The road to my first marathon began when my marathoner husband decided to join his friends in accomplishing one of their bucket list goals. These “Waves of Fury,” as they’ve affectionately dubbed themselves, are weekend warriors and veterans who chose the Marine Corps Marathon for their first – and only – marathon experience. (For more on the “Waves” and our collective story, check out this feature in the Coastal Point.)
“The People’s Marathon,” as MCM is known, is one of the four largest marathons in the United States and typically sells out within a matter of hours. (An aside: Isn’t it funny that people actually compete to pay for the privilege of running 26.2 miles?) Knowing that, last March, I joined my husband in the online registration competition, figuring I’d give my spot to the “Wave” member who, based on the odds, inevitably wouldn’t get in.
Statistics was never my strong suit, and that was proved yet again as every damn one of us got through the online portal and registered for the race. Now committed, I needed to step up my training from the half-marathon level and move forward with marathon training – a process experienced runners tell me is more mental than physical.
A long, hot summer stretched before me, filled with seemingly-endless training runs up and down the Route 1 highway from Dewey Beach, DE to Ocean City, MD. As my friends, family and Facebook compatriots can attest, I was miserable. A day that lives in infamy was the training run in which I plopped down on a curb in Bethany Beach and sobbed. I complained to my husband that all we did on the weekends was prepare to run, run and recover from running. And I swore that if I survived this marathon, I’d never do another.
“Just wait until the weather breaks,” runners assured me. “You’ll feel so much better in the fall.” They were right, of course, and as the race approached, I felt that physically, at least, I was ready to go.
But there was the mental barrier that I needed to overcome. Watching me quit on several runs, my husband, trying to be helpful, warned me that I needed to become mentally tougher. Observant friends asked why I didn’t seem more excited about the race.
Race weekend arrived, and with it, SuperStorm Sandy. (Side note: Tropical Storm Ida came to visit the weekend of our wedding, and we survived that with minor flooding and a lot of cocktails. I’m sensing a theme.)
Despite the ominous forecast, we had a lovely weekend leading up to the race. My pre-race theme was “all carbs, all weekend” and hearty meals and yes, drinks, with our running buddies and my college friends was fantastic.
The night before the race involved the runner’s pre-race ritual: Eating an early dinner, setting out one’s clothes, heading to bed early and laying awake most of the night, worrying about everything that could wrong…”What if we oversleep?” (Two wake-up calls and an alarm should prevent that.) “What if we don’t get there in time?” (Pre-arranged transportation was reliable.) And the ever-popular “What if I need to go to the bathroom?” (Two words: Porta Potties.)
Sunday morning, we were up by 4:15 am and out the door by 5:45. In what we dubbed “The Bataan Death March,” our mighty group of six headed up empty streets to the Farragut West Metro stop, where we boarded a train packed with runners. I kept checking my bag for my iPod, re-tying my shoes and snarling at my husband, who, having completed 17 marathons previously, was cool, confident and downright peppy.
We exited at the Pentagon and began a one-mile walk to the start. (Yep, make that 27.2 miles for the day.) It was dark and chilly, with an occasional raindrop to remind us of Sandy’s impending visit. Entering the “Runners Village,” a massive parking lot where we would check our bags, we were relieved to find an endless row of Porta Potties – and short lines! – along with bottles of water and plenty of space to sit, stretch and even sleep until it was time to head to the start.
By 7:30, like lemmings to the sea, we moved en masse to the start, where we found our designated starting corrals. Dawn broke, and I was amazed not only by the runners of all shapes and sizes, but by the number of runners who bore visible reminders of their tours of duty.
One of the most poignant points of the day was the singing of the National Anthem. Every single runner stopped in his or her tracks, removed hats and stood absolutely silent as the band played. Tell me the last time you saw that at a ball game.
In my corral, I hopped back and forth, both to keep warm and to keep my nerves at bay. Never in my life have I been as nervous as I was during those last minutes before the gun went off at 7:55 am. And seventeen minutes later, my wave was over the starting mat, and we were off to a chorus of cowbells and “Oorahs.”
Over the next 26 miles, I did my best to maintain my pace, hearing in my head our experienced marathoner friend advising me to “Go slow. And then slower.” I focused on my breathing, tuned into my special marathon iPod mix and tried not to judge the runners who were already walking at Mile 2. (I mean, really…)
The course took us through some of the best parts of DC, from Georgetown to Haines Point to the Mall. Along the way, we had plenty of support from the water and aid stations and the spectators who braved the cold with signs, cowbells and even shots of beer for the runners. (I resisted. I swear.)
Having logged several 18-20 mile training runs, I was confident that I could physically finish 26.2, but I wasn’t prepared for how sore and tired I would be as I finished those last six miles – especially as I approached 26 miles and realized that the last quarter mile was uphill!
From the moment you crossed the line, you no longer had to think. In the finish shoots, young and handsome Marines congratulated you and hung a medal around your neck. Entirely too focused on getting a beer, I overlooked the opportunity to get a finisher’s photo in front of the Iwo Jima memorial and instead stayed in line to collect my wrap and assorted food and drink.
After a long walk to collect our bags (make that 28.2 for the day, thankyouverymuch!) and an even-longer wait in the Metro lines, we arrived back at the hotel, where we were greeted warmly by the staff. I was tickled to find that my husband had surprised me with a bottle of Tattinger to celebrate my first marathon. Add to that the congratulatory fruit plate from the hotel, and we were happy campers, looking forward to a nice steak dinner with family and a leisurely overnight stay, heading home in the AM.
What do they say about the best-laid plans? Well, Sandy had something else in mind. We learned that Amtrak had cancelled all Northeast Direct trains on Monday, so we had to swap tickets for an 8 pm train home that night. Still had our steak dinner, but a rush to pack and a two-hour ride home meant that pleasant champagne buzz quickly fizzled.
Ten days later, I’ve had a chance to reflect on the overall experience. As a friend told me before the race, “Less than 1% of people run a marathon.” And now that I have, I’ve gotta say that it’s a pretty good feeling.
Oh – and by the way, since I didn’t hit my time goal – I guess I’ll have to run another…