A little over a week ago I got up very, very early on a Thursday morning, and flew to Washington, DC. I love Washington, in a remote sort of way. We lived there when I was in 5th grade, and back then it was so much fun to visit all the monuments and museums. As an adult I still get a thrill flying into this beautiful city and seeing the iconic architectural masterpieces of our government from the air.
In just a few days I was preparing to run in one of the largest marathons in the United States, the Marine Corps Marathon. I had trained and I was ready, or at least I hoped I was. Since I had one marathon under my belt (The Twin Cities Marathon between Minneapolis and St. Paul last year) I felt less like I was entering the great unknown. But still, every marathon is different, and the terrain, the crowds and the weather could make this a very different experience. Was I really ready?
Before concentrating solely on the marathon I had a couple of days to enjoy Washington and the company of my friend, who had kindly agreed to be my hostess while I was in DC. We have been friends for so long, since 8th grade! Sometimes we don’t see each other for years at a time, but when we do we always seem to fall back into the same comfortable relationship without too much trouble. We caught up on the daily minutia of our lives, enjoyed the birds outside her kitchen window (she is a serious bird-watcher), and even started on a jigsaw puzzle, one of our favorite pastimes from when we were kids.
On Friday I wanted to go into Washington and be a tourist. The last time I had had a chance to do this the kids were small and we stuck to activities that second graders and toddlers would enjoy. So I was ready to try something more adult.
We decided to visit the Library of Congress, which I had heard was an interesting destination. I had no idea what a beautiful building this was! We took a short tour and wandered around by ourselves. I took more pictures inside this building than I did the rest of the weekend.
After a nice lunch at the National Gallery we wandered through some of the rooms, visiting Rembrandts and Vermeer primarily, just because that seems to have been where we ended up. Then we got back on the metro and headed back to Fairfax. This was good practice for Saturday, when I would take the metro by myself to the Marathon Expo.
Saturday dawned cold and rainy. The rain fell in sheets, but I didn’t let myself be deterred. I had to go get my race packet and I wanted to see what bargains I could find in runner goodies at the expo. My friend said that Washington’s Metro has fallen into disrepair, which is really too bad. I didn’t have any problems, however. The signage is clear and easy to understand, and I really like that it tells you when the next train is coming. Buying passes was no problem. The only problem I encountered was at the expo itself. There was a large white tent in front of the DC Armory, where the expo was held, but I never saw the sign directing us to pick up our race packets in the tent before entering the armory. So, along with many other metro riding runners, I stood in the pouring rain outside the armory to get through security, then got into another line to pick up my race t-shirt and packet (or so I thought) and THEN found out that I needed to go to the white tent first! So, I had to leave the armory (in the rain), go through another line in the tent, get back in the security line, and FINALLY back in the line for my t-shirt! By this time I was more than a little crabby and a little worried too. What if the morning of the race I couldn’t find the start? This did not bode well.
But the expo itself was really nice. They had some beautiful Marine Corp marathon clothing. I bought a long-sleeved shirt and nylon jacket. I also bought a beanie with a warm ear-band that would fit underneath my running cap, if the weather was really cold. I even bought a new pair of running shoes in the brand that I like. Not to wear during the marathon, no, wearing a new pair of shoes in a race would be a very bad idea. But next spring when I’m ready to change to a new pair of running shoes, well they’ll be right there waiting for me.
By the time I was back at my friend’s house in Fairfax the rain had changed to sleet and snow. We were having a real nor’easter and the weather report from Boston and New Hampshire did not sound good. I emailed our wonderful neighbors and asked them to let me know if the power was out. Before too long I found out; our power WAS out, and from the news reports it sounded like it was out over much of southern New Hampshire. I sure hoped our generator was running.
Sunday morning, however, dawned sunny, and cold. To a certain extent cold is good when it comes to running marathons. It’s amazing how warm even a cold-blooded person like me can get over the course of 26 miles. But 31 degrees is really cold, even colder than last year at the Twin Cities. And this time there was no Metrodome to hang out in before heading to the starting line. I hoped I would be warm enough.
I had no trouble taking the metro to the start of the race, near the Pentagon. It was very early in the morning and I was surrounded by other runners, so I knew I was headed in the right direction. And it was easy to find the beginning of the race too, just follow the hordes of runners. If I was going the wrong direction, well so were 20,000 other people.
I found the huge assembly area, lined with porta-potties and UPS trucks. I peed, took off my warm-up suit, put it in my bag for after the race, and handed it to the proper UPS truck. I put on my garbage bag, over my two shirts and arm sleeves, but I was still cold. Last year it was 10 degrees warmer at the start and the garbage bag worked great, but not this time. I was shivering.
I peed one more time for good luck, and headed to my start position, way back in the happy runners with a predicted time of 5:30. I found myself a good place toward the side and settled in to wait for the race to start, trying not to shake too much with the cold. Gradually my toes turned numb and my shivers turned to shudders. The woman next to me kept asking me if I was okay. I wasn’t, but her question didn’t help.
I watched the fighter planes fly overhead, and the parachutists float to the ground. I heard the national anthem and the starting gun go off. The race had started, but back at 5:30 we still had to wait. Finally after around 15 minutes we started to move. The race began at 8 AM, but it took until 8:25 for the slowpokes in the rear to cross the starting line. Here we go!
It’s funny what I remember from over 5 and ½ hours of racing. The first 10 miles of this race are hilly, and I remember carefully monitoring my pace up and down the hills. Here my training really paid off. None of the hills were difficult and most of the time I was able to stay with my desired pace.
After leaving Rosslyn, on the Virginia side of the Potomac, we crossed the river for the first time, and ran beside the C and O canal. I remember riding bicycles here when we lived in Washington many years ago. It was beautiful and peaceful without many spectators. I enviously watched the men in the race run behind bushes and trees to pee. The lines at the porta-potties were much too long for me to wait. I did my kegel exercises and continued to run.
We passed through Georgetown. I was no longer cold. My beanie came off and so did my extra shirt, laid carefully on the hood of a truck. Now I was in my pink running clothing perfection; pink shirt, neon pink calf compression sleeves, and lime green arm sleeves. I would be easy to pick out of the crowd! And, I had put my name on the back of my shirt using duct tape. I don’t remember hearing a spectator yell my name, but lots of fellow runners did! “Hi Lynn!” they would shout, as they trotted passed. It always brought a smile to my face.
After Georgetown the hills subsided. Most of the rest of the race was flat. I tried to maintain a steady pace, 12:30 miles per minute, run 45 seconds, walk 30. If I could keep this up for 11 miles I would only have 5 miles left to go.
Now the race headed back along the Potomac, this time out toward something called Hains Point. Once more we were in a semi-rural area. The lines at the port-pottys were still too long for me, but I really needed to go. I started watching the side of the road carefully, for a tree that would be wide enough for my needs. Hey, I’m almost 60 years old and if the guys can do it, so can I. I picked a tree that afforded me enough privacy and scooted behind it, hoping I wouldn’t get arrested. Nobody seemed to pay me any attention, and I felt much better afterwards!
Hains Point was the halfway point of the race. 13 miles! I still felt good and my pace was holding. I knew from experience, however, that the true test of a marathon comes at the end. I wasn’t even close.
At 15 miles we turned toward the tidal basin. We could see the Jefferson and Lincoln Memorials, and the Washington Monument in the distance. Now the race ran along the National Mall. I knew I was getting a little tired because my sense of direction was befuddled. I couldn’t figure out which side of the mall we were on, or where the capital was. I concentrated on small things, especially the runners around me. Unlike smaller races, I was always surrounded by other runners in this race. And unlike last year, the people around me seemed to be constantly changing. I saw two girls in matching Mexican shirts. I saw a young girl dressed in pink, with pigtails. I passed some people, and some people passed me. My pace was still steady, but I was eager to reach mile marker 21 where I would have “beaten the bridge” and made my way back across the Potomac. I knew I had nothing to worry about; all that was required to beat the bridge was a 14 mile per minute pace, but my tired brain was still fretting.
At mile 21 is where the true race begins. Last year I was unprepared for what this part feels like. I thought I had hit the wall, but it was just marathon exhaustion. This year I knew that I was in the marathon twilight zone again, but I also knew that nothing could make me stop at this point. Late in a marathon time seems to stop and the miles get very, very long. It takes hours to get from mile 22 to mile 23, days to get from mile 24 to mile 25, and about a year to get to the end of the race. I felt myself slowing down, but I was powerless to speed back up. Once again I lost about five minutes at the very end of the race. This is both somewhat disappointing and at the same time so very interesting. It’s a challenge and a puzzle. How much slower should I go at the beginning in order to have something extra left at the end? How much better can I get, before age inevitably slows me down? When will I run my best race?
A little before mile 24 there was a food station. Now normally I don’t partake of the goodies that are offered during a race. I bring my own goodies (gels and lifesavers) and stick to water, no gatoraide. But this food station offered donut holes, and I was so very hungry that without thinking I grabbed one and popped it into my mouth. Argh! It tasted great, but I was also afraid I might throw up right then and there. Fortunately a water station came shortly afterwards and I was able to choke it down. I told myself that it contained much needed fat and sugar and urged my body to metabolize it as quickly as possible. What madness.
I crossed the finish line in 5 hours and 40 minutes, once again about ten minutes short of the wished for 5:30 goal. I know I should have run the beginning a little slower, in order to be able to run the end a little faster. I know this intellectually, but in a long race it’s so hard to stick to this plan at the beginning, and by the time I hit those last 5 miles, well, it’s just too late.
There are two really wonderful things about the Marine Corp Marathon. The first thing is, frankly, the Marines. They put on a wonderful race. There are Marines all along the course, shouting out your times, encouraging you to keep going. I mean, if a Marine tells me I’m doing good, who am I to argue? The second thing are the spectators. There are enthusiastic crowds and music along almost all of the course. People wave funny signs, gospel music follows marching bands and drumlines. A talented singer from the School of Rock belted out Janis Joplin’s “Piece of My Heart” and so did I. A DJ spun “She Loves You” and I sung along as well. Marathons certainly reduce one’s inhibitions!
At the very end a young Marine shook my hand and handed me a gorgeous blingy medal. I got my picture taken in front of the Iwo Jima Marine Memorial. Heat blanket and goodies in hand, I found my friend and walked, very slowly to her car. I might have come a little short of my elusive 5:30 goal, but I was still happy. Less than 1% of the population has run a marathon, and I was part of that 1%. I might not be fast, but I was very persistent. I knew with any luck that next year I would be doing this again, somewhere.
The following day I headed back to New Hampshire and a massive power failure. Thank goodness for our whole house generator, that kept the heat and some of the lights on, the water running, and the refrigerator cold. My only worry was running out of propane, but the gas company brought me an emergency delivery, and the power came back on in our neighborhood Tuesday morning.
I am recovering much more quickly from this marathon than I did last year. I have already gone running a couple of times this week, and my soreness is almost gone. I don’t want to put aside my running shoes completely for the winter, but it’s time to focus on some other things for awhile, like raking leaves, baking bread, you know. But there is a 5k on December 11th in Cambridge that ends at a pub….hmmm, maybe one more race is in order this season!