a long, shady, beautiful part of Rock Creek and Potomac Parkway. There was a turnaround, so quite a few runners were headed in the opposite direction as I headed toward said turnaround point, and not remembering the course map exactly, was tempted to ask one of them what mile they were in. Eventually I made the turnaround myself and saw lots of people were still behind me. I was nearing the 15K marker when I saw the straggler bus inching along behind the last runners just before the 10K marker on the opposite side. Being 3 miles ahead shouldn’t have made me nervous, but just the sight of it put the scare in me.
Things got considerably tougher after the 10 mile mark. I wasn’t quite in pain yet but I was very fatigued. Not good for having over 16 miles left. I cursed not taking even a half an hour more on the recumbent bike no matter how boring that damn machine was, but running felt like hell.
For miles 11-16 I had to take it at a 5:2 run:walk interval instead of the 10:1 I’d previously been doing. My cardio was so shot. Originally I’d prepped myself for the part of the course, around miles 10 and 11, through the Kennedy Center and by the Lincoln Memorial, planning to pep myself up with memories of all the other DC area races I’ve conquered, including Rock ‘n’ Roll on a bum ankle. That stretch is always part of any big DC race. But this time it just did not matter. My heart wanted to be in it so bad but my lungs were not cooperating. I took a GU at mile 12 (I’d been taking them every 4 miles), filled up my water bottle at the water station and dumped a couple of new Nuun tablets in it, and tried to power through.
At mile 17 God smiled on me and as I neared the National Mall, I spotted a familiar face. I yanked my earbuds out and began yelling “ALI! ALI!” until she spotted me and began jumping up and down and immediately crossed into the course and hugged me. I knew my friend Ali said she’d see me on the course, but so had my friend Dennis and I hadn’t been able to spot him even though he’d told me he was at miles 11 and 16. So my hopes for spotting Ali were low, but there she was. And in jeans, she and her friend cheered me up and gave me the “you are a champion” pep talk of a lifetime and ran me through 2:1 and 1:2 intervals for a few miles.
Note: when I first saw Ali and I told her everything hurt and I was so glad to see her and she was going on and on about how proud she was of me, at one point she asked me what I needed and I said I had Jolly Ranchers in my flipbelt under my shirt and she took my water bottle and phone off my hands to help me get to it and I was so relieved I looked at her and burst into tears and cried “ALI I’M SO HAPPY YOU’RE HERE.” Major runner brain moment. But it was the most relieved moment of the day. I’d been alone for 17 miles and suddenly had someone to hug me, not just send me a text. I leaned on her as we walked a few feet just sobbing with relief until I got it together to wipe my tears and juice that hard candy while we made our way down the Mall.
My dad was tracking me via phone and was also texting me regular cheer-ons and updates about my pace and a reminder that I didn’t need to break any records, just needed to not re-injure myself. No matter how I did it, he reminded me, most people never do a marathon in their entire lives, and I “will be proud forever.”
I was so relieved when Ali, Andrew (her awesome peppy friend who spent HIS birthday helping his friend’s friend run a marathon), and I got onto the 14th Street Bridge, effectively “beating the Bridge” aka the straggler bus that would pick up runners who didn’t make it to mile 20 in 5:20 some odd hours (I wanna say we got there in like 4:30?), that we walked most of mile 20-21. I regularly had to stop and put BioFreeze on my calves, thighs, hammies, and yes, my hips, and they were happy to go at whatever pace I needed. My spirit was so lifted that I had people to talk to at this point that I don’t know how I might ever run a full marathon without someone to talk to at some point. I absolutely owe this marathon to Ali. And my parents, but we’ll get to them in a moment.
I’ll admit, it felt so good not to push and wind myself that I walked the better part of the rest of the race. I knew I could walk the rest of the way at 20 minutes per mile and finish before they closed the finish line off, and at this point, not killing myself meant more to me than any kind of pride over time. I did pick it up around mile 22 and 23 when Ali and Andrew peeled off to catch the metro in Crystal City, now that I was alone and allowing myself to use the battery on my phone to stream a better playlist than the one loaded onto my iPod shuffle. But that only worked until about the 23 mile marker.
At this point my dad told me he and my mom were lined up near the Arlington Memorial Bridge which was just before the mile 26 marker. He asked if I wanted him and my mom to walk me to the finish. Even just reading that text made me cry. I thought of my mom and how much it took for her to make her way downtown this weekend after visiting her parents across the country all week, and not feeling well herself, and tried to pick it up so as not to make her wait that long. But I couldn’t have run more than I did no matter how much harder I’d tried. My wall was about 6 miles long at this point.
FInally I saw the exit sign indicating the Memorial Bridge was near, and then saw the bridge itself. And that’s when I saw my mom, shading the sun from her eyes with her hand, in an orange sweater, and my dad behind her, looking toward the other side of the road, both looking out for me. My mom was so trained on whatever point she was looking for me to pass by that she didn’t see me running off the road and straight toward her until I was right in front of her. The look of elated joy and pride on her face when she realized I was there and standing upright and less than half a mile from the finish line of a marathon is something I will never, ever forget.
My parents did indeed walk with me as far as they were allowed to, but the final incline up to the finish (which was cruel, by the way, MCM!) had them veering off into spectator-land and as much as I wanted to cross the finish line holding both my parents’ hands, I also had just enough adrenaline to pick it up to actually run across the finish line instead. As soon as I picked it up from a walk to a run in that final chute, every Marine along the finish line started cheering wildly. It was an amazing, amazing moment, to have so many brave, tough people applauding me for giving it one final push.
I have no idea how many Marines were all in a line after the finish but I shook every single one’s hands to thank them all individually while tears streamed down my face. My mouth was wide open while I gasped through my tears, and a Marathonfoto photog consequently took the single least-flattering photo of me that exists on this planet. At one point I reached a lady Marine and something about coming face to face with another woman, an obviously incredibly strong and brave one, in that overwhelmingly long male line, made me so relieved and we reached to hug each other at the same moment. She hugged me tight and kept saying “you did it girl, you made it.” That is another moment I will absolutely never forget.
I cried the whole way down the empty line to get my medal. (I finished in 6 hours and 15 minutes, so I wasn’t exactly fighting a ton of people for the post-race amenities, and I was impressed they even still had things left.) The Marine who handed me my medal smiled at my tears and asked, “What’s your story, runner?” I burst out that I’d been injured 5 weeks ago and wasn’t sure I was even going to make it to the start today and he smiled and replied, “Well you did, and you earned it” as he put the medal around my neck. I hiccuped and gasped “Thank you, thank you, sir.”
I remember seeing people’s pictures at the Marine Corps War Memorial with their medals around their necks from last year’s race all over social media, and was in shock that I was stepping up with my own marathon medal around my neck to take the very same picture. I used to drive by this memorial everyday to work and every morning it made me think of my Pop Pop, who served as a Marine for years, including in Korea and Vietnam. It would have been awesome if he’d been able to come to the race but I wore a tribute to him proudly on my back for the whole race.
I don’t know if I’ll do another full marathon. Currently I’m signed up for one, but I’m going to see what the deadline is to defer or drop to the half and decide by then how my training is going and compare my long run progress to the long runs of this training cycle, and see if it’s worth it. If I only ever do one full marathon in my life I am so glad it was MCM, because I literally do not know how I would have done it without my parents and friends there. Maybe if I hadn’t been so nervous, it hadn’t taken so long that it took such a mental toll, etc. Time will tell. I will likely want to prove to myself I can do better than I did it this time, but I definitely don’t think I’m built to run marathons.
I, however, am wired to always want to prove myself, so time will tell.
Thank you, from the bottom of my heart, to all of you who have commented with support, empathy, encouragement, solidarity, and belief in me through this process. Every single one of you, including those of you new to this blog, crossed through my thoughts yesterday and gave me a push.
Have you run a marathon? If so, how did your first (or only) go? If not, do you plan to?
Have you ever pulled out of the race due to a time limit/sag wagon/straggler bus, not of your own choosing? Have you ever pulled out of your own volition, and if so, what was your reasoning?
Have you/do you plan to run a future MCM?
Age Group: 1,350/1,433