I ran my 7th marathon this past Sunday at the 39th Marine Corps Marathon. With an official time of 3:52:44, it certainly wasn’t my fastest – but it also wasn’t my slowest! That award still goes to Boston 2014.

We were up bright and early as usual for an early pre-race breakfast of oatmeal with banana before catching the metro to Pentagon station. I put a couple temporary tattoos on – on one arm, a heart that said “never never never give up” and a colorful cupcake on the other. Fitting for me, I thought!

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This race is called “the people’s marathon” and now I think I understand why. Yes it’s a race and yes there are winners and runners caring about times as with any road race, but it had a very different feel compared to every other marathon I have run.

First, there was no elite field. I saw all the front runners fly past me during the first out and back section and I spotted one well-known runner (Michael Wardian), but most of the big names weren’t there, likely because they are running NYC this weekend. But also because the focus clearly was on us normal folk!

Second, it’s put on by the marines. They are out there lining the course, manning the water and aid stations, running with you, encouraging you up that brutal hill to the finish line, congratulating you, placing medals around your neck, and giving you neatly boxed post race goodies and bags to put everything in (finally – a bag – that’s always the thing that you need at the finish that no race gives you, so you are left trying to carry an armful of food items and bottles as you stagger down the never ending finisher chute). Oh yeah – and parachuting into the start! What a spectacle – clear skies, with dozens of people in the air. A very inspiring way to start the race!

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Lastly, there were no corrals. I am so used to big races that require you get into specific corrals by a certain time. It was a completely different type of start. We were on a large road near the Pentagon (where we would run again much later right before the finish), with signs on the side of the road posting expected finish times that were meant to guide you in placing yourself in a general area where you felt you should be. Left up to the people! It meant E and I got to hang out together until right before the 7:55 start. I put myself in the 3:20-3:39 area given I was originally aiming for 3:39, although clearly people weren’t following these signs very closely. I started out pretty slow and still had to pass a very large number of people.

The course was much tougher than I expected, hence my slower than planned time. This was mostly due to the sun (though there were some lovely long shaded stretches in the beginning) as well as the wind, which was quite fierce at times, especially on the never-ending bridges. Also, I wasn’t mentally prepared for all the hills. Sure it was no Boston or NYC, but it was NOT a flat course. I knew there were some hills in the first few miles but I thought they’d help me keep the pace nice and easy – they were actually quite steep and exhausting. They made me realize that I really needed to be aiming for a 3:45 pace and speed up later on as able (turns out, I was not able). There were some nice downhills in return and some very long flat stretches in the middle miles, but that was of course when the sun and wind came in.

E and I stumbled across this amazing video the night before the race. Don’t embarrass yourself” in front of the marines and “pain reminds you you’re alive” definitely crossed my mind many times!

I tried my best to pace conservatively and keep myself feeling well enough that I could appreciate and “enjoy” the run. Despite these efforts, I still felt pretty crummy – my shoes ended up not working out (so long, Saucony!), and I could hardly stomach my last three Powergels, even though I had practiced with them.

As you would expect from the marines, everything was extremely well organized. Sure, I had a few criticisms, such as the very long walk to the runner’s festival from the metro station in the dark (well over a mile plus another walk to the start), although maybe that was purposeful. It did kind of feel like a march. And I was shocked by how infrequent water stations were – every 2-3M (3M apart miles 10.5-16.5)?! Especially on such a warm day. But overall, the marines did a great job, and I can understand why it’s such a popular race. The course is beautiful, including major DC sites and many lovely parks, the spectators are very supportive, and there’s plenty of inspiration all along the way between the signs you see and the runners around you with pictures of lost loved ones.

Perhaps on a cooler day the infrequent water stops wouldn’t have mattered quite so much but given the warm temps this was challenging for me. I normally carry my small amphipod to save time in crowded early water stations and chuck it when the water runs out. However, in this race, it was so warm and the water stations so spread out that I made a game time decision to stop at all water stations, sip the bottle only between them and then refill my bottle whenever it was empty so I could continue this. I refilled it four times, which slowed me down but I realized I needed to keep sipping to stay hydrated. I also became good at unscrewing the top and dumping two cups of water into my bottle (the stations were quite long) while continuing to run.

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Thankfully, I had my own personal cheer team (E’s parents) spectating at miles 11, 15 and 17, and E’s cousin at mile 19, to help keep me going and take some great action shots. E’s cousin gave me water and ran with me briefly as I told him I was having a really tough race. That’s when he told me E was “just five minutes behind” me, which lit a fire under my feet. I couldn’t let him beat me! That didn’t last long as just up ahead was the infamous 14th st bridge (aka “beat the bridge”). I was convinced E was still on pace and almost stopped a few times to wait for him, thinking we may as well run together, but I realized that meant more time until I reached the finish, so I scrapped that idea. Besides, I half expected him to tap me on the shoulder and pass me!

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Good news for me, that didn’t end up happening (haha!). Turns out we were both right on pace (E for sub 4, me for 3:45) up until 30k – that damn never-ending bridge – that’s where we both lost it! You can see it on my splits above. I finally spotted E a few miles later, in one of the last out and back sections of the course. It was a nice lift for us both!

After that, I realized I had no choice but to put my head down and grind it out. I started to repeat to myself, “Relax. Breathe. Focus.” It helped compartmentalize all the pain and discomfort, so that I could bring my attention to simply moving forward. One mile at a time. Once I regained my focus and motivation, running began to feel a little easier and my pace began to pick up back to sub-9. I reminded myself that I didn’t have anything to prove to myself, but I was happy to finally be regaining some of the fight that I normally have inside of me, propelling me to the finish.

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The infamous hill at the very end was brutal – a big sign on the ground said “marine up” as I faced the last climb, and so I did. I conquered that hill, I sprinted to the finish, and I relished my accomplishment as a marine flashed a big smile at me and hung an incredible, huge medal around my neck. Not my strongest race – but still something to be proud of nonetheless. Who knows how much longer my body will let me run for so many hours – I’m grateful for every opportunity I get.

Surprisingly, I still placed quite well: 2,617 of 19,661 total finishers, 623 of 8,578 female finishers, and 145th in my division. I guess I wasn’t the only one who had a tough race! Check out my Garmin results here.

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The walk to the family meet up area to meet E’s parents was LONG and painful. By the time I made it though, I was starting to feel better and could feel the runner’s high really set in. E turned up shortly thereafter and we hung out in the sunshine while exchanging race experiences. Neither of us had the race we wanted, but we were still all smiles. It was nice to do a race “together” again – to share all those emotions and physical highs and lows that accompany the marathon.

The line to get into the metro was very long, but it moved quickly. We both regained our appetite faster than usual and ended up at a Chipotle for steak burritos and Baskin Robbins for ice cream on our way home, rather than hold our for a nicer, big marathon dinner. I’m slightly ashamed that I wasted my post race meal on fast food, but I have to say, it tasted pretty good!

Recovery has been going well this week. I’ve been indulging in my favorite treats as usual (more ice cream, basically) and my calf is finally starting to feel a bit better. Using the podium legs (essentially mechanical compression pants) definitely helped – Physical Equilibrium, the company I coach for, was nice enough to let me borrow them for an evening! Three days off and the soreness is mostly gone. I enjoyed a lovely 4 easy miles along the river this morning and will join E on his longer run on Saturday (though probably won’t do more than 8-10M). I am very much looking forward to spectating the NYC marathon this weekend too!

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I somehow don’t have any races in my calendar – for 2014 or 2015! I don’t think I will be running a big Spring race, but I’ll at least try to run some half marathons and smaller races. E has the JFK50 coming up later in November (hence why he has to resume long runs this wknd). I’m psyched to see him run his first 50 miler and have no doubt that he will inspire me to sign up for a new challenge myself.

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