I almost didn't hear the howitzer blast that signified the start of the 39th Marine Corps Marathon. I was too busy nervously chattering about my watch. It almost felt a little anticlimactic. Partially because I only half heard it, but mostly because it took a while for my race to actually start. Crowded as close to the 4:15 pace balloons as I could get, I shuffled forward towards the start line. The crowd started jogging as the big red arch came into view and my heart sped up as my feet did. I hit the start line running and felt the biggest smile ever on my face. It was GO TIME!
People had told me two things about the start of this particular marathon. 1- it's crowded. Be ready to do a lot of weaving and passing, and keep your elbows tucked in tight. 2- it's hilly. The first mile is flat, but after that it's 3 or 4 miles of long gradual climbs. Because of that first thing, I didn't even notice the second thing. Even though I had been told, I wasn't prepared for the crowd at the very beginning. It didn't help that some people seemed to be just barely jogging, and some people started taking walk breaks before we were even a mile in. Then there were the dudes who started darting off to the side for a pee break right away. Guess they wanted to avoid the porta potty lines in the runner's village!
I kept my eyes on the 4:15 balloons and started weaving. Being short was a hazard. I narrowly avoided (very narrowly) being elbowed right in the face several times. I was elbowed in the sides a lot, and had my heels nipped by other runners a few times too. I found my openings though and eventually made it up next to the 4:15 pace team leader. I wasn't able to hold my place next to him for long (I guess I'm not a very aggressive racer?), but losing him and then making my way back up to him was a good focus for several miles!
I was feeling good there in the beginning. Like really really good. So good that sometime around mile 4 I surged a little ahead of the 4:15 pace balloons. Not too far though. I knew I wanted to grab some water at the next water station and figured that would put me back by the balloons. I was right. I ran comfortably with the pace team for several more miles, and then at mile 8 I passed him again. I decided at that point to go ahead and make the race my own. I felt I had paced well in the very beginning, but keeping my eyes on the balloons was getting annoying, and I had my bracelet with splits for a 4:15 finish that I could keep track of.
This was definitely my race 'sweet spot'. I spent a little time on the back part of a long out and back looking for friends going the other direction, but didn't see any. Around mile 8 I started dedicating miles to different people. I had planned to do this every other mile from mile 8 to mile 20. Once I hit mile 20 I had prayer requests to take me through each half mile til the end.
One of the first miles I dedicated was to my Poppop. First I prayed for him, and for all of us here missing him since he passed. Then I started imagining I was talking to him. He used to often drive me to and from ballet to help my mom out and we used to have the best conversations in the car. Those are some really special memories and imagining I was talking to him during the race brought them back. I could hear him saying, "Well isn't that something?" as I told him about my GPS watch and the electrolyte tablet I put in my water. Felt the pat on the back and heard his famous, "Well done!" as I passed the next mile marker. That mile I dedicated to him was one of the most special of the entire race.
When I reached mile 10 I started getting excited because I knew some of my friends were there somewhere. I hugged the right side of the road and scanned the crowds for them. At one point I switched my watch to the 2nd screen and saw that I was, at that time, running around an 8:20/8:30 pace. To finish at 4:15 I needed to average 9:44 min miles. I was going much to fast, and not only halfway in. I had read the articles and listened to the advice. I knew do not try to 'bank time' in the beginning of a marathon. And yet here I was thinking, "Well I'm a solid 3 minutes ahead of where my spits bracelet says I should be. That could help later." and I kept my pace. This was not a good plan. At the time though, I felt like I could fly. I felt so amazing!
So anyway, I'm running along (way too fast) still scanning the crowds for my friends and then I see a Stroller Warriors sign ahead. About a second after I saw the sign, I heard them screaming my name. I think I actually leapt over to them rather than ran. I was so excited to see them! I high fived and grabbed their hands and screamed something intelligible. It was awesome.
I rode the high of seeing my friends for a long time after that. I was starting to feel tired though. I knew I was coming up on potential sightings of my parents and kids. We had mapped it out a couple days before. Mile 11 was a maybe, we were trying to make mile 16 a definite, and then mile 18ish was a maybe depending on how fast they made it over to the Smithsonian Metro stop. I started scanning the crowd again.
Mile 11 passed and I didn't see them. I knew we were heading out to Haines Point now. The notoriously tough, quiet part of the race. No spectators, and not much sound beyond the sound of feet hitting pavement and the wind coming in off the water to our right. I also knew the 'blue mile' was coming up. The mile dedicated to fallen service members. I was starting to feel fatigued and I had all the hardest parts ahead of me.
I kinda had to pee. It wasn't urgent at all, in fact it was a feeling that probably would have gone away had I ignored it, but I saw a real bathroom ahead. I loathe porta potties (don't most people?) so I didn't want to pass up the opportunity so I headed in. Of course there was a long line. So I just stood there watching time tick by on my watch thinking, "Well. This wasn't the best decision." But oh well. Hindsight, right?
Back on out on the road, I started thinking about our friend Phil who had been KIA in Afghanistan 2 1/2 years prior. I was thinking of him, praying for him and for his family, as I entered the 'blue mile'. An entire mile lined with photos of fallen service members and American flags. The quiet racers got even quieter. People stopped to touch and pray over photos of people they knew. I wanted to stop and hug every single volunteer standing with a flag. I slowed down on purpose this mile so I could look at every single picture. I don't think there's really a way to truly convey the feelings and emotions of that mile. There was pride and sorrow. Relief and thankfulness. Sadness and even some anger.
Moving on from that mile it took some time to collect myself, and I noticed most runners around me needing to do the same. I knew we were coming to the end of Haines Point and I started getting ready to look for my family again. I now had this burning, desperate feeling to see them. It started to totally consume my thoughts. I just wanted to kiss my kids and it was my main goal right then.
After many quiet (and introspective) miles, turning a corner and running into crowds of spectators again was a bit of a shock. If I ever go watch this marathon one day, I want to be there at the end of Haines Point. I would be interested to see if everybody had the baby deer in headlights look on their face that I felt on mine.
I was singularly focused on my babies at this point. Running as close to the edge of the sidewalk as I could get. I saw mile marker 16 (my watch was almost a full half mile ahead of the mile markers because of all the weaving I had done in the beginning) and knew they should have been around there somewhere, but I never did see them. My mom told me later that I did pass them, and that she even chased my down for a little bit, but I guess the noise of the crowds drowned them out and I missed them. I passed mile marker 17 and knew I just had one more chance to see them.
I was behind pace now, but was totally okay with that. I wanted to finish at least around 4:30ish and I was looking good for that, so I just kept trucking along. Once, while on a quick walk break to hydrate and fuel, the 4:30 pace balloons passed me, but I got ahead of them when I started up again and didn't see them again.
I hit the 18 mile marker and started feeling some weird, pulling, stretching pains on the insides of my knees. Having never felt anything like it before I was pretty thrown, but just ran through and it eased off. This is the part of the race where, looking back, I wish I had taken more time to notice my surroundings. We were running through the National Mall, past the Smithsonians and right in the front of the Capitol. On Marathonfoto, there's an awesome picture of me running with the Capitol dome right behind my head, but I barely even remember seeing it! I was half in tears at this point, knowing my last chance to see my kids was coming up.
I've been to DC and the Mall enough that I had my bearings at this point and knew where to look for my family. When I passed the Smithsonian Metro station and didn't see them I broke down a little bit. I wanted to kiss those babies so badly. So now I wasn't just running to the finish line, I was running to my kids.
After the Mall, it got quiet again. I knew the big party in Crystal City was soon, but first it was quiet. We were on a looooong overpass bridge. It looked familiar. I didn't pay a ton of attention to the course details, but I'm pretty sure it was I-395 because I felt as though I'd driven there before. It got ugly up there. A lot of runners walking. A lot of runners crying or looking like they wanted to (I was, off and on). A lot of runners standing off to the side stretching. I was tempted to pull of and stretch a little because those weird knee pains were coming and going, but I didn't know if I could get going again if I stopped. The knee pains were only working their way out if I walked a little at this point though. I was going through my prayer list (because at this point I was beyond the 20 mile mark) and it helped me keep my focus.
After that long, tough bridge we hit a wall of noise as we ran into Crystal City. Music, screaming, cheering. People drinking and handing out beer (I made a wide berth around them, expecting the runners who were knocking back beer at mile 22 might puke). The streets narrowed a bit here so it got crowded again, but I found a comfy spot and stayed put. No weaving and passing now.
At one point in Crystal City there was a glorious hose showering an icy cold must onto the runners. Absolutely heavenly.
Once outside Crystal City I knew it was the homestretch, and not only because the Marines lining the roads were yelling, "You're almost there! 2 more miles! That's nothing! You're amazing!" I was definitely crying at this point because it was pretty easy to imagine that those guys in uniform were my husband who I was missing pretty badly at that point. Then a Marine handed me a Dixie cup with 2 Dunkin Donuts munchkins. I tossed 1 and ate the other. Holy cow was it good, but I was so exhausted and my mouth so dry (even though I was definitely well hydrated!) it took me an entire mile to eat that munchkin.
My watch being a half mile ahead was messing with my head. I passed the 25 mile marker and my watch was saying I was almost done, but the 1.2 miles I actually had to the finish were looking long. I was walking to ease my knee pain when I heard my name. I had been looking down at the ground so I looked up and there were my friends. Oh. I cried. I started bawling. I mumbled, "Can knees explode?" and my amazing friends fell into step (in their jeans) beside me. I stated running again and said, "I feel like I'm dying." What they said was better than, "No you're not!" which somehow wasn't what I needed to hear. They said, "I know." They knew. They knew how hard I'd been working. They knew what I was feeling. Then they said, "You've got this Sarah. You're so close. You've got this." They knew that too. So I smiled for the first time in many miles and surged ahead. The pictures they captured are my favorite of the whole weekend.
Shortly after seeing them my watch officially hit 26.2 miles. I almost stopped and saved it then, but I knew it would save that time (4:26:52) as my fastest marathon time and I wanted to see what my total distance ended up being.
We were on the same road now that we had walked in on off the Metro that morning. Which made me irrationally angry. "I already DID THIS!" But I pushed on.
The sound of the crowd started getting LOUD and I knew we were almost there. We turned and I saw 'the hill' that everybody talks about. That *insert curse word here* was steep. And all along I had been thinking the finish line was right at the top of the hill, but there was a turn and a bit of a straightaway to the finish. I had to walk a couple steps at the top of that dang hill, but then my mind screamed, "MY BABIES!" and I pushed the pace all the way through the finish line.
I stopped my watch (26.73 miles in 4hours 32 minutes and change) and slowed to a walk, following the herd that had finished around me. I had a moment, "HOLY CRAP I FREAKING DID IT." and then burst into tears.
We all herded (I can't think of any other word to use. I felt like we were cattle) into lines. I stood there for a minute in a daze, texting James and my mom (who mercifully told me what street corner they were on so I didn't have to truck it all te way out to the family meet up) before thinking, "What the heck am I in line for?". I asked the guy in front of me, "Are we getting medals here?" He said, "I hope so!" and, sure enough, a Marine was placing that (heavy!) medal around my neck a minute later.
After getting medals, another Marine handed me an empty bag. I looked up at him, still crying a little, and said, "What do I do with this? Where are my kids?" He kinda smiled, I'm sure I wasn't the first half delirious and confused runner with questions, and said, "Follow everybody else and get food and water."
I got my bag filled with water, protein shakes, a food box, bananas, and I grabbed a cool paper recovery jacket that said "Mission Accomplished" and started heading towards my family. I kinda wished I had turned my watch back on to see how far we walked after! It was nuts! Probably good for the muscles though.
Finally. I saw my dad. He and my mom hugged me, but I was crying and saying, "Sam. Let me hold Sam." Of course, he says, "Mama you're sweaty! Put me down!" and Kate had no interest either. Whomp whomp. I had been desperate to hold them and kiss them since mile 12. And no dice. It was so good to see their little faces anyway!
There was so much going on around us. A beer tent (and I had a ticket for a free beer!), massage tables, food, music, and tons if people. But I turned to my mom and said, "I wanna go. I want to go back to the hotel." so we made our way to the Metro.
On our slow walk there, I checked Facebook. I thought the emotional moments were over for the day, but oh man was I wrong. I knew a lot of oeople had been tracking me me, I thought of them frequently while out on the course, but I had no idea just how many until I opened Facebook! The posts and comments made while I was running, and then all the congratulatory posts that started coming in the moment I crossed they finish line, I was overwhelmed with all the love! I am so incredibly thankful to be so blessed with such amazing friends and family all over!
We made our way to the Metro station and stood on the packed platform waiting for our train. I looked around and saw my feelings reflected in the tired and euphoric faces around me. That's when it really hit me. These were my people. I belonged here. I did it. I was a marathoner.