Wednesday, October 30, 2013

More Than a Race

After two days and a six-hour plane trip back home, I still haven't been able to process everything that transpired on Sunday. I want to be able to write this and take the emotion out of it (because it'd be so much shorter), but I can't. It's just too much a part of the story.

DC holds a special place in my heart, As most of you know, I did the first two years of undergrad in DC, and still have some close friends in the area. During that time, I joined the crew team, which is when I feel like I became an athlete.

I also started running for fun during those years. I vividly remember the moment I was in my friend/teammate Christine's room, and she was talking about this race in Philly that she read about in "Runner's World" (the Philadelphia Distance Run; now the Rock 'n' Roll Philly Half-Marathon). She and a couple other mutual friends were going to sign up, and she said, "You'll be in Philly. You should join us." My response: my usual, "Sure! Why not?" (This seemed like a fabulous idea, despite never having run a road race.) Though I didn't officially complete the race until after I moved to Philly, the running seed was planted while I lived in DC. 

In 2012, MCM sold out in 2.5 hours, and though they hadn't made any indication of switching to a lottery system, I wanted to make sure I ran it (and had my homecoming moment) before they did. I signed up for this race on March 27 (exactly 7 months before Race Day)

Since registering, life happened. I finished grad school, moved to a new apartment, and started a new job. My new job started the same day as my 16-week training plan, and so my training got off to a rocky start. I was feeling burnt out from two years of nearly-nonstop marathon training. I had actually debated over deferring my entry to 2014, until I later determined that that'd be too brash. So I continued on with the training, and to my surprise, the cycle actually ended on a high note.


Before my trip even started (i.e., while I was still at work), US Air called me to say that my flight was delayed, and it was likely I'd miss my connection. Oh great. I still showed up at the airport when I was supposed to, and found ways to pass the time. Eventually, we boarded, and I ended up with a whole row to myself. Last time that happened on a red eye: never.


We landed at 7:18, a whopping 12 minutes before my connecting flight was scheduled to take off. The flight attendants said something about my flight already leaving, though it wasn't departure time. So I joined the two other travelers connecting to that flight in sprinting to the gate (which was in another terminal), only to see that the plane was five FEET away from the jetway, and they wouldn't bring it back.

US Air rebooked me on the 11:35 flight, and placed on standby for the 9:45 flight. While waiting for my new flight, I ate, brushed my teeth, caught up on emails, tried to get on the 9:45 flight (to no avail - the earlier flight was oversold). So I just took the 11:35 flight. And the best part? 

The customer service rep gave me a first class seat! Entire row on one flight, plus first class on the other flight -- felt like all-star travel to me! Also, I now get to cross "fly first class" off of my bucket list.

I eventually made it, and Metroed to Expo. I got there around 2. My friend Alanna was going to be off of work around 4, so rather than try to cram in a bunch of gallivanting, I just took my sweet time perusing the booths. 

The Expo

I'm not sure what this mascot is, but who wouldn't want to pose with a mascot?

Can't say I came up with that hashtag, but I think it describes my feelings about MCM at that time.
The motivational board. Pick a slogan and write it on the wall. Mine: "Operation BQ!"

They had the standard booths there (e.g., Clif, Honey Stinger, Brooks). One cool thing they had was a vendor conducting body composition analyses. Yes, I ended up doing this. If you want to know more about how they did the analysis and what they said, just ask me. Once I met up with Alanna, we stopped at the freshly-renovated Harris Teeter so I could pick up carb-loading/pre-race provisions. Once at her house, I prepped a big batch of my pre-race millet porridge (ate about half for breakfast on Sat, and the rest on Sun). 

We ended up having Thai for dinner, which hit the spot nicely.


I went for a 2.2 mile shakeout run down Four Mile Run. Fantastic, scenic route! 

I spent the rest of the day catching up with my friends. Lunch with Alanna (more Thai food), coffee with Alanna and our mutual friend William, and dinner with my friends Erika and Meg (Macaroni Grill; service was awful and the food was meh). So wonderful seeing everyone! 

On my way home, I read the most encouraging email from my friend Erin. To quote part of it:

"ok, seriously, speedy legs tomorrow. when your legs fatigue, which they won't, but hey, contingency plans, let your heart fill in the gaps. your heart is what got you here in the first place and what keeps you coming back for more. you're strong, you're trained, you've practiced running SEVERAL MARATHONS' WORTH OF MILES in order to run 26.2 tomorrow effectively and efficiently. promise. you can do this."

I fell asleep surprisingly easily, and only woke up once. No bizarre dreams either.


I went into this race feeling calmer than I have in the past. I hadn't run the race yet, but I seriously felt like I had already won. I think it's related to all of the support I received in the previous days and weeks. Also, I just had this gut feeling that this was it. Still, I listened to my pump-up music as I ate breakfast (millet porridge with dried raisins, craisins, and honey; coffee) and trekked to the start. I also ate a banana before the start of the race.

6:45am. Mass exodus of runners trying to get off of the Metro at Pentagon

Inside the Runner's Village trying to stay warm. (Side note: reusing the space blankets from previous races works quite well!)

Since I have a record of being horrible at pacing, I planned on starting with the 3:05 pace group. However, by the time I saw them in the corral, I couldn't make my way up there, so I started behind the 3:15 pace group. While waiting for the race to start, I realized that I put the fellrnr bracelet I printed on the wrong way, so I couldn't easily read the times on it. Typical me. Fortunately though, I had memorized the goal times for each mile.

Start-mile 4: Around 8am, the gun went off and we were on our way! I made the mistake of starting my Garmin six seconds early (when crossing the inflatable arches as opposed to the mat). I meant to stop and reset it, except I never reset it and didn't realize it until about a minute later (not quite sure). (In hindsight, I should've just lapped it, but oh well, live and learn.) At that point, I just started it and figured I'd manually lap it at the next mile marker so I could just go by the splits (I lapped it at mile 2 marker). I wasn't happy about this, but I knew it wasn't the end of the world (people have qualified for Boston without GPS watches, and "you can't control the elements; only how you respond to them") and I couldn't let myself get rattled over it. Guess it didn't matter that my pace bracelet was on the wrong way.

The first couple of miles were uphill, which I expected. For the first few miles (and for much of the race as well), I was focusing on running tangents (based on the way they map the course, you could end up running more than 26.2 miles if you don't take the inside curve on turns). I also remembered my friend Steven's advice that "You can't win a marathon in the first mile, but you sure as hell can lose."

Miles 4-5: Around mile 4, I could see Georgetown's campus and immediately felt a sense of nostalgia. Not that I went to G'Town, but it's a beautiful campus and the neighborhood is my favorite part of DC. We crossed the Key Bridge, went down M Street (major drag in G'Town), and toward Foggy Bottom.

Mile 5-6: Looped through Foggy Bottom, and onto Rock Creek Parkway. I had never set foot in Rock Creek Park or on the Parkway, so this was uncharted territory for me. The road was tree-lined and the trees were lush. It was like an oasis in the concrete - so close to the city, yet so far away!

Mile 7: I made some good headway, and had nearly caught up to the 3:05 group. I was tempted to pass them, because I was feeling bottlenecked, but I resisted because I remembered the trouble that got me into during Eugene '13. So I decided that it'd be best to run my own race, and if I had the energy at mile 20, surge past them.

Mile 8-9: Began trek down RCP toward downtown DC. Took Gu #1 (Vanilla Hammer Gel). Decided it tasted like cake icing. I should also point out that I saw the best signs of the race on RCP:

1. "Walking? Ain't nobody got time for that!"
2. "You run better than Metro." (If you've spent any time in DC, you're probably aware that Metro shutdowns/service interruptions are a regular occurrence.)
3. "You run better than the government."

Another theme of signs that cracked me up was the "Beat Oprah" theme. (Oprah ran MCM in 1994, and her time of 4:29:15 is STILL talked about.)

Miles 10-11: We went under the bridge near the Kennedy Center. My race still seemed consistent at this point. 3:05 balloons were still close, and my Garmin splits were pretty even. I had expected to see the DC Front Runners here, but I didn't. (It's possible that I heard chants of, "Go Front Runners!", which I probably followed up with a fist pump.)

Miles 11-13.1: Out to Haynes Point. I had run this before (as part of my long run the last time I was in DC), so I knew that this would be quiet. The Marines were handing out Clif Gus at mile 13, so I grabbed a raspberry Gu pack (Gu #2). Crossed the halfway mark in what I thought was my goal time. I was still feeling good, and the 3:05 balloons hadn't crept ahead.

Miles 13.1-15ish: Back toward the Mall. Nothing particularly exciting.

Mile 15ish-18: Passed the Washington Memorial (all coated in scaffolding), and continued toward the north side of the Mall. At mile 16, I was closer than ever to the 3:05 group. Again, I wanted to pass them, but I decided to leave the surge for the last 10K. (After all, "A marathon's just a 10K with a 20 mile warmup.") While running along the Mall, I heard, "Go Austin! You're looking great!" (Or something of the sort.) I turned and saw my friend Lavar. First familiar face I saw out there! 

Mile 18-20: My left hamstring started tightening up at mile 18. At this point, I had to tell myself, "You're doing great. You have less than a hour to go", as well as, "Run with your heart" (a line from Erin's super-sweet and encouraging email that she sent Sat night). So I fought back and quickly forgot about it. I also took Gu #3 (Chocolate Cherry Clif Shot) at mile 18. I figured that the caffeine (100 mg; equivalent to about 2 shots of espresso) would kick in around mile 20, just in time for the 14th Street Bridge.

Miles 20-22: Mile 20 marked the start of the bridge back to Virginia. Meg and Erika warned me that this would be tough (they ran the Army 10 Miler, and the bridge is mile 8-9 on the course), so I was somewhat mentally prepared. There was an incline, but I still managed to pass some people. It was such an odd feeling to be passing people at mile 20, but also a huge confidence booster. I definitely needed that, because the only spectators on the bridge were the Marines. I noticed the tightness in my left hamstring again, and thought of Erin's friend Ken, who recently fought through hamstring issues to run a sub-3:05 marathon. That helped me push those issues to the back burner. I hit mile 21 in under 2:30, so I knew that my chances of hitting my goal time were good. I also realized I had something to look forward to at every mile until the end (Alanna at 22, Gu at 23, Dunkin Donuts munchkins at 24, DCFR at 25, and the end). It felt so weird to be running on a freeway (excuse me, highway, because nowhere east of the Rockies seems to call them freeways). Soon after hitting mile 22, I heard Alanna scream my name, but I didn't see her. Thank God she's loud!

Miles 22-24: I was still passing people, and got more amped up with each kill (kill = person passed). However, the crowd around Crystal City seemed quiet, so I ended up motioning for them to cheer. Took Gu #4 (Honey Stinger) at mile 23, and in the process of opening it, part of it ended up on my glove. Oh well. Got my highly anticipated Munchkins at mile 24. 

Miles 24-end. This stretch led us back to the Pentagon (where we started), along the route that we took to the starting line, and up to the finish. I had some cramping in my hamstring again, but I was still making kills. I had also clocked a couple of sub-7 minute laps (lap = 1 mile, based on Garmin). By this point, I was confident I would set a PR (personal record), and pretty confident that I would qualify for Boston, so I was just floored. At mile 25, we went up an on-ramp onto the road where the race started. Somewhat of a hill, but I passed one runner and was trying to pass this runner with these shorts that resembled the Maryland state flag. Seeing the Marines between miles 25 and 26 was highly motivating. Again, I didn't see any of the DCFR, but it's possible that I heard them and acknowledged them non-verbally. After mile 26, all I could think was, "Where the hell is this finish line?" I eventually saw it...atop a hill. Seriously, a hill in the last quarter-mile? And bigger than Mt. Roosevelt at the end of the Chicago Marathon (CM)? Fortunately, the Marines were there cheering everyone on, so that helped. Once I got to the top, I turned right, and saw the finish line. The clock atop the finish line had just hit 3:05, telling me that my BQ was almost certain, so I just charged, and raised my fist in the air the moment I saw those photographers. (They also captured it on video. Fast forward to about 1:13.) I crossed the finish line and the clock said 3:05:2x (I didn't see the last digit), thus setting my sixth consecutive PR.

For more race photos, check out MarathonFoto's site, and look up Marine Corps Marathon 2013 and my bib number (14659).

I felt so stiff afterward, but felt like that was the most well-executed marathon I had ever run, and that there wasn't anything I could've done differently.

All of the Marines were lined up to shake hands, congratulate runners, and thank them for participating. I had to thank them for all that they do, because I felt as though they were more deserving of thanks than I was. Along the route to get the medal, they were handing out food, water, Gatorade, and these cool lightweight jackets (in lieu of the usual superhero cape). 

Sleeves, a zipper, and a hood!

One of them put the swanky medal around my neck, and then a photographer took my photo. After that, I was on a mission to find my time. I was nearly certain that I qualified for Boston, but I just wanted to confirm that. The walk to the baggage trucks seemed SO LONG, but eventually, I made it and got my bag. I dug my phone out primarily so I could get a picture with the Marines (something my friend Mark, who ran MCM in 2012, had recommended), and saw excited texts from my mom and Erin about my 3:04 finish. I was beyond stoked. So stoked, in fact, that after getting the photo that I wanted, I started playing Erin's voicemail (yes, she called as well), walked away, and only later realized that I left the bag with all of the food and recovery supplies at the baggage truck. (Lose some food (that I presume they'll just donate), gain a BQ... Yeah, I'll take the latter.) 

Anyway, I called Erin back, and I'm pretty sure I freaked out the woman in front of me when I yelled "Erin!" into my phone, and then we had our celebratory moment (after Eugene '13, I told myself that whenever I qualified, she would be the first one I called). She said that my splits were pretty even (which I thought was the case, but didn't know because my Garmin was unreliable for that.) While I was on the phone with her, I had to ask, "So what was my actual time?" She said 3:04:46. 14 seconds to spare; talk about a close call! While on the phone with her (and recalling the story of how I thought I heard Alanna from 50 yards away). I found Alanna (and the handmade, sparkly sign that she made and I didn't see) in the family reunion area. 

I changed into my post-race apparel of track pants, pullover, and Birkenstock clogs (poke fun all you want, but I had them long before I moved to Oregon, and they have orthotic benefits), and headed toward the Metro. Once there, I caught up with the Facebook posts, tweets, and texts that I received in the previous few hours. And then proceeded to document the end result on social media. (I'm sure everyone's delighted to no longer see the hashtag #mcmweekend.) 

While I was doing that, Alanna pulled up my splits and sent me the screen shot. Not only did I PR and BQ, but I ran the second half FASTER than the first. (Granted, it was only 34 seconds faster, but still faster, nonetheless.) Also, the unofficial rankings: Out of 23,526 finishers, I came in 342nd. Holy whoa!

I realized when we got home that my orange gloves were in that bag that I left at the UPS truck. Bummed, but they're perfectly replaceable. 

Post-race celebrations consisted of a salt bath, shower, splurge meal (burger, sweet potato fries, and Oreo milkshake), and celebrating with the DCFR. 

Rockin' the mock. And also completely oblivious to the French fries two inches away from my ear.


To simply put it, I was (and still am) floored. I could be mad that I missed my A goal of breaking 3:04, but given how long I've been chasing the Boston Qualifier, missing 3:04 just seems irrelevant. I just feel like I'm in a different class of marathoners now. In addition, I never thought I could run the second half of a marathon faster than the first. It just seemed like this fantasy that never happens. I'm also in shock that I finished in the top 2% of the third largest marathon in the US, because I never would've expected that. And to do it all in a city that means so much to me? All the more reason why MCM is "more than a race" and why I have a special place in my heart for MCM and DC.

Would I run MCM again? I think I would. Definitely not in 2014, but in some future year, I'd be open to running this race again.

Am I ready to think about what's next? No. I just want to sit here, savor this moment, and just enjoy running for what it is before jumping back into a training cycle. Until next time, mission accomplished.