Saturday, November 23, 2013

Hamstrings and Hope: A Marine Corps Marathon Race Report

The Marine Corps Marathon is an awesome race and it has great crowd support.  In fact, I would have to say that of the 77 marathon or longer races I have done the MCM ties for second best crowd support along with Cincinnati’s Flying Pig Marathon.  The crowed support at these races is second only to Boston, however, I have to add the caveat that I have not run the New Your City marathon or the Chicago marathon, both of which are supposed to have amazing crowed support as well.

I went into the MCM coming off a heavy training schedule that included four consecutive 60 mile weeks and Olympic Weightlifting four days per week.  Also, within the previous 35 days I had run two marathons, one 55K and a 12 mile mountain run so my goal for the MCM was just to run it as hard as I could as a final training run for the Honolulu marathon where I plan on trying to BQ.  Of course my other goal was just to run it because as a 50-states runner it gets me Virginia, as a former Marine it seemed like the thing to do and of course, it is “The People’s Marathon” and as such one of a handful of “must do” marathons.

Before going into the MCM I had talked with several people who had run it and read reviews and everyone seemed to mention at least once how awesome it was to have the Marines out there supporting them at the aid stations and at the finish line.  There is no doubt that the aid stations were well done and the Marines were supportive and enthusiastic but I didn’t experience them any differently that I’ve experienced similarly well done civilian staffed aid stations.  I pondered that for a while and think it has to do with the fact that I was in the Marine Corps and I am in the Army now.  I have lived, and live, a military life; something, according to a recent New York Times article, only .05 percent of the American public does any more.  I suppose for a civilian to have America’s war fighters out there supporting them through a run is pretty special, for me it was just my peeps.

However, one thing that I really did love was all the military members from other countries’ armed forces.  I know for a fact that I saw members of the Norwegian Navy, the Dutch Army, British Royal Marines and Australian Army.  Of course there were representatives of all of America’s Armed Forces and I wore my New Mexico National Guard racing singlet so we were represented as well.  I got a kick out of the Norwegian Navy’s shirts because on the back they said “525 years of innovation.”

In addition to all the different militaries and military branches that were represented, there was also a huge swath of humanity represented.  There was probably more diversity at this race than anything I’ve seen before.  That’s one of the cool things about DC, it has enormous diversity and you can meet all kinds of people.

The race, of course, is one of the largest ones in the world.  In fact, in 2012 the MCM was the 8th largest marathon in the world with 23,519 finishers.  This year, 2013, saw 23,512 finishers and you could really tell at the start line.  The MCM has starting corrals like any large marathon but also like any large marathon, there is an annoyingly large number of people who completely ignore them so you have six hour runners lined up in the three hour corral and from the first seconds of the race they are like bounders in a fast moving river.  I decided to line up in the 3:35 corral because I thought I could run something close to that if I ran hard as planned.  I figured that if I started to falter due to the accumulated fatigue of the last 35 days it would happen later when I wouldn’t be getting in anyone’s way.

When the howitzer went off the crowd of 23,000 plus runners lurched into motion along two two-lane roads that were separated by a low median.  It took maybe a mile before the roads converged and we were just one mass running through DC.  Apart from the crowding, the first thing I notices about the course was that it was fairly hilly in the beginning and actually rolled at least gently almost throughout.  I once again just decided to run by feel and not look at my watch very much at all, mostly just to check if it was time to take another gel.  This strategy has worked well for me because worrying about my pace isn’t really going to help any.  I’m experienced enough to know if I’m probably going too fast and on the other end, I can only run as fast as I can run, looking at a watch isn’t going to make me any faster.

Despite the fact that the MCM runs past many interesting things I really didn’t see a lot on the route.  I was aware of when I was running a segment of the Army 10-miler and I knew when I was on the National Mall but I just didn’t see much because I was very focused on running my best race.

As I’ve mentioned before, this past summer has been a big experiment for me.  I took this year to recover from the Grand Slam of last year and stuck with running marathons and a couple 50ks.  I’d struggled with my weight and mileage all year long so by the time May hit I was ready to try anything and the thing I tried was Olympic weightlifting coupled with a bit lower mileage than I had been running.  MCM was going to be the first race where I really planned on putting that training to the test.  I mean, I ran well at the Air Force marathon but there I lined up with the 3:45 group and didn’t exactly try to race even though I ended up with about a 3:37.  As I said, at MCM I lined up with the 3:35 group and intended to race.

Anyway, because I had only been lifting for about four months I am not lifting anything heavy.  Most of that time has been spent just getting down technique and building the supporting muscle.  I quickly discovered that I am weak as hell, at least compared to everyone else at the Oly gym, but my coach kept at me to keep it light and repeatedly told me that getting the technique down early is the key to being able to lift to your potential later.  In any case, I wasn’t in it to become an Olympic weightlifter, I was there to become a better runner, develop more thrust, and let me tell you, I was not disappointed.

Probably somewhere around mile five or six I left the 3:35 pacer behind and just cruised along hoping that maybe I could keep them at bay to the end of the race.  I just focused on how I felt, tried to push the pace and kept looking for people I could target for passing.  I ran well until mile 24 when suddenly, for the first time ever, I had a bad cramp in my left hamstring.  It was bad enough that I pulled up sharply and grasped it to try and keep it from causing my entire leg to seize up.  At that point I still wasn’t exactly sure how well I was doing but I knew I was doing well.  I was hoping there would be an aid station soon where I could slam some Gatorade thinking maybe I was low on electrolytes and immediately ahead I saw one, score!  I hobbled up and said Gatorade? And they said, nope, doughnut holes.  WTF?! Doughnut holes in a marathon?  At mile 24?

I hobbled on by running as fast as I could while still grasping my hamstring and squeezing it to try and get it to release.  I did that for about a mile and I was finally able to let go but the hamstring was still really tender.  My pace at mile 23 had been a 7:42, mile 24 was a 9:01.  I was able to pick up the pace to an 8:48 in mile 25 but the hamstring was still threatening to go out.  At 1.2 miles left I was feeling a little better and I ran mile 26 in 8:12.  The very end of the MCM has what is called Marine Hill, which is the access road to the Marine Corps War Memorial.   Marine Hill climbs about 50 feet in a tenth of a mile, is lined with cheering Marines, and has a sign that says “charge the hill!”  This is where my old Marine self kicked in and I charged the hill at full speed.  It was no easy feat but I passed several people, there were ALWAYS several people in your immediate vicinity so passing several doesn’t require much acceleration.  However, by the same token, getting passed by several people doesn’t take much deceleration.

So, I charged Marine Hill and it was a good thing I did because it put me across the finish line 3:29:03, my second fastest marathon ever.  My fastest, 3:28:13 is at Tucson, a mostly downhill course where I was three years younger and maybe 10 pounds lighter.  It would have been very easy to lose 57 seconds in that final 1.2 miles.

I really feel awesome about my finish and about my new approach to training.  I have great hopes for Honolulu though I continue to be worried about the heat.  As I sit here writing this it has been below 35 degrees in Albuquerque for the past 2 days and is getting colder.  Honolulu has been having lows in of between 68 and 71 and highs between 82 and 85.  The forecast for race day, we are 14 days out now, is a low of 68 and a high of 83.  Oh well, I have checked a running calculator that checks such things and it assures me that at temps of up to 75 degrees I shouldn’t lose more than two minutes and since the race starts at 5:00 a.m. I am hopeful that I’ll be done by the time temps hit 72.

I am still going to try for a BQ, I am still going to line up with the 3:25 pace group and try to beat them in by two minutes, that would be a 7:44 minute mile average pace and what I figure I need to run in order to actually qualify for Boston.  Just making your cutoff doesn’t cut it anymore.