After the Agony there was. . .well, more Agony, actually.

The 24th Marine Corps Marathon, October 25 2009

Final Time: 4:19:28

The really important lesson I learned is that it is a helluva lot easier to do a marathon after you’ve already done one.  I felt a lot more prepared, both physically and mentally for Marine Corps this year than I was for Richmond last year.  I thought I was well prepared last year, and this year showed me how far I fell short of that goal.

Phase 1: Loitering with Intent

Before the race, I’d talked with Margie Shapiro, one of the coaches at Potomac River Running about race strategy.  I’d run roughly the first 8 miles of the course, and I knew there was a lot of up and down.  In particular I was a little concerned about the fact that the first 2 miles were all pretty steeply uphill.  When you are doing a marathon you don’t want to waste a lot of your energy in the kind of warmup you would normally do for a shorter race; the last thing I wanted to do, however, was pull a muscle going up or down that first hill.  Margie suggested a brisk walk and wearing a lot of warmer-than-usual clothing for as long as possible before the start.

So I walked from our place to the race start (about 25 minutes or so) wearing oversized op-shop sweats that I had acquired for Richmond last year (but didn’t need because the day was a sauna).  It was pitch dark, and I had the streets almost to myself until I crossed the parking lot leading to the access tunnel under the 395.  I could see a few people walking across the Pentagon South lot and I followed them thinking that the crowds weren’t as bad as I had expected.  Then we reached the Pentagon Metro.

There was a dense river of humanity flowing out of the exit, more people than I have ever seen on the Metro with the exception of New Year’s Eve.  I joined the huddled masses yearning to experience pain and suffering and we circumnavigated the Pentagon toward the race staging area, a process which took an unexpectedly long time.  That is one big building!

It was just starting to get light when we reached the Runner’s Village.  I dropped off my finish line bag, then joined the line for one of the many portaloo installations located around the parking lot.  The line moved pretty quickly, not surprisingly, because when I looked around it seemed as if there was one portaloo for every single racer.  I’m sure that if there was another event taking place somewhere in the region today they probably had to make do with holes dug in the ground.  After nearly leveling someone with the door of the portaloo as I exited, I stretched, and then ditched the sweat pants in the parking lot (some time passed between these last three actions, just to make that clear!).

The PA instructed us to start making our way to the start line, and it was as I walked along 110 that I began truly to get a sense of the scale of the race, as I passed each of the starting corrals labeled according to projected finish time.  There were so many!

It was, as expected, going to be a gorgeous day weather-wise.  Not a cloud in the sky, and temperatures staying in the 50s until well after midday.  There was a bit of wind, but nothing that you’d notice in the middle of 22,000 people (where, of course, you might have to worry about another kind of wind, particularly if people’s nutrition wasn’t sitting well with them!).  The race commentator began revving up the crowd and the runners and asked us all to introduce ourselves to our neighbour.  I met Dave, who was running his first marathon.  An ex-marine, he was understandably excited and a little emotional about this race; he’d also vowed that he would run a marathon when he turned 50, so this was something of a life-goal for him.

The wheelchair racers were sent on their way and I took a pre-race gel.  Then the PA announced that Marine Corps Ospreys would be doing a fly-by.  This got me almost as excited as the prospect of starting the race.  For those of you who aren’t an aircraft geek like me, the Osprey is, technically, a plane, but its two engines swivel to allow it to take off, land, and fly like a helicopter.  Then it is able to transition to normal forward propeller motion while in flight.  It’s a tough trick to pull off, from an aeronautical engineering point of view, and when I finally saw the two aircraft it was with mixed emotions because a lot of pilots were killed in the early testing phase of the Osprey.  We saw them once in helicopter mode, and then once in a low-level flyover in normal configuration.  Unfortunately, we didn’t see them actually transition.  That would have been cooler than the race itself.

Five minutes to go, and the crowd pushed forward.  Both lanes of the 110 were packed with people, and the air was suddenly filled with a blizzard of discarded clothing, water bottles, bags, and a variety of food containers.  I pitied the marines and supporters who were walking up and down the median strip; you would definitely want to have body armor for that assignment.

Phase 2: It starts with a bang

The starting howitzer barked (I love races that start with actual artillery; this is my second consecutive one; the Patrick Henry half marathon started with a replica cannon that almost caused me to crap myself), there was a plume of smoke in the distance, and we were off.  Which is to say that we started walking.  After several minutes we began running. . .for 20 metres and then it was back to walking again.  We eventually crossed the start line about 8 minutes later but, thankfully, by that point, we were indeed running.

My target pace was about 9:10, give or take.  So for the first 2 miles I backed off that, to almost 10 minutes.  When I had run this portion I had run up the right side of Lee Highway and I was pleased to discover that we went up the left side since this was not as steep and included a little downhill recovery portion in the middle.  When we turned on to Spout Run, I didn’t push it at all, just letting gravity carry me down.  However, that portion was pretty damn steep so without even trying I just about evened up my account.

When we made it across Key Bridge I began to be conscious of the crowds.  They were huge!  People cheering and shouting, it was all a little overwhelming.  As we left them behind temporarily and moved on to Canal Road it seemed to me that Fall had suddenly decided to ramp up in the last couple of days while I wasn’t looking.  It seemed as if all the trees were red and gold, each sharply defined in the early morning light (it was hard to believe that it wasn’t yet 9am).  Several people nearby said that this stretch made them feel as if they were running in a nature preserve.  As we turned up the incredibly-steep-but-mercifully-short Reservoir Road hill, Dave, a new Team Zer caught and then passed me; it was on this stretch that we also caught and passed the tail end of the wheelchair field.

I felt I was running really well, by this point.  I was sticking to my goal times, I felt relaxed, I was focused, no muscle aches and pains of any kind, breathing well.  I was taking Sustain every couple of miles, and an extra endurolyte tablet every four miles.  I’d reset my Garmin so that it was only showing me distance and average lap pace.  While training to my HR has been invaluable, I’ve found in previous races that if I see my HR I sometimes get locked in a bad kind of feedback loop where I get anxious, and that raises my HR, which makes me more anxious. . .  you get the idea.  I’d practiced racing with just a pace goal and it had worked pretty well, so I was feeling confident.  I’d also set my lap split to every two miles rather than every mile, so that it would even out the rises and falls and I wouldn’t be tempted to micromanage my pace.  So here is the data I pulled from my watch at the end:

Mile Time Pace HR
2 19:53 9:57 148
4 17:46 8:53 151
6 18:16 9:08 152
8 18:36 9:18 151
10 18:07 9:04 150
12 18:17 9:09 151
14 18:36 9:18 153
16 18:23 9:12 156
18 18:48 9:24 158
20 19:58 9:59 156
22 20:41 10:21 155
24 23:19 11:40 150
16 23:13 11:37 148
HR Zone2=130-139, Zone 3=140-153.

Phase 3: Uh Oh

As you can see, things went just swimmingly through mile 16.  This took us all the way around Haines point and even though this is the part that most people seem to think is pretty boring, I was always conscious of what a glorious day it was, and how beautiful was the scenery.  I can’t say I stopped to smell any roses, but around Haines point I did stop to piss on some.  I’m reminded of Jeff Goldblum’s character in The Big Chill: “I love nature.  It’s like one giant toilet.”  Let’s just say that if I were a parent I wouldn’t let them play anywhere along the edge of Spout Run or Canal Road.  At least not until after the next big rain.

By this stage some of the wheelchair athletes were catching us again after struggling on the early hills.  What really impressed me was the courtesy that people showed.  A group of runners would start yelling “Make a lane!  Wheels coming through” (ex-military, obviously) or “Make a hole” (from the coffin service?) and this mass of people would part and leave a gap in the middle.  It was quite amazing.

Then we were onto the Mall, a part of the race I’d really been looking forward to.  However, it was at this point I began to be aware that everything was not well in the Kingdom of Mullen.  The citizens were definitely getting restless and rebellion was a-brewing.  I was still feeling pretty good, muscle-wise, and I felt as if I was still running well, but my pace was definitely beginning to slip, and there didn’t seem to be anything I could do about it.  I was getting flavor (or lack-of-flavor) burnout from the Sustain by this point; I took in some of my last flask, tried to finish it and involuntarily spat it out.  I was starting to cramp a little around the middle.  A hot spot on the bottom of my left foot had definitely blistered by that point.  I was pushing on regardless, but was always conscious of it and it was probably throwing my form off a little.

Still, helped by a little downhill stretch to the Capitol I managed to keep it reasonably together.  But you can see that by mile 18, my pace was falling and my HR was rising (I didn’t know that, but I could feel it).  Mile 18 brought two kinds of relief.  According to plan, I switched over to coffee-flavored (therefore, caffeinated) Hammer gels.  Hammer gels are so thick that it was lying drinking Turkish coffee; a little awkward in the middle of a race, but there are worse things!  The second form of relief came in the form of my blister bursting.  You know how even the tiniest stone in your shoe feels ten times its size?  Well, imagine the sensation of a ripe, juicy grape bursting inside your shoe.  But I ran a little easier afterward.

At mile 20 I caught sight of Alison, who had agreed to run the last 6 miles with me.  I was desperate to see her; in fact, and I was so scared that she hadn’t seen me that I’m ashamed that I snapped my fingers rather peremptorily at her.  But she had seen me, and clutching a water bottle in one hand and busily texting with the other, she joined me as we started our assault on the 14th street bridge.  Holy crap but that sucker is long, almost 2 miles.  And while it is exposed, the temperature was still pretty cool and I don’t remember there even being any wind.  I’m actually pretty proud of the way I ran the bridge, because I fought for it.  I’d slowed to 10 minute miles by 20, but despite the gradient of the bridge I didn’t hemorrhage too much more time.  Alison’s encouragement was really important, and so was the fact that it was at this point that we started passing a lot of people walking.  My biggest problem, however, was that I would occasionally get these stabbing pains in my abdomen, like someone had knifed me; the pains would be so sudden that they would literally stop me in my tracks.  This happened once just after I joined Allison, and then once more about 2.5 miles later.

Phase IV: It ends with a whimper

By the time we came down the exit ramp off the bridge, however, things were breaking down all over the place.  Alison and I were joined by Diane who kept pace with us through the madness of Crystal City.  There was a bit more wind in the concrete canyons, but I all I can really remember of my surroundings was an impression of constant noise.  The world was pretty narrow for me at that point.  In fact, I probably wouldn’t have even noticed Mary if Alison and Diane hadn’t pointed her out.  She was leaping up and down, screaming like a crazy woman.  In fact, her leaping was downright impressive; Diane and Alison were both of the opinion that her next athletic endeavor should be pole-vaulting or the high jump.  Drew jumped in with us near the mile 24 aid station, dressed in street clothes and clutching a large coffee, oblivious to the fact that most of its contents were slopping all over his hand.  It was really great to see him as well, and reminded me of when he jumped in with me at Richmond and ran a cruel mile with me when I was really starting to hurt around 14.

Drew and Diane hopped out soon after, leaving Alison and I to continue the long final stretch up the 110 toward the finish.  I walked briefly after mile 25, chiefly so I could save some energy for the uphill finish.  Alison and I hit the last aid station. . .and that was the last I saw of her.  One moment she was heading off to get water, and then the next she had disappeared.  (That must be the Bermuda Aid Station, because Alison later told me that she lost our friend Amy at exactly the same point the year before).  I reached the climb up Iwo Jima hill, and charged up.  And I mean charged.  It wasn’t so much that I was thrilled to be at the finish, because I couldn’t even see the finish.  I was just so sick of running on the flat that the hill just felt really good; for a brief moment I felt in sync again, and passed a ton of people.

And then it was over.

But it took quite a while to register.  My immediate concern was staying warm, so I grabbed a space blanket, and walked up to the half dozen chutes where people were queuing up to have their medals handed to them by a second lieutenant.  And it was at that moment that I felt the only really strong emotion of the day.  Looking up the chute at the young officer (looking very young) ahead of me, the Iwo Jima memorial behind him, I found myself tearing up.  This marathon is not quite like any other.  Throughout the entire race, all around me were people running with a variety of signs, labels, and sometimes specially printed shirts, with the names and/or photos of dead servicepeople in whose memory they were running.  And there were so many of them.  We’re engaged in this bizarre war that is largely invisible to most Americans, and each of those runners was a reminder that the war had come all too close to home for someone.  And as I prepared to get my medal, from this kid, all I could do was wonder if he too, would join the ranks of those not coming home, to become a photo on the back of someone’s shirt, in next year’s race.

There were all the formalities: finisher line photo, drink, a bag of food, and then we were trudging toward the finish line festivities in nearby Rosslyn.  That was a long walk.  However, I’m very glad the race was organized that way because it almost forced you to keep moving.  I hated it at the time, because every muscle in your body is screaming at you to sit down, get off your feet.  And I noticed a lot of people around the memorial itself who had just dropped to the ground, wrapped in their space blankets, and fallen asleep.  Bad move.  You have to keep moving, get the blood circulating, and although my body resisted it, the trudge to Rosslyn is one of the major reasons I didn’t feel anywhere near as bad as I expected the next day.  I changed into some warmer clothes, caught the bus back to Crystal City and walked home.

Things I’m Most Happy About

1. The Event.  I would recommend this marathon to anyone and would love to do it again some day.  Flawlessly organized, massive crowd support, plus it appeals to the part of me that likes taking control of areas of the city normally completely dedicated to cars.

2. Executing my race plan.  Until the wheels fell off around mile 18 I did exactly what I had planned to do.  I didn’t fight the course at the beginning, let the hills come to me, settled quickly into my goal pace, and kept it steady.  Whether or not it was the right race plan is open to question.

3. My consistency.  You get a better sense of how consistent I was during the first part of the race if you look at the official race splits:

5K=29:35; 10K=58:18 (28:43); 15K=1:27:00 (28:42); 20K=1:55:49 (28:49); 25K=2:24:44 (29:05); 30K=2:54:16 (29:28). . .and this next part is where it gets ugly.  35K=3:26:40 (32:24); 40K=4:03:36 (36:54). . .
Moreover, the consistency of my HR suggests that I was running at a consistent effort level, and moderating that according to subtle changes in the course without too much thought.

4.  The Fourteenth Street Bridge.  I’m happy that I really fought my way through this.  I ran the whole thing when so many people around me were walking, and wasn’t fazed by the initial climb and the dispiriting length of the thing.

5. My early pace.  It has been a struggle for me to really believe that I could sustain a pace higher than my comfortable zone 2 pace for any length of time, and I finally proved to myself that I could.

6.  Better than last year.  OK, so the conditions in Richmond last year were apocalyptically awful.  And for a marathoning newbie they were soul-destroying.  I had expected to do better than this year.  Still, improving by 20 minutes over last year is nothing to sniff at.

7. Physical Condition. I was in much better shape for this race, thanks to all the training with Team Z.  Muscle-wise, I didn’t experience any pain in my legs until mile 24, when I started to feel my quads aching.
8.  Finishing. Last, and certainly not least.

Lessons Learned

1.  Going out too fast? I had realized that my target pace would have put me in zone 3 for most of the race.  However, my HR shows that I spent the better part of 3 hours in high zone 3 tipping over into zone 4.  One reason for my collapse, then, seems simply to be that I went out too fast.  It would have been much better to be doing the race in low to mid-zone 3, so perhaps a target pace of something like 9:20 might have been more appropriate.  Still hard in the final stages, but possibly sustainable.

2. Pace setting. I need to rethink the way in which I arrive at my goal pace for long races like this.  All of my training had suggested, and my PRR coaches agreed, that my goal pace of 9:10 was reasonable.  But perhaps on the day it wasn’t.  So maybe my training paces don’t translate into goal race paces in quite the same way as other people’s?

3. Blister issues. This is an interesting one.  I have great shoes.  And they have never, ever produced even a hint of a blister or hot spot.  Not when running hard at interval training, on the long marathon prep runs, or in a half marathon in heat and humidity.  But somehow, something to do with that marathon pace produced blistering.  And yes, I wore the socks I trained in, the Belaga’s, which have been great.  It may simply be that I need to tighten up the shoe on that side.

4. You can never have too much body glide. I Body Glided pretty much every part of my anatomy and was really comfortable for the entire race (the only “injury” being a scrape on my collarbone causes by rubbing of the zipper of my tri-top.  But Mary told me (after the race, natch) that she also applied body glide to her feet.  I wonder if that would have helped with the blistering?

5. Rethink nutrition? I was definitely carrying enough nutrition (based on calories for my body weight, etc.) and was using everything that I had trained with for the last couple of months.  I’m not totally convinced, however, that the Sustain is working as well as it could for me.  I had mixed it to about 1.5 times strength (and therefore took the Sustain with a little extra water at each stop)  to get me through 3 hours, at which time I would switch to gels.  And on long easy bikes and runs I can take Sustain with no problem, although I definitely start to get sick of it by about the 3 hour mark when running, hence the switch in race plan.  But somehow, running at a high intensity, it doesn’t feel as if it processes as well as it should.  This is a hard thing for me to really explain.  I don’t have any horrendous GI issues, I don’t feel bloated or overly full.  But somehow, it just feels different when I’m working at a higher intensity.  It feels like I am not getting as much energy from it, that’s the only way I can explain it.

6. Respect the distance. As I said in another post, my goals for this race really changed after signing up for the Ironman, and I think that was a sensible adjustment.  But I also think that in my mind I was thinking that since I had signed up for an Ironman that this was “only a marathon.”  There is no “only a marathon.”

7.  Psychological Discipline. Mentally, I’ve usually been pretty strong in races, even when things have gone wrong and/or the conditions have been horrendous.  (And those of you familiar with my races in previous years know that I’ve had a lot of practice with those scenarios!).  But I think my mental strength is honed to deal with things that go wrong when I can actually understand why something is going wrong.  In this race, the speed of my collapse took me by surprise, as did the fact that in the initial stages it still felt really comfortable but I was slowing rapidly for some inexplicable reason.  Very possibly I also don’t have the mental strength to push through that kind of pain and discomfort.  Something tells me I’m going to need to develop that.  First step?  100m of continuous swimming in the pool.

8.  Just not a marathoner? I know this sounds odd.  I’ve completed two marathons.  The first one was a grim sufferfest that I still kinda enjoyed.  This last one I really enjoyed.  But I just don’t think I’m a “marathoner.”  I used to think that I was built for endurance.  But one of my biggest revelations when doing track workouts was that I have great speed over very short distances (i.e. 200m).  Since that revelation, I’ve begun to suspect that I’m actually a sprinter struggling valiantly to become an endurance athlete.  That said, I feel my sweet spot for running is the 10mile to half-marathon distance.  The distances are short compared with a marathon, but long enough that I can use my intelligence and discipline to be reasonably competitive.  Is that just a temporary stage on the way to marathoning greatness?  Or will marathoning always be a struggle to complete something for which I’m not ideally physiologically developed?

Postscript: Reason to Run

On the bus from Rosslyn to Crystal City I sat next to a guy, George, from somewhere in Pennsylvania.  He said this was his 6th Marine Corps Marathon.  Each year he does this race.  And this is the only race he does.  No other marathons.  No other road races of any kind.  I asked him why he started, and he said that he used to be in the Marines.  Their unit had been deployed to Iraq and within a week of arriving one of their pilots was killed in the air, shot through the neck by ground fire.  George said that he wasn’t in Iraq, his job was back in the US notifying families of the killed or injured, making sure that they had support, etc.  He repeated several times that it was hard because, as the casualties mounted, he was in the rear.  And he said “Finally, I decided that I just had to do something with all this. . .”–it looked as if he wanted to say “anger”–“energy, so I started training for a marathon.  For this one special run.”

I thought back to David, that I had met at the start of the race, running to celebrate his 50th birthday.  The odd feeling that I was left with at the end of the day was this: why am I doing this?  What is my reason for running?  It has become something I just do.  Sure, I enjoy it, but training seems as natural to me now as breathing.  But I can’t help feeling that I’m going to need something a little more compelling than some watered down Nike slogan to help me through 140.6 miles.

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2 responses to “After the Agony there was. . .well, more Agony, actually.

  1. Mark,
    That was a marathon of a race report, excellent. So much detail and such insightful lessons learned.
    Two things come to mind. It seems you raced harder than most of your long runs. Not sure how many calories you took in, but perhaps it was enough to sustain your training pace, but not your race pace. You’ll burn calories faster in Z3 than in Z2. Second. I believe the HR training we use takes 7 years to bear full results. Not sure if you were training like this before Team Z, but you (and I) have a ways to go to get the full benefits of our training. again, great race, 20 min improvement is really significant, congrats.

  2. Thanks for the suggestion, Chris. I’ve been HR training for the last 4 years? 5 years? Damn, I’ve completely lost track! And I have seen some definite gains in terms of the zones shifting the last time I was tested. I’ll definitely get tested again before the ironman training ramps up in a serious way.

    That’s an interesting point about the nutrition. I’ll do more research, get more advice and see what changes I can make. I’ll definitely be applying the lessons learned here toward Shamrock next year.

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