I had an idea earlier this year: “I should think about trying to run the Marine Corps Marathon.”
Like many of the ideas I have, this one was of questionable value, but it happened this past weekend so I thought I’d write about how it came to fruition.
In truth, I’d always thought that, in the unlikely event I ever ran a marathon, I’d like it to be the MCM. The “unlikely event” part went away back in 2016 when I ran Rocket City, but I didn’t have any burning ambition to do another one. Then I saw that the Marine Corps had added a new race: the Marine Corps 17.75K (1775 was the Corps’ founding year). Finishing it granted automatic entry to MCM. I entered the lottery for the 17.75K and, to my surprise, got in… but the race itself fell on the same day as the funeral of my beloved Aunt Norma, so I didn’t get to run it. I begrudgingly entered the lottery for MCM, not expecting to get in… and then I did.
I strained a hamstring 2 weeks before the Chattanooga 70.3— so since late April, I have been intermittently unable to run more than a couple of miles. My coach has kept me on the bike to continue to keep my cardio base, along with some weight work, and the hammy seemed to be getting steadily better. Two weeks before MCM, I’d planned to run the London Royal Parks 13.1, which went swimmingly. I was encouraged that my hamstring didn’t hurt, and that I felt good during and after that race… to a point.
(skip the below if you’re not a runner or don’t care about running shoes)
See, last year I had a persistent, nagging problem with my right knee’s IT band. Skipping the boring details, let’s just say I eventually figured out that it was caused by my shoes, so I switched shoes but then started having a different problem with my calves. Welcome to distance running! I finally found a pair of Nike Structure 21s that seemed to work really well for me… until I started doing runs of longer than about 8 miles. Then I started having soreness in the outside of my left foot… so back to the shoe store I went, returning this time with a pair of On Cloudflow shoes. They seemed to work really well, except that after the London race I felt the calf pain returning. I waffled for a solid week before my coach finally suggested I run the marathon in them anyway, since they worked fine during the race. This seemed reasonable… after all, who cares if they’re sore after the race? That’s what I planned to do.
(ok, it’s safe to start reading again)
Coach Jon didn’t follow the usual gospel of having increasingly long runs as marathon prep— my longest scheduled run was 15mi, the week after London. I made it through 10 before my hamstring was bothering me too much to continue. For the 4 or 5 weeks preceding the race, I kept seeing people in the MCM group on Facebook talk about their 18, 20, 22, etc. mile runs and so I was a little nervous about being undertrained. However, I knew that, barring a serious injury, I’d be able to complete the race and cross the finish line, even if it wasn’t in the time that I had wanted, so I wasn’t unduly nervous (or so I thought at the time!)
Travel and arrival
My friend Ashley had deferred her MCM entry last year and decided that this would be her year to run it as well. Our mutual friend Erica came along as cheerleader and sherpa, so we loaded up the airplane on a cloudy Friday morning and set out from Decatur.
taken while the weather was still nice
We flew into Potomac Friendly (so named because it’s in Friendly, MD). I’ll do a separate Flying Friday post on the flight itself, which was the most difficult flight I’ve ever flown. The weather was, shall we say, not awesome, but I got plenty of solid time in IMC, all hand-flown because our autopilot is down for maintenance. I picked Potomac because it’s one of the so-called “MD3” airports that are closest in to downtown DC (the others being Hyde Field and College Park). Potomac is a small airport with a short runway, but it has inexpensive fuel and is a short drive from downtown (by DC standards). We parked the plane and then Ashley’s BFF Candice picked us up and drove us to the runners’ expo at the Gaylord convention center.
The expo was fun. Packet pickup was quick and efficient. Each runner got a clear plastic bag (to be used later for gear drop-off) with a mock turtleneck race shirt, a race patch, and a very nice printed race guide. All the major vendors and sponsors were at the expo, including Brooks (the main running-gear sponsor), Carb Boom (the nutrition sponsor), USAA, and so on. I managed to limit my expo spending to one T-shirt, one Christmas tree ornament, and one coffee mug, mostly because I’d already bought a race jacket directly from Brooks. There was a lot of other stuff I could happily have bought, though!
proud to say I had the only Waffle House shirt in the place— thanks, Anna
Candice suggested Succotash for dinner, and it was superb. The chicken and waffles were the best I’ve ever had. Portions were generous, which is good because it was fairly expensive. (Drink prices are ridiculous, a trend I noted throughout DC, but what are you gonna do.)
On the advice of my friend Ingrid, I’d booked a room at the Ritz-Carlton Pentagon City, because it’s easy walking distance to the start line. Thankfully I had stashed away enough Marriott points to get it for free. My expectations of the “Ritz-Carlton” brand name were sky high, so I was a little disappointed that the hotel is basically a nicer-than-usual Marriott property, not the oasis of luxury I’d pictured. The staff were extremely friendly and pleasant, and it was marvelous being right next to the Fashion City mall, which has both a DC Metro stop and a Starbucks.
The day before
There’s a tremendously active (and welcoming!) Facebook group for MCM participants, and they’d scheduled a shakeout run on Saturday morning. I took a Lyft over (funny story for another time about when Lyft thinks you’ve been in an accident in one of their vehicles) and met the group near the Smithsonian metro station. The weather was windy, rainy, and cool— low 50s— but it was a fun run anyway. I hadn’t brought any rain gear, so I was pretty drenched by the time we got done, but in a good way.
After another Lyft ride back to the hotel and a quick cleanup (and a giant coffee), we met up for a little sightseeing. First (because hello, have you met me?) we went to Port City Brewing to give them a try; after all, their motto is “We put the ‘ale’ in ‘Alexandria.’” Good beer and a nice atmosphere, but they didn’t have any food, which was a bit of a problem. Then it was off to Georgetown for lunch. Candice had suggested an Italian restaurant called Filomena. Let me just be clear and say that this was, unequivocally, the best-decorated restaurant I’ve ever been to and had the best Italian food I’ve ever had.
When you walk in the door, the first thing you see is the room where the pasta is made. In our case, that included an Italian grandma giving us malocchio.
Don’t mess with grandma
Besides the food, Filomena is famous for their elaborate holiday decorations. There’s a discreet little sign at the entrance cautioning parents that they may want to consider their kids’ maturity levels before entering the restaurant proper. Here’s a small sample…
at this point I was so hungry that no amount of demon decoration would spoil my appetite
The food! I ate a large plate of cannelloni with Italian sausage, plus what seemed like a loaf and a half of table bread, then the remaining half of Candice’s lasagna. I only stopped because I was in literal fear of bursting. This wasn’t just ordinary gluttony, of course; I’d had a very light breakfast and a late lunch, with the intention of having a big lunch and a very light dinner, all with a goal of not having to rush to the porta-potties on race morning. (Look up “ileal brake” if you want to know why this strategy works.)
Neither Ashley nor I wanted to do a lot of walking pre-race, so we drove over to the Navy Yard and explored a bit, then I made an early night of it— I watched maybe the first 15 minutes of the Saints game and then was out like a light, but not before doing one last gear layout to make sure Flat Paul was good to go:
Normally I don’t have race nerves. This time, I did, but not for any good reason; I woke up about 4a and tossed and turned for a bit, mostly just because I was excited. Then it was time to get up and get my race prep on. I’d already mixed up 4 bottles of Gatorade Endurance and stashed them in the room fridge, and I’d loaded up my belt with 7 Gu packets. I didn’t do a good job of prepping for breakfast though; I ended up eating a Payday bar, a protein bar, some applesauce from the runners’ expo, and a Gu. The DC Metro opened at 6, so promptly at 6 I was lined up for the turnstile and then took the train to the Pentagon station.
the first of many lines for the morning
The layout of the race is such that the start is on highway 110 between the Pentagon and Arlington National Cemetery. When I got off the train, I followed the giant herd of runners to the runners’ village, where I checked in the provided clear plastic bag of post-race gear. One neat thing about this process is that each race bib has a UPS sticker on the back with a truck number (mine was 19). To check your gear, you take your bag to the matching truck, then the trucks move to the finish area. Simple and quick. I had plenty of time to mill around the runners’ village, which was pointless since there was nothing there— so instead, I headed out to the start line area, another 10min walk away. It was a scenic walk, though.
For the first time this year, MCM was using a corral start, but they only had 3 corrals. I wanted to try to grab on to the 4:30 pace group and see how long I could hang on, but they were in the next corral up. Even though I got to the front of my corral, the polite yet firm young second lieutenants stationed there weren’t letting anyone move up a corral. (Somehow Ashley managed to sneak through though.)
my people at the head of the green corral
This positioning turned out to be pretty much perfect— to my left was a small tower. The event announcer kept up a continual patter leading up to the 745a start for the wheelchair and handcart division, which was immediately preceded by an MV-22 flyover. After their start, we had a few more minutes before the 755a main start, which was filled by another MV-22 flyover and two parachute jumps: one mass jump and one pair carrying a large American flag. Both were aiming for a blue smoke grenade, which was at the small tower near my position, so I had a great view.
Promptly at 755a, the starter fired the howitzer and it was race time.
Some race reports tediously go over every single mile. I won’t do that here (but you can see all the race data, my mile splits, and so on here if you’re interested.) Instead, I want to capture some impressions.
First, the crowd. As in London, I was running with and near people at all times, and it was amazingly energizing. The spectators were a spectacle in themselves. The variety and quality of supportive race signs, and the volume of cheering, far exceeded my expectations. Any time the course ran through a city area, the sidewalks were packed— the only time we didn’t have large crowds were when we were on the open road or a bridge. Take a look at the picture below, taken on Rock Creek Parkway, and you’ll see what I mean.
Second, the course itself. What a gorgeous tour of our nation’s capital.
Third, the wear blue Mile. Words can’t capture the emotions of running this part of the course. I took my headphones off and silently read the name of each fallen American to myself as I ran by, not in any particular hurry. It was a tremendously moving part of the course and I’m getting a little teary just thinking about it as I type this.
Overall, I felt really good for the first 14 or so, then started to flag a little coming out of Hains Point. My average pace got a bit slower, and in Crystal City (starting about mile 23) I took a couple of walk and stretch breaks.
And, of course, because this is the Marine Corps Marathon, it ends on a hill. Seriously.
A note on race gear and strategy
I have been really frustrated lately by my Stryd pod. When I use it with my Garmin Fenix3 HR, I get power dropouts just like I did with my Stages power meter on the bike. When I use the Stryd app on my Apple Watch, the pod often disconnects, and when it’s disconnected the app thinks you’re not running— so in London, the app recorded my run as 10ish miles. So I did what any reasonable person would do: I ran with both the Garmin and the Apple Watch. (And my phone, although that was for music and cheers.) This turned out to be a good strategy, because the Stryd app on the Apple Watch just flat-out stopped recording my run when I rebooted my phone, which I didn’t think it was supposed to do.
My original plan was to try and hold a steady power with the PowerRace app on the Garmin. This was torpedoed when I discovered the dropout issue. My backup plan was to set the Garmin to give me an alert if my heart rate went over 150 and then run based on that. I’d also set a 5:00 run/1:00 walk interval timer, just in case I needed it late in the race… but I didn’t, so that was awesome.
My original goal was ‘beat my previous marathon PR.’ My A goal was to go 4:30 or better. I didn’t quite accomplish that, mostly because I ran an extra mile. That’s right. I managed to turn a 26.2 mile race into a 27.2 mile race. At my average pace of 10:49/mile, that cost me just under 11 minutes. However, I also took lots of pictures on the course, stopped for a few stretches, and even drank some whisky, so I am not at all dissatisfied with how things turned out.
The finish line experience
After running up the aforementioned hill and through the finishers’ corral, each finisher is presented the coveted race medal by a Marine. I got a fresh-cheeked second lieutenant newly sprung from Quantico; he hung the medal around my neck, shook my hand, and called me “sir.” The corral dumps runners out at the base of the Iwo Jima monument, a perfect photo spot.
Ashley had finished the race before me (of course), but she found me for some photo opportunities.
Surprisingly, I had very few mobility or soreness problems immediately post-race. None of us wanted to walk around a whole lot, so after a badly needed hot shower and some coffee, we met fellow complete human Zach at Farmers Fishers Bakers, another excellent Candice selection, for a celebratory dinner. Once again, I was in bed by 8 and asleep shortly thereafter.
In the following days, I’m delighted to say that I’ve had zero hamstring pain, zero side-foot pain (except some mechanical wear on my toes—no lost toenails etc), and felt great in my recovery work this week.
Overall, I couldn’t have asked for a better experience. I am eager to run this race again next year.
Oh, right— I didn’t mention my finish time yet. 4:55:20, so a solid 14 minute PR. If I’d cut a few more tangents and taken a few less pictures, I could easily have gone sub-4:45, and with a bit more training 4:30 is within striking distance. That’s my goal for the Rocket City Marathon in December. See you there!