After a year’s hiatus from marathoning, I was ready to hit the road again. I’d had a string of nagging injuries. Between tendinitis and nagging foot pain my running had been limited to about 20-30 miles a week. I faced a dilemma though. Kris and I had plunked down money to enter last year’s Marine Corp Marathon. Since we’d already deferred once, we had to use ‘em or lose ‘em this year. Things fell into place when we
conned convinced my parents to watch the kids for several days for the race. How often do we have an opportunity to travel as a couple? I’d do the race on my hands and knees rather than pass that chance up!
During my extended recovery from tendinitis over the summer, I cross-trained and did a couple of triathlons. Starting in late June, I began to build more miles, wanting to see whether I could muster some long runs in between resting, stretching, and icing. I ramped to a 24 mile long run and introduced some short to medium interval work as race day approached. By then, I’d aggravated a foot injury. Wary of what a sensible medical professional might tell me, I decided to not to solicit their advice. Some of you are shaking your heads while reading this. Others are smiling and understanding. You know who you are.
The Art of Not Sightseeing
In a last-minute whirl of activity, we dropped the kids with my parents and left for our nation’s capital. We’d booked a room at the Mayflower, about five blocks north of the White House. This put us just a block from the Metro line, which was great for race day. It rained steadily both Thursday and Friday, which limited prospects for carefree couple-ish strolling through the attractive brownstone-lined streets. The monsoon-like rain also impacted our sightseeing. In Seattle, we usually have a serene mist-like rain falling continuously from October through June. On the east coast, they’ll often get a month’s worth of rain in about 11 minutes. We had to learn the art of sharing an umbrella as we plodded around town tenaciously sightseeing through the rain. Given our 13½ inch height disparity, this is no small matter. By the time the rain stopped on Saturday, we’d almost gotten the hang of it.
Many of the popular sights in DC are either closed for renovation, very crowded, or require you a special pass obtained from your congressperson. As we’d opted for the spontaneous approach (no advance planning), we spent our first carefree day in DC wandering wet and cranky, marveling at how crowded all the things we’d wished to see were, before leaving to gawk at the next unbelievably crowded attraction. We visited the outside of the National Archives and the espresso stand at the National Art Gallery before settling in for a nutritious lunch of raspberry sorbet and vanilla ice cream (another consequence of spontaneity was finding no open restaurants around the mall). In the end we did take in the excellent Edward Hopper exhibit while there, which made the accidental visit very worthwhile.
The rain cleared the day before the race. After taking in the Big Three at the National Archives (the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights), and enjoying a nice lunch, we got into a taxi to ride to the west end of the National Mall, so we could see the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial. We strode confidently out to the taxi stand and asked an angry-looking woman to convey us to the memorial. The fare structure for taxis in the District is unclear. Our surly driver somewhat randomly came up with a fare of $11.30 for two people to travel about a mile. This intrigued me. About a block later, I meekly asked “how did you get $11.30?”. Attila the Driver didn’t care for my inquisitiveness, so she invited us to leave the cab. Now. This afforded us the chance for an informal survey of other cab fares from the vicinity of the National Art Gallery to the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial. In all of the other cabs sampled (one), the fare was cheaper by $1.30. Subsequent cab fare research revealed that it cost $8 to go anyplace else in the city.
Getting to the Start
Back at the hotel, we rested for a while and laid our stuff out for the race. At around five o’clock, we headed out for dinner at a nice pasta place off of Dupont Circle. The trip on the Metro gave us a chance to enjoy the serenade of the escalators for the two-minute and eleven second ride to the surface. Depending on who you asked, they either sounded like seals, or saxophones performing Bartok’s Greatest Hits. We returned to the hotel, requested a wakeup call, set our bedside alarm, and my watch alarm. No point in oversleeping due to a power outage, massive civil unrest, or a deadly electromagnetic pulse. What are the chances that all three would happen the same night?
Running is one of the simplest things you can do. Having done eleven marathons before this one, I knew that my training and preparation would take me to the finish line. No pressure at all. So why couldn’t I sleep? By the time each of the three alarms went off the next morning, I was still awake. I felt pretty cruddy – sluggish and now worried about the race as we got ready and walked to the metro station.
Amidst the swirl of activity on the platform waiting for the Metro, I recognized Barbara and Ed Sobey. It was easy to recognize Ed, as he’d come dressed to rob a convenience store. We piled into the train, and rode to the Pentagon for the start. Upon arrival, it was clear why the organizers suggest arriving two hours before the race. There’s a lot of walking from the train, to the clothing drop and “runner’s village”. After seeing the lines for the fleet of private booths bearing the jaunty moniker “Royal Flush”, we decided to find our respective happy places first. Then we would go on to the clothing drop before ambling slowly to the start to stretch. However, our plans changed when Kris realized she’d lost her blue runner’s wallet while visiting the “Royal Flush”. It didn’t help that the wallet bore the same blue tint as Royal’s chemicals. We dashed to the front of the lines and asked people whether we could take a quick peek into each of the booths as one became available. Incredibly, Kris found the wallet on her second attempt. My wife is amazing!
The Early Miles
With about five minutes to spare, we jogged to the start, and made our way to the correct start corral. We began with a steady climb, heading up a highway in between the Pentagon and Arlington National Cemetery. Over the first three miles we would gain nearly 250 feet, not much at all by Seattle standards, but certainly not flat. The weather was perfect for running. Not too hot, not too cold, and no rain! I focused on finding my stride and settling in as we wound through the streets of Rosslyn. There was another small climb as through we crossed the Key Bridge into DC, and then turned north into Georgetown. After running a lollipop route around the Georgetown reservoir, we climbed some more as we progressed through mile 8. I was watching my splits carefully. The first few had been pretty slow, and I was pleased to note that I’d picked up a bit of ground. By mile eight I was on pace for a sub-4:00 time. As we ran southeast past the Watergate between mile 9 and 10, I’d settled into workmanlike splits between 8:25 and 8:40. I didn’t feel especially good, but when I’d focus on a steady cadence of about 82 strides per minute, with a decent forward lean, I’d end up a bit faster than I’d expected.
Middle Miles : Feeling Better (for a While)
The highlight of the course for me came as we rounded the west side of the Lincoln memorial and entered the mall. I took in the sights as we ran east along Constitution Avenue past the Washington Monument, the White House, and then past the Federal Triangle. We past the halfway mark just before turning past the Capital. My chip time was about 1:55 at that point, putting me on pace for around 3:50. I had little confidence I’d be able to hold that pace for another 13, but felt good that I’d put five minutes into the sub-4:00 bank. I began to feel better as we turned north and ran past the Smithsonian and mile 14.
Our time on the mall came to an end as we hit a sharp set of turns near the Washington Monument and the World War II Memorial. As we passed through mile 15, the Jefferson Memorial came into view. This gem is one of my favorites on the mall. Our country was founded upon a set of powerful ideas. Jefferson knew how to reduce these ideas into equally powerful words. The memorial has a small sample of Jefferson’s words inscribed on its walls. Whether you’re planning on visiting or not, reading through these inscriptions is time well spent (http://www.nps.gov/archive/thje/memorial/inscript.htm).
The trip south from the Jefferson memorial around Hanes Point reminded me a lot of running around Seward Park. You’re running south around a similarly-shaped peninsula, with the water on your left shoulder, and an occasional stiff headwind. I began to slow a bit as I ran through mile 18. By now the splits began feeling really hard. The trip east of Hanes Point was pretty, but by then I was struggling more. My splits were still looking pretty good, oscillating between about 8:25 and 8:40, but I was definitely feeling the cumulative effect of the hard surface (my long runs had all been on nice, soft dirt), and not enough strength work. About this time, Kris was also starting to feel the strain too, as she headed south on the other side of Hanes Point.
Home Stretch : Pounding it Out
At mile 19, we climbed a little to the Rochambeau Bridge, and crossed the Potomac back into Virginia. The bridge seemed to go on forever, undulating over the river, and then over other roadways. The temperature had climbed to about sixty by then. It was perfect weather to stroll easily around the mall, but about ten degrees warmer than I prefer for marathoning! The crowds were pretty thick and loud where the bridge landed us in Crystal City. It was great having that measure of support. But as I watched my splits slow by about 10-20 seconds per mile, I knew it was time to finish. I got to see Kris coming the other way when the course doubled back at mile 23. She looked very strong, but was apparently pretty wiped out by then too.
After Crystal City, we rounded the Pentagon, and then headed north towards Arlington into a steady headwind and slight uphill grade. In contrast to the rest of the course being fairly scenic, there’s nothing pretty about running up an interstate! Negative thoughts began to creep in. After pushing through the wind and the grade past mile 25, I conceded and walked a bit. By then my time goal was well within reach, but a PR was not. By then I could hear the crowds at the finish, and could see the final turn. But there was one final challenge.
Right around the 26 mile mark we turned and slogged uphill one final time, heading for the Iwo Jima Memorial. I shortened my stride, leaned forward and pushed (gotta look good for the cameras at the finish!). The final 285 yards were a level straightaway into the chute. I crossed the line just a shade under 3:50, very happy to be done!
It’s Hard to Leave
I shuffled through the chute, in a long line of people all heading for whatever food and water were to be had. The finish area was very crowded, involved a lot of walking, with progress hindered by a huge confluence of spectators milling about. I made my way to the reunion spot. After wandering about for a while, I heard a familiar voice hail me from the curb. It was fellow ESR participant Ed Sobey, who had had a pretty good race until being apprehended by a vigilante Achilles Tendon at mile 11. Ed and I shot the breeze as the crowd increased in density. Eventually other ESR folks Kris Solem, Joyce and Rod Brown, and Barbara Sobey joined us in the steerage section of the reunion area. It sounded like everyone enjoyed the course, but struggled a bit along the way.
After resting a while, we gingerly tried to get up and find a way back to our hotels. This ended up taking almost as long at the race! The line for the Metro snaked back and forth for a full city block (and wasn’t moving!). Every cab we saw was filled. Prospects for showers and naps grew dim before we were rescued by a local bus headed back into DC, by way of Cincinnati (a slight exaggeration, but we did get a pretty thorough tour of the suburbs before landing at the L’Enfant Plaza Metro stop to catch a train back to our hotels.
The Measure of the Race
Picking the proper venue to celebrate your race is right up there with selecting a good race wardrobe in terms of importance. A quick poll revealed zero enthusiasm for the great Ethiopian restaurant I’d picked out, the group seemed to favor margaritas instead. Realizing the importance of this task, I immediately consulted a subject matter expert (a local getting bombed at our hotel bar). Word was that presidents and royalty often order from Lauriol Plaza, up near Adams-Morgan. Our crack team of event planners swung into action, and quickly secured us a table waaay in the back corner upstairs where we would be less conspicuous (to the relief of the staff). Near chaos broke out when Ed Sobey offered to dance on the table for us, but he was quickly subdued by our helpful waitperson, Tylisa. She proved skilled at handling our unruly bunch, even breaking into song when our party reached near-fever pitch. Two pitchers of margaritas later, we all agreed that this had to be the best Mexican restaurant on the eastern seaboard. The food and service was excellent, and the memory of the wonderful smoky flavor of the salsa persisted beyond any analgesic effects from the drinks.
The measure of any race is a combination of your time and the overall experience. When people asked me about my race, my reply was “well – I got what I paid for”. My race time was as good as I could reasonably have expected. I had a pretty good time, except for the running part. A trip to our nation’s capital is always worthwhile. Some nice fall weather and time with friends were icing on the cake.