Every marathon tells its own story.
Up to now, my marathons had simple narratives: exuberance followed by pain and survival at Toronto; successful pacing and execution at New Jersey; the thrill of strength and speed at Rochester; injury and negative talk at the first Burlington; pushing through the wall at Niagara Falls; and strategy at the second Burlington. But the story of my 2015 Marine Corps Marathon had more twists and turns than the course itself, with plenty of emotion to give it depth and character.
The story was far more memorable, and far more complex, than I dared hope.
The first five miles went exactly as I had anticipated–hilly but not difficult–and I stuck to my slow-and-steady game plan, taking advantage of a downhill stretch to up the pace just a little after mile three. An unanticipated elevation that lead up to the Francis Scott Key Bridge was tougher than expected, but it was mercifully short, and the views over the Potomac toward Georgetown University were adequate compensation for the exertion.
After a quick run down M Street, we headed north along the Rock Creek and Potomac Parkway. For two miles, we were nestled in a valley with steep sides–the drizzle, which had returned once more, and the absence of spectators created a gloomy, autumnal feel that somehow felt right. The race leaders passed us on the opposite side of the road, followed by an increasing volume of runners, and when the 3:20 pace group came into view, I knew it wasn’t going to be long before we made the turn and headed toward The Mall.
What I saw at the turn took my breath away. Heading north toward me was a sea of humanity, wave upon wave of runners of all shapes and sizes. Seeing the paratroopers and Ospreys at the start line was impressive, but this was overwhelming. For almost a quarter of an hour, I ran south while thousand upon thousand of other runners ran north toward me.
There had been just as many runners at my first marathon in Toronto three years before. But maybe because I was so focused on myself that day, or because such a vantage point doesn’t exist on the Toronto course, the scale never fully registered with me. Now, with my mind working independently from my body, I could take it all in. Once again, I was awestruck.
It wouldn’t be the last time.
At the end of the Parkway, we continued south toward the back of the Lincoln Memorial. I had been hitting about an 8:40 min/mile pace pretty consistently by this point, so it was time to move into third gear. Except, when I tried, it wasn’t there. I dropped back to my comfortable pace to let my heart rate go down a little, then tried again.
What followed was a feeling of fatigue the like of which I normally experience in the later parts of a marathon. It was followed by a moment of sheer panic. I was only at mile ten, and this just wasn’t supposed to happen now. If I didn’t do something quickly, I would crap out and sixteen weeks of training would have been completely in vain. It was time to dig deep and find some answers, or this race would become memorable for all the wrong reasons.
Fortunately, the first thing I tried did the trick. Going back to basics and to the mental discipline of my long runs, I began a tiger run, emptying my mind and concentrating on breath, posture and foot strike. For the next couple of miles, I was barely conscious that I was moving steadily and easily and only partly aware of the Potomac river and the planes landing over the river at Reagan National to my right.
I had found my center once again.
I emerged from the slump energized and ready to take on the rest of the race. Before I knew it, I had made mile marker twelve, and the wear blue Mile.
It was like nothing I had ever encountered on any run before. Photograph on photograph of American soldiers that had been killed in action in wars throughout history dotted both sides of Ohio Drive, another quiet section of the course that was ideal for such introspection. Seeing such young, innocent faces–young men and women who would never again experience the joy and freedom of movement that I was experiencing at that very moment–was profoundly moving.
The mile took me, as such things often to, into a meditation on my Dad, a survivor of World War II. In some ways, he was lucky, living to the ripe old age of 89. But seven years as a witness to man’s inhumanity to man, including liberating the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in 1945, left him with severe PTSD that he carried with him for the rest of his life, a different kind of death that lasted for decades.
Immediately after the display, hundreds of volunteers from wear blue lined the course, holding American flags in honor of loved ones that had fallen. A frenzy of high-fives broke out, and I became so lost in the moment that I barely noticed the runner that had just settled in on my left shoulder.
It was the illustrious Andy Wheatcroft, who despite a disastrous start (he had forgotten his race gels and had to backtrack to his hotel room to get them, which had stopped him from getting to the start line on time), had finally caught up with me. We chatted for a minute or so, but his pace was much faster than mine, so he took off on his own quest to qualify for Boston.
Following that brief flurry of activity, the race settled back down again, and I continued my steady pace through the halfway point along another relatively subdued stretch by the Washington Channel.
As it turned out, it was the quiet before the riot, and when we swung onto Independence Avenue, my senses were overwhelmed once more: to my left, the postcard scene of the Tidal Basin with the Jefferson Memorial in the distance, and to my right, an ever-increasing crowd cheering and shouting us on. I was trying to remain mindful that there was still a lot of race to go, but while the crowds continued to get bigger as we looped back on the Avenue past the Washington Monument and onto the Mall, there was so much to soak in that I was barely conscious of running anymore.
At this point, I caught up with Juliet Neal, another member of Team Fox. We ran together for about half a mile, but it quickly became obvious that she was struggling; she was running on a plantar wart that she had elected not to remove until after the race for fear that running on the wound would be worse than running on the wart itself. We said our goodbyes, and I went on ahead, heading toward mile nineteen and the Capitol.
The crowds continued to be large and inspiring during this part of the course, which U-turned in front of the Capitol steps before making its way past the Smithsonian Castle. Just before mile twenty, the course abruptly turned to the left, where Stefanie Paddock and the wonderful folks from Team Fox provided a brief burst of energy. They were quickly followed by Batala, an incredibly cool female Latin percussion ensemble that was the perfect conclusion to the excitement of the last five miles.
Although I had abandoned all thoughts of a BQ time as early as the Lincoln Memorial, I was still hopeful that a PR was not out of the question. However, a glance at my watch as I ran over the 14th St. Bridge toward the mile twenty-one marker told me that even that was going to be a stretch–covering a little over five miles in forty-five minutes was doable, but my energy levels were starting to diminish. I downed another gel–one more than I would normally take during a marathon–and hoped that it would kick in and give me one last boost to the end.
Eventually, the course wound into the steel and glass canyon of Crystal City. Here, the crowds picked back up again, providing some good distractions. A small table occupied by elderly representatives of the Royal Marines around mile 23-1/2 caught my eye and made me think once more of Dad; their waves and smiles of encouragement when I shouted “Bless you!” brought a much-needed smile to my face.
It was short-lived, however. A mile later, I stopped for my first walk and all thoughts of the PR disappeared. Like Burlington a few months earlier, though, this wasn’t a total capitulation, and I was actually pretty happy that I was still going to make it through another marathon at a fast-enough pace to come in well under four hours. I ran/walked around the Pentagon, trying just to stay in the moment and hold it together for the last mile, completely oblivious that the story of the race still had another twist.
About a mile before the finish, I felt a rumble in my stomach. At first, it just seemed like gas, and with such a short distance to go, I figured I would be fine if I just breathed my way though it. Almost immediately, however, the rumble turned into the sharpest stomach cramp I had ever had, and I realized that I wasn’t going to make it to the finish line if I didn’t take care of the problem immediately.
I looked around, and at that moment a row of gleaming portapotties that had serviced the start area just hours before came into view. I veered off the course and quickly took care of business, thanking the running gods for my great good fortune.
With toilet paper hanging out of my fanny pack, I rejoined the race and picked up the pace as best I could to the end which, in typical Marine fashion, wasn’t going to be easy. The course had one last cruel twist–a sharp left turn onto a short, steep incline that sapped whatever energy I had left–before turning right and into the finish chute.
To say that moment was emotional would be an understatement. There before me was the Iwo Jima Monument, and in front of it a young marine placed the medal around my neck and saluted me.
I saluted back, choked on the lump in my throat and tried to take in the moment as best I could. Another sixteen-week journey, that had culminated in a thirty-hour odyssey in which I had worked through a hundred different emotions and run my second-fastest marathon, had finally come to an end.
It was time to stop running.
Team Fox Update
The good folks at Team Fox are keeping my fundraising page up until the end of the year. Who knows where we could take this? If you want to keep the momentum going and get us past the $1,647.40 we’ve already raised, go to my fundraising page and make your contribution to help eliminate Parkinson’s!