Race report: Marine Corps Marathon
Arlington, VA and Washington, DC.
October 26, 2008
An excellent day.
Excuse me if I'm still a little shocked, but part of me still does not believe the result. The conditions could not have better. From the very first Marine private I met Friday at the expo to the hundreds of servicemen and women that lined the course to work the water stations and finish line, the MCM is a race that lived up to its billing as "The People's Race." As expected from the military, every detail was tended to and lined up dress right, dress. Save for the sparse spacing of water stations after mile 20, I have no complaints with the race course. Though with over 20,000 runners, I imagine that those in the mid to back-of-pack experienced more crowding, especially on the narrower streets. I appreciated that all mile markers were accurate. All-in-all and with help from friends, everything on this day fell right into place for me.
Weather: A rain front spoiled our Saturday touristing, but the weather broke Saturday night to provide a brilliantly sunny race morning. Temperature near 50F greeted us for the 8 AM race time that barely reached 60F by 11 AM. I never felt too cold or too warm for the duration.
Training season: Starting eighteen weeks ago in early June, I aimed for 50-60 miles each week on 6-7 single runs. I ended up averaging 54 miles/week, excluding a tapered final two weeks. Except for one quality run per week, all other runs were done at "easy" pace, averaging 8:00-8:45 pace on roads and 10 minute miles on trails. The initial five weeks of training was spent building mileage to several 60 mile weeks. After the base-build, I used 4-5 week training phases to periodize the season. Using then-recent race results to set VDOT training paces, my VDOT increased from 52 in June, to 54 in September and 55 in October. In September and October the quality workouts focused on threshold pace (T-pace, as per Daniels VDOT). Twelve days and eight days before the marathon, I included a couple shorter and faster interval (I-pace) workouts -- 4x 1200m and a 5k race -- for final sharpening.
Expectations: Up until last week I thought 3:00-3:02 was doable. The 5k PR I set last Saturday provided added confidence. Heading to Washington, DC, I clearly aimed for sub-3, but was not sure by how much. I didn't wear a pace band, but I did write down a few splits on my bib. I had the 5 mile splits for my A and B goals (2:59 and 3:03) on my bib. Along the way, I'd keep track of my standing every five miles.
Pre-race: I had great help to prepare. We have Cleveland friends in DC that hosted us, one of which talked me through a detailed map reconnaissance of the course. I was ready for the two hills and the bridge. My girlfriend Andrea, familiar with DC from school, was an excellent navigator and guide around the city. She knew where to go and I appreciate her getting us through the expo on Friday in order to relax on Saturday morning. After sleeping in best I could, I ran three miles easy and a few strides to loosen up. The rest of Saturday would be spent walking and stretching.
Sunday morning I topped off my fuel tanks with with a bowl of oatmeal and small coffee, finishing breakfast by 5:45 AM and ready to depart by six or so. The metro train dropped us off at the Pentagon station, a walk which seemed more than a mile to the staging area. After final porto-john use, stretching, and bag check-in, I was left with 10 minutes to gun. The highway to the start line was longer than expected, adding another 800m or so before reaching the starting area marked by pace signs. Andrea and I jogged a little. It wasn't until this moment that the pomp and circumstance hit me. Military parade music blasted from the speakers and Andrea noticed my step. "You've marched to this before," she asked.
Uh huh. The stage was set to run with the Marines. Having served a few years in the Army Airborne, when the race announced "one minute" I thought about one final equipment check before the green light signaled, "Go."
The race: The gun sounded and I crossed the line 19 seconds later. The first mile was crowded and there were a few slow folks in the first 800m who should not have been. Otherwise, I get a clean start up the left side. Miles one and two climb hills in Rosslyn. Carrying my own small water bottle, I fumble the cap and end up abandoning the my handheld water earlier than expected. I sip a couple times and toss. I remove my throwaway shirt by mile 2 and crest the hill in relaxed but deliberate pace. The third mile down Spout Run was fast but comfortable and I was pleasantly surprised to find myself on target by the fourth mile. Here I start talking with a young Marine who was a newly commissioned officer and graduate of the Naval Academy. We exchange a few military stories and he keeps griping about having to report for field duty at 0300 Monday morning. Oh, to be young and spry.
Crossing Key Bridge (mile 4) I take my first S-cap and I'm enjoying this start. Miles 4-6 follow the north bank of the Potomac below Georgetown. Here I pass Army Captain Castro, a blind runner, led by his guide Lieutenant Colonel Dummar. I know of them from the article of their Air Force Marathon as shared on the ultra list. Castro was injured on a combat mission. He runs, led by Dummar and a shoestring. I figure they took the 7:50 AM start and I get a thumbs-up when I call them by name.
I discovered that my befriended Marine had some serious talent when he stated that he ran his last PFT 3-mile run in 16 minutes. Running in his first marathon, he helped to occupy my time with marathon questions to me. I offer my best sage advice, "if it feels like you're holding back, you're doing it right," and "twenty miles is the halfway point."
The remaining substantial climb came in mile seven up to the Georgetown Reservoir before a generally downhill grade in miles eight and nine. The crowds in Georgetown were large and loud.
I reach ten miles in 1:08 and about thirty seconds ahead of sub-three hour pace. Perfect.
Andrea and Meredith met me with a water bottle near the eleven mile mark. I take my first gel and settle into a pack with my marine friend as we headed south along the Potomac and towards Hains Point. With less specators around, I welcomed the pack of runners in what I assume was an informal three-hour pace group. Miles 11-13 we draft behind a group of about 20 runners with about 50 total in our vicinity. The pace felt comfy and I knew the drafting was conserving energy. A water station at the south tip of Hains Point near mile 13 broke up the pack. The marine and I find ourselves cruising and now leading the pack. We continue to talk some and work together to mile 15.
Andrea waited for me at mile 15.5 with another water bottle. Looking at the splits I figure I surged some with a 6:31 split in mile 16. The marine was no longer with me and I didn't look back. The course now headed into the wind as I ran out of others to draft behind. The combination of gel #2 and the enthusiastic crowds around the Lincoln Memorial livened me up. I felt energized turning onto the National Mall heading east towards the capital. I caught a bunch of runners in miles 17-19. I knew today was my day when seeing 6:38 and 6:39 splits in miles 17 and 18. Mentally I was backing off but my legs were still moving.
I reach the Capital Building and wham I find out it was wind that aided my recent pace. Suddenly there were less runners in my vicinity and I felt alone. Passing the Smithsonian heading west through the mall and towards the bridge, I face a slight wind with mile 20 and the 14th Street Bridge looming ahead. I take S-cap #3 as I leave the mall. Andrea meets me one final time near the mile 20 marker in front of the Holocaust Museum.
Reaching mile 20 in 2:15 and about 110 seconds ahead of sub-3, I gave some thought to my outcome. Last year's final 10k in Grand Rapids came in about 43 minutes. Today was definitely my day, now it was a matter of by how much. My mind turned to some of my faster training friends and I gave thought to what they would do here in my shoes. It was time to close the deal. Knowing that I could hold 7 minute pace and still break three hours gave me a boost.
I was advised that the bridge (miles 20-22) is a long stretch without water, so I was happy to have a bottle. I consumed gel #3 by the 21st mile. I don't remember anyone passing me since the half. The field is sparse now, but I hang with the only runners around -- a loose pack of 2-3 runners to help break wind across the bridge. Mostly now I was on my own.
The splits were slowing to 6:50s but I still feel strong. I rely on my go-to mantra, "today is my day," and I know if I hold on I will make it. Sub-three is the motivation. The crowds liven me up in Crystal City, but its tall buildings create a wind tunnel. We endured an upwind 23rd mile to be rewarded with a downwind mile 24. I was ready for water at mile 23 and was a bit grumpy having to wait for the next water near mile 24. I choke down half of my last gel and cup of water. My breathing was now increased and I found it more difficult to consume fluids. The remainder of course is lonely highway around Pentagon and along highway 110. The lone runner to pass me in the final 3 miles was a female Marathon Maniac. She impressively pulled away from me in the final two miles yet drew me closer towards the finish.
I cross mile 26 still grinding and thinking 2:57:xx and all that is left is the final hill. This famous incline is really steep for about 75 meters, changing to a gentle incline for the final 100 meters and towards the Marine Corps War Memorial. I sense the crowds are large but all I can see is the finish. The clock reads 2:58 and change.
Mission accomplished. I cross the line, amazed, surpassing my goal with a personal record that bettered last year's Grand Rapids marathon time by 5 minutes and 50 seconds.
Final time: 2:58:16
Overall place: 134/18,302
Gender place: 125/11,142
Age group: 20/1,996
Andrea was there waiting for me. She was a huge help and sharing my race with her was the best feeling of all. I never saw the marine lieutenant after mile 15, but I was happy to see him cross the line exactly at three hours and only two minutes behind me. After waiting for a massage, we head into Rosslyn to reunite with others who ran the race.
Race nutrition: I carried four gels and three S-caps (electrolytes.) My basic plan was similar to past marathons: Consume water at every chance and avoid the provided energy drink. Take an S-cap at 30 minutes, then every hour after. Run on my stored glycogen until the first GU gel at 75 minutes, then every 30 minutes to the end. If extra sugar is needed at the end, take the provided Powerade in the final 4-5 miles. The nutrition went as generally planned. I happily report that I successfully maintained sufficient energy and electrolytes levels to reach the finish.
Conclusion: The conditions were ideal with the Marines providing a well-supported race course, adequate competition, and the scenery of the District of Columbia to help motivate me along. Part of me wishes I were not in such a hurry in order to enjoy DC's buildings, monuments, and sights a little more.
I feel lucky to have had great race-day weather and for all the details to fall into place. I exceeded my goals and am very grateful that I had the opportunity to show it. The marathon is cruel in that sometimes weather or other conditions hinder an optimal performance. Not on this day.
I hope to recap the details of my training season in a future post. A few days removed from the race, I am happy. This summer's training season peaked at just the right time that resulted in two huge PRs in the span of the last eight days.
Now, it's time for some rest and recovery from road racing. The trails are calling my name.
Thanks for reading.