MCM: The Successful Failure

36th Marine Corps Marathon Race Report

At the gun, 30 October 2011.

Race: Marine Corps Marathon
Location: Arlington/Rosslyn, VA and Washington DC
Distance: 42.2 km (26.2 miles)
Date/Start Time: 30 October 2011, 0800
Distance Travelled to Compete: 229 km (142 miles)
Weather conditions: Windy and chilly, starting in the low 40s.
Course conditions: Mostly flat, hills at miles 2, 8, and 25.6. Plenty of turnarounds.


MCM  is billed as a true first timer’s race, the amount of support beginner runners get is remarkable. The course is mostly flat with hills on Lee Highway in Rosslyn (mile 2) far deep in Georgetown (miles 6-7) and coming back up the Arlington Cemetery (mile 25.5).  Registration sold out in 28 hours and change, the fastest sellout in history.  I picked the race as it was not too deep in the school year, and I thought it would yield temperate weather. Also I freaking LOVE DC.

Military get a discount ($75), and everyone else paid $91.

The Expo, DC Armoury 27-29 October

Runners' Expo, 28 October 2011.

Packet pickup was VERY well run, zero hassle.  Participants got their mock neck t-shirts, bibs, and a commemorative patch. The expo had a load of vendors, and more sampling of endurance/race food than I’ve ever seen. Chomps, GU, PowerBar jellies, was glad to have tried them all, and confirmed yet again that I will always be, and always stay, a GU gal (or at least to the endurance gels – the CLIF shots aren’t bad at all, and I’m not brand loyal here).

Space was expansive, went around looking for a last minute second layer long sleeve running top with a collar, but the ones at the Armoury were too expensive. Wound up getting a Brooks neon cover jacket instead at City Sports for $45, not bad.

Pre-Race Party: First Timers Pep Rally, 28 October

First Timer Pep Rally, 28 October 2011.

As a first timer, I was invited to a pep-rally and motivation session for first-time marathoners. There was food, giveaways and a chance to meet and network with other runners. There was also plenty of advice given to ease our nerves, but overall we had a good time. Amongst the key tips we got was the “poop” bag tip, a bit of toilet paper in a plastic bag in case we went into a latrine with none in there.

The mascots and cheerleaders were in full force, even if it was cheesy, we could still kick back and just enjoy the moment.

During a straw poll the emcee took from the crowd, there were first-timers from Denmark and Australia, which is saying something. There were a few from the UK and from Africa that wanted to do their first full here. And that is saying something…

MCM cheerleader. It's not a Marine Corps Marathon without the Oorahs. 28 October 2011.

On Saturday I attended a runners’ panel at the Hyatt, which included coaches that gave us all sorts of advice on preparing for this marathon. One panel included a very notable elite runner: Ryan Hall. Meeting him was priceless.

Meeting Ryan Hall. (I hate crappy smartphone pictures.) 29 October 2011.

Meeting Ryan Hall. (I hate crappy smartphone pictures.) 29 October 2011.

The Morning of the Race

Set my alarm for 5am.  Thank goodness I got a lot of sleep; we had eaten a good meal in Dupont Circle’s Floriana on 17th and Q Streets the night before.

We trudged down 24th Street from our hotel (the Westin Georgetown on 24th and M Streets) to the Foggy Bottom Metro stop.  Took a packed blue line subway to the Pentagon. And once we got off, holy crap it was cold as anything. The chill was unbearable. Thankfully as time passed, it got better, but to my chagrin, I found myself wearing my running gloves most of the race.

Bag checkpoint and security took FOREVER.

f1 bag drop off

It was very polished but I’d strongly advise to allow at least a 45 minute gap to get through security. It is VERY tight.

Pair of ospreys. 30 October 2011.

Before the gun: I shivered a bit on VA Route 110. We started on the highway due north towards Rosslyn. I got with my pace group and was ready to go.

e pace bunny

Miles 1-3/5k: Rosslyn, North Lynn Drive to Lee Highway. We started off the highway and under the bridge on Lynn Drive. The first three miles consisted of a nasty incline that I was expecting yet had no trouble trucking my legs over. This early in the race, I had to stay focused and conserve energy as best as I could. The breeze died down thankfully, and I kept my gloves on for this part of the race. Breathing slowly to keep the air warm inside me, we were all greeted by loads of bystanders all through Rosslyn.

Taken AFTER the race, but saw this on Mile 1. 30 October 2011.

Mile 4: Key Bridge and West DC Astonishingly it was not as cold as I had feared along the river and we continued to truck along the Lee Highway and across the bridge. We made a sharp left against M Street and proceeded up another hill after Mile 5. People were extremely cheerful, and I passed several of the wheelchair racers. “Stay strong! Keep your chin up!” I pushed myself, looking at my watch…I was WAY ahead of pace, and astonishingly I wasn’t even trying. My pace team was only behind me a few feet, so maybe they had the same thing in mind, even though the leader told me she was going at even splits.

f pace band

Miles 5-7/10k: Georgetown “You’re almost there!” screamed a spectator as I hit my 10k split. I swore I wanted to smack him. This was not the time to mess with my head. Seriously. We trucked back from 47th and western Montgomery County back to Georgetown, amongst the screaming crowds and the bands playing. I turned to my right and already heading the other way at the Mile 5 marker were the straggler busses, and several people already struggling to stay ahead. Oy.

Miles 8-11: K Street and Rock Creek Parkway More bands. More music. More refreshments. Love those orange slices. Unfortunately I still was wearing my gloves so I could only manage to grab one. Yeah that was one thing that was nagging me, the constant change in temperature. I think I took my gloves on and off at least 5 times during the course of the race. It was extremely nippy when we started, then I took them off, then the air froze up again…it drove me crazy. But onwards we plugged along through the parkway and with the crowds thinning down, towards Haines Point.

Miles 12-14: Halfway Home at Haines Point. The halfway point. The photographers. The split clock. And then Haines Point. It was barren, it was bare. The cheerleading squad at Haines kept us going though. Many things good and bad were processing through my mind. My bad breakup with Joe (over religion of all things!!!), the celebration with friends afterwards and feeling liberated afterwards. The ongoing arguments I’ve had with my mother about my lifestyle. Moving to a different neighbourhood earlier in the year following personal issues. My achievements in graduate school. The promotion at work. Somehow I was going to see the turmoil through, but that day wasn’t today. And there will be a day where I can run no longer, but again…that day also wasn’t today.

Mile 15-16: Heading to the Mall At this point, I was stoked. Seeing the monuments of Washington DC gave me an uplifting feeling. Stand tall, stand proud above the fray. And then again, it also meant an increase in crowd support. Always uplifting. It was about this point I saw the second checkpoint: the entrance to the 14th Street Bridge. It was that part of the course that made me nervous though as it was a long painful incline right around the time most runners hit the infamous “wall”.

Mile 17: Injury at the First Checkpoint The Washington Monument. I was thrilled, this is where most of my family and friends parked to support me. This was flat, the best part of the race, charging all the museums and the US Capitol. We came down the hill, making a hard right up another incline at the exit underneath the 14th Street Bridge. I kept right up with the Clif Bar pace group and we all veered left. It was then that I felt a searing crushing pain in my right ankle. Someone had stepped RIGHT on it.

I wanted to scream, but found myself gagging instead as I staggered behind the pack. A second later our pace leader managed to lose the timing flag; it had flown out of her hand. I have no idea how or why but soon after, I limped off to aside to try and massage the pain off.

As I could see another runner had managed to veer right into the pack as he was speeding up. I figured for a full marathon this was probably around the point negative splitters were going to try and pick up the pace but that was ridiculous. You can’t just plow right into a group of people even if we were all trying to qualify for the Boston Marathon and no one here was anywhere close to that pace. I was beyond irate. And here I was, about 9.5 miles from the finish. Now I had to figure out how I was going to finish. Nothing looked or felt like it was bleeding or broken, but it hurt, badly.

Miles 18-19: Attitude Adjustment The first thing I needed to do was find the nearest aid station. No, actually, it was to keep my rage inside and remain calm as I winced onwards. Thankfully the nearest aid station wasn’t even half a mile away, having ingrained into my mind the aid station checkpoints as well. I had to stay calm. This WAS my first marathon ever and ANYTHING could happen. Besides I’d gotten injured on course earlier this year at Virginia Beach, this wasn’t new.

I did a slow jog, putting more weight on my left ankle when I could. I would still walk on my right foot but couldn’t apply any more pressure. I made my way to the nurses and described what happened. I spent about 10 minutes removing my shoe, sock and icing the area. Rotated my ankle several times. I could rotate it well, flexing was fine, now it was a question of impact. The nurses were amazing there; we pinpointed the areas of pain. I had additional gauze placed in there to cushion the area and it would turn out that it helped massively. It was either a sprain or a bruising – most likely the latter – it was simply a judgment call as to whether I should continue. With at least two more aid stations on the way, I decided to continue and I knew I could stop again if I had to.

h mile 17-5 walk

Even so, I felt violated getting back on course. We were at the National Mall with the spectator crowd growing in size. I walked most of the Mall to get my ankle in a rhythm going again with the added cushioning. Finally at Mile 19, I picked back up around an 11-minute pace. There was no question I would make that checkpoint even with my aid station delay. I just had to monitor my ankle the rest of the race and just not let things get to me mentally. I knew I could finish the race even if I had to walk it the rest of the way. Just HOW.

It was on the return on the Mall that I saw my parents. My mother was floored to see me there to begin with. My dad on the other hand was happy to see me although he was clearly monitoring my splits and he knew something was wrong after seeing the dropoff after the 25km split. I told them I was going to be okay and I continued on though I’m sure they were a bit worried. Well at least my dad was. Ugh. I was somewhat relieved they weren’t where I was injured, I imagine at least one of them would have gotten arrested for beating up the runner who crushed my ankle. Maybe.

Mile 20: 14th Street Bridge and Second Checkpoint Once again, the crowds were thinning out. We passed the course marshals and I knew that once we hit the bridge we were all safe. At this point most people were walking up the incline and I made it a point to lean slightly forward to relieve my tensing body and to relieve pressure off my ankle. I saw the Pentagon to the right.

i bridge mile 20

I also felt like a badass as well. What were we doing on an interstate? It was scary and hilarious at the same time as traffic passed us in the opposite direction, the cars honking their horns.

I kept my wits about me. I’m going to finish. I know I can. The gauze buffer was helping me massively, I just had to make sure I didn’t twinge any muscle down there the wrong way. As I neared the end of the bridge, we encountered a slow decline and it was then I was able to pick up my pace a little. Crystal City was arriving and this was where the real homestretch began.

Mile 21: Entry to Crystal City Once we finished crossing the bridge, we saw thousands more spectators in the hotel complex area on Crystal Drive. I kept looking forward, but the atmosphere just felt like a return to humanity. It was crazy and surreal all at the same time. DJs blasting music, people cheering, several cheerleading squads from local Northern VA high schools were all pushing us on.

Mile 22-23: Not the Only One Struggling Although it was for different reasons. It was then a nearby DJ was blasting Taio Cruz’s “Dynamite” and for whatever reason that song uplifted me in a way nothing else had ever had as I was coming up north on the return out of Crystal City. Before I knew it, injured me was fist pumping and dancing to the main lines on Crystal Drive…and picking up the pace. If there was ever fuel for a second wind physically and emotionally, this was it. I was delirious in one sense, but becoming hopeful that I would make it after all.

Volunteers were handing out Dunkin Donuts doughnut holes and it was then that I grabbed a chocolate one. Not surprisingly because of dehydration, it tasted like cotton.

Mile 24-25/40k: Back to Route 110. It was about this time that my calf muscles were starting to hurt, and I figured the delayed onset of “the wall” was because I was walking a lot earlier in the race than normal. At this point, just about EVERYONE in the pack was walking regardless of condition and at most I might have seen 1-2 people trying to run. My eyes were desperately searching for some sign of the finish, knowing that the end was surely in sight, but it just wasn’t happening.

j mile 24

Mile 26 and the Finish: Giving It What I Have  “Mile 26 is the tower!” screamed a young child, likely five years old at most. Ahead was a large wooden white lookout tower, so I knew for sure the end was near. With the pain, I was just begging to see that damned red arch, signifying the finish line, but I wasn’t seeing it and it was killing me. “Alright, just alternate those run-walks,” I told myself, but then I saw the final hill. Somehow I reached inside, and grunted as I forced myself, dragging my right leg up that hill. I turned the curve, and finally, I saw that arch. I worked myself into a slow jog, and as I crossed the finish line, despite the tears in my eyes, I threw my hands in the air.

I survived. 5:26:49 unofficial.

It was finally over. I’d never felt such a flood of emotions all at once.

k my beer

Post-Race Party

I took my picture at Iwo Jima and I darted to the aid station right after I was through with hospitality, receiving my Gatorade, water, a Bento box filled with other goodies (hummus, crackers, edamame seeds and pretzels and a few other things), a few bananas and a bagel.  The Marines wrapped my ankle again in a cold cloth, but ultimately the most I could do going forward was resting it for awhile.  Thankfully, nothing was torn or broken.

Bento box given to finishers, 30 October 2011.

The post-race party took us around downtown Rosslyn, with at least 4 blocks closed off in the business district. After resting my ankle I managed to get my hands on a nice cold one. We tested out samples for many organic products and listened to a few local bands. To boot, I got LOADS of coupons as well for said organic products. The weather at the finish, approx 1pm, was very sunny and warm. Temps had kept bouncing up and down that entire morning.

Aftermath and Moving Forward

It was a true successful failure, obviously nowhere near the projected 4:30-4:45 finished time. There was a part of me that was annoyed. I was wise enough to not let the course beat me, so to speak, but with 3 20+ mile runs, hitting at most 3:30-3:45, I felt in GREAT shape going into the race. I heard about the wall, I heard about the horrors of post-mile 21 fatigue, and I wanted to take my training seriously as a result. But at the same time, I can’t control certain things, and even with being told about avoiding collision at the beginning of the race, one thing I failed to take into consideration was that with MCM catering to beginners, the REAL thick of the pack was more on the slower side. So the crowding of the pack was really with me until, honestly, mile 24.

The crisis management part was something I learnt early on – when someone rammed me over in Virginia Beach in March at mile 2, recovery wasn’t too bad, I had nearly 100% left. But it’s a lot different after having run 16 miles AND trying to stick with a pace group, not to mention testing an entirely new boundary of stamina. Also I’ve never hurt my ankle from impact in ANY race before (or ANY situation outside of running, now that I think of it), so I was not entirely sure how to deal with it as opposed to my knee or anything resulting from the occasional spurt of bursitis. Seeing it swell a bit was scary, but all things considered, I had already passed one checkpoint and easily made the second. Yet, it was the fear of the unknown, balancing wanting to finish versus figuring out how bad the ankle injury could possibly get. I didn’t know how my body was going to react.

It’s clear as day I need to get with the program with being aware of who is around me, though “the pack” took me by surprise, especially that far in the race.  But mentally, I am proud at the end of the day that I pulled it together and stuck it out. It is painful having to accept things you can’t control. This IS my first marathon and I am still learning. And even so, yet, physically I was very happy with how things went up to Mile 16. It will be something to consider as I train for my next full marathon next year.

Finisher's Medal, 30 October 2011.

But injury aside, if I had to do MCM again, I absolutely would. I’m giving serious thought to repeating this again next year – it was so well run, and vindication would be quite sweet. In all honesty, with everything it was, running and completing MCM was one of the best experiences of my life.

Finisher's Medal, 30 October 2011.


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