Seems like every city has a marathon these days, but few can beat “The People’s Race” also known as The Marine Corps Marathon in Washington DC. I paced the 3:10 group last year and this year had the 3:20 group. I flew on a Friday red eye after taking the day off and spending the afternoon in San Francisco with Nicole and Dylan. While in the city, we had to make a trip to Chinatown and visit a true hole-in-the-wall little restaurant named Sam Wo. We hadn’t been there in probably 15 years so it was a relief to see the place exactly like we left it, even with the same 1994 prices.
Normally, we travel everywhere as a family but this trip was so short that we decided not to have Nicole and Dylan fly out with me. Although last year we had the best time exploring the sites in DC, staying less than 36 hours this trip was just too much effort for too little time. But we will definitely be back. Nicole loves the big city life and I’m more of a Green Acres (mountain style) kinda guy but I think we will spend six months or a year of our life in the DC area when Dylan’s rapidly multiplying brain cells can really absorb the history.
After landing on Saturday morning, I met the team at the hotel for breakfast then tried to get a couple hours of sleep before walking over to The Mall and strolling the paths of The National Botanic Gardens under gray and wet skies.
There’s just too much to see in DC that you need a week not an afternoon, but that’s all I had. I had to work the CLIF booth at the Expo from 3 – 6 PM then we enjoyed a hearty pasta dinner and had the team meeting in the evening. After the meeting, I had a few hours so I grabbed my camera and went out for a night run through the city. These 90 minutes were amazing. The monuments impress during the day, but it’s a completely different experience in white lights and under dark skies. I tried to hit all the big sights. The empty streets are a welcome relief from the buses and cars during the day. I had forgotten to pack a tripod for the trip and this is a necessity for capturing those night images. Next time! Click here to view my pictures.
Sunday’s 5:15 AM wake-up call rang 15 minutes late which seemed to be the average among the other pacers. Mitchell Layton took pictures of us so we can have updated profile pictures on the CLIF Bar website. He’s a photographer for the Washington DC pro sports teams and with his two Nikon cameras and enormous lenses, he looked the part. During the subway ride over to the Pentagon, I talked to him and couldn’t believe when he said for just one game he’ll normally shoot around 1,500 pictures.
Compared with the cloudy, windy and wet weather on Saturday, the Marines ordered perfect conditions on Sunday. Clear skies and no wind. Unlike last year when we were sprinting to the starting line to make the cannon, this year we lined up with a good 20 minutes before the start. Two Osprey flew overhead and buzzed the crowd. There’s nothing like seeing a few hundred Marines in their fatigues to motivate.
Boom, that cannon sounds and the handcranks go. We have another 10 minutes and then the cannon fires for the rest of us and we are off. The first few miles of this marathon go through the city streets of Virginia before you run through the bright golden trees and fall colors and quiet woods and then cross the Potomac for another few miles along the river before reaching the Georgetown crowds. It’s a beautiful and peaceful part of the course. The miles were marked but often each mile also had two soldiers shouting the time as we passed. Everywhere along the course, every water station, the soldiers volunteered and worked, shouting encouragement to all the runners. For the next few miles, I shared stories with a runner who was doing his 65th marathon this year! This guy had already done 254 marathons in his life.
I had forgotten to ask the group to ignore their watches during the marathon and just follow the balloons. I had told them we would likely come in around 3:19:00 – 3:19:20 and to relax and trust the pace. Undoubtedly, there’s always some wise guy yelling in the pack, complaining each mile that the last one was too fast or too slow. And the last few marathons, you cannot trust the GPS. Having GPS is a wonderful aid, but more often than not it will report miles sooner than they are marked on the course. It is not 100% accurate (and neither are some courses). If you only relied on the watch, you may think you are running a 7:38 pace but you might really be running a 7:45 pace.
I had a huge group of 50 or more runners through the first half and out to the point along the Potomac River across from Reagan International Airport. The group ran strong back to The Mall where the crowds were deafening as we zig-zagged around the Washington Monument. At the Washington Monument, if you look left you can see the White House across the lawns. These are fun miles as we passed one site after another before leaving The Mall and saying goodbye to the Jefferson Monument and then crossed the Potomac River for the last time at mile 20.
And this is where this marathon can get tough. You have a couple miles on the freeway before entering Crystal City for the last few miles. Since about mile 15, I had a runner on my left shoulder in a red shirt shouting “Semper Fi!” each time we went past a Marine. He kept shouting “Semper Fi!” through Mile 18 and Mile 19. When I looked back I could tell he was at his threshold. Sweat poured off his head. Occasionally, he would gasp at the start of a stride. There was no doubt he had reached the wall and was trying to bust through. “Semper Fi!” he kept shouting. “Semper Fi!” He looked exhausted but he had that look in his eye and that strength in his voice. Man, I wanted him to hang on. I would turn around and say “Stay strong” and point my finger to my head and say again, “Stay Strong.” Midway on the bridge, we passed a spectator covered in a black robe, dressed as the grim reaper with a sign “The End Is Near”. A few of us had to smile. Then we made it across the bridge, a few had dropped back but many held together. The young man behind me on the left stayed strong as we entered Crystal City and the last few miles.
Mentally and physically this part can be so hard. The body has probably reached its limit. This section of the course is an-out-and-back so you can see the runners coming back. This can be both motivating and depressing. I would turn around and try to encourage the group with shouts of “Keep smiling. You guys are making it look too easy.” I’m not sure how they took it at that stage. The look on many of their faces was just a shut-up and how much further sort of glare. Then I heard it again, “Semper Fi!” Man this guy is good, I kept thinking. We passed the Pentagon, only 2 more miles to go. A few more dropped. I kept turning around and noticed him starting to slip ever so slightly from the group. So I stopped, turnaround one last time and shouted, “C’MON! You can do it!” Then headed towards Arlington Cemetery and the finish line at the base of the Iwo Jima monument. The final 100 yards was a climb into the cemetery, where friends and family scream for their runner and the soldiers line the course and cheer as you cross the finish. I crossed just after 3:19 and turned around and who is climbing the hill but none other than “Semper Fi!” in his red shirt. I gave him a huge high five and let him know how impressive his determination was the last few miles. Not bad for a guy that then tells me a year ago he was dealing with severe brain trauma. Unbelievable!
Had a great run this morning and I can’t say “Thank You” enough to all the Marines, for their service to this country, for their commitment to freedom and for all their encouragement out there this morning. Semper Fi.