2013 Marine Corps Marathon - The Peoples Marathon

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

It took every ounce of my being to fight back tears as I looked skyward Sunday morning, watching an eleven member skydiving team open the 2013 Marine Corps Marathon.  The jump marked the first official jump for Staff Sgt. James Sides, a U.S. Marine wounded in Afghanistan a year ago, into the Marine Corps Marathon opening ceremonies.  I was simply overcome with emotion as I watched the eleven skydivers descend into the start of the race carrying five American flags, the biggest a 7,800 sq.-ft flag and the largest ever used in a performance jump, while the a cappella group The Liberty Voices sang the National Anthem in the background (Full story). In those moments, a sensation of tranquility swept over the nearly 30,000 runners gathered at start; a stark contrast to the intense tension that filled the morning with Boston fresh in our minds.  Sunday marked the of start of the second "big" race, the Marine Corps Marathon is the third largest U.S. marathon only behind NYC and Chicago, since the tragic events that occured in Boston in April.


I, like most of the crowd, was on edge and a bit jumpy at the start, especially considering the cold weather and excess clothing worn by the runners to fight off the morning chill. A plume of gray smoke engulfed the start line.

The source: a howitzer whose blast signified the start of the race, startling the lady next to me so much that she actually left the ground. I took a few moments to think about the undertaking that laid before me and how fortunate and privileged I was to participate in the powerful and emotional event that is the Marine Corps Marathon.  A few minutes later, 30,000 of us were charging down Jefferson Davis Highway living and running for Boston #Oorah!

The Buildup:
Backing up six months, my decision to sign up for the Marine Corps Marathon was well...impulsive and one that would land me in significant amount of trouble, or as I like to say "Put me in The Doghouse" with Michelle.  I eluded to this rash decision earlier this year in a Where's Waldo Wednesday post and analogized registering to purchasing a new Apple product -  sometimes you just get caught up in the moment.  What I forgot to mention was that I failed consult our calendar, which if I had looked I would have noticed a home Virginia Tech football game against Duke.  Whoopsie!  Unfortunately, Michelle's sister and brother in law came into town last weekend so I missed them as well as the game.  Bummer.

Looking back at my training this year and the number of races I've done, I can pinpoint my breakthrough race to the Hokie Half Marathon, which gave me the confidence to push myself last weekend.  The Hokie Half marathon was a HUGE PR (personal record) for me by over 10 minutes.  I ran a 1:31:46, which if I were to extrapolate would put me in the Boston Qualifying (BQ) range (technically if I doubled it, 3:03:32) of the BQ time for my age, 3:05:00.  Quite a hopeful extrapolation :-).  Regardless, this race gave me the mental advantage I needed to push through some tough points in the race last weekend, particularly when I was cramping around miles 17-19 and also something to aim for in the future, specifically targeting a BQ race and really focusing my training to qualify.  I think accountability is a good thing.  So I'm going to go ahead and say it now for everyone to hear.  I AM GOING to Boston Qualify.  There.  I said it.  Now, I have to put my words into actions.  I really think Myrtle is going to be my race, perhaps 2015.

I have never been very successful at completing long training miles on my own.  This habit dates back to training for my first marathon, the Suntrust Richmond Marathon, completing a 14 miler in freezing temps and calling it a day.  The longest "training" run I have done for a marathon is 20 miles but considering my racing schedule this year, I had several long runs and some longish runs.  Early in October, I ran 26 miles for my birthday but because of my schedule I broke it down between two runs completing 15 before class in the morning and 11 in the afternoon, neither close to the 20 mile mark.  However, I "ran" Iron Mountain 30 miler (actually 28 and change despite the Garmin data that clearly has an error) on the last day of August and the Hokie Half in the middle September.  I really have to credit my growth and development this year to running on trails.  I listened to an awesome podcast with Nick Coury not too long ago where he discussed how trail running improves road speed in two ways: foremost it gives the body and mind a break from the monotony of pounding the road while simultaneously developing strength in the legs.  Second, the downhills improve and develop a higher leg turnover speed, which helps with speed on the road.  I really really believe this!  Also, it helps that I've fallen in love with running in Jefferson National.

Fast forward to last Friday.  I made the three hour (turned into 4.5) drive home to Northern Virginia Friday evening, leaving directly from Roanoke after the school day, and caught up on some past UltraRunner Podcasts episodes along the way, which seem to prevent my behind the wheel sleepiness.  I was slightly apprehensive about grabbing dinner on the road but knew that I would need the calories come Sunday and opted for a massive chicken burrito from Chipotle (minus the sour cream).  New pre-race tradition?

On Saturday morning, my dad and I headed down to the DC Armory for packet pick up.  Last year, I drove directly from Blacksburg to D.C. on Friday afternoon and picked up my packet and a $100 parking ticket  :-( sad panda. The experience, aside from the ticket, was hassle free. Attending the expo on Friday was a great decision because there was no line for bib pick-up and the expo was empty meaning you could actually enjoy it.  However, given my schedule student teaching this year, attending the expo on Friday was a non-option and thus Saturday it was!

After doing some research via the MarineMarathon.com website, I learned that parking was Free at the Armory and we decided to drive down instead of use the metro.  HUGE mistake!  Reason being: we failed to consider the Washington Aids Walk that was taking place near the mall Saturday morning and spent the better part of an hour inside the city trying to get across the race.

Snagged this cool photo of the Washington Monument with scaffolding around it for repairs after a 2011 earthquake damaged the structure.

Eventually we made it to the expo to find this:




This is actually the view from the line after waiting about 20 minutes.  The line continues
behind us (left out of the picture) a couple blocks as well as behind the DC United billboard in the picture and then enters a fenced area, which had several snaking lines prior to entering the bib pickup tent.  We later found out the long line was a result of the power being out and not because of a security checkpoint like we thought.



There were a few brief moments of panic when the Marine informed me that my bib had accidentally been given out the previous day after providing him my E-card.  Whoopsie!

I had printed my E-card from the 2012 race and hence why the Marine did not have my bib.  Returning to the bib pickup and the correct marine this time, I picked up my bib and we headed over toward the armory to enter the expo.  Cue long line number two.  Thankfully, neither of us had a bag with us and we made it through the security screening without much hassle.

Panoramic photo of the view upon entering the DC Armory

There were various banners for pictures inside. I opted for the one without a line.  #Motivated

After picking up my race shirt, the athletic shirt is better this year but I'm still not a fan of the Mock-neck, we browsed the expo picking up some nutrition before heading out.  We had anticipated the expo taking much less time than it actually did and when we finally left around 12:30 both of us were starving.
The line as we were leaving the DC Armory.  It was even longer than when we arrived!

As tempting as the salty-water dogs were outside, I made the smart decision of waiting until I got home to have a lunch that I prepared and could identify everything that went into making it.  The rest of the afternoon was pretty relaxed and involved sitting around with my legs up and watching the Hokies lose an embarrassing game to Duke!  Missing the game wasn't such a big deal after all!

I was proud of myself getting to bed at a decent hour but not before I laid out my clothes for the following day as per tradition.

Pre-race ritual of laying out my clothes.

Race Morning:
One of my lessons learned from last years MCM was to arrive early to avoid any issues with bathroom lines.  WAY early!  Last year, I barely made the start because the lines were 40+ people deep and I consequently wound up starting further back than my intended pace group.  This year, I adjusted my schedule to I arrive at the race early by setting my alarm for the terribly early hour of 3AM.  I tried to mirror what I did for the Hokie Half Marathon and strayed away from my normal breakfast (peanut butter, banana, and honey on a toasted bagel) opting for greek yogurt, a banana, and a cup of coffee instead.  Maybe my new normal?  I left my parents plenty early and made the short trek up rt. 7 to the West Falls Church metro station, arriving a little after 4:30.  This was the first time I had been at a metro station that wasn't open.


A selfie at the West Falls Church Metro Station


Two short metro rides later, I arrived at the Pentagon station and began the long walk to the runners village.  Again, experience paid off here and I made sure to hustle getting off the metro and during the long walk toward the runners village to avoid standing in line at the bag check.  The race provided clear bags to everyone at the expo to use for drop bags, which was smart because it sped up the security check.





The bag check was good but not as thorough as I would have expected considering what occurred at Boston.  After I made it into the runners village, I quickly found the restroom and then found a tent where I sat down and stayed warm.  I had LOTS of time but it was nice to not have to worry about being in a rush.  The extra time was good "Focus. Focus. Focus" time. About an hour later, I decided it was time to strip down and head toward the start line.

Slightly difficult to make out in the photo above, may have something to do with the fact that it was...dark, but there were plenty of portable toilets.  There are probably 100 alone in the photo above and there were three or four locations with about as many.  Then again there were 30,000 runners and any race director knows: "there's no such thing as enough toilets."

I hung out here for a half hour or so jamming to some tunes and staying warm with a blanket.

Again, low light conditions so please ignore the blurry photo but if you look at the top of the hill (about the center of the photo) you can see a mobile police vantage point that was surrounded by multiple black SUV's keeping an eye over the runners village.

I debated bringing my camera along with me but ultimately decided against it because I wanted to focus on running fast and not taking photos along the way.  Good decision.  Additionally, the thing is heavy and pulls down my shorts if I put it in one of the rear pockets.  Hence, my only real option is to hold it because it is also too large to fit in the front pocket of my handheld and into the checked bag it went!

And they're off!!!
I lined up at the front of the 3:30-3:45 corral with my sights on the 3:25 pacer up ahead. Retrospectively, I probably should've lined up at least one corral ahead...maybe two.  The first few miles were rather uneventful aside from the runner and participants in the handcycle race interaction that made for several dangerous passes.  The participants in handcycles are supposed to start at 7:40 but it seemed like they went off only a few minutes before the runners.  Issues occur when there is not enough distance or time gap between the runners and participants in handcycles/wheelchairs.  During the race, on uphills the runners have to move around and the handcyclists can be difficult to see because of how low they are to ground, hence they come out of no where.  Likewise on the downhill the participants in handcyles FLY and runners are forced to move to one side or the other.  Now, this isn't an issue except most runners, myself included, have earbuds in and consequently are somewhat unaware of what is occurring immediately around them, specifically runners yelling to assist the handcyclists "MOVE RIGHT."  It was scary!

I think it's interesting to look at my splits for the first nine miles of the race this year, 2013 (left) compared to 2012 (right).  This years first nine miles were both more consistent and a decent bit faster!

2012 Marine Marathon Course
I did a good job with nutrition by beginning to eat early in the race.  I also drank water through the first 8-10 miles and then began adding the gatorade mix they had along the course.  I brought three vanilla bean Gu's with me and two packs of the Clif Shot Bloks, which gave me some trouble pulling down my shorts at first but I eventually balanced it out.  My only complaint about the entire course was around the 8.5 mile mark where there was a U-turn on the course that was simply WAY too congested for the volume of runners on the course.  Last year, the course differed in that we ran along the river much longer.  Consequently this years course was flatter because of the change.  However, I really enjoyed the fact that we got to see the leaders coming our way as we headed out along the course.  I gave local ultrarunner and North Face athlete Mike Wardian a big yell, he later finessed in 2:27:06!

2013 Marine Marathon Course
Eventually, I caught up to the 3:25 pace group and hung out with them from around mile 5-6ish through mile 13.  It was pretty funny that a guy in the 3:25 pace group and I were wearing identical outfits including black arm warmers, a electron blue purple singlet, and electron blue purple shorts.  He was tuned into his headphones but around the 12 mile mark before I ran ahead of the pace group I pulled up next to him and said "Dude! Nice outfit!" and we both had a pretty good laugh about how silly we looked running side-by-side.  Perhaps it was the thought of running with my twin that made me speed away but around the 13 mile mark I began to ever so slightly distance myself from the group.

Again, the splits for the miles 10-22 of the race 2013 (left) to 2012 (right) were more consistent and faster (aside from miles 18, 19, and 20) this year!

The second time I saw my parents around mile 20ish!
As we rounded our way onto the mall we were met with a roar of noise and I let myself get a bit carried away, which I think led to my first cramp of the run around the 17 mile mark.  I stopped to stretch it out and feared the rest of the race would follow a similar patter to my previous marathons, mainly a dramatic decrease in pace around the 17-19 mile mark.  However, as I rounded the mall my mom came out of no where and popped out of the crowd and onto the street. Both of my parents had made it to the mall (by accident) and were able to find me in the sea of runners.  To say it was uplifting to see them is a huge understatement.  Considering the cramps I was pushing through it could have been easy to back off and be content trotting it in but seeing my parents and wanting to make them proud gave me another gear.

Unfortunately, I had run past my dad but managed to stop and say a quick hello to my mom before continuing toward the Capital.  I would cramp again shortly after seeing my parents and again on the other side of the mall prior to seeing them a second time.  This is reflected in the spikes in pace (blue spikes) and corresponding drops in cadence (footsteps/minute in purple) below.

Elevation profile with pace and cadence data!

I was fortunate to keep it together and forced nutrition between miles thirteen and 22 in hopes of fixing the cramping issue.  I remember last year thinking the Crystal City portion of the race was FOREVER long...and it is because it entails miles 23 & 24 and is one big loop heading out right next to where you started.  I'm beginning to grasp the benefits of course familiarity because I knew what I had remaining after I left Crystal City and felt confident I could hit my goal of 3:27.  I recall last year cramping on the overpass right before the off ramp...mile 25 and change...and telling the folks who were asking if I was okay that "I didn't want four hours to slip away." 


The final mile splits of the 2013 (left) and 2012 (right) Marine Corps Marathon.  Not as large of a difference in the last four miles between the two years, I even ran the final mile faster last year!

As I ran across that same overpass this year I was thinking how far I've come in one year and how much better I felt than at this same point last year.  However, that last mile was a kick in the teeth and I was fighting off running through cramps but allowed myself to walk a good 1/4 mile near the end.  I gave myself until I ran underneath the exit sign and then told myself I wouldn't stop until I crossed the finish line.  The uphill finish was agony and both of my legs locked up but I pushed through to the end.  


Ultimately, I crossed the finish line with a gun time of 3:28:06, which I was ecstatic with but would have loved to knock an actual full half-hour off my time.  That's a runner for you - Never Satisfied!


At the end of the day, I had a massive PR taking 29:29 off my best marathon time, which happened to be last years Marine Corps Marathon.











The announcer calling off names quickly must have seen the name above mine and combined our names!  "Going forward I will be known as John Sherfy" I actually don't cross the finish line for another 10 seconds or so after he says my name (Cross at 23 seconds).  I'm on the far side of the road near the white barrier for most of the run in and manage to raise my arms as I cross the finish line!



For me, collecting the medal doesn't really mean much but what does mean a lot to me was being able to shake the hands of about 100 Marines in the finish shoot and the opportunity to tell them Thank You for everything you do.  That to me is the essence of the Marine Corps Marathon.  Humbling.  Inspiring.  And a very emotional experience.  After collecting my medal and box of food, I made the trek up to the family meet up area where I found my parents and quickly headed toward the massage area.  I read an article this week that actually recommended forgoing the post race massage because of the fact that your muscles are already inflamed.  Now I don't know what to think?  My dad snagged the photo to the right while I was waiting for the massage.  The line was quick and I managed to finish quick enough that it wasn't really an issue.  I also picked up a finisher shirt because as I mentioned above I'm not a huge fan of the race Mock Neck shirt and the finishers shirts made by Brooks are freakin' SWEET!  Last year, I had to wait until they put the extras up on the Brooks website (in January) and was fortunate enough to get one before they ran out of mediums.  In fact, I ran the entire race with cash and my debit card in my handheld so I could purchase a shirt at the finish, although it was unneeded - Thanks Mom & Dad!  The entire post race process was much more efficient this year including the bag pickup, metro line, massage line, etc.  This will serve as sufficient motivation to run fast in the future and finish before the bulk of the runners.  At the end of the day, there were 23,480 Marine Marathon finishers and I was very pleased placing 1277 overall.

No race would be complete without a delicious meal afterwards and normally being in D.C. I wouldn't think twice about hopping on the metro over to Dupont Circle to grab Shake Shack.  However, on Sunday it just didn't appeal to me and I also didn't want to deal with the added couple hours of hopping trains and waiting to catch them back yada yada. Instead, we headed directly home and grabbed a late lunch at Sweetwater, a meal I would argue was WAY more healthy for me than a couple burgers, cheese fries, and a shake.  The acorn squash - OMG!






After lunch, I started the long four hour drive home to Blacksburg.  The drive wasn't very bad and I stopped around the halfway mark to get out and stretch my legs.  I was even treated to a gorgeous sunset over the Blue Ridge!



Finally, I told Michelle I have every intention of running the Marine Corps Marathon again next year. Easier said than done.  The race management has opted to use a lottery system next year because of the issues that occurred with registering for the race this year, which will make getting into the race more interesting! I've also expressed interest in running NYC next year but there is a lottery for that race as well.  I guess I just have to wait and see what happens!

Below is the Garmin data from the race that I've uploaded to Strava:


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