I spent the last four and a half months eating, breathing, sleeping, and training for the Marine Corps Marathon. Three days out and I’m definitely feeling the post-race blues. To say the Marine Corps Marathon was the experience of a lifetime would be a gross understatement. For those of you that have run MCM before, you know what I mean. And for those of you that haven’t, I’ll try to put into words exactly how epic this race was to hopefully help you understand just what makes the Marine Corps Marathon so darn special.
If you read my post yesterday, you already know all about the technical aspects of the MCM experience — the expo, security, course, etc. But what I didn’t talk about yesterday was my personal experience. Was this the race I envisioned for myself when I set out to run 26.2 miles? No. Would I change it for anything? Absolutely not.
Marine Corps Marathon Race Recap [Mission: Accomplished]
Saturday: Shakeout Run and Expo
On Saturday morning, Julie and I met up with some new friends on the National Mall for a quick shakeout run. It was freezing cold but the sun was shining and the company was grand. We met a fellow Clevelander, Rich. It was his first marathon and you could almost feel his excitement at the prospect of 26.2! After the 2-mile run, Julie and I headed to the expo for packet pickup.
After we received our bibs, patches and shirts, we headed for our first photo opp where I was spotted by a blog reader and Cleveland runner, John. Two Cleveland runners in one morning! What’re the odds? It was really fantastic to put faces to names after all this time.
After the expo, Julie and I parted ways for a couple hours. We met back at our apartment in Columbia Heights in the late afternoon and got our race gear ready. We set our alarms for a 4:30 am wakeup and a 5:30 am Uber to the Key Bridge Marriott to meet our friend Suzanne and her friends. Afterward we enjoyed a light dinner of pasta and a before-bed snack of a bagel with cream cheese. Then I was ready for bed. Almost go time!
I had three goals for my second marathon:
1. get to the starting line uninjured.
2. finish the race.
3. have fun.
I had a secret, fourth goal that was between my coach and me. I wanted, and trained for, a race time of 4:45 (or less if I was feeling good). Though I didn’t accomplish the secret goal, I sure did achieve the first three.
The starting line experience was second to none. The pre-race music, the National Anthem, the overall energy from other runners — all just amazing. I was slightly disappointed not to see parachutes drop this year, but it was still very cool to see the V-22 Ospreys fly overheard — twice.
Before I knew it, we were off and running. My race strategy was to run slow for the first 2-3 miles and then kick it up a notch to my normal pace for the remainder of the race. According to the elevation map there would be a 200 foot climb in the first two miles. My coach and I thought it would be better to conserve energy there and make sure I had enough to bring me home in the end. I felt good and didn’t struggle on any of the hills. Almost to mile three was our first out-and-back where runners were running directly next to each other on either sides of the road. It was very cramped and hard to maintain a comfortable pace here. Thankfully it didn’t last long.
After that first out-and-back, we ran through a very beautiful area on the George Washington Memorial Parkway. It was really nice, lots of space to spread out, and a nice downhill. I felt great. We ran across the Key Bridge, which is always amazing, and into Georgetown. I loved running through Georgetown. It was fun, there were lots of spectators (starting at the beginning of the Key Bridge), and the energy was high. After leaving Georgetown we were greeted by a band at the bottom of a hill just before running under a set of bridges.
From mile 6 to almost 8 had to have been one of the worst out-and-backs ever. First, it was never-ending. Second, it was just so god awful boring. But third, (and I mentioned this yesterday, too) since this was such a large race it was really hard to zone out and get lost in my own thoughts. So not only were we stuck on the world’s longest and most boring out-and-back, but I had no way to escape in my brain either. I’m not gonna lie, it was a little brutal. I felt all good, I was just bored.
Thankfully miles 8 and 9 were pretty good. There were spectators again, and the Marine Corps band was playing on the steps from the back of the Lincoln Memorial. It was pretty awesome.
Right around mile 9 I started listening to some party music to get myself amped up. As I mentioned yesterday, when I realized I was coming to the Blue Mile, I switched off the music. The Blue Mile was a beautiful tribute to the soldiers who sacrificed everything and for the runners who were laying it out on the line then and there. There’s almost no good way to put into words the experience of the Blue Mile.
Some time after the Blue Mile we were near a golf course with flushing toilets. A few facilities were locked but I was keeping my eye open for an unlocked one. There weren’t a lot of potty options on the course. Guys have it easy — they can pull over and pee essentially anywhere. While I’m no stranger to “bushing it” and facilitating outside, I didn’t think popping a squat on the side of the road and showing my rear to the world was a great idea.
And then I hit mile 13.
I felt it: the slightest sensation of my knee beginning to lock up. I knew then and there: my IT band was not happy.
And it wasn’t the leg that I’ve been so diligently caring for over the last several months. It wasn’t my right leg — the one I expected to cause me great pain and suffering. It was my left leg. The one that’s been quiet and cooperative for months on end. My left IT band was flaring up. Thankfully this wasn’t my first rodeo. I sprang to action: I took two Tylenol and rubbed it with BioFreeze. I ran a few steps. A little bit of pain.
I finally found an unlocked restroom and despite the line being at least 8 women deep, I took the time to rest my leg. I lost a lot of time at mile 13 — at least a good 15 minutes, possibly more. But I knew in my heart I needed to take a breather. I had felt truly incredible up to this point and I was not about to let all my hard work and hundreds of miles of training go to waste with an IT band trying to sideline me halfway through.
After I used the restroom I called my husband to explain what was going on. I was in survival mode now. I would run/walk in 3-4 minute: 30 second intervals as best I could. Everything else felt fine and this wasn’t a huge issue yet, so I managed as best I could. My husband was at the Gauntlet and I knew I had a couple more miles to make it there.
During one of my walks, I saw a woman talking to someone on the side of the course. Something prompted me to really study her and when I did, I realized I recognized her from photos online and her blog. It turns out I found a third Clevelander and fellow blogger, Amanda! We have been in touch for months now and never met in person until Sunday — in DC of all places. She was having an incredibly rough race. Her shoes were too small (been there) and her IT band was hurting (done that). We decided to run/walk together.
Just after the sign for the Gauntlet, I found my family. It was so wonderful to see them. My kids were ecstatic to see me, too. I rubbed some more BioFreeze on my knee and took my last Tylenol. I was going to finish this race, come hell or high water. After a brief chat with the fam, some hugs and kisses, I was off. They would meet me around the corner at mile 18. I caught up to Amanda after she saw her family and we ran together around the National Mall.
Here’s where the fun really begins. As I’m running by the Smithsonian buildings I hear someone yelling, “RACHEL!” I was so confused. Who the hell knew me in DC? Turns out it was my college roommate and she was tracking me on her phone and knew I was coming! I was so ecstatic to see her. I literally haven’t seen her since 2001. For some reason I thought she lived in Baltimore, not DC, and I was so taken aback that she was there. It was amazing. Hi, Laurie!! I miss your face!
After that excitement, Amanda and I headed to the Capitol. All time goals were out the window at this point. New ‘A’ goal? HAVE FUN. And damnit, that’s what I did. Amanda and I soaked up all the photo opps near the mall. It helped pass the time and it was a lot of fun.
I saw my family again at mile 18 and gave my kids high-fives (which they loved — it was awesome), and then we ran toward The Bridge. Hell yeah, I would beat the bridge — injury and all. Just as we were getting on the Bridge, we were greeted by one last group of entertainment — a female steel drum band. It was incredible. And to quote Dan from the MCM Facebook running group, then came the “desolate expanse of crushed dreams.” It wasn’t that bad, but I also had someone to talk to so I was distracted. The Bridge is where Amanda started hurting something fierce. I was trying my hardest to keep her distracted and help push her through. Halfway through the Bridge she told me to keep going. She had to walk for a mile and let her body recharge. We bid each other farewell and I pressed on.
Miles 19-21 were super fun. Who says that in a marathon, right? Apparently this girl. When I thought I would be feeling my lousiest was when I was feeling my best. Yes, I was still run/walking, but the pain in my knee was almost entirely gone (though still present for sure) and I felt really great. When I realized my time goal was so far off, I changed my goal to 5:30. I wanted to finish strong and not be anywhere near the six hours it took me for my first marathon.
I had just departed from Amanda and as I was coming down the end of the Bridge, I spotted someone else that I recognized from social media. This time it was fellow INKnBURN ambassador, Tasha! Her signature race hair is two braids so I knew it was her right away. I called out to her and caught up. I learned she was struggling big time. Tasha is an accomplished ultra runner but as any trail and ultra runner will tell you, roads and trails are not created equal. Once you get used to running trails, roads are hard to get back to comfortably. Since Marine Corps wasn’t her ‘A’ race (she has several more races coming up), she was taking it easy and mostly walking. We chatted for a while before I had to leave her, too.
Crystal City was the next big area of the race. It was another out-and-back and again, very cramped. Most runners at the beginning of the race would signal with a raised hand when they would begin to walk. Not so much toward the end of the race. Everyone was walking in the middle of the course, didn’t signal at all if/when they would be walking, and it was generally a big cluster of people. I try not to weave during races since it wastes so much precious energy but I couldn’t help but to weave. Overall Crystal City was pretty fun. A lot of people were struggling, though.
Toward the end of Crystal City, I ran up behind another woman wearing the Patriot shirt. I almost tapped her on the shoulder but I had tapped a couple other INKnBURN wearers earlier in the race only to be looked at like I had ten heads, so I opted to leave this one alone. I ran past her and hoped she saw me, too.
Lo and behold, a couple hundred feet later and I got tapped on my shoulder by the Patriot-tee-wearing-lady. She recognized me from social media — it was another INK ambassador, Janice! We had been trying to meet up as well, so I was grateful she stopped me. She was running 90:30 intervals so we did that for a while and chatted. It was so awesome seeing her. Sometime while we were running together my Garmin died and I asked her if I was on pace for a 5:30 finish. She told me I had to go so I bid her adieu and pressed on.
The last two miles of the race were fairly rough. By this time the sun had come out in full force, I wasn’t running with any friends, and my watch had died. I had no idea how fast I was running. Julie had already finished well ahead of me and was cheering me on via text. My friends Sara and Noemi were also sending me words of encouragement. I texted my husband to ask him if I was close to a 5:30 finish but his app wasn’t working so he didn’t know. I wanted to push but I was passing so many people that looked straight up miserable. I started worrying I would push myself too hard and end up puking or worse at the finish line.
But honestly, I felt fantastic! I thrive in hot and sunny. I had minimal pain, and I was having a ball meeting new friends and reconnecting with old ones. I was in the city that I love. And most importantly, I was running the Marine Corps Marathon.
As we got closer to the finish, the marines were scattered throughout giving high fives and pushing us on. And then I saw it. THE HILL. Let me stop myself right there. WHO DOES THAT? The “hill” isn’t just a hill. It’s a vertical climb that would have any trail runner walking. But not me. I charged the District, beat the bridge, and I sure as hell was going to take the Iwo. And I did. I ran across the finish line, smiling from ear to ear. I made it through the chute and received my medal from a marine and thanked him for his service.
The Marine Corps Marathon is truly the People’s Marathon. I didn’t get it before. I thought it was just about prize money and that’s why it was the People’s Marathon. But it’s about so much more. It’s about perspective, honor, and respect. In the days following the race, I’ve still been very active in the Facebook group I joined so many months ago. I’ve seen post after post of goodwill, happiness, and fond memories. Even from people that ended up in the med tent, on a stretcher, or DNFed. Every single person had a positive, memorable experience. Because it’s about more than just 26.2 miles. So much more.
I didn’t meet my time goal. I was disappointed, for sure. When I felt my IT band flaring up, I muttered a few choice words. I did not want this race to end like my marathon debut in 2015. But instead of dwelling on the negative, I turned to the positive: I was running the race of my life. I was in my favorite city. And the marines and their families give (or gave) so much more than a silly 26.2 race. Given that, I could suffer with an uncooperative IT band. I owed it to them.
I believe everything happens for a reason. If my IT band hadn’t flared up and I hadn’t stopped for an exorbitantly long time in the restroom, I wouldn’t have met Amanda. I wouldn’t have been able to pull her through those few miles. I wouldn’t have even seen her. If I hadn’t seen her, I probably wouldn’t have seen Tasha or Janice, either. Without my old injury flaring back up, I wouldn’t have the same fond memories that I do now.
Going forward, there are some lessons that I learned. First, I wouldn’t go as slow in the beginning. I trained on hills and I should have trusted my training and run how I always run. I think reducing my pace as much as I did really hurt my gait and running form. I will also focus on strength training. My hips and glutes obviously need some TLC. I tend to focus on strength training at the beginning of a training cycle and let it fall by the wayside as the miles creep up. Next time I’ll do it in the opposite order. I’ll first focus on the running, and then I’ll focus on the strength in the later weeks as well.
The Marine Corps Marathon is second to none. This race will be a hard one to beat. I had an amazing experience. The marines, the organization, the entire weekend — and yes, the 26.2. Did I run the race I wanted? No. Did I run the race I was meant to run? Yes.
Thank you to all the marines and their families, and all the service men and women who work hard to keep us safe each and every day. After this experience I am much more humbled and grateful, and will never take our freedom and protections for granted.
Official finish time: 5:38:48
TALK TO ME!
Will you run the Marine Corps Marathon?
If you’ve already run it, how many times?