Race Report: National Marathon (Part 1)

Unfortunately, I did not sleep very well on Friday night. I had gone to bed around 9:30pm, but had to be up at 4:45am for my very early ride to the start. I just kept waking up over and over, thinking I had missed my alarm and was late. Every time, I kept not looking at my cell phone to see what time it was, because I didn’t want to get completely woken up by the bright light. I figured that if I HAD overslept, my phone would have been ringing by now… but because I didn’t check, I kept worrying. Finally, I looked at my clock: only 3:45am, so I still had another hour of sleep. I wish I had done that sooner – the next hour of sleep was perfectly content!

Two minutes after I woke up for real, though, I got a text message from my ride: turns out he had overslept three alarms and was running late! Maybe I was a bit clairvoyant, huh? I didn’t mind at all though – I was in no rush to get there right at the 6am time I had asked to be there as a pacer (the race didn’t start until 7am), so this was a perfect excuse to show up a little later and not have it be my fault :) As it turned out, we still got to the Armory just before 6am though – proof that our original plan left way more than enough room for error.

As an aside, I could not believe what a fiasco the Metro was this year. Last year, they had opened it 2 hours early at 5am, to give people time to get there for the 7am start. This year, they did some sort of analysis and figured out that there weren’t enough riders to justify opening it at 5am, so they were going to open it at 6am. However, since all runners had been told to be at the start by 6:15am, and since you really should allow an hour from wherever you are to get there, opening it at 6am was really the worst of all options – it meant that the Metro was incurring the costs of opening early, but no runners could actually use it! Dumb. I was so lucky that one of the other pacers, Mosi, had offered me a ride, or I would have had to pony up an exorbitant amount for a cab.

The curtained area for pacers was in the same place as last year, but with one key difference: there were signs on it saying “elite athletes.” I approach cautiously, and asked one of the volunteers if this was where the pacers were supposed to go? She told me yes, and ushered me inside. Ooh la la!

I got my pacing stuff (bright gold t-shirt, stick with time, and balloon), and then commenced the critical debate: tights or no tights? I was wearing a running skirt already, and had put on the tights underneath primarily just to stay warm while in transit… but everyone else at the Armory (including the elites, with whom I shared the space) seemed to be wearing tights. However, as the start of the race approached, a lot of people started shedding their tights in favor of going bare legged. Since I didn’t think it had been that cold on the way over to the Armory anyway, I decided to follow their lead. I hoped I wouldn’t regret it!

After a quick bathroom break, I headed for some meetups with my old running buddies, the Maniacs. So many of them I hadn’t seen in forever, since I’ve fallen off the racing scene lately, so it was great to catch up! I also got to meet some blog buddies and blog readers, which was awesome. Unfortunately, my time was short before I had to get back to my pacer duties, so I couldn’t stay to chat.

Before I knew it, it was time to head for the start. Donning my headband for extra warmth, I went out into the cold… to find that it wasn’t too bad, even bare legged. Maybe this race wouldn’t be as bad as I had feared! People all week had been complaining about the weather (the tweets about the race were mostly along the lines of “I don’t know what to wear because it’s going to be so cold!”), but the start wasn’t nearly as cold as I thought it would be.

Unfortunately, just like last year, the start was fairly disorganized, at least in terms of pacers. We had not been told which corrals to be in, and we had not all gone out as a group to fan out, so I just wandered from corral to corral, looking for the groups around me (4:10 and 4:30) so I could sandwich myself in the middle. When I didn’t see any other pace groups except the 4:00 group, I resorted to asking runners entering the corrals what pace they had put down in order to qualify for that corral – and many of them had no idea. Not good! Finally, I spied the 4:10 group and so I went into the corral right behind them.

Making my way toward the front, I started gathering a following, until by the time I stopped, I had a cluster of about 10 people around me. I was kept very busy answering questions about my marathon background, my pacing strategy, and just about me in general. While I usually take advantage of this time to give my official “pacing speech” (Hello, my name is Laura, here is info about me, here is how pace groups work, here is my pacing strategy for our group, etc), I was still in a quandary. Should I give my standard pacing speech, designed to instill confidence in my group, or should I admit how sick I was and warn people that I might have to drop out of the race way early? I wanted to be honest, but I also didn’t want to make my group nervous if they thought that I wasn’t up to snuff! In the end, I decided to give a variation of my standard pacing speech with all the background/confidence boosters/etc, but throw in there that I was sick and they hadn’t been able to find another pacer, so I was going to do my best to make it to the end, but I would absolutely let everyone know the minute I got off pace, so they could go ahead and not have their race ruined. I really hated to have to say that, but I figured honesty was the best policy!

It was a long time between when the gun went off and when we actually got to start – looking at the clock as I crossed the start mat, I saw that I was starting 20 minutes after the gun! Wow. For such a “minor” marathon, there sure were a lot of people! This was because while the marathon field was small (~2500 runners), the half marathon field was huge (~13,000 runners). Already, the full marathoners in my group and I were eager for the field to thin out a bit at the halfway point!

But for now, my group included a ton of half marathoners, many of whom were brand new to distance running. It’s always tricky to pace for both distances simultaneously, because you have to call out different distances left in the race. For example, if I wanted to tell the half marathoners, “don’t worry if you’re tired, only two miles to go!”, it might discourage the full marathoners, who would still have FIFTEEN miles left. It’s a tricky balance, which is why I typically like to pace positive splits (second half slower than the first) when I’m doing both groups simultaneously: it means that while the half marathoners can look forward to being done, the full marathoners can look forward to slowing down. A win for everyone! Of course, I can’t really do the first half that much faster than the first, but for this race, I opted for a 2:09 first half, 2:11 second half – just enough of a difference to give the marathoners a break in the second half, but still very close to the average time for both halves, so I’d still feel like I was fulfilling my pacing duties.

In the first few miles, I was very chatty. Despite my cold, I was actually pretty full of energy. Maybe this wouldn’t be as bad as I thought! I was sniffling like no other, but I was plenty warm, and was pretty happy with the outfit I had chosen to run in (skirt, tank, t-shirt, and long sleeve tee). Even better, while I had forgotten to bring throwaway gloves, the race organizers had included a pair of cheap-but-warm cotton gloves in our race packets, which served as perfect throwaways. Since I figured that I would be getting rid of them in a few miles once it warmed up, I did the disgusting and used them as tissues – it was a lot easier than unzipping my fuel belt to dig some out from the pack I had stashed, and if I was going to throw them away anyway, I figured they might as well be tissues. As it turned out, it was cold enough that I kept them on for the whole race and didn’t throw them away until the finish. Ew! Runners are gross :)

I was disappointed in the first few miles to not see any mile markers. Around mile 3, we saw a clock, so we assumed that was the marker for mile 3, but it could have also been the 5K mark (3.1 miles). Either way, it seemed we had veered off the tangents quite a bit already – my Garmin was showing 3.3 when we ran by. When I thought about it more, I realized that we couldn’t have run an extra quarter mile from not taking the tangents in just three miles – perhaps this mile marker was just way off? As we continued the race, I found that I was consistently about 1/4 mile ahead of the mile markers (which only really started appearing in the second half of the race), so it was clear that the course had been miscalculated. How annoying! When you’re running a marathon, the last thing you want to do is run an extra quarter mile because of faulty measurement and/or markings.

By the time we reached about mile 4 (by my watch, not by the non-existent mile markers), people were pretty settled into their pace. It was still crowded, don’t get me wrong, but I knew that wouldn’t ease up until the 13,000 half marathoners had turned off to their finish. The important thing was that the faster people were now ahead of us and the slower people were behind, so even though it was crowded, we could run at our own pace. I was grateful for this as we started a slight uphill toward Dupont Circle, where I knew my mom would be waiting to cheer us on.

She wasn’t on the near side of the circle, as we took the underpass, and when we emerged, she wasn’t on the far side either. I had texted her at mile 5 to let her know where we were, so she could expect us at the right time (particularly since we hadn’t started until 20 minutes after the gun), but it was still a while before I finally saw her and her now-familiar rainbow colored “Youngest Female 50 State Marathoner” sign. Right after Dupont Circle, the course turned uphill a bit more, so I was glad to see her at this spot – we needed all the extra support we could get!

The hill was a bit tiring, but really not that bad at all. I’ve heard other people talk about how hilly the National Marathon is, and it just doesn’t make sense to me – I think of it as pretty moderate and flat, with just a few short inclines to mix up the muscle groups you’re using. On the one hand, I suppose anything seems flat to me after experiences like the crazy Run Through Time, where I literally ran up and down a mountain; however, this was nowhere near as hilly as something like even the Kentucky Derby Marathon, or Boston, or even the local Marine Corps Marathon with its godawful steep uphill from mile 26 to the finish. At this point in the race, I still had a good amount of energy, so I was able to talk my runners through the uphills, reminding them to take short little steps instead of long strides, in order to save their energy while covering ground.

As we headed into Adams Morgan around mile 7, I began looking for the aid station that was supposed to have Gu. I usually take a Gu every hour, and it was now 70 minutes in, so I figured this would be a good time to have it. Unfortunately, while I saw the Gu-branded trash cans, I didn’t see any volunteers or tables with Gu! Last year they had been fully stocked, but it seemed that this year they had either not provided it at this station or they had run out. Bummer! I had plenty of Gu in my fuel belt, but didn’t want to use it all up this early in the race – when I’m pacing, I like to have plenty of extra to hand out to runners if they need it. I held off for another mile or so, in case the Gu was up ahead, but then dug into my pouch to grab one – I couldn’t afford to be unfueled this early in the race.

We continued along, getting bolstered by the enthusiastic spectators we found near Howard University and Trinity College. A lot of the students were blasting music for us, and I told my pace group about dancing to the Cha Cha Slide in the New York Marathon last year. When “Jump On It” started playing, I even broke out the little cowgirl lasso move that goes with the song – I was definitely still peppy :)

However, it started getting a bit tiring as we headed from mile 9 to 10, back down toward the start. I thought my mom was supposed to try to catch me in these miles, but she didn’t seem to have made it. Honestly, I was tired enough that I didn’t really think too much about it, and I really didn’t feel like pulling out my cell phone to text/call her! I just hoped she was okay, and tried to focus on my own running. I later found out that she didn’t think she had enough time to make that stop, so she skipped it to wait at mile 16 instead. However, she had a hilarious story of her own! Her old sign, cheering me on as the youngest female 50 state marathoner, was attracting so much attention and questions that she ended up trying to hide the writing on it so she would be left alone! I thought that was the funniest thing ever, particularly since I don’t tend to get that much recognition. Maybe we’ll be the new Kathy and Maggie Griffin, where Kathy does all the work and Maggie gets all the attention! (Except that I would be the one drinking all the wine, of course).

Fortunately, while my mom couldn’t meet me at that point in the race, there were plenty of other spectators. We ran through a few more cheering zones, and as usual, I encouraged my group to walk through the water stations and take some time to drink/fuel. I looked in vain for Gu (seriously, the lack of Gu was starting to get ridiculous for an expensive race that promised it every 3 miles), and we continued along H Street toward mile 12. As we progressed, we came upon a few slight uphills – nothing bad at all, but enough to make you work a bit harder. I still had a good amount of energy, so I kept yelling out to my group to remind them to take little steps, push it just a little bit longer, and then relax and ease up at the top of the hill. The group was still staying together, but now it was time to separate.

As we took the left turn after mile 12, we were confronted with runners going the other way – it was the second loop of the full marathon, meaning we were nearing the stadium! We started going on a slight downhill as we cruised toward mile 13 and the half marathon finish, and I was again caught in the battle between wanting to inspire the half marathoners and not wanting to discourage the full marathoners. I decided that this mile would be about the half marathoners – right after they left us, I could then turn my attention back to the full marathoners.

So I started yelling out as much encouragement as I normally do at the end of the full marathon: “only one mile to go, so if you have any energy at all left, now is the time to use it and see what you can do.” I think most people are surprised at how much their body has left in them at the end of a race, so I always try to get them to push themselves in that last mile! Meanwhile, sprinkled in with the encouragement I was giving the half marathoners, I kept quietly reminding the full marathoners to relax their pace and not get swept up in the excitement of the half marathon finish and the downhill we were currently on – we still had a while to go.

While a lot of things about the course organization were lacking, I was pleased to see that the split for the half and full marathoners was clearly marked, and there was even a person there checking bibs and reminding people to go the correct way. As our full marathon group headed off to circle down and around RFK Stadium and prepare for our second loop, I continued congratulating and cheering for the half marathoners until I was sure they were out of earshot. Half marathon done; only another half to go!

(To be continued)


  1. Great recap of the first half. This was my first marathon, and I started in your corral (I was with @mcmmama), though I didn’t go anywhere near your pace (I finished in 4:53) and your description is pretty spot on…a poorly organized start. But once we got going it was pretty neat seeing the differences in spectators in the different areas of DC. All cool, all different.

    And I’m glad it’s not just my Garmin that was showing that much difference. I was really frustrated with that.

    Oh, and there was no Gu between mile 3 and 13.1 according to the website. I don’t know if that was a last minute change or what, but it didn’t make sense to me. I ended up carrying 8 or 9 with me. LOL

  2. Interesting about the Gu! I always make my pace band based on the website and mark down what they say about where Gu/water/bathrooms are. You are right that now the website says nothing between 3 and 13 (though I didn’t see it at 3 either), but originally it had miles 7 and 10 as stops, and those definitely had Gu-brand trash cans! Odd.

  3. I ran too!! If you look at the elevation charts and compare it to Marine Corps – MCM is actually much less hilly :) It’s just that awful one at the finish that everyone remembers.

    I had a huge Garmin difference – .59 instead of .2 – I think .3 would have been realistic but .59 was just plain discouraging.

    But on the bright side I finished with my 2nd best time 4 months post baby so I probably should not complain :)

  4. That’s great that you’re pacing again! How fun! Sounds like the first half went well.

  5. Just checked out the elevation charts, and they’re more comparable than I thought! However, in MCM, you gain about 150 feet of elevation in 3 miles and then again in 2 miles, whereas in National, you do it just once over 3 miles, and then you never gain more than 50 feet for the rest of the race (and it’s gradual). I still vote MCM as the tougher course, but they’re much closer than I thought!

  6. I LOVE reading your race reports. They are so so detailed, it’s like we’re actually there :) How do you remember all that stuff? Lol!

    Can’t wait for the second half!

  7. Wow, I can’t believe you were able to pace while being that sick…

    Btw- I just typed up a long comment to your obesity post but for some reason it won’t publish!

  8. Loved the race report and all the detail. I know it’s a lot of work for you to write/recap, but I appreciate it. It helps in deciding whether I want to tackle a certain race. Looking forward to part two!

  9. Can’t wait for the second half recap. While we didn’t run it – I had about 3 or 4 co-workers run the half. I wish we had signed up to run the half, but we had this 10 miler we’ve been training for (this weekend) on the horizon. I didn’t realize that I would actually be ready for the National Half by then. Oh well – maybe next year!

    I would love to hear more of your thoughts and experience with the MCM (as that will be my first). Does MCM have pace groups and will you be doing it?

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