The Marine Corps Marathon 50K...whew, what a race!
Yesterday was the fourth time I toed the line in Arlington, Virginia at the Marine Corps Marathon. I ran most or all of the Marine Corps Marathon in 2014, 2015, and 2016, but I skipped the last two years just to mix up my race schedule a bit. When the fine folks at the MCM announced the 50K as an option this year, I did not give it much of a thought...until Sandra signed up. On that fateful day in February, I managed to access the website and enter my credit card information fast enough to clench one of 500 spots to run extra miles at The People's Marathon. (Eventually, the MCM opened up to a capacity of 1700 runners.) We trained in the heat and even ran a practice marathon (Sandra did two!), and we logged hundreds of miles together. Some days were better than others. Sometimes we ran great paces. Sometimes I needed to walk an entire mile in the middle of a training run. One time I had awful stomach issues out on the levee. We enjoyed many beers after Happy's runs on Tuesdays, and we made several trips to Smoothie King on weekend mornings to celebrate another long run. Race day was a long time coming, though the nerves started building when the race was only a few days away.
The MCM is famous for its unpredictable weather. There have been years when it was freezing cold and even snowing, but other years, it's unseasonably hot, which becomes problematic for runners who aren't acclimated to the heat. The start of the race was perfect as far as temperature goes, but it was raining just hard and consistently enough to be annoying. The Red Felt crew headed to the start area dressed in ponchos and garbage-bags-as-ponchos, and we had to wait about an hour in the rain for the race to begin. I was among the garbage bag wearers of the runners, and I cut the head hole in my garbage bag a little too big. By the time the race started, water was running into my garbage bag; I need to work on my bag cutting technique.
|Photo from my runner friend Maria! I'm in the white hat. :)
The 50K runners got a 25-minute head start on the marathon pack, but the 1500-ish of us spread out pretty quickly. Sandra and I didn't go into the race with any specific goal beyond finishing, but we stayed within sight of the 6:30 pace group for a while. We were not fast enough to outrun the fastest marathoners; somewhere between miles 3 and 4, the lead runners in the marathon began passing us. Running in a trash bag was about as awesome as it sounds (note for the future: it would have been better if we'd cut them a bit so they wouldn't stick to our legs) but every time we thought about shedding the extra layer, the rain would kick back up again. The rain stopped, restarted, stopped, rained harder, and let up a few times, and we decided to take off our trash bags before we did the separate segment that only the 50K runners had to do.
Around 4.7 miles, we did the extra 4.9 miles as an out-and-back, and there was a special aid station where the volunteers were handing out muffins! Some people complained that they were soggy, but I thought they were just easy to chew.
By the time we merged back onto the marathon course, we were behind most of the marathon runners. We had an added confidence boost from passing people as we ran through Georgetown and to the half marathon (13.1 mile) point for the 50K runners. The rain continued to go in and out, raining pretty hard on us at one point, but we trudged on. The wear blue mile was, once more, one of the most emotional experiences I have ever had during a race. Perhaps my memory is foggy, but it seemed like there were more signs with photos of fallen heroes than there had been in other years. What was staggering was the number of men and women who had been killed in action over the past two years. It was a sobering reminder that men and women who serve our country place themselves in harm's way constantly, but it also encouraged me to run harder for a moment. After taking time to reflect on lives lost, the next section of the course is lined with people holding American flags and cheering the runners on. I took the time to look up and smile at each person holding a flag, and I fist bumped/high fived quite a few of them. Though pictures can't do the moment justice, here are a few pictures from the wear blue website (I think they're from 2016).
Eventually, the sun came out, and the race heated up. As we approached the first gauntlet--mile 17 for the marathon, and mile 22 for the 50K--I could hear the drums in the distance pounding out rhythms for runners approaching the famous bridge. Unexpectedly, my eyes started filling with tears, but I quickly shifted my thoughts back to making the next turn. We still had a few miles to cover before we would run by the drummers; we turned away to head toward the Capitol. We passed the first gauntlet with 22 minutes to spare! The miles were adding up, but we stayed strong. We saw Ed out on the course around mile 23, and I stopped for a hug. I rammed my shoulder into his chin (oops) but he was a good sport about it.
Our next cutoff was the Beat the Bridge, which happened at 1:15 pm. Although there wasn't a Red Felt table before the bridge this year, there was plenty of crowd support with a group cheering, "BEAT THE BRIDGE! BEAT THE BRIDGE!" as we came around the corner. It's entirely possible that I yelled some profanity about beating the bridge to some enthusiastic spectators who roared back at me. The drummers were still pounding, and I felt my feet fall into their cadence. (Too bad I couldn't ever do that when I was in marching band.) I crossed the bridge feeling stronger than I ever had at that point in the race, even though I had five extra miles on my legs this year. It's amazing what some good training will do!
Sandra and I crossed onto the bridge about 25 minutes ahead of the cutoff time, and it felt like the entire pack shifted into slow motion at that point. We typically walk hills anyway, but there wasn't much space to run in this one because the pack was heavily concentrated, and almost everyone was walking. Practically out of nowhere, I started silently sobbing. Sandra looked at me, puzzled, and asked if I was okay. My response was something like, "Yeeesssss" (sniffle sniffle sniffle) "I just started thinking about when I got picked up by the bus five years agoooooooooooooooooo," and she said, "It's okay! We made it with plenty of time!" and I managed to wail, "I knoooooowwwww. It's just like.....training works. That's some good shit!" and she agreed that training is some good shit. Then, we laughed it out and kept going. The bridge is around 2 miles long, and it gets lonely out there. We did a bit of running when we could, but we had to bob and weave to move through the sea of runners who were hitting the wall.
When we got off of the bridge, Crystal City greeted us with baby bottles of Fireball, beer shots, and Fireball shots. There were also the regular water/Gatorade stations. If we thought the bridge was bad, Crystal City was impermeable. We speed-walked through the few miles of Crystal City, and the last two miles or so led us to the finish. At that point, we did a few more 1-minute run intervals, as we were hoping to finish under 7 hours. By this point, we were one of a handful of people still running at all.
Marketing for the MCM says, "Charge the District, beat the bridge, and take the Iwo." A cruel aspect of the MCM is the "take the Iwo" portion, which is a hill just past mile 26 of the marathon (around 31 miles for the 50K) that leads to the Iwo Jima Memorial. Sandra told me she was going to move to the right and try to run up the hill, so I said I would do the same. What happened, however, is that my inner Tasmanian devil came out, and I decided to blaze through the walkers on the hill (by "blaze" I mean probably run a 12-minute pace) and run through the finish line. I moved right, and Sandra moved to the other right (aka left), so we separated a bit and ended up with slightly different race times. For all intents and purposes, though, we ran the whole race together and had an awesome finish to our months of training. (Also, our watches both had us over 31.1 miles, so we ran over 31.1 miles together according to the Garmin gods.)
And that, my friends, is my tale of the Inaugural MCM50K.
Time I woke up: 6:40 am
Something that made today great: Seeing my best husband and best dog for the first time since Friday!