Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Race Recap: Marine Corps Marathon

On October 28, 2012, I ran my second marathon, the 37th Annual Marine Corps Marathon, in Washington, D.C.  The race was a unique blend of successes and disappointments.  A particularly daunting set of pre-race circumstances, plus wildly windy conditions in the second half of the course, brought on significant challenges, both physical and mental.

Bottom line:

After training for 18 weeks, following Pfitzinger's 55-70 miles per week schedule, I felt as prepared as I could make myself.  Unfortunately, I did not meet my ambitious A goal of 3:30, my B goal of 3:40, or even my C goal of 3:45.  On a positive note, though, I still set a PR, beating my first marathon time by over 7 minutes.  I also earned a time that qualified me to run the prestigious Boston Marathon (YAY!) in April, 2014.  I can further claim that I had a truly patriotic (albeit painful) marathon experience.

Official results:

A few other race stats:

Overall:  top 14.8%
Women:  top 8.1%
45-49 Age Group:  top 6.5%

If you want the long, drawn-out, full-blown story, read on!

Pre-race drama:

I definitely learned a few lessons about marathons in a most painful way.  First, it is not wise to try to combine a family vacation with running a marathon.  One of the ways I rationalized the expense of this race was to turn it into some grand educational field trip for the whole family.  We left early on a Wednesday morning from Atlanta, drove 10.5 hours to Harper's Ferry, WV, took a walking ghost tour that night, and then stayed in a nearby hotel.  The next morning we visited Antietam Battlefield, MD where we took another walking tour, and then headed DC for the pre-race expo and finally to our hotel in Fairfax.  The next two days were spent at the Newseum and the National Museum of Natural History.  One night we drove out to Ashburn for dinner with cousins and the other we met up with two friends from high school for dinner at a restaurant in Alexandria.  In total, we stayed at three different hotels over four nights.

Second, it is not wise to do a lot of walking and running in the days leading up to a race, especially when you don't know the area.  In addition to walking around in Harper's Ferry during the ghost tour, I did a four-mile shake-out run the next morning without having surveyed the terrain ahead of time.  After I set out, I spotted a sign noting a 7% grade for the next mile or so.  I managed to run up and down the long hill without too much problem, but it may have cost me in terms of sore muscles.  Either that tackling that hill, or the making the hike up and down a watch tower at the battlefield, or the hours I spent walking around DC museums (or possibly a combination of the three) left me with unexpectedly sore quads the afternoon before the race.  That soreness would certainly plague me later.

The expo:

Here's a photo from the expo where I was pointing to the goal!

I'm proudly showing off my original race number.  Little did I know...

The kids had so much fun at the expo.  It was like pre-race trick-or-treating for them,
and we came back with a fully loaded bag of loot.

Third, it is certainly not wise to pack so much into said vacation that you get distracted and forget things. This   very thought dawned on me when I was setting out my race things at 9pm the night before the marathon.  To my horror, I discovered my race bib was missing!  I frantically tried to recall where I had placed it after I left the expo.  My husband reminded me that I had put it under a lamp at the prior hotel to (of all the stupid things) smooth out the wrinkles.  Ugh!!  Although the hotel was 45 minutes away, I figured I could still drive back out to Fairfax to retrieve it.  A call to the hotel, though, confirmed my worst fears.  The bib was toast.  It didn't take long for panic, and then despair, to grip me.  I had unwittingly sabotaged my chance to run this race after 18 weeks of training, after paying $92 for a race number, and after dragging the whole family up to DC.  I had no one to blame but myself.  Tears ensued, and then I just ached.  I thought of all the friends and family who had been so supportive and who were cheering me on.  I couldn't bear to post the bad news on Facebook that night.

I didn't even lay down until after midnight.  Although I figured it was pointless to have hope, I still wanted to go to the start line and just see if there was a chance...  I laid out a few things and set my alarm for 4:30 so I could leave by 5:15.  I hardly slept a wink and had tortured nightmares when I did.  For whatever crazy reason, my alarm did NOT go off at 4:30.  Since I was laying there mostly awake, I drearily glanced over at my clock.  It was 5:03!!  I leaped out of bed.  With 12 minutes to get ready, I frantically slathered up and got dressed while my husband stirred up a quick bowl of oatmeal for me.  After choking down what I could, I seized my race bag and flew out the door.  I faced a 0.6 mile walk to reach the Metro.

Then, about half way to the station, my phone rang.  I had left my Garmin!  In yet another frantic dash, I sprinted back to the room, grabbed the watch, and then sprinted all the way to the Metro.  Yes, folks, I was certainly awake by then!  There, I met up again with my two friends from high school.  Steve was running his first marathon that day, and Jonathan, an absolute saint, had driven down from Wilmington, DE, just to cheer us on.

Steve, Jonathan, and I met up the afternoon before and took this shot at the Washington Monument.
I laid the news on them and they commiserated with me.  Such sad thoughts ran through my mind.  I was really, really, really down on myself at that point.  Still, we rode the Metro and walked solemnly into the runners village.  Jonathan quickly scouted out a tent that looked promising.  We entered, and a nice female marine smiled up at me.  I humbly presented my case, along with my ID, my number confirmation e-mail, and a patch I had received at the expo.  I was even prepared to show her the photo on my phone where I was holding my original bib.  Then, I almost fell on the floor when I heard her utter the words, "NO PROBLEM!!!!"  She simply retrieved a bib from her secret stash, attached my information to it electronically, and wished me well!  It was so stinking easy that I was flabbergasted.

I can't even explain how this revelation gripped me.  It required a paradigm shift in my thinking!  I walked over to Jonathan and Steve in stunned happiness.  I was going to run!  Processing that thought completely never really happened, I'm sure.  I was pretty much on auto-pilot until race time.  We found the restrooms and water, sat for a few minutes shivering in the brisk wind, and laughed over stories of high school grad night at Disney World.  In no time at all, we headed over to the corrals to get lined up.

Not far from the start line was the 3:30 corral.  There were pacers for those aiming for 3:25 and 3:35, but none for 3:30.  I just lined up with the 3:25 guy, but did not make any plans to stay with him.  The wind was already blowing then, but at least the temperature was pretty much ideal, and not a drop of rain fell.

Hanging out in the start corral with the wind whipping around me
I have not even mentioned up to this point the fact that Hurricane Sandy had been expected for almost a week.  For some perspective, I ran my first marathon through a severe thunderstorm that offered up heavy wind, rain, thunder, lightning, mud puddles, and a tornado siren.  When I saw that the chances were good for another stormy marathon, I was furious at first, but then I resigned myself to the inevitable.  Friends jokingly asked me to remind them not to sign up for any marathons in the same places where *I* would be running!  Others suggested I should change the spelling of my name to "Gale!"  Yet another friend sent me this from Newton Running to give me a laugh!

Yet, with all the hype, we ended up beating the main thrust of the storm.  A day later, though, and there would have been no race at all.  Sandy proved to be a mighty storm.

First half of the race:

My first half was actually fairly smooth, and I stayed on track to achieve the anticipated 3:30 finish.  As we started off, I knew I would face a hill in the first couple of miles and another at miles 7 and 8.  Therefore, I kept my pacing nice and easy up the first hill.  Even though the road was fairly crowded, I never felt the need to waste energy dodging anyone.  I had planned to make up some time going down the hill (as I have been so successful doing in the past), but as soon as I reached that point I was seized by two side stitches.  Each pounding step made them worse.  Reluctantly, I checked my pace and instead focused on using deep, measured  breathing and a gentle step to get rid of the stitches.

At that point, we had reached some woods.  On either side, I couldn't help but notice dozens of guys facing away, stopping to relieve themselves.  It was funny how completely still they looked compared to everyone around who was moving rapidly around the lake.  Shortly after that, I passed a wheelchair racer who was struggling.  After wishing him well, I moved on and tried to fall into a rhythm.  My fastest mile was mile 6, where I clocked in at 7:41.  My first 10K split of 49:46 was only 4 seconds off my goal!  In the back of my mind, though, I sort of grudgingly felt that my "easy" pace should have actually felt a little easier, especially with less than a fourth of the journey completed.  The hill at mile 7 was a bit steeper and longer than the first hill had been.  I definitely felt a push in making it up that one.  However, I still managed to maintain my pace and was able to rest a bit on the back side of it.  I kept checking my watch and reminding myself to slow down.  In checking times, I see that I did a pretty good job at staying just over or under the 8:00 prescribed pace for the next few miles.

At mile 12, I saw a guy who had been nearby at the start of the race.  He complimented me for keeping such a steady pace and mentioned that he had seen me 7 or 8 times.  I never saw him after that, however.  I did spy my friend, Jonathon, smiling a waving to me from one of the bridges soon afterward, and the bands started picking up then too.  One band was playing "Gangnam Style," and I could tell it was a big crowd-pleaser.

Unfortunately, somewhere in that 13th mile the wind started picking up.  I allowed myself a brief 20-step walk even though I really resented doing it.  I vaguely recall noting at the halfway point that my time was 1:47:09 as opposed to my goal of just under 1:45.  At a little over 2 minutes off my goal, I still knew in the back of my mind I was doing my best, and so I tried to ignore my watch from then on.  Just before mile 13, I stopped and picked up a chocolate Gu packet, hoping it would give me a little energy.  My mouth was far drier than I had expected, and I couldn't wait to hit the next water station.

Second half of the race:

Unfortunately, things went rapidly downhill in the second half.  The wind was fierce in miles 13 and 14, and my pace was 8:46 and 9:00 in those two miles.  At least there were many funny signs to help distract the runners from their pains.  One said, "Smile if you are chafing."  I count myself very fortunate to have encountered very little chafing through the whole race even with minimal Glide hastily applied.  I also felt lucky to have sustained no blistered or purple toenails.

I knew that my pace was slipping with each consecutive mile, but I just felt really tired.  By mile 17, a friendly guy reminded me, "You only have a 5K and a 10K to go.  Run the 5K first."  I so badly wanted to stick by him for the whole rest of the race.  His pace wasn't all that much faster than mine was, but I just couldn't go any faster.  We were running toward the capitol building at that point, and I did rally a bit with the excitement  of approaching that landmark and the photographers everywhere snapping shots.

Brief exhilaration at passing the capitol
Just around the corner, though, at about mile 19, we hit a long, yucky, straight, slightly uphill stretch along a very boring road.  My quads began to ache terribly.  Strangely, I also became incredibly sleepy.  Who ever heard of being sleepy when you're in that much pain??!  However, I remember sort of closing my eyes a couple times and feeling like I was in the middle of a nightmare.  The lack of sleep the night before and also the prior nights had certainly caught up with me.  I checked my watch and decided I could still be very happy with a 3:45 finish.  Alas, even that was not meant to be.  I started walking...a lot.  Then I started crying.  My mental stash of happy thoughts completely left me.  My quads ached terribly.  The wind was whipping something fierce and blowing me around like a twig.

I may look rough, but check out the middle guy!

I think these may have been the two ladies!
In one of my darkest moments, I spotted two female marines standing on the sidelines cheering. They seemed to sense my distress.  Then, to my utter amazement, these two angels flew to my aid!  One got on either side of me and they ran along with me for at least a quarter of a mile.  During that whole time they said incredibly encouraging things.  Of course, that made me cry even more!  I smiled through the tears, though, and pushed on.  Miles 24 and 25 were a dismal 10:55 and 11:00.  I remember stopping for a moment and trying to stretch my legs a little.  I could tell that others were suffering too.  Those miles were even worse than in my first marathon.  That's where my last hope of a 3:45 was squashed for good.
With just over a mile to go, I mustered up everything I had in me to at least try to make a good showing at the finish line.  Mile 26 was a tiny bit faster at 9:40.  The last 0.2 miles were up a hill, but the crowds of marines on either side were so intensely cheering, there was no chance anyone could have walked up that!  I saw the finish balloon and almost collapsed with relief in finally making it.  It was not the finish I usually experience in a half marathon, where I'm completely out of breath and a little light-headed.  Instead it was one where I was exhausted and in so much pain in my legs and feet that the whole thing felt like a dream - a very bad one.

You can see me cross the finish line in this video.  Scroll to just before 3 minutes and 40 seconds.  Then look on the right side of the screen.  I come across within the next 3 seconds after that.

A look of total exhaustion and despair

Receiving my finisher medal

I went through the finish gates with that "agony of defeat" look, and I tried not to look at the clock.  The tiny ray of light was the fact that at least I had beat my first marathon time and I had beat 4 hours.  When I saw the marine waiting to put the finisher metal around my neck, I cried yet again.  Then I went through a long receiving line shaking hands and trying to smile.  I was so tired that I didn't even manage to get a photo in front of the Iwo Jima Memorial or get my finisher jacket.

My mind was focused solely on getting my post-race rations and getting to the massage table where I was to meet up with my family and Jonathan.  I hobbled along in that tell-tale shuffle that only a fellow marathoners fully understands.

OH my aching quads!

Relief washed over me when I saw that there was practically no wait for a massage.  I honestly have never hurt so badly.  I don't know if it was all the walking at the museums, or the steps of the tower I climbed, or a combination of everything, but I just hurt.  I flopped my weary body down on the table and groaned with relief as the capable hands of the masseuse worked on my calves, quads, hammies, and glutes.

Soon after that, I met up with Jonathan, who gave me a warm jacket and 4 Advil.  I was starting to get cold.  My family then arrived and gave me hugs.  After that, we had a long Metro ride, a quick shower, and a 10.5 hour car trip back to Atlanta, where I fell into bed at 2am, thoroughly exhausted.

My family and I pose in the hotel before we head out

Steve and I celebrate by showing off our beautiful, shiny finisher medals

Not defeated in the least in spite of everything, I was already plotting my re-match plans in the car on the way home.  On the books so far is the Tallahassee Marathon on February 3.  This one will be in my home town on a nice and flat course.  I also have a friend who is also aiming for that elusive 3:30, and might run with me.  The post-race recovery is already killing me and I am chomping at the bit to hit the trail again!


  1. You had a great training cycle and a series of unfortunate race-circumstance... yet you still persevered through adversity and came out shining on the other side! To go through everything you went through and still get a 7 minute PR is phenomenal- imagine how awesome you're going to be under better, more well rested circumstances?! Now that you've been to "the dark side" (miles 24-25) you'll be able to fight harder, stronger, and faster. There's something about a good bonk that puts things into perspective and makes us better runners. You've got great things in your marathon future!!

    And my offer still stands if you want to run Charlotte's marathon here in a few weeks =)

  2. BQ'ed!!! That's awesomeness, Gail! (or Gale) :-) Loved reading the entire blog entry. Very informative. I got choked up every time you cried. Thanks for letting us live vicariously through you. And a HUGE congratulations on such a superb effort and a fabulous finish time!

  3. Gail, thanks for commenting on my blog, and for pointing me towards yours. It's uncanny how similar our runs at MCM were (except for our paces, haha). Great job here in DC, and congrats on the BQ!

  4. Gail, This post was hilarious, but yet so informative and so true. I have also run 2 Marathons & training for my 3rd in Dec. I also PR'd on my 2nd one, but only by 3 min. You did an awesome job, despite everything you went thru prior to the race. I have also learned, race first and then vacation after, the following week - that way you can eat like you're on vacation & not worry about it. Your time is amazing! Really proud of you!

    1. Belated thanks, Shari! I'm just so glad my next one will be on a pancake flat course in my home town with no hotels to throw away any race bibs - LOL!

  5. Wow, the wind just seems like it was so brutal. I loved reading the report, even though I wish it would have ended better for you. But each race teaches us something new about ourselves. It reminds me of some of the exit speeches of Survivor contestants and how they talk about how they may not have won but the game has changed their life forever. Sometimes we don't win with our goals, but each experience makes our lives better. Have you run Tallahassee before? How's the course? I need another marathon around that time. I was thinking of running Ocala again, but it's just so darn hilly!

    1. You'll be happy to learn that the Tallahassee Marathon has a pancake flat course! I have not run it before, but I was just in Tallahassee, my home town, and spoke to a runner friend who had run it many, many times. Come join me!

  6. WOW.....what a story! I'm looking at running the MCM in the near future and have also considered using it as a "family vacation/history lesson" (can't help that, as I'm a history teacher!), but that probably doesn't fit with any kind of race goals. Still, in spite of it all, you got your BQ and persevered against the conditions. Well done, Gail....Congratulations!

    1. Thanks, Bill! I do still highly recommend it as a truly patriotic experience. In spite of 30,000 runners, I never felt too crowded.

  7. I'm a fellow Atlantan and I stumbled on your blog from your post about the Roswell 10-miler (which I also did, but finished light years behind you--- I'm still a newbie). This post is awesome! The MCM is my goal marathon (and really the only marathon I want to ever run). Your finish on this definitely reminded me of my first half marathon (I'm still only half crazy at this point). I didn't take any finisher pictures. I was so focused on getting food and stretching that I even left Minnie Mouse hanging at the finish line when she tried to give me a five (finisher's tunnel vision at its finest!). I really enjoyed reading your experience-- especially the part about the sweet Marines that ran with you!

    1. Thanks for your comment, Amy! I also took a look at your blog. You look amazing! I'm close to your same height and weight, but at 45, things have shifted just a tiny bit. :-) I'm glad you enjoyed your Roswell 10-Miler experience too. It was certainly a lot of fun. I think MCM would have been awesome too if it hadn't been for my losing my race number and having strangely sore quads the day before. Fortunately, I made up for it with a tremendously better experience at the Tallahassee Marathon. Keep up the great training, and you'll tackle the MCM in style!!