I was battling through Mile 13 and rounding the southwest corner of the National Mall, when I realized that the 4 hour pacer was cruising up alongside me with about 20 other runners in tow. The sudden appearance of this female athlete carrying the “4:00” sign was a heartening surprise, as getting in under 4 hours was my “A” goal for this 26.2 mile run around our nation’s capitol. In my confusion, I had thought my “under 4 hours” goal was out of reach. Now, I knew that, if I stuck with this pacer and sprinted at the end, I had a chance! I settled in about 5 feet behind her and matched her gait stride for stride. Now, I had only one question looming in my head. In my strained condition, could I maintain this tempo for the final half of this challenging course?
The Better Half and I had started the approximately 7 hour drive from Fairport, New York to Washington, DC on Friday after a long workday. We enjoyed an unwinding cruise through the Southern Tier of New York, including a stretch of I-390 that runs alongside part of the Wineglass Marathon route, evoking fun reminiscence of that running adventure. With little planning, we stopped that night at a comfortable Staybridge Inn in Williamsport, PA, adjacent to the Pennsylvania College of Technology.
After settling into our hotel room, we set out on foot in the crisp fall night, past a couple of rather innocent looking college house parties (including one with an inviting bonfire in the back yard), in search of a place for dinner. We stumbled upon Kimball’s Pub, and, there, enjoyed a couple of local craft brews, a great menu, and a welcoming staff. We slept like babies that night and made it to our Arlington, VA Day’s Inn by lunch time on Saturday.
After a Mexican lunch in Arlington, we made our way by Uber to the 44th MCM Health and Fitness Expo at the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center. The Expo was packed with exhibitors, and we made the rounds; however, given our mid-day Saturday arrival, it was supremely crowded, so much so that it was difficult to walk even a short distance without dodging and weaving through congested foot traffic. I picked up my race packet and, as I was to discover that evening, had inadvertently received not one but two MCM high-collared, long-sleeved running shirts. Unfortunately, despite that they were both marked “Medium”, they would be too tight on a chihuahua, let alone on virtually any person over 8 years of age. My mistake for not taking care to investigate sizing more closely at pick-up, as I may have been able to get a Triple XXX large, and it may have fit me. No worries though; a too small race shirt is a definite “First World Problem”!
Sports fans who regularly follow my blog know that we need to make it to mass on Saturday night, if I’m running on a Sunday; so, from the expo, we Ubered over to Our Lady Queen of Peace Catholic Church in Arlington. The church building was under renovation; therefore, we had mass in the activity hall next door. During mass, the priest asked if there were any visitors, and we raised our hands and received a welcoming applause. Following mass, a kind couple read our minds and asked if they could give us a lift back to our hotel in their Prius. Absolutely! And, thank you! Soon, I was off to sleep, ready for a 5:40 AM date with destiny!
Wake Up! It’s Race Day!
The marathon start was slated for 7:50 AM, so, in the morning, we got rolling right away. After a hot shower and shave, I, along with the Better Half, made it down to the complementary breakfast for oatmeal, toast with peanut butter, and hot black coffee. While eating breakfast, we met a friendly fellow runner from Denver who needed a lift to the start line, so we invited him to jump in our Uber. This young man offered to pay his portion of the fare, but we convinced him to just pay it forward. Our Uber driver got us in close to the entrance and soon we were joining that exhilarating mass pilgrimage to the start line. It was still predawn, but there were signs that it was going to be a great day to run – cool and partially overcast. The Pentagon was off our left shoulders and the Washington Monument, while quite a distance away, was off of our right shoulders.
Once through security, which is like airport security but operated by polite, professional Marines, we advanced to the Runner’s Village. Runner’s Village consisted of a collection of large white tents, rows of port-a-johns, and a parked convoy of UPS trucks, ready to transport runners’ drop bags to the finish line. We made it! I stopped at a beautiful Christian service led by an inspiring young Marine chaplain. Runners run each for their own reason. Many of us view the sport as a great cosmic gift, providing a needed discipline that supports our other efforts in life, feeble and failing as they may be. It was that sense of gratitude that I saw on the faces of those attending chapel that morning, as well as throughout the marathon course. After thanking the chaplain, I headed over to the port-a-john line. The National Anthem was performed while I was in that line, and I loved how an ocean of runners and their supporters stood at respectful attention. By the time I made it out of the port-a-john, I had just enough time to say good-bye to the Better Half, and jog to the start line about 400 yards away. I jogged up to the 4:00 hour corral literally as the race began. Let’s roll!
I recently bought a used Garmin for $25.00 from a local runner. It works great, but I failed to realize that it would not get a GPS lock while I was in motion. Speaking of poor preparation, it wasn’t until I was through the start shoot that I realized it was not tracking my progress. Therefore, until I stopped at a port-a-john at about Mile 6, I was “running naked.” No matter. I set my pace at about 8 minute, 20 second per mile and dodged and weaved around dozens upon dozens of tightly packed athletes. Indeed, for multiple miles, perhaps even close to a majority of the miles, the course was congested with shoulder-to- shoulder athletes traversing the course at various paces. Crowd support was awesome, and the race course was well-defined and nicely maintained by impressive young Marines.
At about Mile 12, I pulled the iPhone out of my armed mounted sling and hit the speed dial, calling my step-father, Chester, who was a great athlete in his day and still quite fit, even in his senior years. As I cruised past the United States Capitol, I let him know that I was feeling great and working on a new PR. He gave me some quick words of encouragement. Chester is a veteran of the Korean War, and it’s not lost on me that he knows about endurance and commitment from experiences that extend well beyond the challenge of a marathon; I appreciate having him on my team.
Hydration stations were plentiful and manned by smiling volunteers, and I took Gatorade and water at each one, except for the final two stations on the course. Boom Energy Gels were available at Mile 13, just in time, as, at that point, I was just starting to flag from lack of nutrition. I knocked down two gels and stuffed one in my pocket. After Mile 13, I felt fine but I could feel the fatigue gradually creeping up on me, and it dawned on me that I probably could not stick with the 4:00 hour pacer for the entire run. My pace dropped to about 9 minute miles, and after crossing the Potomac River at Mile 21, I watched the four hour pacer slowly drift off ahead of me.
For awhile, I felt quite alone, as the sheer strain of tired muscle increased in intensity. Though I could not stick with them, the 4:00 pack was easy for me to track in the distance for quite awhile, as one member of the group held high a beautiful US flag. At least I can keep them in sight, I told myself, assuming the role of the hunter.
As is so often the case in a marathon, the real battle began during those final 6 miles. While maintaining about a 9:30 pace, I focused squarely on the job at hand, disregarding the crowd, the music, and even fellow runners. This course was pounding me! Like a prize fighter taking repeated blows, I kept my head down and took my beating, one stride at a time. Miles 23 and 24 is an out-and-back stretch through Crystal City, immediately prior to the home stretch. Those two miles felt like 20! It was in this state that I had skipped those last two hydration stations, opting for an unabated drive to the finish line. As I approached the reviewing stands, I felt a surge of adrenalin and sprinted for the finish line. Raising both fists in the air, I knew I had made it! The clock time was around 4:08, but, later, I saw that my chip time was 4:03:52, a new PR (221 out of 1,306 in my age group).
I never felt so sore as I did during the night following this race! Indeed, among other aches and pains, I was convinced that I had sprained my left ankle and would need crutches. That night, it hurt to even have a simple bed sheet draped over my foot! Upon inspection of my shoes, I realized that, at some point on the course, I had torn the outer seem of the toe box of my left running shoe, and this was no doubt related to the ankle pain. This was not the fault of New Balance, as I had too many miles on these 860 v7’s, and I knew that going into this race. I simply thought I could squeak one more race out of them. Lesson learned!
Thankfully, my body repaired quickly, the “twisted ankle” turned out to be little more than a tenderness from strain, and 48 hours later, I was carefully knocking out a 3 mile “tempo run” on the treadmill at my neighborhood gym and dreaming about getting in under 4 hours this Spring at the Toronto Marathon.
I wish all of you a great Winter season of safe, enjoyable running. I’ll be competing in the Race with Grace on Thanksgiving Morning and the Greater Rochester Track Club’s Freezeroo series again through the cold months this year, and, who knows? Maybe this is my year to break some records! My thanks to all the kind people I meet on my runs, including the smiling, high-fiving, laughing, joking, thumbs up individuals who make it the greatest communal sport to do alone. I am grateful, and I’ll see you on the trail!