We got to D.C. on Friday, did a little sightseeing on Saturday... and then Sunday (yesterday) was race day! I woke up at 6am to a temperature of 47 degrees. I had chopped the arms off an old, Goodwill-bound shirt to use as temporary arm warmers until the sun came out, and that proved to be a good idea. I was still pretty chilly, but since the day warmed up to nearly 70, it was definitely the right decision to be cold for a little while rather than hot for nearly the entire race (as I would have been had I run in long sleeves or long pants, as many did).
As it happened, I wasn't cold for very long, because the first adrenaline rush of the morning happened quickly. Walking from the Metro station to the staging area (in an enormous crowd of people), we heard the national anthem being sung. "Oh, yeah, they were going to do that at, like, 7:30," someone said. A few minutes later, we heard a gun go off. "That's the wheelchair start," someone else said. We all kept meandering along until we reached the staging area, and I got in line at the first Porta-Potty I came to. I hadn't been standing there for more than two minutes when... fireworks went off, there was a huge cheer, and the announcer bellowed, "And we have begun the 33rd annual Marine Corps Marathon!"
Only then did I realize that everyone standing around me was competing in the 10k, not the marathon! "Are you kidding me? Why am I still standing here?!" I yelped, and took off toward where I presumed the starting line to be. Luckily, there were quite a few empty Porta-Potties in that direction, and I was able to make use of one before continuing my mad dash, asking everyone I came to if I was going the right way. I knew it would take at least ten minutes to get everyone across the starting line, so I wasn't too worried, but I was definitely glad that I'd done all my obsessive preparations (putting my chip on my shoe, pinning my number to my shirt, etc.) the night before!
I reached the crush of people at the start corral just a couple of minutes before the back of the pack crossed over the line. The first couple of miles were easy and jocular, everyone bantering back and forth, marveling over the man who was juggling as he ran and the older, wheelchair-bound man who alternately slowed down and sped up as we all proceeded up and down the hills. (Although the course was, in general, very flat, there were a few rolling hills throughout the first 3-4 miles, as well as a couple more at the end.) I began the race with a girl my age named Amy, continued it with three older people (John, Lauren, and someone else), later met a nurse who was trying to go back to grad school at Penn State, and then ran the latter part on my own, once I put my headphones on.
The first part was very pretty; we crossed a bridge over the Potomac, with Georgetown University in sight on the other side, surrounded by orange and yellow trees. There was a light fog wrapping around the bell towers and tall buildings, looking like something out of a photograph. It was gorgeous, and everyone around me was commenting on it.
Everybody was taking frequent potty breaks in the bushes during the first part of the race, due to all the hydration we'd been doing. Around the five-mile mark, I joined a group of women in making a break for the trees, and when we were done, the change was dramatic. One minute I was running in a tightly packed group of people, all talking and laughing; when we emerged from the foliage a few seconds later, amid jokes about poison ivy, the group had thinned out considerably and there was a lot less talking going on. It was like going from the smiling "slow-but-fun" runners into the serious "this-is-really-gonna-hurt" runners. I was a little taken aback.
I ate my first pack of Sport Beans (like jelly beans, but with more carbs and electrolytes) around this time. I had 5 packs of them, plus two packs of Gu gel, so I decided to have a little snack every 4-5 miles or so. I was also carrying a water bottle, since the water stops were only every 2-3 miles (in contrast to a lot of other runs, where they have them at every mile marker), and that also proved to be a fantastic idea, since I could wash down my snacks and wet my whistle on my timetable, not the course's.
Although headphones had been officially banned from the race course, a lot of people were wearing them anyway. I had mine in the tiny pouch around my waist (along with my Beans, Gu, Advil, BodyGlide, debit card, ID, Metro pass, and toilet paper -- hey, you never know!) and as miles 6 and 7 rolled by, I was starting to feel like I'd definitely need to bust them out at some point. I was actually a little bored, which was something I hadn't really expected. I decided to wait until at least mile 10 for the headphones -- I knew they would help, but I also knew that once I put them on, I was (a) out of 'distraction' ideas, and (b) a lot more isolated from everyone around me, so I wanted to wait as long as I could.
One nice surprise came at mile 9, when I'd been searching for mile marker 8 for what seemed like forever and was worried that I was already slowing down to a glacial pace. I finally saw the marker up ahead -- and it said 9! Relieved that I wasn't as slow as I'd feared -- and that I was a mile farther than I'd thought -- I continued on.
This was the point when my legs started to hurt -- and not just in the 'running muscles' (hamstrings, calves). but up along the insides and outsides of my thighs too, as though my legs were frozen in position as they swung through the air. Everything was starting to 'lock up', and it was quite painful. If it were a 15k, or even a half marathon, I probably could have stuck it out, but I had 17 miles to go! I decided to stick it out until mile 10, and then take another potty break, eat some more Beans, and take some Advil!!!
I took care of all that business (noting as I did so that I'd run the first 10 miles in just a little over two hours, which, for me, was pretty great), and slowed my pace to alternating walking and very slow running until the Advil started to take effect. I was also noticing that every time I slowed from a run to a walk, something in my right thigh would twang! like a bowstring. It was more disconcerting than painful, but I was hoping the Advil would help. As it happened, it did; the twang! backed off to more of a nerve-conduction 'crackling' feeling, then stopped altogether near the end of the race (possibly because I got more and more careful about my 'downshifting' technique!) We were on a very pretty part of the course, running along the river in the park at Hanes Point.
Once the Advil had started to work noticeably -- around mile 11 -- I pulled out my iPod and cranked up my 'power song': Pat Benatar's "Invincible". That song came on during the last half-mile of my first half marathon, at Disney World, when Monique and I were pouring on the steam at the very end, running through Epcot past cheering crowds toward the finish line... and it has an incredible revitalizing effect on me. I only listen to it during races or very long runs, and even then, only when I really need that boost. Anyway, within just a few seconds, I was back to my normal 11-12-minute mile pace, passing people left and right. It didn't last long -- only until mile 14 or so -- but was certainly a nice boost (and reprieve from the mental and physical fatigue). Someone was passing out packets of Tylenol when we passed through a medical area, so I grabbed one and held onto it.
Around miles 14-16, we were passing through monuments -- the Lincoln Memorial (with people sitting on the steps cheering us on), the Washington Monument, and then the Capitol. L had said she'd be somewhere around mile 16, and I was counting down ("Only three more miles until I see her!"), but when I got there, she wasn't there. I took a rather (ahem) prolonged Porta-Potty stop, and when I came out, the 6-hour pace group (holding a sign reading "6:00") was right in front of me. Their strategy was to run for 3 minutes, then walk for 1 minute, over and over and over. My original (loose) time goal was 5:45, and I decided that as long as I stayed in front of that group, I'd be happy. I wasn't in as much pain as before, but was starting to get a little miserable emotionally -- just sick of it all. I was relieved to finally see L at mile 17 (and then again at mile 19); it gave me a real lift. Around this time, I calculated that it had been around 3 hours since the Advil, so I swallowed the Tylenol as well.
The last 6 miles were the worst. I did 'beat the bridge' by a wide margin (i.e. get through the bridge at the 21-mile mark before it was reopened to traffic, at which point any runners still needing to cross would have been forced to drop out) but the space between mile markers just seemed to get longer and longer. I stopped to pee again, and when I was through, the 6:00 group was way ahead of me; I finally caught up to them as we entered Crystal City, which was a very 'busy' area -- people everywhere, streets lined with red, yellow, blue, green, and purple flags, cowbells ringing, even a sign reading, "You're almost there -- have a beer!" with people handing out small Dixie cups. There was a lot to look at -- even some guy running in an enormous mascot outfit with a giant felt head -- but by that point I was so 'over it' that I wasn't even paying attention. I put on Pat Benatar again just for the distraction, to try to get a little cushion of space between me and the 6:00 group, because I knew that when I dropped back to walk, they'd catch up to me again.
Well, they did catch up again, somewhere between miles 24 and 25, and the woman leading the group said, "Only seven more intervals, guys! Twenty-five minutes, and we're done!" Those words did a lot to cheer me up -- no longer were we counting in miles, or even hours, but in *minutes*. I counted each time we sped up or slowed down (another woman was holding a stopwatch and would regularly yell, "Ten seconds... five... three, two, WALK.") -- six more intervals, five more, four more, three more. Finally, when the spectators along the side of the road began to holler, "Less than half a mile, you're almost there, less than a half mile!" I left the 6:00 group behind and decided I was just going to run straight for the finish.
We rounded the last curve, and there was a narrow path at a steep angle leading up to the path between the bleachers, which I gritted my teeth and got through at a just-barely-run (though not without thinking I was going to vomit once I got to the top), in the middle of a crush of people trying not to trample each other in their desperate enthusiasm. And there was the finish! The cameras were watching me, so I threw my arms in the air and screamed as loudly as I possibly could as I crossed the line. 26.2 miles, done! Time, 6 hours flat (6:00:15, if you want to get technical). Which proves that, though I may be pathetically slow, I am nothing if not consistent (my half marathon time in January 2007 was 3 hours flat).
Only then did I realize how incredibly tired my legs were. They were so sore that I could barely walk, tightening up more and more every minute. I knew I had to keep moving. I was limping, but not from the 'usual' pain in my heel -- indeed, I wasn't even really sure why I was limping, just that that was my body's most instinctive way of avoiding as much pain as it could. I walked through the chute, collecting a bottle of water and a Mylar blanket, heading toward a smiling Marine in camouflage. "Congratulations, ma'am," he said, slipping the medal over my head. (Honestly, if he hadn't ruined it by calling me 'ma'am', I'd probably have cried.)
A bag of snacks was shoved into my hand, and I made my slow and painful way toward the family linkup section to find L. Along the way, I was given the official 'Finisher Coin', a tradition which once saved the life of an American Marine pilot during WWI; he was set to be executed as a traitor, but was able to use the coin to prove his identity as a member of the U.S. military. It's a triangular, red-and-gold coin; definitely framable.
Once in the linkup area, I borrowed a fellow runner's cell phone to call L. It turned out that my electronic alerts (sent automatically to L, my mom, and L's mom via text message every time I crossed an electronic strip -- every 5 kilometers) had stopped working somewhere around the 30k mark -- so nobody had heard from me since L had last seen me at mile 19. Therefore, they all thought I was hurt or unable to run any farther, limping along somewhere. Worried, L had started walking back down the course, hoping to encounter me; instead, she had missed me entirely (since I wasn't hurt at all, but moving along at exactly the same pace as before) and thus didn't see my finish, which was very upsetting to her after spending the whole day running after me trying to catch a glimpse. She made her way back to the linkup area, found me, handed me a bouquet of roses (aww...) and we joined the crowd cramming into the Metro for the ride back to the hotel.
So... that was my first marathon experience. Some lessons learned (carry a cell phone!), many successful techniques rewarded (carry water, use liberal amounts of BodyGlide, and *definitely* carry headphones!) If last year's half Ironman was a 10 in difficulty/pain, this was probably a 9... maybe an 8.5, if only because I never really doubted that I was capable of finishing it. Very hard, for sure, and definitely not my favorite distance (that would be the 15k or the half marathon)... but I'm not ruling out the possibility of doing another one someday. :) And the best news (to me) is that L, who runs a lot but has never competed in a race, was so inspired by it all that she's going to do the River Run with me in 2009!
Calories burned: approximately 3200
Chafing: NONE (incredible!)
Pain today: hips, inner thighs, calves, shoulders
iPod songs played: 43
Swag accrued: medal, finisher coin, patch, long-sleeved shirt, numerous coupons and free samples