Marine Corps Marathon 2018 Race Report
My very first road marathon!!
I SURVIVED MY FIRST ROAD MARATHON!! (Actually, at this point hopefully I will have survived my first AND second road marathon, since it looks like I’m running RDC too.) (Also, duh, we knew I’d survive my first marathon, since I’d already survived my first ultramarathon. Whoops.)
Aaaaaanyways. On October 28 I ran my first road marathon race at Marine Corps Marathon in Washington, DC. In keeping with the tradition of #lastminuteliz it was a kinda last minute registration. A friend of a friend was injured and couldn’t make it to the marathon, so I did an official bib transfer and got a spot in the marathon. It was a little more expensive than going through the lottery, but it was a lot easier for this runner who struggles with registration deadlines. (Seriously, I couldn’t even get registered for Uwharrie on time and I had it in my paper calendar, online calendar, AND my friends texted me that morning!! Ugh. Ah well.)
Even better? Another running friend had an extra hotel room booked on a sweet discount. Sold!! I finalized my lodging the Tuesday before I left for the weekend. Plenty of time!
I went up pretty early on Saturday to DC for the expo and packet pick-up with vague hopes of doing a little sightseeing. Packet pick-up was a success. The expo was large, though I didn’t find the booths or merchandise very exciting. Someone had given me a head’s up about the official race shirts before I got to the expo, so I wasn’t shocked when I received my shirt, but it was still pretty disappointing. (I’d venture to call the shirt “horrifying” but that would be pretty bougie of me. Needless to say, the shirt ain’t pretty.)
I tentatively hoped to find a nice shirt or quarter zip at one of the booths with the Marine Corps Marathon logo to make up for the horrendous race shirt, but unfortunately the official Brooks gear was 90% sold out by the time I arrived. From what I heard from others who have run the race before this is normal; I had arrived at the expo relatively early (hey, at least I wasn’t late! I got there around 2pm or so) on Saturday, but apparently you need to go to the expo on Friday or risk missing out on gear; from what others told me that this is pretty standard for this expo.
I ran into a familiar face right at the entrance of the expo, so Crystal (a long-time fellow Fleet Feet runner) and I perused the booths. Well, mostly we just looked for food. I bought a handful of Gu gels since when I packed for the weekend I realized I was out of gels (whoops) and Crystal hunted for her own nutrition needs before we stopped for a couple selfies in front of the MCM backdrop.
We ended up with a HUGE group (25 people or so) of Fleet Feet folks from Carrboro/Durham assembled for dinner and, naturally, we carb loaded. Next we were off for an early night to bed! Supposedly. I stayed up writing a bit.
I suppose for someone who’s about to run their first marathon in the morning I’m being rather nonchalant. To be honest, it hadn’t quite sunk in yesterday at work when I was debating what was an appropriate time for me to disappear from the office. At that point it seemed like the drive up to DC was a big enough obstacle between me and the race. In my mind, DC is farther away geographically than in reality; I’ll happily drive 6 hours west towards the mountains, but 4.5 hours north to DC feels like an impossibly far distance. Maybe it’s the traffic I find daunting. Or maybe it’s the fact that they don’t have sweet tea and so DC feels so foreign and so far.
Sometimes traveling across America feels like traveling through parallel universes. It’s familiar enough to be home, but there are just the tiny details that are slightly off, like how lanes merge in traffic or the different names of gas stations and grocery stores. These are badges of regionality - of subtle differences - in a sea of McDonald’s and Starbucks stores.
I suppose in some ways that’s how I felt about my first road marathon - it was a parallel universe. I’d already run a trail ultramarathon in the NC mountains. Camping out and being on mountain trails is something I’m so intimately familiar with because of all my hiking and backpacking adventures, so the ultramarathon was a more familiar next step. This road marathon though? Parallel universe. I know trails and I know half marathons, but I was stepping into something that was both accessible and familiar, and yet slightly off from anything else I had ever experienced.
Despite some pre-race jitters and my usual insomnia I was somewhat impressed by how much I was able to sleep and that I woke up on time (it helps if you set a super loud alarm on your phone and then leave your phone at the opposite end of the hotel room to force yourself out of bed. Ugh.) I met my fellow Fleet Feet runners in our hotel lobby and followed them to the shuttle to the race start. The good thing about being a procrastinator and last minute add-on? Everyone else does the planning and you just have to show up. 😉 So I just followed along and piled into the shuttle.
Sadly, that “follow-the-leader” strategy didn’t work so well for our shuttle driver. We were in a pack of 5 buses loading up near our hotel in Crystal City, but somehow our bus and another bus got off track. They ended up wandering around lost and finally got past some police blockades onto some closed roads to drop us off somewhere near the start line. Fortunately we didn’t have any nervous Nellies in our group to freak out about the one road sign a bus driver hit in a 15 point turn on an empty closed road, or any anxious Annes to fret over whether or not we’d even make it to the start line. Never fear! The Marines are here! (And I really want to know what the heck happened to those poor lost bus drivers - so many questions for them!!)
As our two buses full of runners joined the long line of zombie-like runners marching in the pre-dawn to the race start, the sky started to show tints of pink. We were funneled through security into a race village of sorts with countless port-a-potties, various tents and tables full of water, the bag check area, and even a hype man with a microphone who cornered runners for quick interviews and chirped helpful instructions. After a quick regroup we headed down the road and under the tunnel to the start area just in time to catch the parachute flag national anthem and military aircraft flyovers. From way back in the thick of the crowds where we were starting we could just hear the announcer call out the start of the various races (wheeled, dual runners, and then the marathon), though I never heard any Howitzer cannon boom to mark the start of any of the races. I did note, however, that it took us 15 minutes to walk forward with the crowd and finally cross the start line - and then we were off!
Before every race I usually set three goals for myself. The first is my “set the bar low” goal, and that’s usually my minimum expectations for the race. The second is my reasonable expectation, which is what I believe I can do that is on par with my skill. The third is a stretch goal, where the stars align and I have an amazing race.
For MCM my baseline goal was just to finish. It’s always fun to race a new distance because you’re guaranteed a PR, so my minimum expectation was just to finish and set my baseline marathon time. The second goal was somewhat complicated: I wanted to run my marathon at a pace faster than a pace for one of my old half marathons. My Outer Banks 2014 half marathon pace was just 11:11 and my other half marathon races ranged from 10:55 to 9:52 pace, so I had a good range to work with.
My third goal was a bit of a stretch: I wanted to finish somewhere around 4:40-4:45. Based on my comfortable pace for long runs and tempo runs I thought this was doable.
Spoilers? I definitely met my baseline goal in that I finished my first marathon! I met my secondary goal too! My unofficial official finish time (times are still being finalized) was 4:50:05 at a pace of 11:04, which definitely beats out my OBX 11:11 pace. I didn’t quite make my stretch goal of 4:40-4:45 with my official time, but my watch had me at 26.71 miles and average pace of 10:52, so according to my watch I hit 26.2 in 4:44:52, which would have been my stretch goal. I know on the course I had trouble hitting apexes and ended up weaving in the crowds a fair bit, so I’m sure that burned up some of the extra mileage.
So how did I manage to meet my goals and come close to my stretch goal? By closely following my race strategy of course!
Liz’s Race Strategy
Miles 1-11: Run balls-to-the-walls bat-outta-hell hard.
Miles 11-13: Coast to the half marathon distance. Try not to fall apart at the Blue Mile.
Miles 14-26: Don’t die.
Mile 26-26.2: Run hard to the finish and pretend like you’re happy to be there. After all…you paid to be here. Might as well enjoy that sh** sandwich.
Conclusion? It worked! I executed the race strategy perfectly! Well, with the exception of the Blue Mile. I bawled that whole mile (and I might have run a little faster through there just to try to speed things up so I wouldn’t completely fall apart).
A quick note (repeated below in the pro tips section):
The Blue Mile is around mile 12 and is covered with American flags and posters of fallen service members in commemoration. Can you imagine being almost halfway through a tough marathon and seeing all those faces with names and dates of those killed in action? That’s a really intense experience. I barely hung in there. Never forget.
One of my favorite parts of the route was the out and back parts. I know a lot of people don’t like running out and back routes, but mile 7 to about mile 9.5 went out and back on Rock Creek & Potomac Parkway. It seemed like the perfect place for this: I could see some of my speedy friends coming back from their out and back when I started it, and then I could see other friends who were behind me when I ran back. I realized with a grin that I could run my race and cheer all my friends at the same time?! BEST RUN EVER!!
Then I had a mile of running along the Potomac before I hit the Blue Mile. I knew it would be an emotional experience along that stretch, but dang, it hit me hard.
I was glad to get past that mile, but I felt pretty drained afterwards. The course was pretty flat out and around East Potomac Park for the next three miles, and I wanted to enjoy the views across the water, but my eyes kept being drawn to the signs posted along the course. There were all these hand-drawn yard signs that cheered on specific runners or had puns or jokes or cute sayings on them, and my eyes kept coming back to these signs like they had important information or could sustain me or something. As I entered West Potomac Park and neared some of the monuments my legs started to feel leaden, but now there were crowds cheering and the national mall was ahead, and I certainly couldn’t walk here, right?! And so I kept pushing.
Fortunately half an orange at one of the aid stations was the delicious fruity rush I craved, but then next came the bridge. At around mile 21 we started the buildup to go up the George Mason Memorial Bridge. The bridge section was only two miles but gosh it felt forever. It was long and exposed and the lack of spectators was a stark contrast to the rest of the course. It can be tough to lose all the energy of an enthusiastically cheering crowd and motivate yourself on a big exposed area with the wind whipping in your ears, and my pace showed that struggle, but I made it up and over at last.
Almost immediately I was rewarded for my hard work over the bridge. The course cuts a u-bend at the base of the bridge and as I rounded the corner there was a HUGE Oiselle cowbell corner. They spied my singlet and roared - I swear, you could hear them for miles!! I relished their energy; I ran around the curve to their cheers, slapping hands and hamming it up and feeling strong and refreshed by their support. Very shortly after the Oiselle cowbell corner I was in for another boost - Fleet Feet Carrboro/Durham friends!! Several friends had driven up for the day to cheer at the race and someone even had a poster with my name on it to celebrate my first marathon!! Ack, I was so so so happy!!
I’d heard that once I got over the bridge that Crystal City would be a blast, and it did not disappoint. There were crowds several people deep and they were all cheering like crazy. And not like “oh yay, runners, hours and hours of slow runners” kinda obligatory cheering, but screaming and encouraging and enthusiastically shouting like we were all elites. If that’s my fifteen minutes of fame, well, I’ll take it! Those cheers gave my feet a much-needed boost and sped me along for two miles through Crystal City to mile 24.
I tried to coast the last two miles on the energy I derived from Crystal City crowds, but those last two miles were tough. It’s not like that section of the course is particularly hard, but it’s emotionally hard because you lose the support of the crowd, it feels like you’ve come such a far distance, and you’re wondering what the heck you’re doing out there. Not to mention my watch showed the course to be about a half mile long, so it got to the point where I expected to see the finish line at any moment and kept getting disappointed by more road to run. You start seeing flags and you think, “that must be the finish line just ahead.” Except - ha! More flags! “Okay, can’t be far now!” Aaaaaaand more flags. And an uphill. Marine Corps Marathon ends on a hill that’s enough to make you want to walk but I kept pushing, knowing that at any minute the finish line could be ahead and I wanted to finish strong.
My watch hit 26.2 a full half a mile away from the race finish line, so according to my watch I ran a marathon in 4:44, but I knew I was racing the clock, not my watch, so I kept pushing. Finally there was a turn-off and a very steep finish to the MCM red finish line arch. That last little climb really made my legs burn and plenty of other runners would suddenly stop running, gasping for air and clutching their quads. Push push push! Almost there! I wove through the slowing crowds, trying to build up some energy and excitement for the finish line. Almost there! My legs burned and my eyes watered, but I kept pushing. Almost there! The first finish mat was right there, the arch was just ahead and I was looking for the finish line photographer to flash a big smile when OH MY GAWD WHY WOULD YOU STOP ON THE FIRST MAT?! The runner right in front of me came to a dead halt on the mat. I almost ran into her and had to force myself to a stop before crossing the finish line so I wouldn’t bowl her over, instead passing her on the left and finally - finally - crossing that elusive finish line!
I can’t say I’m exactly mad at the other runner for stopping on the first finish mat, but at the same time…idk. There are multiple finish mats that you should run through. You have to keep moving to get your medal (and food. Mmmm food!) But at the same time, she’d just run a marathon and I knew how totally out of it and dazed I was crossing that finish line so I can’t really be mad that she stopped and delayed me a couple seconds from crossing that finish line. But on the other hand…I was literally just a couple seconds over the 4:50 finish time. Save me a few seconds and I would have been sub-4:50, just sayin’.
But ah well, a marathon is a marathon. We all did it, and we were all marathon-stupid (aka dazed and confused from a traumatically long distance run). So I shouldn’t complain.
There's a little more walking you have to do to queue up and get a medal from a newly minted Lieutenant Marine (give a big congrats to the finish line Marines, since they’ve just been promoted to Lieutenant!) and then you pop out at the base of the Iwo Jima memorial - a sharp reminder of real sacrifice and service. It seemed a little unseemly to pose in front of the memorial grinning with my medal, but there were Marines and photographers encouraging the photo opp, so in gratitude I celebrated my marathon.
From the finish line to the celebration area it was a long walk with long lines, but finally I arrived in the city center with my medal and thousands of other mentally disturbed people who run 26.2 miles for fun. It was a huge cluster at the final finisher area in Rosslyn with booths and people milling around, but fortunately there was a family link-up area so I met up with my fellow Fleet Feet runners there before we headed off to the Metro to get back to our hotels in Crystal City.
Speaking of which, if you take the Metro, make sure you get a Metro card in advance. And that it’s fully loaded. The lines to get a Metro card were insanely long, and, fun fact, if you refill a Metro card online it takes a full hour (or more) for the new money to take effect. So you either have to purchase a card or reload a card at one of the Metro card machines at the station (aka stand in the super long line), or come prepared.
The race swag (besides the race shirt) is pretty solid with a disposable recovery jacket, a solid medal with a USMC challenge coin, and an MCM patch. While I’m bummed I missed out on any Brooks race gear and I won’t be wearing the official race shirt in public anytime soon, it was a great first marathon. I would definitely recommend this race to anyone looking for a fun and big marathon.
Security is taken seriously. Travel light if you can. They had a bag check at the expo and at the race start area. Lines moved pretty quickly, but if you didn’t bring any bags or packs then you could get fast tracked through security. I would have left my purse in the car if I’d known they would be checking bags at the expo. They didn’t check my hydration belt at the race start, but they were checking packs and drop bags.
Merch sells out. Get there early Friday for the expo to pick up your bib and go shopping if you want to pick up some sweet gear. Take the extra time to explore the city (without wearing yourself out before the race).
Public transportation is fun. But maybe acquaint yourself with the Metro system in advance. If you try to re-fill your Metro card online it takes a certain amount of time (several hours) for that reload to go through. At the same time, lines are INSANE leaving the race finish area for the Metro. Have lots of patience, know your route and stop, and make sure you’ve got your Metro card ready with enough money already loaded. You can order a Metro card online or you can go up early and buy a Metro card at a station.
Keep moving. As a general rule of thumb, keep moving. Move past the first line of port-a-potties and head towards the race entrance and you’ll find more port-a-potties. Move past the first table at each aid station and you’ll find plenty of Marines offering fresh aid. Move past the finish line and into the cordoned lines and you’ll find a medal at the end. When in doubt, keep moving.
Give yourself LOTS of time to get to the start line. It takes a while to get transportation to the start line. If you take the Metro, the Metro is open outside its usual time and is running, but the Metro station at Arlington Cemetery (nearest the race start) is closed, so you’d need to walk from the Pentagon station. It takes time to get through security. It takes time for any last-minute bathroom break. It takes time to walk from the race start area to the actual start line. Plus there’s a pretty cool parachutes display with the American flag and some military aircraft flyovers that are worth catching. Also, it’s a good race for throwaway clothes. Race volunteers will pick up any discarded clothing along the course, clean it, and donate it to a charity. There aren’t really corrals here, but you should self-organize based on expected pace between the pace groups.
It’s a big race. Be prepared for the crowds on the course. The crowd support from spectators is fantastic and it’s fun running with a ton of other participants too, but it can make it hard to optimize a fast pace and possibly chase a PR. You may not be able to hit all the tangents and you may have to weave through crowds, so that can kill some of your speed. On the flip side though, the crowd support and excitement from fellow runners can really energize you, so it just depends on your style as to how you’ll handle the crowds. (Personally, introverted ol’ me still seems to prefer small, quiet races, but it was a fun race to pretend to be a celebrity for a day and have thousands of people cheer like mad when they saw me. Yay, my ego was happy at least!)
Be prepared for the Blue Mile. This is by far the most emotional I’ve ever been during a race. The Blue Mile is around mile 12 and is covered with American flags and posters of fallen service members in commemoration. Can you imagine being almost halfway through a tough marathon and seeing all those faces with names and dates of killed in action? That’s a really intense experience.