Thursday, October 30, 2014

Oorah! Marine Corps Marathon 2014

As I write this, it's been two years to the day since the last time I qualified for Boston.  I ran my guts out at Ridge To Bridge (now Peak To Creek) in 2012 to qualify by a mere 53 seconds.  Much can change in two years, chiefly my qualifying time for Boston.  This Fall racing season is the first in which I could qualify with a sub-3:10 instead of a sub-3:05.  This is especially significant because my 53 second window was not large enough to actually get me into Boston 2014 (in which I would have needed a 1:38 window).  Although I retained much of my fitness and speed over the past two years, the faster efforts were getting harder, and after a crash-and-burn BQ attempt at Wrightsville Beach, I figured I would need those extra five minutes.  A sub-3:10 would require my second fastest marathon at the very least.  A 3:08 would be a much safer bet for Boston.  Still, part of me longed to get another sub-3:05, just to prove that it wasn't just a fast, downhill course and perfect race conditions that qualified me two years ago.
Enter the Marine Corps Marathon.  I've always wanted to do this race, and having gotten in via lottery, 2014 was my chance.  This was my focus race, and I curtailed my usually busy racing schedule to put forth the proper discipline into a regimented four months of training.  I wasn't going to waltz my way in and expect to run fast like I tried to do at Wrightsville.  The plan was tough, but I trained through the hot summer, chose a handful of favorite tune-up races, and put all my eggs in the MCM basket.  It wasn't really until I ran an unexpected PR at Lungstrong 15k that I started to think "OK, I got this."
I did everything right in the preceding week: tapered mileage (but not too much), maintained high intensity, adequately hydrated, ensured proper sleep (mostly), and optimized my carb-calorie ratio.  Heidi and I also arrived in the capital on the Friday night before the Sunday race to make sure all I had to do on Saturday was pick up my packet at take it easy.  If I were to have a bad race, it would not be due to lack of preparation.
Fast forward to race day.  I woke up on the first alarm (no snoozing) at 4am to don my laid-out race gear and head to the lobby of the hotel for what was my first cup of coffee in two weeks.  I was probably looking forward to the coffee more than the race!  The two week caffeine fast paid off.  I was hyper-focused and ready to roll.  After a short metro ride to the runners' village between the Pentagon and Arlington Cemetery, I saw that I was over-punctual.  I was one of the first few dozen of over 27 thousand runners to arrive.  I took my pick of a few hundred port-o-potties and made my way to the starting corrals.  And I waited...and waited...and waited.
Hurry up and wait...
As other early arrivals who were hoping for 3:00-3:20 times made their way to the corral, I made small talk, did intermittent sets of push-ups, and frequent trips to the bushes in order to subdue the nervous energy.  30 minutes before the start, actor Sean Astin (who would fire the starting pistol and then run the marathon) addressed the growing crowd to pump up the masses.  He was greeted with chants of "Ruuuudy," and "Go Samwise!"  "Goonies never say die," I added.  Then came a team of Marines parachuting into the starting area (also running the marathon).  Among them were Medal of Honor awardee Corporal Kyle Carpenter, some Iraq and Afghanistan combat veteran amputees, and others who had gone above and beyond the call of duty.  90 seconds before the start, a trio of V-22 Ospreys performed a low-altitude flyby of the start line.  If anyone wasn't pumped for this race after all of this, they should've been checked for a pulse.
Bang!  Rudy Gamgee (aka Sean Astin) fired the starter pistol, which was followed in short order by the more symbolic Howitzer blast, and we were off.  Whereas Wrightsville Beach was a race of guts (go out at race pace and hold on until failure), my MCM race strategy was one of prudence.  A 7:03 pace would bring me in at 3:05, and a 7:10 pace would give me 3:08; either one of those times left a decent cushion for a BQ.  My plan was to set out at a 7:10 pace or slightly slower and then ease into a sub-7:05-7:10 pace over the first few miles (which were the hilliest).  After 10k, I would focus on staying between 7:00 and 7:05, or an equal effort as terrain would allow.
Although my watch recorded a 7:10 split for mile 1, I did not pass the first mile marker until my time read 7:20 or 7:21.  This is where I wanted to be, but I could tell right away that I would need to account for GPS error and use my splits at the official markers rather than trusting the pace display on my watch.  By mile 3, I had reached my proposed race pace and deduced that my watch was reading long by about 2%, or 8-9 seconds per mile.  By this quick calculation, I knew that in order to keep a pace in the low 7:00s range, my watch would have to read in the mid 6:50s range.  That was fine, but I had to trust to equal effort so I did not burn too much energy on the large Rosslyn hills in the first few miles.  Also at this point, I caught up with the official 3:05 pace group leader.  I hoped he was starting off conservatively like I was, because I had not anticipated catching him until the last 10k or so if all went according to plan.  I used the crowd that orbited the pace leader, but I made a conscious effort to not get too locked in.  At times, they pulled away for a few dozen yards, and at other times, I drifted ahead of them without really noticing.  I let it all happen.  The real "race" would not begin for quite a while.
As we crossed the Key Bridge into Georgetown, the field started to open up, and I really settled into my comfort zone.  The marathon pace that felt so labored and stressed-over during training just flowed naturally.  A long, scenic out-and-back allowed us to glimpse the front-runners.  One leader--a sinewy, 125 pound collection of lean muscle fibers--was far ahead.  One minute behind him were three or four similarly shaped East African runners.  On their heals was DC area elite ultra-runner and repeated JFK 50-miler champion Michael Wardian, who cruised by with the ultra-runner's stereotypical long, flowing locks, a bushy hipster beard, and a visage of laser-like of focus and determination.  "Go, Michael," urged several racers around me.  Wardian, who clearly was a hometown favorite, would end up finishing in 4th place with a 2:25.
As we turned around to head South out of Georgetown and toward the memorials and parks along the Potomac, I got to see much of the field.  I had forgotten just how many people were running this race.  For the next few miles, we followed Ohio Drive along the banks of the Potomac, past the Lincoln and Jefferson Memorials and all the the way down to Hains Point at the Southernmost tip of the Memorial Park Peninsula.  Just before reaching the Point, I passed over the timed split mat for 13.1.  My watch said 1:32:25, which was almost exactly on pace for a 3:05 if everything continued as it was.  Having passed the halfway point, being cheered on by volunteers from the Wounded Warrior Foundation, and running alongside the reverently arrayed portraits of servicemen and women lost in the line of duty, I felt a renewed sense of vigor.  Maintaining my splits, I felt a boon of confidence with each passing mile.
After circumnavigating Memorial Park, we turned on Independence back toward the Lincoln Memorial for another short out-and back.  Near the mile 16 mark, I heard my name called from the the sidewalk.  There was Heidi cheering for me and smiling broadly as she took a video of me on her phone.  I looked out for her again about a mile later as we looped back around on the other side of Independence.  Again, I got a boost as she cheered me on while snapping pictures.
About 17 miles in, enjoying the moment.  Photo by Heidi.
Half a mile later, turning alongside the National Mall.

We looped around the South side of the Washington Monument--which was a great view--and we turned East on Madison to run along the National Mall towards the Capitol.  It was around here that I was starting to notice the warmth of the day.  The temperature had been 66 degrees at the start--far warmer than the forecast of low 50s, but I was doing my best to ignore it.  While I was feeling warm, I wasn't feeling the perception of fatigue that accompanies heat stress yet.  I made a point out of staying hydrated and fueled, and I tried to maintain the flow that had taken me this far into the race.
In view of the scaffold-covered dome of the Capitol, I ran over the measured 30k split with a race time of 2:10:24, an official 30+ second PR for that distance.  I navigated Peace Circle and Garfield Circle to head back towards the Potomac along the South side of the Mall, passing the Smithsonian and other national museums along the way.
My next big challenge was the 14th Street Bridge, which started shortly after the mile 20 marker.  Much like the Lee Bridge on the Richmond Marathon course, the 14th St. Bridge was long, gradually uphill, and exposed to the wind.  My pace took a bit of a hit on the bridge, but I was feeling relatively good physically for being this far into the race, so I maintained a positive mental outlook.  I was to the point where I could start counting down minutes to the finish, which always helps me find a strong finish.  Even after crossing over the river, out of D.C., and back into Virginia, the elevated bridge kept going and going.  From the Jefferson Monument at the start of the bridge to the off ramp in Crystal City, the bridge portion of the course was just over 1.5 miles.
An out-and back from miles 22-24 through Crystal City with spectators lining the streets was a great place to pick up the pace and gain back another couple of quick miles.  At this point, I was passing quite a few people.  Some of them were walking, some were desperately maintaining a jog.  I was feeling pretty worked out, but my legs were not heavy yet, so I focused on negative splitting as much as I could without redlining.  These miles were in the 7:00-high 6:50s range (real pace, not GPS pace).
As I exited Crystal City and passed underneath the bridge on our way North to the Pentagon, I was blasted with a brutal, unexpected headwind.  The long stretch around the East side of the Pentagon was open and exposed, with few spectators and nothing to shield me from the heavy wind resistance.  Although it was flat, this was the most challenging part of the race for me.  My 7:00 pace slowed to somewhere between 7:20 and 7:30 around the Pentagon and on Highway 110 alongside Arlington Cemetery.  At this point, with about a mile left to go, I started to feel as if I was hitting a wall.  I willed myself through the pain and told myself to just keep hurting for a few more minutes, and I would finish under 3:05.
As I arduously brought the mile 26 marker to me, I knew there was one more steep hill to take leading up to the finish at the Iwo Jima Memorial.  Honestly, the hill didn't worry me; I just wanted to get out of the wind!  As I turned left off the highway, I ignored the top of the hill and focused on the road ahead of me.  Marines were on on either side, cheering me on.  Their words were unintelligible to me, but I used the energy regardless.  Turning right at the top of the hill, the finish line was 200 feet away.  I pushed with what I had left.  All of the sudden, I felt a hamstring go rubbery.  Then, my left shoulder started to seize up.  Everything else was starting to hurt.  The wheels were falling off within 100 feet of the finish line!  I grunted and grimaced my way past the finish line in 3:04:51.  I had done it!  Not only did I qualify for Boston by over 5 minutes, but I proved to myself that I could still run a sub-3:05, even if I didn't have to anymore!
I threw my leaden arms over the fence of the finishing chute, dropped my head, and let out a guttural yawp of victory, startling a toddler in a nearby stroller.  I smiled apologetically at the parents and hobbled my way towards a company of proud Marines waiting to put a medal around my neck.  I shook each one of their hands and thanked them for their service.  Doubled over on the grass in front of the iconic Iwo Jima Memorial, the exhaustion caught up with me, and I became overcome with emotion to the point of weeping real tears.  After I regained my composure, I stretched my many ailing muscles and joints, and I found Heidi watching the Marine Corps marching band just as they struck into the "Marine's Hymn."  We spent another hour or so enjoying the festivities in Rosslyn before retiring to the hotel for freshening up and heading to the airport.
The Marine Corps Marathon was an awesome experience for many reasons, both personal and general.  I highly recommend it to anyone who wants to do a big city marathon while getting a super-sized dose of patriotism and national pride.  Semper Fi!  Oorah!

*Out of 27,000+ runners, I was the 179th finisher.  I was the 4th finisher from the state of North Carolina.
*My first half was 1:32:25, and my second half was 1:32:26.  I kinda want that one second back!
*Counting the gel I ate before the start, I had a total of 7 gels for this race (about one every four miles), which is more than I've ever eaten for a 26.2, but it worked on this particular race day.
*Here is the Suunto GPS data for the race.  By the end of the run, the cumulative GPS error was roughly +1.5%
*Normally one to make up my own training as I go, I broke character and used a tailor-made training plan from for this race.  It worked for me!

Shoes: Adidas Adios Boost 2
Socks: Swiftwick Zero
Singlet: Ascendant racing singlet by Reckless Running
Shorts: Brooks Sherpa IV 2-in-1
Compression: CEP Run+ calf sleeves
GPS watch: Suunto Ambit 2R
Gels: Clif Shots (3 Vanilla, 1 Lime [+caffeine], 1 Razz, 2 Turbo Espresso [+double caffeine])


  1. Wow, that is really impressive! Especially so given how warm the day turned out to be. Awesome!

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