I ran with the Marines on Sunday and it was great. Every road race should end with a man in uniform yelling at you to “RUN IT IN. THIS IS A RUN, NOT A WALK!” As the Marines say, OORAH. So here is my recap of the race, the people, the nightmare called Hospital Hill and the magic of running with the military.
Why a Marine Corp Marathon (MCM) race? The Marines now organize a series of finely executed races. It would be folly to think the Marines could do otherwise. The most well-known is now the Marathon which, like so many other exceptional road races, sells-out within hours of opening each year. There is a gentleman at our local gym who had been a regular of the Marine Marathon and had encouraged Hugh to look into it. I had overheard their discussions while pounding away on the treads. Like boot camp cadence, I had heard his repeats to do a Marine run. So the MCM Historic Half seemed a perfect fit. The race became part of our 2013 calendar as soon as registration opened. The MCM Half was set for May 19 and would mark my 5th completed half. We would travel to Fredericksburg, Virginia to run admid cheers from some of our nations finest and test our endurance on the final 2 miles climbing the hellish Hospital Hill. Hospital Hill rises from an elevation of perhaps 50 ft. beginning at mile 10 to the crest of 300 ft. at mile 12. Two miles of elevation gain that is fully intended to break your heart and test your spirit. Nightmare. But no worries. Hugh and I cheerily continued to train and ignored the terrain to come.
Our April 5K and the St. Luke Half were in the books. So too was the glow of the Broad Street 10 miler. Our march south to Fredericksburg began on Saturday morning May 18. The weather forecast for the entire East Coast was dreary. Dreary through PA, Maryland, DC and into Virginia. All of our races up to this point had been blessed. We had run through cool breezes and dappled sunshine. No blistering heat or torrents of rain. About the worst weather I had run in had been the bitter cold and wind of the February Frozen Foot. As we drove, Hugh assured me that, barring a down pour, this was the ideal running weather. He was right.
We managed through the parking lot that was I-95 South heading through DC into Virginia. Ten lanes (north and south bound) jammed solid! It was mind (and butt) numbing. We arrived in time to hit the expo. It was fairly sparse by the time we arrived late Saturday. There were 3 races running on Sunday: the Semper Fi 5K, 10K and Historic Half. Each race occupying sections of the same course and at various start times. We headed to get our gear. Hugh’s bib was there but mine was noted as a “lost” bib. Never fear. The Marines had it covered and I was directed to another table and given a new bib with the even classier number 7771. We wandered the vendors and happened on two favs. The one being the Active Sol sunglass gal whom we had met at the Miami Marathon on January. These are the glasses I wear ALL the time and model in many of my race/blog photos. Great quality and price. We chatted and bought 2 newer lightweight models. Our second stop was the Semper Fi Fund booth to support our military families. Hugh got an awesome running hat and shirt and supported a great cause. The win/win of running!!
We were ready. We stopped at Cracker Barrel to chow down on green beans, chicken and dumplings and salad. We downed several last tall glasses of water and iced tea and headed for the hotel. The evening proved to be illuminating. I am not sure if it was the civil war shadows of the south, or pressing power of all things Marine, or the 300 foot cliff to scale in the morning … but we got quiet. We got thoughtful. I began my ritual, “will I do well Hugh?” Hugh assured me I would. We talked about the nerves of doing seemingly impossible things. Like having to complete your first run in the rain. Running for 2 or 3 hours in a down pour. I thought then suddenly of all those military men. Just ordinary men who did something extraordinary. They were in a boat and had to run through chest deep water toward the shore. While other men were shooting at them from above. Then Hugh really put it into perspective:
Hugh: “Weeze. You know why there were guns in the boats on D Day?”
Hugh: “To make sure the men left the boats.”
I was suddenly not so nervous anymore.
Our night continued after that and the fog of nerves were gone and I suddenly saw our race preparations as so funny. Runners can be such divas. Absolute divas. The first man to complete a marathon was the legendary Pheidippides who ran it AFTER fighting and winning against Persians in the battle of Marathon and, it would seem, also did so naked! No body glide for dear Pheidippides. Upon considering the rigors which faced early athletes, the following exchange borders on the ridiculous:
Weeze: “I don’t know whether to wear my aqua under armour or the day glow pink?”
Hugh: “Either color looks really cute on you. I am not sure what socks to wear. The new cotton or the synthetic? Have you seen my new Spi Belt?”
Weeze: “How about fuel for tomorrow? Will you carry Fig Newtons? They’ll have Sport Beans at mile 7 I think, but I am not sure it is the flavor I like.”
Hugh: “We just have make sure to get there with time for me to go to the bathroom before the race. I hate to be rushed at the port-o-lets.”
and on and on and on … running naked after a battle indeed!
The morning bugle sounded at 5:00am. Rise and shine Marines! We left the hotel by 6:00am and arrived at the Walmart parking area by 6:15am along with about 10,000 hearty souls. The morning was solid grey and foggy. It was either drizzle or humidity in the air, I frankly could not tell. Luckily the temp remained in the mid 60′s and we would be on the cool side throughout the run without the potential for blistering southern heat. Hugh’s prediction for perfect running weather was spot on. Had I known the challenges of the course, I would never have wished for sunshine. The overcast skies and light rain proved to be heaven sent once more. The parking was about one mile from the start. We arrived in the area for the 5k and 10k shuttles and as we stepped out of our car were immediately greeted by the presence of Marines dressed in their desert khakis.
Of the Marine presence throughout the race, allow me to share ex-Navy man Hugh’s observation made as drove home after the race:
Hugh: “Weeze, you know what I noticed about all the Marines?”
Hugh: “They were all GORGEOUS!”
True that Hugh! Every single military man and woman at the race was exquisite. The finest. Uniform impeccable. Cap placed at the pin-point correct angle atop the head. Every “Yes, Ma’am” and “Yes, Sir” crisp as a bell. For this race, the ones doing the cheering looked better and more athletic than those doing the running.
We walked to the start, passing the mile 13 marker on the way. The race would double back and finish at the start. The corrals were the pick-your-own variety. Hugh and I placed ourselves in the middle of the 8,000+ half marathon runners. We had also heard during the pre-race announcements that actor Sean Astin (Samwise in the Lord of the Rings trilogy) was running the race as well. The Marine races are known for drawing/inviting celebrity runners to their events. Sean proudly announced over the loud speaker that he was planning to take it easy as he was training for the San Francisco Marathon and was looking for a 2:15 finish. I am sure some of us began to envision Hospital Hill as Mount Mordor with Sam leading the charge.
It was a great race start. Quiet grey southern morning surrounded by the Stars and Stripes, those who serve and 8,000 brave civilian souls all standing at attention to the sounds of our National Anthem. Then the cannon shot sounded and we were off. It took about 7 minutes for Hugh and I to cross the start and off Hugh went in his bright red Semper Fi hat.
I began my pace. I had taken 5 days rest from running in order to be ready with a fresh set of legs. The first mile was sweet. It was not hard to find my pace. The crowd shot off as usual. All running fast out of the gate. The first three miles were running out of the strip mall area selected for the start. We turned corners and finally found ourselves approaching the first of the many hills and valleys that would make of the Historic Half. We entered a tree lined suburb at mile 3 and I high-fived a little girl who had come out in her pajamas to see all the runners on this rainy Sunday morning. I continued to thank all the Marines stationed throughout the ups and downs to cheer us on. “Go Ma’am, you got this.” “Thank you.”
The suburb was a blur of up and down, up and down. I found I was passing the same 2 women between mile 3 and 5. They had on matching purple shirts and were the same size and build. They were runner/walkers. They would run for perhaps 2-3 minutes and then walk. They sailed past me on the run but I would pass them during their walk and on all the hills. At mile 5 we hit a hill and I passed them. Then they were behind me. Over the miles I thought of them behind me and kept running. I checked my pace at the 6.1 mile split and I was running at my Broad Street pace. I was well under a 14 minute mile. I went forward past the statues in the parks and the neighborhoods full of cheery souls on their porches and lawns with signs and cow bells. Mile seven greeted me with men in kilts playing bagpipes! Marines and men in kilts. This was my kind of race. I gave them the thumbs up and kept running. We then were entering old town Fredericksburg. The crowds continued to cheer despite the gloom. I recall running past a beautiful woman who seemed to be dressed for church. Her hair was silver and she was dressed in a beautiful flowing camel colored dress. She smiled at all of us running past in our spandex and sneakers and smiled a sweet smile. I thought she was the ideal southern lady walking up the hill to church.
As I left old town I began to focus on Hospital Hill. I know elite marathoner Ryan Hall tells us to “run the mile you’re in” but I could not help but think about the miles to come. I was at mile 8 and feeling strong. All the core work and rest had seemingly paid off. I felt very strong and was still running at a solid pace. I glanced at my watch and realized that I could do this thing in a record time under 3 hours! I could run 13.1 in under 3 hours. I was amazed. But I had one ^&%^$$%$% of a hill to climb. One thing I have learned about me and running is that I like hills. Not sure if it is the Chi Running that I am trying to practice, but I draw energy from hills. I do not like running long flat distances. Mountains are another story. And Hospital Hill is more mountain than hill.
At mile 9 my strategy became … just keep running. The Marines knew what was coming and suddenly there were more of them. Stationed along the sides cheering “you got this” and “you ready for this hill!” And this is how it went down … leaving mile 9 you come down a hill out of development and around a sharp turn to the right onto a highway. Ahead of you, perhaps a quarter mile away stands another START gate. As tall as the start gate you ran under at the beginning of the race. Next to the gate is the flag marking MILE 10. That is the start of Hospital Hill. There is an announcer shouting out to the runners. “Are you ready for this?” And we all just keep running. You pass under the gate and curve to the right and you are face to face with a wall. It should be called Hospital Wall. You begin the ascent. I made it half way up Hospital Hill. I made it to the parking garage. After the race Hugh told me he had simply walked up the ^$#@#$(. It became a matter of “do I want to be able to live to enjoy this race at the end.” It was that brutal. I walked from mile 10.5 to 11 and then got back into a slow jog. I made it to mile 12 and then walked again. The Marines had kindly suspended a huge American Flag at the end of Hospital Hill (about mile 12.5) and I heard Hugh’s voice, “WEEZE!” I saw him in the crowd and I think I laughed.
I rounded the corner and headed to the finish. At mile 13 the Marine shouted “RUN IT IN. THIS IS A RUN, NOT A WALK!” and boy did I run it in. I knew at mile 12 that I would not beat the 3 hour mark, BUT I also knew that I would have a new PR for a half marathon!!! I was thrilled. The finish was even better. I ran fast over the timing mat knowing that I was close to 3 hours. My final time was 3:08:33. Not bad for walking 1 mile of the course. I walked over toward a line of perhaps 15 Marines all holding medals. One of them said “Congratulations Ma’am, you did it” and he held the medal up and out over my head to place it around my neck. I leaned in and he placed it over my head. That was cool. I thanked him. I moved toward the food stands giddy with the fact that I knew now that I can break the 3 hour mark. There was another handsome sweet Marine standing in front of me smiling and giggling. He must have recognized that prideful self-satisfied smile on my face. I looked at him and I said “You guys run that hill for fun don’t you?” He smiled this wonderful knowing smile and chuckled. I jokingly punched his arm and said “it is all in a days work for you Marines, I know it” and he really did just give me the sweetest smile. It was a great race. You never know how strong you are until you push yourself harder than you ever have. Or had someone else push you beyond what you thought capable. The Marines kicked our collective butts on Sunday and it was great!
So what did I learn from the Marine Corp Historic Half Marathon?
- Contrary to some reviewers that qualified it as a race for beginners, Hugh and I both agreed that on a scale of 1-10 (easy to hard) , this race would rate a 8-9 for difficulty (based on courses we know). It is not just Hospital Hill. This course tests you over and over again with numerous hills and tight turns. Your legs will feel like noodles at the end. As one running blogger commented, “leave it to the Marines to find every damn hill in Fredericksburg.” He had it spot on.
- Pacing is so important. I was ready for this race. This was my toughest race to date and I scored my best time. Pacing was critical. At points in the race I was reminded of the women running the Boston Marathon this year. The leaders remained back in the pack through the majority of the race as solo runners shot out to take the lead. They were all gobbled up by the pack by mile 20. Pacing is critical and it worked well for me in this run.
- Tangents. Why run extra distance? There were a remarkable number of tight 90 degree turns in this race. I was surprised again to see the number of runners who ran wide around these turns. Even if you are running a slow pace (Like me) there still is no need to run extra mileage. I kept it close on the tangents and I know it paid off.
- Core, Core, core, core. Core work is vital. I have been focusing on doing simple core exercises every night. I am up to doing 100-150 of the bicycle exercises nightly. I think that helped in addition to my other stretches.
So that is my review of the Marine Corp Historic Half. Hugh would like to make it an annual race. It was that fun. This was the 6th running of the race with 8,000 runners. Each year the field increases. I think the numbers will begin to swell. It is that good of a race all around – plus the medal is HUGE.
This was the last of our spring running races. My focus will be on swimming and preparing for the Liberty Island 1.2k NYC swim on August 16. I will continue to run and am hoping to average 20 miles per week in addition to the swimming. Our next race will be the Marshalton Triathlon on October 6 . Our next running race will be the Baltimore Running Festival on October 12. I have entered Hugh and I to run the 5K at 8:15am followed by the half marathon at 9:45am the same day.I think we are up for the challenge. The weight continues to slide off. I am down 2.5 lbs. in the past week toward my 4-4-4 goal for November 2013. I’ll have a special fun posting later this week. So until then, be good to each other -