The marathon demands respect and every time I run one, I respect it more. Sunday’s Marine Corps Marathon in Washington, DC gave me a new respect, not only for the 26.2 miles of running, but also for the elements like weather which are totally out of our control. Waking up Saturday to 32 degrees and rain (which would turn to sleet and then a little snow by the end of the day) was a real psychological test for me and probably most of the runners, who lined up with umbrellas outside of the National Guard Armory to pick up race numbers and packets. I could see it on the faces of other runners and could hear it in the conversations around me. “If this keeps up till tomorrow morning…you can count me out of the race”. I heard these rumblings all around me. Most of us were just glad it wasn’t Sunday, but we all knew it wasn’t going to warm up much in 24 hours.
Sure enough Sunday dawned cold (35 degrees with a wind chill that made it feel like 27 degrees) and cloudless. As we made our way through the streets of DC and onto the metro, thousands of other runners joined us to head toward the start of the marathon at the Pentagon in the dark morning hours. There was no doubt that initially the freezing temperatures psyched me out, but as I waited with my husband and daughter (#5, Annie) who had come along to cheer me on, I started to remember something…this wasn’t anything new for me. How many mornings had I gotten out in the dark early hours, in the cold temperatures to run? …More than I could count. Even recently, my training partner, Susan and I had started out in the dark at 5 am with hats and gloves to keep us warm, and the only light coming from her head-lamp. I was ready for this. After all, given the choice of a 72 degree start or a 36 degree start, I would take the latter any day of the week.
By the time the two Sea Stallion helicopters flew overhead and the invocation was read minutes before the start, the sun was up, but the temperatures hadn’t hit 40. The gun went off on time (this was a well run military operation) and I was glad to have the freezing wait behind me and to finally begin moving my tights-covered legs and freezing feet. Running alongside active-duty and retired marines and service members from all branches of the U.S. military, especially the physically-challenged wounded warriors, makes the Marine Corps Marathon more than just another race. Many of the runners wear t-shirts bearing the names of service members who have died in action and spectators hold signs to honor loved ones as well. This makes the whole atmosphere of the marathon an incredibly moving experience. The marathon is put on almost entirely by marines who man all the water/food stations and hand out blankets and medals at the end.
Needless to say, my nerves and the bone-chilling temperatures were no match for the motivation I felt running through our nation’s capital, alongside these men and women. I felt pretty good through miles 6 and 7 and tried not to match my adrenaline with a pace too quick for my goal. Usually I begin too fast, so I deliberately held back the first miles to stay at about 8:10 pace in order to keep something left in my legs for 18 miles and on. This strategy helped me, as did my iPod playlist picks which played on (until they abruptly stopped at mile 23) and kept me moving. I began to pick up the pace at about mile 12, dropping to around 7:45 at one point. I felt great as we headed into mile 15, even taking off my long sleeved shirt so that I had only my short sleeved Navy shirt on. This is about the point in the race when we run along Haines Point (a peninsula surrounded by water) – with little encouragement from crowds who tend to line the areas around the memorials. The clear blue sky and the red and gold trees were a beautiful backdrop and provided incredible scenery for those miles. But mile 17 and 18 brought a heaviness to my legs that gave me serious pause and made me question everything.
I think most people who have run a marathon would agree that the 26.2 miles are a roller coaster ride of emotions, and this was true for me on Sunday. I rode that coaster from the highs of miles 10-15 (I saw James and Annie a few times during those miles) feeling like I could run forever, to the lows of 16- 18 when I wanted to slip off the course and blend into the rest of the spectators to watch the event instead being a participant. I would fight my emotions, and talk myself into rallying back for miles 19, 20, and 21, keeping in mind all of those intentions to whom I was dedicating my race (thank you to all of you who sent those many intentions, they were actually an answer to my own prayers because they got me through some low moments). When I saw the mile marker for 23 though, I sank again as I really began to feel the glycogen depletion in my legs. It is a terrible thing to feel my legs literally take on weight as if I had strapped sandbags onto my feet and tried to run with them. When my iPod suddenly stopped, I felt the weight grow even heavier. I”m amazed at how the human mind can seem to take over when we are feeling at our lowest and begin to sabotage an already bad situation… I felt at my lowest, and told myself to walk. But then I realized that the iPod had actually drowned out the crowds, and while the music was motivating for much of the run, without it I could really hear the crowds who would get me through the gauntlet of the last long miles of the marathon.
Later I would read that tens of thousands of people came out to watch the marathon yesterday, and at mile 24, 25 and 26 it seemed to me that they were all gathered at the end to cheer me on. I think that is what made the biggest impression on me when I reflected on the race later. The spectators are incredibly important and so encouraging at the end of a long event like the marathon. The Marine Corps Marathon is especially grueling at the end, as it finishes with a killer hill of about 300 yards which I literally had to scream at my legs to carry me up. But the crowds were yelling so I just kept putting one foot in front of the other until my feet crossed under the finishing arch, at which point I knew I wouldn’t be able to ask any more of them. The clock said three hours, 31 minutes and 22 seconds. It was the end of the marathon, thank goodness, because it would have ended for me there regardless…my legs simply wouldn’t go any farther. I shook the hand of the marine who said congratulations and put a medal around my neck. Another gave me a Gatorade and still another a blanket and a banana. I could barely walk when I looked up and saw my son, Charlie (a senior at the United States Naval Academy) who had driven to the race to give me encouragement and cheer me on. He had a big smile on his face and gave me a huge hug…”Great job Mom!”… I will celebrate those words for a long time.
Did anyone else run Marine Corps? Another marathon? For those running New York or other races this weekend…God Speed!