Debriefing: Marine Corps Marathon 2017

One of these things is getting creaky, old, and doesn’t cooperate anymore. The other one is my body.

Sometimes you run the race you trained for. Sometimes you run the race you wish you’d trained for. The latter will get you into trouble.

Last weekend, I ran the Marine Corps Marathon in Washington, D.C. All season long, I’d harbored hopes of another PR (that’s personal record for you non-sporty types; for the Brits, yes, it’s the same as Personal Best).

A PR would have meant completing the race in under 3:59:39.

I finished in 4:41:03.

That’s not only wayyyyy off the purported goal pace. That’s actually my second to worst marathon time ever. This makes it sound like I run marathons all the time. I’ve now got five under my belt. The first was the worst — 5:47:09 — due to lack of training, lack of knowledge, lack of damn sense (running in a cotton shirt), etc.

This year’s failed attempt at a PR wasn’t due precisely to a lack of training. It was more like a lack of being honest with myself. (Just to be clear, I don’t consider finishing a marathon a failure. I’m not sitting here crying into my coffee.)

How was I being dishonest with myself? If you pulled the training logs from the year I ran the sub-4 marathon — in Philly — and placed them next to the training logs from this year, it might seem similar in terms of overall miles and even the pacing on the long runs. But the truth is this. Back then, I didn’t stop my watch when I stopped to rest. Now, I do–which has the miraculous result of shaving minutes off my time. Especially when the long runs are really, really hot. I also didn’t do the same number of long runs this time around.

You’d also see that the year of Philly, the half marathons I ran were both below 1:50, including a 1:45. This year, I only clocked one under 2:00 hours and that was on a flat course in cool weather. I had a 2:00:23 half weeks ago in hot weather and I told myself that the heat severe enough to add 10 minutes to the time I needed if I was planning to run a 4-hour marathon. There was a nagging voice that said, “C’mon, dude. Really? You know what the watch and your body are telling you.” Did I listen to that voice? What do you think?

What else didn’t I do? Hill training. Not much of it at any rate. In this particular neighborhood in Brooklyn, it’s very flat. There are a few hills, but I tended to skip them. There were also hills on my long runs. But this year I didn’t do the every-other-week hill repeats that I’ve done in the past.

Why does that matter? Look at the first 5K of the Marine Corps Marathon. Just look at it!


That wasn’t exactly pleasant. It was compounded by the fact that the Marine Corps Marathon might be getting a little too big to have a non-wave start–and to base its corrals on the honor system. You know the routine: A bunch of jackasses who’ve never run the distance, or are completely unrealistic, or simply don’t give a shit, walk themselves up into the 3:30 to 4:30 corrals. Once the race starts, they’re shuffling or walking along while you try to run around.

Now then. Did I do the wise thing and adjust my pace for the giant series of hills? Of course not! I guess I showed a little tiny bit of sense by not blasting down the hill at a breakneck pace. But since I didn’t do any downhill training, that downhill stretch did a number on my quads in the long run.

The fact of the matter is, I had a pretty decent race for the first half. I’d been freaking out about the weather all week, worried that it was going to be blazing hot. (I wonder what the data miners at the Weather Channel App made of my incessant checking of Sunday weather in D.C.) It was on the cold side when the Lyft driver showed up in his F-150 Dual Cab (that was a first) and drove me to the designated drop off area. Luckily, it wasn’t too hard to keep warm what with the mile walk (or more) to the starting village. (This is still 1000x better than dealing with the start of the NYC Marathon.)

This look is called “I’ve seen things in the porta-potty. Things of which I cannot speak.”

The start of the race was nice and cool. And the first 13.1 miles were pretty shady, to boot.

I crossed the halfway point right at two hours, thanks in part to Amy Sitar, one of the Team in Training coaches running alongside for quite a bit. And thanks to a TNTer from Pennsylvania who pulled up and kept the pace on track. You might be thinking, “Hey, Ken. Two hours at the half plus another two-hour half, would be close to four hours! You were right on track.” Yeah, well. Real-world math doesn’t quite track with running math.

Guess what happened after the halfway point. Not only did the temperature climb up into the 70s, but we ran out of shade. Combine that with being overaggressive at the outset — I’d like to blame the organizers for the heavy metal music and the paratroopers and the OORAHs hyping us up so much that we would have killed if they’d asked us to, but that would be another lie I’ve told myself — and the second half was little more than a shuffle through D.C.

Now THAT is an opening ceremony.

The second half featured the sites of the National Mall, great crowd support, a mind-breaking stretch across a never-ending waterless unshaded bridge, and a whole lot of walking.IMG_8244

Perhaps I was obsessing over heart rate a little too much, but any time it started creeping above 150 bpm, I slowed up. At around mile 24, Coach Amy picked me up again and I started running again. She peeled off and another coach came alongside.

Somewhere between 25 and 26, my right calf started twitching. I’ve never cramped while running before, but I knew what was up. I slowed up, it simmered down. Then my left foot tried to turn into a claw. I slowed up again and it simmered down.

The final insult was the .2 after the 26, which basically felt like climbing up the side of a building. That .2 is the approach to the Marine Corps War Memorial, which would have been a very inspiring sight to push you across the finish line — if it hadn’t been completely covered in scaffolding. My right quad started to act up there, but I just ignored it and crossed the line, collected my medal, shuffled my way out of the Runners Village and opted not to cash in my ticket for a free beer. The last thing I’m doing after finishing a marathon is waiting 15 minutes in line for a Michelob Ultra.

The medal opens, yall. You can hide things in it.

Instead, I walked the mile back to the hotel. The mile to the hotel was also straight up a hill. The entire way.

But here’s the thing. I enjoyed the Marine Corps Marathon despite the lousy time. If I’d run with a more moderate goal based on the miles I’d logged and the times I’d been running, I likely could have run the entire thing and ended with a better time. But the PR blinded me to reality.

That said, once I realized the PR wasn’t in the cards, I relaxed a bit. I didn’t really have a backup goal. And I knew I’d finish at some point. In fact, I looked half decent in the official race photos (i.e., the water-stamped things that I’ll never pay for), rather than the usual, “Guy looks like he’s having a stroke of some sort on the race course.” Coach Amy took the following photo. I’m smiling in it. Something I don’t even do in regular photos, much less one taken at around Mile 25 of a marathon.

How YOU doin?


The course itself is mostly great. You get the big hill out of the way at the beginning and then it’s mostly flat with a lot of great nature views and all the tourist sites of the Mall. Between the scenery and the crowd support, it reminded me a lot of the Philadelphia Marathon. Getting to the start and out of the finish wasn’t quite as speedy as Philly was, but it was still a better experience than the NYC Marathon, where it can take you 40 minutes or more to shuffle free of the finish area–and it’s likely dark and cold by that point.

And then there are the Marines at every water stop and the Marines handing out the finishing medals, these people who put their lives on the line thanking YOU for running around for four hours in silly clothes. At the expo the day before the race, folks from a group called Medals of Honor asked runners to wear a bib with the name of a fallen service member. I did my 26.2 with the name of Clayton Hickman on my back. Hickman started as a Marine but ended up in the Army as a helicopter pilot. The Blackhawk he was in went down in Germany on Feb. 3, 2010, which happened to be his birthday.


On top of all that, I raised $2,725 for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. Thanks to all who donated. And I think there’s still time to contribute.

Okay. Now this post is starting to read like an ultra-marathon. So, the end. Go outside and run a couple of miles.

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