Mission Accomplished: Marine Corps Marathon October 22, 2017

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I used the opportunity while I was waiting to see Dr. Andrew Wolff at Washington Orthopedics and Sports Medicine on the Tuesday before the 42nd Marine Corps Marathon (MCM), my second marathon ever, to read the race FAQs.

He squeezed me in after I limped out of my chair late Monday morning. Usually Mondays are my workout day off, but my MCM training schedule included short runs every day except for Friday the week of the race. I felt so good during that early morning 4-mile run that I remember thinking, “This is what it feels like when running feels good.”

MCM is known as the people’s marathon because anybody can enter the lottery and there isn’t any prize money. Even so I knew everyone had to finish by the race cutoff. But it wasn’t until I read every word of the race FAQs that I learned the race has 3 cutoffs. As in, if you don’t get to a certain point on the route by a certain time, you’re out.

Vans will come around and redirect you or pick you up.

Twenty weeks of training.

And that’s that.

I’ll summarize here.

The howitzer, which looks like a cannon, fires once, at 7:55 a.m., officially starting the race, and the first cutoff, called “the gauntlet,” is at 12:33 pm at mile 17. The next cut off, or better known as “Beat the Bridge,” is at 1:15 pm at the 14th Street Bridge at mile 20. The 3rd cut off, “the second gauntlet,” is at 1:49 pm in Crystal City around mile 22 or 23. Technically, a runner must maintain a 14 minute-per-mile pace to Beat the Bridge, etc. I typically maintain a 12 minute-per-mile pace with walk breaks. But what happens if you start at the back of the pack? The clock starts after the cannon fires, right?

“I don’t usually say this at other races, but at this one, I recommend slower runners start at the front,” a race volunteer told me on Friday at the MCM Expo and packet pick up at the National Harbor. He was pointing to the bridge on the map.

“Really?” I said.

“If you start at the back you’re gonna lose at least 25 minutes.”

I knew what he was thinking, but he didn’t want to seem impolite.

“And I’ll need those 25 minutes.”

“Not at the very front,” he smiled. “Stay to the side, and you’ll be fine.”

It’s amazing how the mind can bounce from one worry to the next. On Tuesday morning I was laser focused on my inflamed labral tear in my left hip. By Tuesday afternoon I was obsessing over the cutoffs. Beat the Bridge? I never beat anything.

Now, by Friday night, after packet pick up, all I could think about was getting to the front of the line among 30,000 runners. I kept visualizing the Women’s March in January and how packed we were and unable to move in any direction.

“Mom,” Mia said early Saturday evening, the night before the race. “It’s the journey.”

“You’re right,” I said.

But I had already experienced one DNF (did not finish) at the Bethany Beach Triathlon, and I wasn’t going to be a DNF at my first MCM.

“Whatever happens tomorrow, remember that.”

I finished the marathon in Jamaica, my first marathon, just minutes before the race cutoff. It took me more than 7 hours to finish in 90-degree heat, so long that at some point both Mia and Bob went back to the hotel to take a nap. My goal was to finish MCM in 6 hours.

“It’s the training, the discipline, the focus that you've enjoyed,” Mia said as she was pulling together my support squad. She asked me to hand over my nutrition and fueling plan for MCM and shot me her you-signed-up-for-this look. The nobody’s-forcing-you-to-run-a-marathon look.

We’d brought in Maggiano’s and I was still eating spaghetti when Mia, Adin, and my brother-in-law Ethan, standing in at the last minute for Bob, who was part of the assistance effort in Puerto Rico, were at my kitchen island studying the MCM course map and developing our race-day strategy. My sister-in-law Hope and her husband Michael were there, along with my parents, Harriet and Len.

Mia had a point. My training for MCM was different. It included more sleep and more rest and greater focus on nutrition and hydration. Less running, though, which made it harder for me to trust my training even if I trusted Kevin McGuinness, my PT, who advised a week before my official MCM training that I take an alternate approach to the typical marathon training plan.

“Especially since so many of your injuries are from overuse I wouldn’t recommend that you begin any intense training or even very long runs until everything feels great.”

Having strained muscles is part of my new normal.

“How long will that take?” I asked Kevin.

“At least 8 weeks,” Kevin said.

It took 12 weeks. At that point I started to increase my weekly mileage as I adapted my RunnersConnect MCM training plan, but I slept in on my rest days instead of waking up early to walk, and I added a rest day. My longest training run was 18 miles; my scheduled 20-mile training run got rained out at 6 miles and by then I had literally run out of time.

“We need your plan, Mom,” Mia said as she looked up from the map. I realize other runners and MCM runners in particular may eat very little when they run and hydrate at the water stations sprinkled throughout the 26.2-mile course, and they might not have or desire a squad.

I am not one of these runners.

I overheard a group of guys on the Metro after packet pickup on Friday. “I’ll have a gel just before the start and two more and I’ll be good to go,” one of them said as he waved around the freebies he picked up at the Expo.

Here’s what I shared with Mia over text so she could incorporate my fueling plan into the squad’s race-day strategy.

“Don’t judge,” I said.

  • 45 minutes Swedish fish and Skratch powder
  • 1.5 hours GU gel
  • 2 hours dark chocolate covered cherries
  • 2.45 hours GU gel
  • 3.15 hours Swedish fish with salt
  • 3:45 hours dark chocolate peanut butter cups
  • 4:15 hours GU gel
  • 4:45 hours banana and clementine
  • 5:15 hours sport beans
  • 5:45 dark chocolate covered cherries

For hydration I decided to wear my fuel belt holding 2 9-ounce water bottles. I filled both with a water-and-Skratch Labs-powder mixture and would begin hydrating at 45 minutes. I’d use the MCM water stations to refill my bottles, dropping half a NUUN tablet in each bottle to maintain my electrolyte balance. I would need to drink plenty of water with each gel.

Here’s what I planned to carry with me in my pockets:

  • 4 NUUN tablets, broken in half
  • 4 GU gels (2 chocolate and 2 salted caramel)
  • 1 packet sport beans (with caffeine)
  • 2 ziplock snack bags of Swedish fish (9 minis in each bag, sprinkled with table salt)
  • 2 ziplock snack bags of chocolate covered cherries (5 in each bag)
  • 2 small Radio Shack iPhone battery chargers
  • AirPod charging case

Mia and Adin would carry extra supplies, including Body Glide and tissues, and the banana, and meet me at miles 10, 16, and 21. They would bring me a water bottle at mile 21 because I knew by then I would need to remove the fuel belt and would want water for the last few miles.

Ethan would carry the clementine and the peanut butter cups and meet me at the 3rd table at the water station at mile 19. This was just before the bridge.

Mia wanted to know if I’d need support before mile 10. I told her I was good – my work colleague and friend Steve would meet me on the Key Bridge around mile 4 and run with me through Georgetown.

Because of the race cutoffs, we agreed I would only be making essential stops: to fill my water bottles and to stretch if necessary, to alleviate numbness or pain in my feet.

There would be no nonessential stops. No bathroom breaks, no social stopping for hugs or selfies at mile markers. I set my MapMyRun app for interval audio coaching. I would run for 45 minutes and then I would be prompted to run hard for 1 minute and to run easy or walk for 30 seconds. These intervals would continue for the rest of the race. I could skip the 30-second walk breaks but I would use them to fuel or hydrate. If it took me longer than 30 seconds to eat a gel, for example, or hydrate while I was fueling, I would run for 1 minute and then go back to the gel and to drinking during the next 30-second walk break. That way I could keep track of how long I was walking (never more than 30 seconds at a time). Remember I needed to make 3 cutoffs and couldn’t afford to walk too much or to make nonessential stops.

After determining who would be carrying what and where during the race, we needed to address the start-line issue. Hope suggested that I stay with her that night since she lives in Falls Church.

“I just think it would help if you were at least already in Virginia,” she said.

It was a good idea, I thought, but too late for that. In 30 minutes I needed to be in bed.

I stated my preference for not taking the Metro or the Metro shuttle buses and remembered that the volunteer at the MCM Expo said if I could get to the Memorial Bridge I’d have the extra advantage of not having to walk with the crowds from the Runners Village up to the start. One option was to Uber downtown, but we worried about everyone else having the same idea. Ultimately we decided my parents would pick me up at 5:30 am and drive me down 23rd Street until the roadblock at Constitution Avenue. Then I would hop out of the car and walk across the Memorial Bridge, turn left at Arlington Cemetery, and walk to the start.

This turned out to be brilliant. It seemed to me only a handful of runners entered the race this way – everyone else congregated at the Runners Village at the back of the start line and then walked en masse up to the front or to wherever they wanted to start. I settled in at the front, not the very front, stayed to the right-hand side, which is where I told my squad I’d always be during the race, and waited for the crowd to fill in around me. This gave me time to have conversations with the Marine volunteers stationed at my spot and take photos of me with the Marines. Soon I was considered the official photographer of other runners who wanted pictures of themselves with “my” Marines.

 Hangin out at the start with "my marines" :)

Hangin out at the start with "my marines" :)

It was a chilly morning, but I took the advice of a co-worker who ran the race last year to buy arm sleeves at the Expo and to wear a sweatshirt I’d be willing to donate. Just before the start I took off my sweatshirt and draped it over the barricade. Later, volunteers would pick up discarded items along the route and donate the clothing to area charities. Before the start, B-52s flew over us and with Eminem’s “Lose Yourself” blaring – without lyrics – from the loudspeakers we were entertained by parachute jumpers. The whole scene – the Marines, the action overhead, Eminem’s inspirational lyrics I knew by heart, the donated items of clothing lining the start – was full of drama.

It was 50-50 whether I’d be able to finish by the cutoffs. Yet I did not regret entering the lottery and couldn’t get over how happy I was to be there. I focused on the part of “Lose Yourself” that I needed most.

You better lose yourself in the music, the moment

You own it, you better never let it go

You only get one shot, do not miss your chance to blow

This opportunity comes once in a lifetime

And then in an instant, after 20 weeks of preparation, the cannon fired (apparently a few minutes late because of a suspicious package), and we were off.

Just like that.

Here’s my MCM Race Report

The Route

This is what you’d think – a breathtaking tour around Washington’s gorgeous Rock Creek Park and the city’s national monuments. The race begins and ends at Arlington National Cemetery so you’re never far away from what the whole thing commemorates. A colleague of Bob’s sent him an email to share with me letting me know it’s a completely flat course with no hills. When I told this to Micki, my running partner, during our short Sunday run a week after the race, she reminded me that whenever someone tells you there are no hills you can be sure there are hills. It’s possible people forget this because it’s so early in the race, but the first few miles, maybe 2 or 3, are at a steady incline. I stayed consistent, maintaining an 11:15 to 11:30 pace and, at Micki’s suggestion, forced myself to smile periodically.

As I approached the Key Bridge I looked for Steve but must have missed him. He called me periodically for the next 3 or 4 miles but we kept missing each other. Even though it would have been great to run together, just looking for Steve and taking his calls gave me a sense of support that helped get me over the hump of the first six miles of the race. (I was using a single AirPod in my left ear for the first half of the race. When a call came in, I simply tapped the device to answer it. Halfway through I put the left pod back in the charging case in my pocket and switched to the right pod.)

Miles 10 - 15

I could hardly believe I was able to spot Mia and Adin at mile 10 as there were hundreds of spectators lining the route. Mia was tracking me using MapMyRun, which displayed my image bobbing along the route in real time on her phone. As Mia held the phone, Adin was ready with Body Glide in one hand and a box of tissues in the other. Both Mia and Adin ran with me until my 30-second walk break, which is where the tissues came in handy. Do other runners have this issue? My nose runs constantly when I run, and I was thinking he was so smart to bring the entire box. I didn’t need the Body Glide at that point but I did notice there were volunteers along the route near the medical tents holding out tongue depressor sticks with Vaseline for runners with chafing issues. Mostly I saw runners using the Vaseline on blisters on their feet.

My favorite part of the route was the Wear Blue Mile, maybe around mile 12, which was lined with photos of fallen Marines. I know it was only a mile but it seemed like an eternity, and I became so overcome with emotion as I looked at the photos and their names and their ages. It was all I could do to keep from wheezing as I watched runners collapse near the images of their loved ones. This happened over and over again.

Miles 16 – 20

I was looking for Mia and Adin when I hit the mile 16 marker but I never spotted them. Then Mia telephoned me, and I told her I was fine, that I would see them at mile 21. After a few minutes, there they were, running to catch up with me from behind.

“I could see from looking at my phone that you were right around us so we thought we’d try to find you,” Mia said.

I remembered to hand them the arm sleeves, which were dangling from my fuel belt, and I took so many tissues I thought I must have finished the box.

“Look for Uncle Ethan at Mile 19!!” Mia called out.

“We’ll see you after the bridge!” Adin assured me. “We’ll have your water bottle!”

I spotted Ethan just where he said he would be. At the third water table at mile 19. That had been my spot when I volunteered at MCM last year. He ran with me until my 30-second walk break, where I apparently told him I would never be doing this again. He handed me the peeled clementine from a brown paper bag, and I ate it. Even now I remember how awesome that tangerine tasted. Wegmans provided orange quarters at mile 7 but there was something about this clementine and how great it tasted that was absolutely clutch at this particular moment in the race.

He handed me the bag of peanut butter cups but I couldn’t take them. I was feeling nauseated and thought even having them in my pocket might make me throw up. Later, my sister Ilene told me when she got home after driving back from Philadelphia on Saturday evening she’d seen the peanut butter cups on her kitchen counter. She was about to pop one in her mouth when Ethan jumped out of his easy chair and sprinted across the room, yanking the piece of chocolate out of her hand.

“Those are for Carol tomorrow!!” he said.

 These guys were like the Jetsons! Mia and Adin appeared at miles 10, 16, and 21, and were there at the finish! Amazing!!

These guys were like the Jetsons! Mia and Adin appeared at miles 10, 16, and 21, and were there at the finish! Amazing!!

Miles 21 – 23

There had been volunteers at the beginning of the bridge carrying signs letting us know we’d Beat the Bridge. Whew, I thought. I did it. I couldn’t believe it. Here I was about to run across the 14th Street Bridge.

“Mom!!! You’re over the bridge!!!”

Mia and Adin were there as I entered Chrystal City after crossing the bridge and before a second massive water fountain. I ran through it and the cold water revived me. Mia said she noticed runners avoiding the fountain, even if it meant taking extra steps to get around it, because of phones and other electronics. Good point, I thought. I was lucky I was wearing a cap, which likely protected the AirPods, and a somewhat waterproof armband, because I was way too trashed to think about the possible effect of water on my electronics. I handed Adin my fuel belt , and he gave me a fresh bottle of water. I grabbed the last of the tissues, and ate the banana they were carrying.

“We’ll see you at the finish!!” they said.

I had no idea how those two were getting around. They were like Judy and Elroy Jetson whooshing around and turning up magically just when I thought I might need a tissue or see their smiling faces.

Miles 24 – Finish

Up until mile 23 or 24 I was well on my way to achieving my goal of finishing within 6 hours. Out of the blue I started to experience a charley horse in my left calf. At first I had the feeing I was on the edge of a charley horse, and I’d stop to massage my calf. I was on a 30-second walk break when the woman next to me told me her watch had died. She was doing a run/walk strategy and didn’t know where she was, and she was upset. I invited her to run with me since I was doing a 1 minute run / 30 second walk strategy consistently now. As we were chatting I experienced a full-on charley horse that brought me to my knees. She told me she’d taken a salt packet at the last medical tent.

“I don’t have any salt,” I said.

I looked up and saw a mustard packet. A man walking in front of us listening to our conversation held up a mustard packet for me to see.

“Mustard?” I said.

“Same as salt,” the man said.

“Thank you!”

I took the mustard, opened it, and it was delicious.

“You don’t need to run at this point,” another man, walking next to us, said. “You’ve made all the cutoffs and can walk across the finish.”

It takes me 20 minutes to walk a mile, and we were at least 2 miles from the finish. There was no way I could last another 40 minutes. After one or two intervals, the woman I was with was having knee issues and needed to walk more. I wanted to stick with my 60 sec run/ 30 sec walk strategy.

“Have a good finish,” I said.

The finishers’ chute was dreamlike. I pushed hard to run that last .2 miles and as I approached the finish line I heard the announcer say my name, "Carolee Walker from Chevy Chase."

Holy shit. I’ve just finished MCM.

I looked around and in a flash there they were! Elroy and Judy!

I continued walking toward the rows of Marines with medals and then Mia and Adin handed me a fresh coconut. With a straw.

A fresh coconut with a straw.

Apparently when they got off the Metro in Chrystal City they saw a Whole Foods and thought they’d be able to get me a fresh coconut. Coconut water is particularly hydrating, and Mia had remembered that when we were in Jamaica and I was having dehydration issues the hotel manager had brought me a fresh coconut. But there wasn’t anyone at Whole Foods who could open the coconut. They decided to buy it and then figure out a way to open it at home.

Through most of the race there weren’t any barricades along the route keeping the runners from the spectators, but at the finish they couldn’t get near the chute. All of a sudden they got caught up in the crowd and realized they were running - with the coconut, the Whole Foods shopping bag, and their backpacks - and Marines and other volunteers were giving them high fives. “You’re almost there!!” “Great job!!” “You got this!!”

Soon they made their way over a fence and looked up and saw what seemed to be a catering tent.

“Adin,” Mia said. “I bet they’ve got a knife in there. Go see if you can open the coconut.”

“I got this.” Adin said. He walked into the tent, asked a waiter if there was anyone who could open the coconut for him, and the waiter pointed to a guy who might have been from the Caribbean. “No worries,” said the guy, who clearly knew his way around a coconut. With a quick whack, he opened the coconut and handed Adin a straw. Mia said he walked out of the tent carrying the opened coconut, and as they realized they were in the VIP area, the two looked up and saw me as I was about to cross the finish.

My finish time:

6:26:33

What I Did Well

  • I finished. Kevin: That's quite a PR
  • I had a good attitude
  • I made all the cutoffs, which turned out to be a total nonissue
  • No electronics failures. My iphone powered off twice because of heat but after I connected a fresh battery charger, that seemed to solve the problem
  • I used the opportunity to stretch while Marines filled my water bottles. Somehow I thought I'd be using cups to fill my own water bottles but there were Marines holding out gallon jugs filling up runners' bottles
  • My nutrition plan, though not pretty, was epic. I practically forced myself to eat the chocolate-covered cherries, not all of them, and I'm glad I did, as cherries are known to have anti-inflammatory properties. MCM sponsors provided Jelly Belly Sport Beans around mile 19, so I didn't need to pack mine, and Animal Crackers near mile 24. There was something familiar and comforting about the animal crackers. I don't know what was up with the charley horse situation, because I had eaten a banana not long before that happened. I tend to have trouble balancing my electrolytes in general so I suppose that was a factor
  • My outfit - Lululemon Sweat Your Heart Out Tank and Lululemon What the Sport Short Night Fall reflective shorts - was perfect. I felt comfortable throughout the race and never needed to tug or pull at anything. It's amazing what you can fit in those side pockets. The fuel belt was comfortable for most of the race but I knew it would begin to slip and chafe near the end, which it did

What I Could Do Better

  • Strengthen my core in order to have an easier time holding myself up while I run. I noticed in photos I was hunched over more than is optimal, and my shoulders hurt over the next few days
  • Get to the bottom of my electrolyte issues and solve them - that charley horse was a bummer, especially occurring so close to my goal time
  • Of course improve my time

Would I Do This One Again?

Despite what I told my brother-in-law Ethan, yes. It's an extremely well-organized event and completely uplifting experience. "Such a great feeling of community and caring and support," Adin said.

Yeah that.

Oorah.