Sunday I was honored to run the 40th MCM in Washington D.C.
This race has been on my “bucket list” since I started running, and there’s no way for me to fully convey how much it meant for me to be able to get in and run this year! In order to avoid the lottery (I never win things, so I didn’t even want to try) I agreed to run as a charity runner for the International Association of Fire Fighters, or IAFF. Since I work very closely with fire fighters each day and they have proven to be some of the best, most reliable, and kindest people I’m around, I felt it was fitting to represent their charity.
Being a charity runner came with some perks. Brunch and dinner the day before the race, extra swag, a nice tent to meet up at and have breakfast in before the race and for my husband to hang out in while I ran, and a location that was easy to meet up at afterward.
Saturday: Expo, dinner, and pre-race jitters.
The expo was a couple of blocks from the hotel, so the Husband and I walked over, and battled through the huge crowds to obtain the much-needed race gear and swag.
The IAFF supplied it’s own swag as well, and I needed to find the booth to check in. But first, I really, really “needed” a race jacket. I don’t know why I started collecting the race jackets, but it quickly became a “thing” for me to do (An expensive thing, to be fair, and I need to stop…but, really, I don’t know that I’ll get to run some of these larger marathons again). I’ve run some marathons that are just too “small” and barely have a t-shirt, let alone a jacket, but that hasn’t stopped this hobby.
In the impressively long line to check out of the “official brooks gear” store I met two women who were running their very first marathon. I remember my first marathon (Chicago 2012) and how nervous I was, and all the things I didn’t know. A chance meeting with a very nice, seasoned marathon runner before the race gave me the sound running advice that I use to this day. And I imparted this same advice on those two women (and on any first time marathoner that wants to hear it, really).
1. Experience the marathon. The race is it’s own adventure, and you should revel in making it to the start line and achieving something you’ve worked so hard for.
2. Walk the water stops. But if you choose to do so, start at the first one and do it the whole race through. Don’t just start when you’re wiped out in the final miles, because then you won’t reap the benefits.
3. Unplug the headphones. This goes back to #1, but in more detail. Save the music. Use it as a reward and to break up your mental game in the later miles when things start to get tough. Just like the scenery or elevation would break up your stride to keep you from getting bored, you need to break up your thoughts so that you can reset and keep going.
I use #1 and 3 religiously! Seriously. And music as a reward really works!
I was surprised to run into a friend of mine from the running group, Harvey, who was pacing the marathon for the 3:20 group.
Harvey is wicked fast, an inspirational runner, and probably one of the most positive people I’ve ever met. A short talk with him about my training and my goals and where I thought I was, and he had me inspired to at least try to keep with the 3:45 pace group.
Not long after wishing Harvey good luck, I gave up on fighting the crowd. I couldn’t get into the booths, I couldn’t get near the tables, and I wasn’t able to get any of the give-away stuff. It was getting frustrating, struggling with all the people, and I didn’t want to waste any more time wearing my legs out trying. I gathered up the husband, who gave up the fight well before I went back to get a jacket, and we headed back to the hotel.
I spent the time after the expo and until the charity’s hosted dinner rolling out my calfs, which were tight and pulling hard on the shins, and trying to stretch my back. I don’t know what injured my back, but I was struggling with a little pain in the lower muscles since August. Usually, after a walk with the dog and some stretching, it would warm up and the pain would go away.
Dinner was …uh…well it was food that I ate. And it was free, so I don’t complain. that makes it sound bad…it really wasn’t. It was bland, and I really was okay with that at the time. After dinner we walked all the way back to the hotel, detouring to see the White House and some statues. Back at the hotel my ever wonderful guy tried to massage out the back pain that was getting worse. He pronounced that I would be fine, surely, and I didn’t need to get all wound up with worry about injury and how that would ruin the marathon for me.
Sunday, race day:
That night I tossed and turned. My mind was no longer on injuries or the race. I was having nightmares about work. Yes. I have a job where I have nightmares about things going wrong – because they do and they can cost me my life. There was a problem before I left, and the way it was handled left me feeling angry, hurt, frustrated, and hopeless.
I’ve said it before, but it did play a major role in how my mental game fell apart in the race:
Hopelessness is not a good feeling to have when going into a marathon.
I didn’t sleep.
When my alarm went off at 4:30AM, I jumped out of bed, grateful that the night was over with. I noticed that my whole lower back, not just the right side, ached now, and I pushed the thought to the back of my mind. I cleaned up and dressed in my race kit so fast that I realized I still had 20 minutes before the metro would start running, and another 15-20 before it even remotely got to my station… I tried to snooze a little, but ended up pacing and stretching my back.
We hit the metro with dozens of other runners. I saw so many American flag based outfits…and the majority of them were skimpy, barely there, and …uh… wrong… they should’ve been banned. But, I guess, when you have freedom, you don’t have to wear anything else.
I heard that a lot of people were held up and had trouble getting through the check points into the runners areas. We had no such issue. We did, however, have a hard time figuring out where we were supposed to go. After some wandering and a bunch of hard looks from people who had no clue what we were talking about when we asked where “charity hill” was, we found our way.
After a bagel and three nerves-induced trips to the porta potties near-by, and the group photos and the well-wishes, I was off on the long walk down the hill from Arlington Cemetery to the start line close the the Pentagon. (All walks are long before a marathon… they are 5x longer afterward though).
This race went all out for the start of event festivities. There were multiple fly-overs, paratroopers jumping to the start line with various US flags (that’s gotta take a lot of serious skillz), and probably the BEST announcer I’ve ever heard.
I oo-ed aand ahhh-ed wialong with the thousands-deep crowd of runners as I settled into place at the back of the 3:30-3:50 corral area. The weather was on-and-off drizzling on us (And, luckily, it never did more than drizzle through the race). Some woman in a robe was near-by and we started chatting about wanting to keep to the 3:45 time. When the gun went off we swarmed and dodged the runners as we tried to keep the pacer in sight – he was across the median and the course did a little split in the first half mile before we all joined together. I was grateful for robe girl. As a veteran runner of this marathon, she knew about the course split and warned against jumping down the hillside to join other runners, since they would be running up hill to join us again anyway. You could hear runners warning each other not to go down the hillside until the two lanes joined together.
I don’t remember much about the route. The first couple miles were harsh on me, as my back ached with each foot-fall – something that had not happened during any of my training leading up to this day. The rain continued, and the chilly breezes died down, leaving me feel over-warm with my arm sleeves on. I stripped them off around mile 3-ish. By mile 5, I was ditching them, not wanting to carry them along the whole way. So long arm sleeves. You are missed.
There were some great hills in the first four miles, and then a good down hill. Mostly, it seemed we ran along tree-lined roads. The crowd was amazing – where there was crowd. Or, where I bothered to notice crowd.
I soon realized that I was ahead of the 3:45 group… I realized it because they went flying past me in the third mile (At a sub-8min/mile pace…which, uh, is waaay faster than what they should’ve been doing). I bailed on staying with the group soon after that realization. I knew this would be a hard course, and I’m at least smart enough to know better than to blow myself up before the first 6 miles.
By mile 6 I was back with robe girl from the start line and a few other guys who were also all too aware that the 3:45 pace group was cooking through the race too fast, so they formed their new pace group. I stuck with them a little, but was feeling really strong, and ended up weaving ahead to say hi to a fellow Team RWB runner, and then a head of him to chat with a woman from the IAFF group. The IAFF woman said she was feeling rough about how she was doing and was having a hard time keeping up with the pace group. She seemed relieved when I told her the group was well ahead of the pace they should be running.
Near mile 9 of the route, I saw Mr Incredible – here’s an article on the guy (Paul S.) and his support of the local running scene.
I danced a little to the music pumping from the speakers attached to his bike and felt my worry that I was going to loose this pace fade away. At that moment, I committed to just run it out as long as I could.
Around miles 11-13 I was still ahead of the 3:45 group, and I was alone in a crowd of thousands. There wasn’t a mile in this race where the road was wide open for me. I was still dodging in and out of people, even at the pace I was running. I had not found anyone to chat with. I was starting to worry about my ability to maintain this pace. The course was flat and running along a water way. I was so out of it I have no idea where we were. Just as I started to waver, I entered the “blue mile” – the roadway was lined on both sides by images of fallen soldiers… And after that it was lined by volunteers who held flags high for the fallen soldiers. It was sad. It was inspiring. It was beautiful in its meaning.
I ran through this portion of the route without issue.
In fact. I made it through to mile 19 before I bonked out….and I bonked out so HARD. It was like a switch. I was running strong and fine and not feeling a thing wrong – just the worry in my mind that I would n’t be able to keep doing what I was doing…and then I suddenly just hurt. Everywhere. all at once. And I struggled to put one foot before the other.
I set my sights to make it to mile 20 and the “beat the bridge” before I started walking (hobbling). At least that way, no matter how bad it got, I would still finish the marathon. Trust me, in the state I was in, there was serious doubt I could finish.
The last 6 were a struggle. As I started onto the bridge, I looked over at a building and the giant sign across the front of it read: “NEVER AGAIN”. I read it over and over, thinking it was very prophetic at that moment. The next line on the sign read, “what we do defines us”.
I don’t know where the knowledge came from – I still was so disoriented that I didn’t know where I was – but I decided that the building was the Holocaust Museum (And I was right). And the message was about humanity’s evil, not the destruction of my race mentality.
Around mile 21 or 22, another member of the IAFF ran up on me and encouraged me to keep going and that he would help me get to the finish. He remembered me from the Grand Lakes Marathon in Ohio, where we first met and both ran with the 3:45 pace group – incidentally getting me to my PR of 3:43 in the marathon. He asked what happened and I said that I basically set out to PR again, and just blew up. I struggled to keep with him too, though, and walked the water stop, letting him go ahead.
I struggled through Crystal City and back toward the Pentagon. I tried eating a pretzel along this time, which didn’t affect me (It neither hurt, nor helped the empty and pained feeling I had). I contemplated a doughnut at the “treat station” just 2 miles from the finish, but chickened out because I wasn’t feeling well at all.
I’d like to note that throughout this course there were people pushing others in wheelchairs. These people were killing this race at paces the same or faster than me! And they were pushing another person along the way! It was ridiculous how strong and talented those runners were! They inspired. They were brilliant!
There was also a double-amputee running this race. I was catching up to him around mile 24/25, and it was obvious he was struggling too at this point. But he was still moving. I don’t want to harp too much on the guy, the race and other runners have been doing it enough I think. But, sir, if you ever read this, you are a brilliant man. Thank you for your service, and thank you for going through all the PT to get where you are. Keep it up!
In the last mile the struggle was so real. A man from Israel began encouraging me and pushing me – and with his encouragement, I ran the last mile, including the hill to the finish.
I got the medal, which is beautiful, and obtained most of my finisher stuff… I was too hurt to care, really. I just wanted to get back to the tent, collect my husband, thank the IAFF coordinators, and then leave for the shower and home. Moving sucked, and now that I was no longer racing, I could feel all the pain….All. The. Pain. My husband met me at the end of the finisher village, since the race required me to walk through all that – the opposite direction of charity hill – and I just. Couldn’t. We cleaned up and cleared out.
I can’t say that I’m unhappy with this race or my results. I was still sub-4hr, but it was such a hard struggle, and I was left with a week rehab for my back injury. The weather was fine, but I didn’t get the crowd feel that I expected for a “big city” type of race. The race was well appointed, at least for my part – it sounds like they ran out of things for the later finishers. I didn’t see any monuments (except the Irwo Jima Memorial, which was right after I got my medal). So many things were covered with tarps. This race also didn’t give the feel of being a “running tour of the city” – we barely saw the city… everything was along water ways and out of the way. Crystal City was really the only point where it was like being in the community. Maybe I missed something – it’s totally possible. I was completely inside my head with my race and then I was completely bonked out.
I don’t know if I would do this race again. Its checked off, and I liked the majority of it. But I don’t think I dig the really crowded races.
That’s my recap. Thanks everyone.