So as not to bury the lead on this race report, I’ll just come right out and say that I hit my goal — I got my sub-4 Marathon, although it was a nail-biter: 3:59. I readily admit that all I was hoping to hit was between 3:54 to 3:59. I couldn’t hope for anything more, Yasso times or not. After all, prior to this race, I’d only run a single marathon trying for a specific time, as the other 4 were just to finish.
The story of how I got to 3:59 is, well, the story.
This race had lots of downs, ups, and drama. My mind was an utter maelstrom of inner demons, mind games, and euphoria. It was a battle, plain and simple.
I hopped on a near-empty blue line train on Capitol Hill, and headed towards the Pentagon. It filled up around Rosslyn, and a solitary guy with a suitcase applauded us as we filed out of the train at the Pentagon station. I flashed him my standard “hang loose” sign, and waited to exit.
It didn’t take much to find the UPS trucks, but I was already alarmed at how far one has to walk from the Pentagon Metro the starting line. I’d say it’s easily a mile. At this point, every step felt like I was using up precious glycogen. I turned off my phone after a kind couple got a “before” shot of the Marine’s picture on my back (I was running for him as part of the “22 Too Many” awareness group), and quickly found a spot in the corral marked “expected finish time 3:40-3:59.” I also immediately felt like a fraud even standing there. I’d run ONE marathon with a shot at sub-4, and missed it by 5 minutes. Yassos or not, all my other marathons were nowhere near this time.
Almost Time for the Howitzer shot!
I want to take a second to mention something special that happened in our corral. The MCM had some wounded warriors doing a precision parachute jump prior to the race. One of them was carrying the largest U.S. flag ever jumped with, a 7,800 square foot flag. It was SO large, that it actually trailed off behind him, into our corral, as he landed. Almost immediately, several runners rescued the flag, and started to untangle and unfurl it. I’m sure someone got pictures of it. But, I was on the far right side of the corral as you faced forward, and the flag was directly to my left. As it was unfurled, I stepped around it, and took hold of it, along with dozens of runners. We stretched it out. 7,800 feet of patriotism. Someone started to shake it, to make it wave in the “breeze.” We all just stood there, holding it.
It was then, we realized that we weren’t really getting direction on what to DO with the flag. Fortunately, someone at the stripey end led the runners at the far end to start to gently roll it up. I let go as it passed me, and resumed my position.
The Race Begins.
Boom! Off went the howitzers, marking the 8:00 start of the runners. About 3-5 minutes later, I crossed the start line, along with my sea of runners, all hoping for a 3:40-3:59 finish.
And promptly went nowhere.
I had just run the Army 10-Miler a week earlier, so I was already used to crowds, but this was VERY thick. For all our supposed planned speed and finish times, we weren’t able to get going.
Miles 1-4 (aka, the wilds of Arlington, VA)
The first two miles came in roughly 10 minutes per mile each, but I knew that we had horrific hills to start off, and plus, with that kind of crowd, there was no reason to panic. I fell in behind a visually impaired runner and his two guides, who were quite adept at traffic navigation. They were SO adept that they left me.
A note: I am particularly vocal about screaming, “GET TO YOUR LEFT” as wheelchair and handcrank athletes come through the pack. People usually get moving, which is nice. Except for one: A petite blonde in her oh-so-trendy capris wearing EARPHONES. She then had the gall to look back, see that she was blocking the athletes, and basically just ease over as if an afterthought. Grrrr.
We continued making our way through, and I continued to manually lap my Garmin, knowing that I needed to know EXACTLY where I was, time-wise, for me to work the pace bands, and otherwise make sure I was on the right side of 4 hours.
I took my first nutrition shot at mile 4.5. I’ve learned one thing from all my races. I must take stuff early. Late nutrition just means I feel great afterwards, but that doesn’t help the end miles.
As we crossed the Key Bridge, I was at roughly 37 minutes through 4 miles, or about a 9:15/mile pace (4 hours = 9:09). No big deal. I know this course. It will clear out. It has to sometime, right?
Miles 5-10 (Rock Creek Park to the Kennedy Center)
Wrong. Oops. I hit the 10K mark picking up my pace a bit, because I had just the smallest kernel of fear creeping into my head. Perhaps it was self-doubt. I’m good at that. I’m a walking BQ when it comes to self-doubt, and when it comes to self-hatred, I’m practically Kenyan.
Regardless, I was picking up SOME time from the initial start, but frustrated by the continual stops of momentum, detours around packs of runners, and general inability to find a steady pace. We went up into Rock Creek Park, and I continued to shout at Marines (“THANK YOU DEVIL DOGS!”) and also gave some love “to the people in the cheap seats” (standing on the overpass bridges).
I screamed a LOT at this race. In retrospect, I probably burned energy. But is that so bad? Shouldn’t these things be fun, even a little bit?
I also took my second nutrition shot at mile 8.5.
Miles 11-13 (Hitting the Half, and making decisions)
Coming out of Rock Creek Park, and past the Kennedy Center, I knew what was coming. Hains Point. A lot of people don’t like it, because there’s little crowd support. I don’t love it a ton, because the course is VERY narrow there. Still, it’s where I do my bike training, and I know the loop around Hains Point like this was my own neighborhood. Hell, this whole race is practically IN my neighborhood.
I hit the Halfway mark at 1:59:59. TECHNICALLY, I was on pace, but the margin for error, was rather, um, tight. I was worried, sure. But ever since I’ve come back to running post-injury, I’m smarter, and have always trained for negative splits. All my runs finish with the fastest miles at the end, regardless of whether they are a 4, 6, or even 10 mile run. Hell, even the 20s ended fast(er).
So I picked up the pace, trying to trust in my training, even if I wasn’t going to trust myself.
I also took my 3rd nutrition shot. One to go, and then nothing else. Front loading.
Miles 14-16 (Revving up)
Heading back towards the National Mall, we ran along the outskirts back towards Lincoln, and then turned back to the Washington Monument. My miles steadily increased in speed. 9:09, 8:50, 8:45. Perhaps too fast? But my pace bands indicated I was making up some time, building a cushion. I liked that. It improved my mood. I needed good news.
Miles 17-19 (OORAH!) (or, around the tip of the MCM’s junk — see the map)
We hit the heart of the National Mall. Here, the pendulum of momentum swung even further towards optimism (foreshadowing alert: this was a BAD IDEA). I went NUTS with the crowd. “Devil Dogs!” to all the Marines. “Good morning!” to the spectators. I was fired the hell up. I took my last nutrition.
8:51, 8:39, 8:26.
Note. I know now that this was too freaking fast.
For those of you doing the math, I had built 134 extra seconds over my goal at this point:
2 minutes and 14 seconds of room.
Just in time for mile 20. The Wall.
The first thing I remember is that the wicked wall located on the 14th Street Bridge wasn’t nearly that bad this time, the site of many broken race times. I was still moving, although I let up, just a touch, based on what I knew about the new course’s elevation. Mile 20 took me 9:06, so give me another 3 seconds.
So call it 2 minutes and 17 seconds now.
137 seconds of cushioning over the next 6.2 miles, having run 20 already.
Miles 21-24 (I’m bleeding here . . . )
These miles hurt. I can’t describe them any other way. They’ve altered Crystal City’s course so you don’t run through in an out/back anymore, but WHOA there’s some serious elevation gain here for late in the race. Leave it to the Marines!
I tried to high five kids sticking their hands out, but at this point I was working. The screaming had subsided (from me). I was constantly doing the math, studying my 4-hour pace band. But I didn’t need superb math skills to know that time was bleeding off me.
The Mile 24 marker came, right near the Pentagon.
I looked at my Garmin, I lost 55 seconds in the hills of Crystal City.
That left me 82 seconds of wiggle room left to make my goal. I was slowing, but not by much. Doing quick math, I had about 2.2 miles to go, and a touch over 20 minutes to do them. All with a touch over a minute of room for error.
Miles 24-25.5 (Math makes my head hurt)
I lost another 10 seconds going from mile 24 to 25, running about 9:19/mile.
I was now down to 72 seconds of cushion by mile 25. I needed to go 1.2 miles with no mistakes, and no letup.
Except one thing. One big thing. The crowd of runners here was HUGE.
Don’t get me wrong. The race was well-populated from start to finish. But runners were giving way here from running, to walking, to stopping to stretch. They were quiet. They were also congesting. I needed room to move. This was no empty Mount Vernon Trail.
Initially, I was forced to settle in. I didn’t think I had the energy to weave through the crowd, so I thought it was perhaps better to find a slot and just finish.
As I cruised along, somewhere between mile 25 and 26, two things occurred to me.
#1. I’m still losing time. I might not make this after all. I had tried so hard. Trained so long, and–
#2. HOLY SHIT IS THAT BART YASSO?!
It was. Bart-freaking-Yasso was standing along side the course, off to the right, wearing his red Runner’s World shirt. I’d recognize him anywhere. So I did what any idiot would do. I screamed, “BART YASSO! I’M GOING TO BREAK FOUR HOURS BECAUSE OF YOU!”
I kept running at a pace which (I thought) would stop the bleed-off of time. Then, a few moments later, I took another moment to look at my Garmin. I then said to myself, “Did you seriously just tell Bart fucking Yasso that you were going to break 4 hours when it is entirely possible that you’re not?”
Yes. Yes, I had.
Cue the music, when some intrepid director makes a movie of this.
I increased speed. By “increased,” I mean, I reached down, and summoned some epic fucking power, the likes of which I have NO idea where it came from. But it was prompted by these magic words:
“NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO!”
(yes, I said them out loud)
I’d like to think I said them like Gandalf, or King Arthur, or even Christian Bale in his rave-out audio, but I think it was more like a kid who was told to clear his room.
Seriously. I whined it. But, for a guy who had already run over 25 miles, I started hauling serious non-Kenyan ass.
Miles 25.8 – finish (Really, you can’t script it like this)
I screamed my silly scream. I wailed my silly wail, a combination of despair and defiance. I then shifted to the far left outside lane. Seconds were ticking by. Seconds I didn’t have to give. But I knew this. I was already past 3:58:00, and I wasn’t even to the hill.
I had the shoulders of spectators along my left side, and almost all runners to my right. I called out “ON YOUR LEFT!” to a couple of runners who moved right for me, and freaking CHARGED the course, including that hill. Ran it with every ounce I had left. I was vaguely aware of some spectators going crazy, since I’m pretty sure they hadn’t seen anyone run like I was running for a while, but I was cranking and ignored the spectacle I was making of myself.
I had the remainder of Route 110 to run before the left turn up the hill. Because I am COMPLETELY MENTAL, in the middle of my breakdown/panic/desperation, I still looked down and hit the “lap” button on my Garmin as I passed the Mile 26 marker. I’m not a well person. I get that.
From the numbers, it looks like I had than 40 seconds of room at this point. I know my Garmin said my time was now 3:59:something. I was less than 60 seconds away from devastation or redemption.
I kept charging up the hill. I was aware of the bleachers to my left, and vaguely recall seeing one or two people stand up out of their seats, but was staring straight ahead, looking anywhere for daylight, and then running towards it.
The hill flattened into a straightaway. I was aware that there were some mats across the road, which I’d hoped were finish lines, but the large, red and gold banner with balloons told me it was a bit farther. I kept going. More traffic to dodge. I had to slow, but I didn’t look down.
I crossed, and looked down at my Garmin.
I didn’t see by how many seconds I’d made it, because I didn’t stop my Garmin immediately. I kept walking, in utter disbelief. I recall throwing my pace band, which I’d already pulled off my wrist and crumpled into a little ball, up into the air. I’d done it.
Update: You can see video of my finish here. Go to the 4:40 mark. I’m in the middle of the field, starting from right to left, in a red shirt. I came lumbering up behind a guy in a blue shirt and black hat. At the 4:45 mark of the video, I crossed, and immediately looked at my Garmin. Two more steps. That thing I’m tossing in the air is my 4:00 pace band. Whee.
It turns out I had just under 25 seconds of room to spare, which means I was WAY closer to missing my goal than the 72 seconds I thought I had. But a 3:59 is a sub-4 hour marathon, just like I’d always said. No pace groups. Just me.
Did I cry? A little, probably. I wanted this for me, yes, but I also wanted this for the family of the Marine on my back as part of the 22 Too Many group. I knew they were tracking me. I knew I wanted to do something, anything for them. Apart from my time, they’re getting my medal. I don’t need it. I’ll never forget this race.
Normally, you go and get a banana, water, yada yada and go find a way home. Not me.
I walked back out onto the course. I walked BACK down Route 110.
I found me some Bart Yasso. I shook his hand, told him I was the idiot who wrote the love letter to his track workout, and that I’d just run my first-ever sub-4 marathon, and that I genuinely believed it was because of him. He was gracious, and looked down at my bib number a couple of times (perhaps to alert the police?). But he was seriously kind, friendly, and enthusiastic. I quickly left to not overstay my welcome or monopolize him.
I paused a bit in the tunnel just before mile 26, imploring the runners (this wave was trying to break sub-5, as a couple of spectators told me they were waiting for family members with that goal), and went nuts again. Cheering them in.
Anyway, it’s done. I’m now a member of the sub-4 hour marathon club. Groucho Marx said that he’s never be a part of any club which would have him as a member. I wonder if a bunch of runners will quit marathons now that I’ve joined. 😉
Which brings me to this question: What’s an Ahab to do the day after he catches his White Whale?
By the numbers:
Top 27.7% of all men
Top 26.6% of all men in my age group
Top 21.6% of all finishers