Marine Corps is flat

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arine Corps is flat.” “ Like a pancake”. “ Fast and flat.” That’s what I had always heard about this race. It also is considered a good race for beginners and it’s become popular to the point of selling out at the opening of registration to rival the great music acts. All of this had me preconditioned to want to run the race, to live the experience and to have the ability to (false) humbly say, “Yeah, I ran Marine Corps.” But the impetus came from my running buddy Scott, who had run the year before and used most of his talking time from three weeks of runs before the marathon and another three weeks afterwards telling me about it. He talked about the crowd, the expo, the historic sites, and most often about The Awakening, a 100-foot statue of a giant embedded in the earth, struggling to free himself, The most visible part is a 17-foot right arm and hand that climb above the observer. Scott enjoyed the marathon as a run and he enjoyed the tourism benefits of the course. Needless to say he had a good time in his mind and on the clock.
Immediately after the race, Scott talked a lot about us running the race together. We had run Chicago and Raleigh together in previous years, but neither really worked out. Eventually we split up and ran separately. But this year would be different. We would train hard. We would be ready and Scott would use it to qualify for Boston. But as time went by and we ran more sparingly in the off season, the conversation turned to Scott running Marine Corps. He didn’t push me and I am not one to commit to a race half a year in advance. I like to train generically for a marathon and if I am feeling good, choose a race 3-4 weeks out. That is getting harder and harder to do in this age of runners and the popular fast races no longer accept any runners as the race date nears.
I was interested in participating and so I checked out the details at their site; the date to register, the hotels nearby, the cost and where I might finish in my age group. (Because 500 or 502 makes a difference!) I did see that they had made some changes to the course, but DC is flat. That’s it. When registration day rolled around, Scott excitedly and dutifully signed up. This gave him a target and motivation. Immediately, his commitment to running was reinvigorated. He made a plan that had different types of runs, different distances and in general the schedule that would not only prepare him to run, but that would prepare him to run well. My job was to keep up.
And so I tried. Our weekly mileage crept up. My alarm clock sounded more often and at earlier hours so that we could get a run in before work. We began to see more and more of Umstead Forest as the long run added another mile or two. Scott was strong and getting stronger. He had motivation and energy. He took responsibility for hiding Gatorades on our route the night before a long run and recorded the distance, the pace and with that new GPS, even our elevation changes. The runs were social with few periods of silence, but they were also serious training sessions with an undeletable archive of data. I feared having a slow overall time and so we could never slack off. Or we did slack off and had to face the irrefutable evidence at the end of the run. The GPS was not like our mental excuses that allowed us to easily explain away being passed. The best of course is “Oh I am doing a long run and they are just getting started.” Or “They are a different age group or training for a shorter race” or “They run at college” or “Yeah but I am better looking/smarter/have more money” or even the sophomoric humor about their mothers being fast.
I ran along. Scott was proceeding in his training according to schedule. My schedule for training is less formal and generally available only after the race when I can tell you what I did. I have 2 basic goals for marathon training. I want to run at least 40 miles per week for ten weeks and I need to build up to at least three 20-mile training runs. Scott was on pace to do that and even though we ran together at most twice per week, our mileage charts pretty much mirrored each other. He would be ready and I would be ready.
See, I had decided to register back on the first day and see how it played out. I view the costs of a marathon as high, but I am willing to pay for a place and then forfeit the entry fee if I am not ready to go. But I felt ready to go and I felt it unfair to Scott to keep a secret any more. Being cognizant that this was really his race, and not wanting to ruin it, I told Scott that I had registered and asked if he minded if I ran. There really is only one answer that you can give and I worried that I might force him into acquiescence. But that is my personality not his. He reacted enthusiastically and our pace must have dropped about 30 seconds per mile as he highlighted the benefits and then reviewed the logistics. The challenge was on. The gauntlet had been laid down. We would not only run together in D.C., we would race together. Scott wanted a P.R. and maybe I could run the pace with him for part of the way.
Once the announcement had been made, I decided to raise the personal stakes. I started telling more people and arranged to visit a college buddy and his family for dinner and a sleepover two nights before the start. We had only one long run remaining and in the first crisp air of autumn, we did that at too fast a pace. Not that it hurt us because we were Men of Steel, The Few, The Proud, hardbodies that could run endlessly. Our runs had rhythm and the miles clicked away in training. We were peaking mentally and we, well at least I, was dragging my body to the party. My weight pulled into that pre-marathon range that I quote the rest of the year. I fueled it with healthy food and stoked that fire with cookies and wine and anything that I wanted because we were invincible. When I ran by, people said, well I imagined them saying, “that guy is a runner.” Of course I am sure that they included Scott when he was with me – and probably when he ran alone as well.
Eva is a great travel partner and a wonderful supporter at any race. She puts in the miles walking and understands the thought process of the never-to-be-famous midpacker that I am. We were close enough to D.C. that we headed up a couple of days early. Scott would come up the following day in his own car. His logistics were different than mine. He had reserved a hotel near the start and finish line for the convenience and practicality. I was too cheap for that and we planned to spend one night with friends and the pre-race night in a hotel in the suburbs. Two miles after leaving our house, Scott calls the mobile and starts asking where we are, am I excited and oh, by the way, he isn’t going. Long story short, a medical issue had arisen that halted all running until treated. (Turned out to be minor and he ran a different marathon 2 weeks later). Wow. What a shock and a disappointment. I can only imagine how he feels since as I mentioned, this was his race. So off I go to run this alone.
Upon arriving, our plan was to get a good lunch somewhere in DC and Eva excels at this type of search. And our first hour included decent food, a cold beer and Eva patiently inquiring about this or that part of the marathon. She was DD and allowed me to rest my legs. I need any small advantage possible. From there we searched for the marathon expo. This is a big race and there is a lot for sale. It is held next to the football stadium and requires only a few blocks of walking from the parking lot. My priority is not to wear my legs out from standing too long on concrete or shopping. Fortunately, the Marines are like a military group and Operation Quick Visit is well organized and we fly through the pickup process. I munch on and drink samples of enough things that I am guaranteed a digestive issue, but it is two days early. I stare at shoes and gloves and gel and try to decide if I need or want anything. I get a sales pitch massage from a salesman for The Stick. It feels really good on my calves. Then, like most of my shopping experiences, I decide to leave without buying anything for myself. Eva and I do buy a running T with what we think is a funny statement as a Christmas present. Fifty-eight shopping days left.
I get my first clue of a minor surprise as we head to our friend’s place in Arlington. The road we took was part of the first few miles of the marathon and it looked like a pretty steady climb. Not ridiculous, but it was not a pancake. I mentioned this to them and they sort of nodded. No sympathy there. They did however have a lot of questions that I don’t really have an answer for: do you eat special foods? (No, I don’t carbo load), etc. Fun, but no answer about the hills.
Saturday was a down day with minimal walking: lunch with friends and their baby in Georgetown, a movie, lots of reading and the best pre-race meal ever: Vietnamese pho which in addition to tasting great had my carbs (I eat them, I just don’t insist on it), plenty of salt for sweating and liquid for prehydration. I hadn’t ever considered a ramen-type noodle soup as the ideal meal, but even the one-block proximity to the hotel was a plus. Everything is going my way. I am going to be blazingly fast.
When I run at home, most of my runs start at the end of driveway and end nearby. For races of any length though, you have to have some sort of a plan. The biggest issues occur at the confluence of a long run like a marathon and a large crowd. Marine Corps says “Aye Aye, sir!” to both of those. I am lucky in that Eva is willing to get up early and drive me to a convenient point. For the 8 AM start, we decided that she would drop me off at a Metro station two stops from the start line at 6 AM, and at 5:55 AM I am crossing the street with a few other runners and headed underground. There I discover a line two deep of people waiting for the next train. It pulls into the station, the doors open and a hundred million people are waiting. Well, maybe fewer, but the car was jammed with young attractive fit runners. What a great but startling sight at 6AM on a Sunday morning. Isn’t life wonderful?
We exited en masse near Pentagon, the designated station, and formed a large migration to the staging area. It was probably a good three-quarter mile walk and there was no empty space during that walk around the Pentagon. Number one (and two for some) on everyone’s must do list meant a long line at the Port-a-Potties. The advance to the front of the line was gradual and there were people searching for friends, eating Gu and Powergel and bananas, people changing clothes or dropping off clothes for the post race. I had a discussion with the female runner in front of me in line about wearing a GPS. I find that even a Timex adds too much extra weight for me to carry and here she, a female that weighed at least fifty pounds less than me, was wearing the gigantic Garmin. I know from my runs that you hardly notice the weight unless the battery is dead and then it adds five pounds. But it is her race and I keep my opinion to myself. And then her mobile phone rings! I do an inventory and she has the phone, the GPS, long pants and a jacket, a headband, multiple gels and a fanny pack. Immediate judgment: she’s the kind of girl that you might want to marry, but you don’t want to run with.
I am rushing now because I found out the time from my new friend’s GPS and confirmed it with her phone: 20 minutes to the start. Where is the start? Another half mile or more of walking gets me to the back of the multitude and I want to move up closer. Guys are running off to the bushes and I see some markers for paces. Music is playing as the jets provide a flyover. I hear the Marine Hymn and remember some of the words from elementary school -  From the Halls of Montezuma….  I see a big sign that says 3:15 and I look for the 3:30 pace group. Maybe I will run with them. I touch my toes quickly as if there is any hope of truly stretching here. People are everywhere. It is going to be a crazy start. There’s the 3:30 sign. It is jam-packed around that sign. I give up on running with that pace group. I am on my own. Bang. Here we go. Well at least some of the people up front are moving. We start walking, and then shuffling. Now the race has started. Semper Fi, runners, Semper Fi.
Crowds help control the pace at the beginning of marathons and help us refrain from starting out too fast. That is good, as long as it doesn’t cost me more than 30 seconds because I don’t want to have to make up time. I want time in the bank. But I stick with the program and spend a lot of time thinking about my running so that I avoid stepping on and being stepped on. Later in the race I will focus internally, but this early I am alert and considering the surroundings. I notice the tombstones in Arlington and a wave of patriotism flows through my body and I mumble an expletive. First mile marker shows that this slow pace didn’t really cost us much time: a good indicator that in an unobstructed course, I might have sprinted out. The crowd has begun to spread out a bit. I start to search for a pace, passing a few, trying to draft for a moment behind others and just listening to the conversations friends are having. This is the run portion of the marathon. The race, if there is to be one today, will come much later.
Miles two and three do indeed climb, but the elevation gain seems less pronounced than it did in the car and the crowd and the stored-up energy from weeks of tapering push me up and over it quickly. At mile three, the pace quickens as we head down towards the Potomac and on across the Key Bridge into Georgetown. I associate Key with the National Anthem and spend somewhere between a fraction of a second and two minutes thinking about the words and the tune. I need a different song stuck in my head. Random thoughts pop in. We are in Georgetown and we really haven’t seen anything yet on the course. My pace is fast for me. The downhill made it seem easy and I am in the flow. Somewhere in this area we run on a ramp with a forest on one side and the river on the other. I feel a slight urge and have to decide whether to stop here and hit the side of the road as hundreds of other males and the occasional female are doing, or to wait in hopes that the official port-a-potties exist and aren’t overwhelmed by demand from runners that are polite (a guaranteed time consumer) or take the chance that I won’t need to go until after the race – a very possible scenario in a dehydrating race. I pull off for a pit stop and wonder if I can be as fast at this as Paula Radcliffe. I didn’t really need to go but I feel more comfortable now.
There are a few more hills around here but I ignore them because I am feeling good. The sun is out so the temperature is pleasant if a little warm for a race. My singlet isn’t rubbing, shorts feel fine and no issue with my shoes. I focus inward on my normal runs, but uncharacteristically, I am hyperaware during my marathons. Not necessarily about buildings and landmarks, but how I feel, how I am breathing, who is around me, what is the best angle for a corner, how do I position myself for the aid stations.
Around Mile 10 we start to see signs of the tourist areas that make this race famous. I am still feeling strong and my time seems neither too fast nor slow. The inclusion of the landmarks creates turns, but it also distracts briefly from the perceived effort. We head down from the Lincoln Memorial on a wide road with lots of runners but plenty of space. I glance to my right and I realize that I am now running with a group. I spend a minute listening in and trying to discern their relationships. It must be a pace group. I ask and yes, I am running with the 3:30 pace group. That worked out nicely. I ask a few questions about what pace they had been running. Some pace group leaders run every mile at the same pace, others run some miles fast to make up for a slow mile. Others plan on negative splits that most mid-packers can’t handle. Others, and these are the worst, merely run mile 26 at whatever pace they need to make the time and those that can’t run mile 26 at 5:45, oh sorry. You need to train more. I can’t remember the answer that I got, but it satisfied me. That is my target and so I decide that I should run the next 5-7 miles with the group and see if I can hang.
I try to engage a couple of people in conversation but I am a strange man crashing the gates. I hear someone yell that the White House is off to the left and I look at that potent symbol of power and almost instinctively wipe the left side of the face with the middle finger on my left hand. It is not so much a message to the inhabitant as my feelings about where the federal bureaucracy has failed us. Subconsciously knowing the risk of alienating fellow runners and Homeland Security locking in on my chip, I weave through a few people and duck into the crowd. I look around and none of the other runners seem familiar nor can I find the pacer carrying the banner. Have I fallen off the pace or did they lose the banner? How can someone expect to keep a steady pace with a flagpole in his hand? Do they do special strength training? I have a hard time carrying a water bottle on my runs. After fifty feet of looking around while trying not to trip any of those other big feet near mine on the pavement, I cast a glance backward and they are a hundred yards back. Have they changed pace or am I just running too fast and destined for a flameout? I hope that the search-and-rescue team is ready. I decide that I feel good, that I obviously have been running a faster pace just to catch up with them and that there is no pulling back. If we are going to run together, they had better catch up with me. I know that might happen later but it is too early to surrender. Off I go, passing a few more people for emphasis. Beep beep.
As we head by the Smithsonian I hear Eva shouting my name. She is amazing at picking me out of a crowd. Sometimes I wonder if she is an undercover agent or if she buys information from Rapleaf. It gives me a boost and I shout back that I want one of my partial Gatorade bottles. I put about 9 ounces in the bottle so that I can drink it immediately and not have to carry any extra weight – remember my paranoia. She agrees to meet me on the other side of the mall after our quick tour of the Capitol. In no time we are there. The crowd of spectators is much larger here than anywhere we have been and I know it will be hard to pick her out – if she can even cover so much ground in such a short time. But there she is on the right-hand side handing out the bottle and saying what a great pace I am running. What an energy boost. Soon enough the Gatorade is gone, I am refreshed and we are headed to Potomac Park. This is a junk mile section of the run. There isn’t much out here.
I lock into a pace and feel as strong running as I ever have. This young woman in a royal blue sports bra runs stride for stride with me at about a 7:15 pace for 2 miles as we did the loop. She looks like a runner. She looks fit. She looks fast and while our bodies bear no resemblance, she conveys those traits to me and that is how I see myself. I am not sure where she drifts away; ahead or behind, but we finish a complicated maze and step onto Memorial Bridge headed to Crystal City. The wind is gusting as we cross and it takes a bit of extra energy. For the first time, even as the wind blew, I feel the wind come out of my sails. My natural rhythm has disappeared and I start thinking about rhythm and pace. By the time we cross the bridge, I am laboring. But just 5 miles to go. All marathon runners are taught to know they can run 5 miles, Heck, we do it almost every day. Just hang in there.
I linger at the aid stations. Crystal City is modern and we seem out of place. While that is interesting, I have to consider it as I start digging in for the reserves. Don’t let a great race suffer for lack of willpower. The crowds are back and screaming for everyone. Back at the Mall, most fans are really there in support of a particular runner. These might be here for that reason as well, but they have been partying and they will yell for the sport. A few get in the way as they cross the street. They would have been easy to avoid on another day, but we are all losing the ability to make quick stops or changes in direction. Fortunately there are really few and my mental state has magnified the risk. Oh god, is this a long mile. Suddenly as if reading my mind, (and she is a much faster reader than that) Eva is standing just to my side and pushing another Gatorade bottle into my hand. I mutter thanks and trade some of my kinetic energy for the larger level of potential energy in the “juice.” I don’t feel a rush of energy but I am a few hundred yards farther down the road. We have made a U-turn and we are headed towards the Pentagon. I look for a place to toss the bottle and fortunately narrowly miss a mom and child. Luck is on my side. Let’s run this baby home.
By the last mile, you are counting down, not up. I think this shift occurs for me around mile 18, but it is in full force by the marker at Mile 25. I ignore the point .2 until the marker at Mile 26 and then I focus on the finish sign. Your focus is all about bringing everything that is left to the table for a strong finish or even just a finish. Distractions are now unwelcome as they only add to the level of work rather than masking it. But as I struggle along staring at my feet and the few runners now directly in front of me, I think for a moment to look up and see where we are. I am unprepared for Arlington National Cemetery and the row after row of tombstones for men that have given part of themselves for us. Without thinking, I know that my pain is so much less than their family members. Semper Fi, buddies, Semper Fi. Let’s shut up and finish this. It is fun after all.
And so I run for the finish line and we pass the turn. They needed extra distance and we had a down and back spur. Who planned this? Well, it can’t be far. Running at a slower pace means that it takes longer to get to the destination. That seems obvious but it doesn’t reduce the disbelief that it is so far away. And then finally we head past the Iwo Jima statue and even though I know that it is a replica of an iconic photograph of the replacement of the earlier flag, I am happy to see it. One last thing to do and that is the hill. For some reason not obvious to the majority of the participants, the organizers felt the obligation to make the last quarter mile sprint to the finish at the steepest hill in the course.
I didn’t ever see the 3:30 pace group again and I had no way to verify the results afterwards, so I don’t know how they finished. Despite my claims of being hyperaware, they easily could have passed me on both sides and I would have been unaware. I slumped over after finishing and tried to help the volunteer remove the chip from my stinky shoes, but it was just an insincere gesture on my part. I accepted my participant’s medal and gingerly ambled to the goodies area. I drank a lot and ate a little and wondered how best to reunite with Eva. I am sure we had a plan, but what was it? If only I had run with a cell phone. As always, Eva had the sharper eyes and found me. She had parked a block from where she had dropped me that morning and directly in front of a burrito restaurant. That being the closest way and a great post- race idea, we walked on over.
Scott is a better fan than I am. He tracked my 5K splits. He wanted to hear details about the prerace, the course, the music, the weather, etc. He wondered if I had been as impressed by the giant hand coming out of the ground as he was. He was incredulous when I said that I hadn’t seen it. He found images online and sent them over, hoping to jog my memory, but I am a runner, I don’t jog! A couple of weeks later, proofs from Marathon Foto arrive and one has a straight-on shot of me running almost in the shadow of this large hand.  Another photo from this area shows the people around me in that area and there is no female runner in a royal blue sports bra. Had I imagined that she showed my ability to run? Hyperaware? Right. Semper Fi.

The Awakening

was moved several months later to its current home in Maryland.