Marine Corps Marathon 2011 Race Report

Mission Accomplished.

“Remember that today, it doesn’t matter who is the fastest, or who is the strongest. It only matters who’s willing to endure. You’ve trained and trained and now it’s time to go out and complete this mission.”

At every marathon you go to, it’s someone’s job to rile up the runners and get them motivated before the race begins. They play loud, high-energy music and they talk the runners up over loudspeakers. But somehow, standing in the corrals just yards from Arlington National Cemetery, hearing those words coming from a Marine whose own missions were far more important than a particular time goal in marathon, I knew this day would be different.

Rewind two days.

As I waited in Cincinnati to board my plane to Reagan National on Friday, I looked around the waiting area to see if I could spot any other runners. At a marathon as big as the Marine Corps Marathon, it’s a pretty good bet that any flight coming into the host city will have at least a few runners on it, and this one was no different. They’re easy to spot: they’re probably a little anxious from the taper so they can’t stand still, they’re likely wearing running shoes, and they’re also looking around for fellow crazy people soon to take on 26.2 miles. After spotting a few candidates in the waiting area, I smiled when my guesses were confirmed in-flight. Here’s a snippet from the conversation of the two people sitting directly behind me on the flight, one of whom I had spotted pacing at the gate:

 ”Are you from D.C.?”

“No, I’m going there to run the Marine Corps Marathon.”

“Ohhh! Good for you. How long is that one?”

I watched smiles cross the faces of a few of us when we heard the question, confirming their status as runners. Before getting off the plane in D.C., we all wished one another good luck in the race on Sunday. A great, positive way to start out the weekend.

My sister and her husband live outside Washington, so they volunteered to pick me up from the airport and take me to the hotel in Arlington. It’s such a relief to just skip over the worry of wondering how to get from place to place without really knowing the city. Once I got settled in to the hotel, we had dinner together too. Since we hadn’t seen one another since last Christmas, it was great to have the time to catch up.

Saturday morning came, and with it came horrible weather. Rainy, very cold, and reports of it turning to snow later in the day. This same weather system dumped 30″ of snow in some areas of New York and Connecticut, setting new records for October snowfall. But the weather couldn’t dampen the enthusiasm to get going and get prepared for the race. On the docket for Saturday was packet pickup at the Expo, followed by lunch and a Dailymile meetup. And umbrellas. Many, many umbrellas.

If I had one complaint about the entire experience of MCM, it would be the seemingly poorly planned Expo. This is a major marathon with over 21,000 runners registered, but the venue for the Expo was entirely too small to accommodate that many runners and their families and friends. I’m certain that the foul weather didn’t help at all, but forcing everyone to stand outside in the cold in lines to get your bib first, then to just get into the Expo was crazy. Once inside you had to be committed to want to buy something. Thirty minute lines awaited anyone needing to get to the cash registers. The building simply wasn’t meant to hold that many people. Honestly, it was a relief to just get the hell out of there once we were all done.

The dreariness of the day completely turned around when we got the Dailymile meetup. Getting the opportunity to meet people in real life who have been so supportive and so helpful online was just incredible. Hearing everyone’s goals for the race also got me excited about my own plan. I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: runners are a giving, enthusiastic bunch of people.

Sunday morning finally came after a fitful night’s sleep. I’ve never been able to sleep well the night before a race, so this was not a surprise at all. After having a bit of trouble finding our friends’ hotel in the wee hours, we finally got the whole group together and were on our way to start corrals. I’ll admit it, I’m kind of crazy about not being late, so cutting it so close to the gun time had me a bit nervous, but we made it with 10 minutes or so to spare. And since it was about 38°F outside, I don’t think a lot more standing around trying to keep warm would have been helpful anyway. The sun was brightly shining, though, and I’d much rather run in the the cold than the heat and humidity.  Perfect running weather.

As the minutes ticked down to the 8:00AM gun, I got more and more excited to get going. Drew Carey was the guest starter for the race after having been featured in Runner’s World’s “I’m A Runner” section a month or two ago. Finally, at 8:00, the gun went off and we were under way.

My plan was to run the first half of the race at an 8:20 min/mile pace, which would have gotten me to the half marathon point at about 1:49:10, then pick it up to an 8:10 pace if I was still feeling strong. If the stars absolutely aligned and I nailed everything perfectly, I’d finish at 3:36:08, but I knew I’d be thrilled with anything better than 3:45:00.

My sister surprised me by being right at the start of the race. I don’t think I was more than a quarter of a mile in when I heard, “Go Sean Brown!” Man, does that get you going!  The first half of the race features the two big hills – one at mile 2 and another at mile 7.  Somewhere before Georgetown (at about the 9 mile mark), I decided to shed the light jacket I had started with; the sun had warmed things up a bit, so I no longer needed it. The Georgetown section of the race is a huge boost as the crowd support there is just phenomenal. It was about there that I took my first of three gels.

When I got the halfway point, I assessed how I was feeling and so far, and I felt good. I hit halfway at 1:48:05, so I had done a pretty good job of hitting the pace I wanted, but I did get there a little over a minute quicker that I should have. I also took my second gel just after the halfway point. The miles ticked on, I saw my sister and brother-in-law a few more times, and I was doing a decent job of holding the second half 8:10 pace. As I look back over my splits, I do find a couple of miles at 8:02 and 8:03, and yes, I would pay for these later. I can see the first slower mile at 22 (8:30), which is just after crossing over the 14th St bridge, which seemed endless. I took the third and final gel sometime around 21 or 22. The next few miles would see my pace really erode, going from 8:30 at 22, to 8:25 at 23, 8:56 at 24 and 9:35 at 25. I remember checking my watch often during that stretch but was unable to muster the brain power to figure out what was happening. I finally pushed through the fog, willed myself to go harder and got through the finish line running well.

When I looked down at my Garmin I saw 3:42:01, a huge smile crossed my face. I had taken nearly 20 minutes off my previous best marathon time.  Mission accomplished.

A smiling finisher’s photo

I did come away with a few things I plan to do differently in future races.  The first is obvious:  do an even better job managing my pace.  I did a much better job here than I had done before, but I’ll need to be even better if I plan to improve.  I also think I’ll go a little heavier on in-race nutrition.  I only did three gels this time and I think my late race confusion was a result of that.  I’ve learned that the nutrition you take in can have as much impact on the mental side of marathoning as it does the physical.  Finally, I really need to learn how to run the downhills.  No big mistakes there in MCM, but I never felt comfortable like I knew what I should be doing.

Postscript. As I boarded the flight home, I found the same handful of runners that I had shared the flight to D.C. were also sharing the flight home. We all shared our great experiences with the race and, of course, discussed what we planned to run next. A great ending to an incredible weekend.

I absolutely loved this race. The scenery, the great crowd support, the Marines not only manning the water stations, but also posted all along the race course, the opportunity to run a major race with friends, my sister cheering me on, and, of course, training hard and beating my goal.  A huge, huge day for me as a runner.