I’m half awake, standing on the Metro platform dressed in a black garbage bag. It’s roughly 32 degrees outside and I’m trying to store all the radiant heat I can. A dozen of us pack into the train the moment the doors open, eliminating all personal space but providing additional heat. We all ride one stop and then exit to a zoo of other runners trying to find friends and soak up one more minute of underground heat. The escalators leading out of the station are all broken. Sorry for the convenience. A stair workout – exactly what I needed immediately before running a marathon.
I was the most under-dressed person I saw the entire morning as I shivered my way around the Pentagon to the bathrooms and finally to the start corral. I was adamant that my 2″ inseam short shorts, a singlet, gloves and arm warmers were all that were necessary. I met up with my Matt, John, and Christine without any problems, and so we huddled for more warmth and waited for the start. There were skydivers landing on a patch of grass on the opposite side of the corral. V-22 Ospreys flew overhead.
My toes were numb and my knees turned purple, but waiting with others and watching the sunrise made the time pass faster. As the gun went off, runners everywhere started peeling off the extra layers of clothes they’d brought to stay warm and threw them to the side. As we lurched and walked forward to the start line, I scoured the side of the road for something easy to pull on and grabbed a zippered hoodie and a nice ski hat. The things people throw away! (That I would then throw away after 20 minutes anyway. Though I did save the hat by passing it off to my mom after I was no longer freezing.)
Matt and I decided to run together, and I was more chatty than usual while running as we took things easy and just enjoyed the run. The road was definitely less cramped than at the Chicago marathon, even though the course did get narrow at several points. The course has a two main hills in the first 8 miles, after which point it levels out and is flat like Chicago for the final 18 miles. Because of this, the fact that I’d only just finally recovered from my last marathon, and that Matt and I were taking the race casually, I was guessing my overall time would be about 15 minutes slower than Chicago. After running a few 10:30 min miles from the start, even that estimated time seemed optimistic.
But after climbing the two hills with relative ease – I was fearing they’d take more out of my legs – and finally warming up and actually being one of the most appropriately dressed runners, our pace naturally quickened. Not purposefully, we just ran the speed that our bodies allowed, because faster or slower would be wrong. We always ran the right speed.
We passed through Georgetown without difficulty, passed the Kennedy Center by the river, and went right around the Lincoln Memorial turning towards the loneliness of Haynes Point. I handed off my gloves to Ellie because I thought I was getting too warm, which of course meant that my hands started getting cold and I had to run another 4 miles before I could get them back.
The spectators thinned out and there was only the sound of runners breathing, shoes on pavement. Everyone was less chatty than at the beginning as we approached and passed the halfway mark. I was a little surprised at the ease with which Matt and I made up time and reached the 13.1 mile mark well under my made up goal of 2:10. Before the race, and reflecting back on running Chicago, I figured it wasn’t going to be much use trying to go slow in the first half to even- or negative-split the marathon. Since we never really trained for the race, it was going to hurt just as much in the final 6 miles no matter how fast we reached the halfway point.
Contrasting to the Chicago Marathon, there were a lot fewer people spectating along the course, but whereas Chicago was almost completely barren between miles 14 and 18, the Marine Corps Marathon had people at the right time as we ran down the Mall from miles 16 to 20. It was a very welcome boost.
I was a little wary with how good I was feeling after 17 miles, and anxious not to jinx things. In Chicago I was already deep in my pain cave, but the cooler temperatures in DC kept me fresher, and although my legs were starting to feel fatigued and I couldn’t accelerate or change pace much, I could keep moving at my own tempo – the tempo where stopping and standing still would seem like more work than continuing to turn my legs over.
At mile 20, we hit the bridge to cross back over the Potomac. The combination of no spectators, nothing to look at, an extra-wide road, and the grade of the road (for drainage), erected a huge wall in front of me. Just as Matt and I started doing math in our heads to see what our possible finish time could be and what pace we could/couldn’t finish in, I reached the point where my body started slowing down and there was nothing I could do to pick up the pace.
It was over a mile before we saw more spectators in Crystal City, and though I was pleasantly surprised by the number of people lining the roads at that point, I wasn’t very responsive. They were handing out donut-holes which I took and then nearly choked on, and a few people were handing out beer in Dixie cups, so even though I was partially delirious, I took some and washed the donut-hole down with some lukewarm Natty Light.
Sometimes, drinking beer isn’t always the best idea.
I had to slow even more to allow my stomach to re-settle itself, but the finish line was getting closer and closer. The spectators disappeared again as we passed the Pentagon and reached the final mile. I checked my watch and quickly realized that although I wouldn’t be breaking my marathon PR, it was definitely possible to beat my time from 3 weeks prior in Chicago. We were holding a remarkably even pace throughout the whole race. I picked up the pace in the last mile, because at that point my body could take an extra serving of pain knowing that the end was literally within sight. We charged up the final short hill to the finish, passing dozens of people in the final few hundred yards, and ended up crossing the finish over a full minute faster than my time from Chicago.
The day before, we were watching it snow in October in DC. Three days before, I was at the proton therapy center in Illinois, getting a 4D CT scan of my insides (3D + over time to track my breathing) and receiving 5 tiny tattoos to mark how my body aligned with the machine. I glanced at the animation of my lungs breathing on the computer screen as I walked out, still a little astonished at how much space all the scar tissue from my tumor takes up in my chest. It didn’t look any smaller (and may not ever be much smaller) than it was 2 months ago, and at that point I really wasn’t sure if my body would hold up and I’d finish the Marine Corps Marathon at all. But I knew I’d start, because a DNF is better than a DNS, and if I couldn’t finish, at least I’d have some fun in the beginning. And instead, I exceeded my own expectations, and a week later, I’ve already recovered faster than I expected.
I’m due to finally start radiation therapy a week from Monday, but I don’t expect to have that slow me down either.