On Saturday, March 23, I participated in the Marine Corps 17.75k event in Prince William Forest Park, Virginia. I had been eyeballing this race ever since December. Why? Well, I can’t remember when I made the decision exactly, but I decided that I wanted to run the Marine Corps Marathon. I knew that just signing up would be a difficult task – after all, this is “The People’s Marathon,” and one of the most popular marathons out there. It sells out in record time.
In order to avoid playing what I like to call “online registration roulette,” I set my sights on registering for the Marine Corps 17.75k. Finishers of this race would be guaranteed a spot in the 38th annual Marine Corps Marathon, held in Washington DC & Arlington, VA on October 27, 2013. I set a reminder on my both my work and phone calendars to remind me of the registration’s opening at noon on January 23.
I had also coerced my friend Alicia to run this with me, in the hopes that we could run MCM together. Registration for the 17.75k filled up quickly, but fortunately she and I were both in. Always the over-preparer, I had booked a hotel for us back in December. I’m glad I did – it was the perfect location because the starting line was right outside!
Our plan was to drive down Friday morning, first to check out the local running shop. Packet pickup had been there the day before, but we wanted to peruse the merchandise. After some nightmarish traffic on I-95 (think an hour to drive eight miles), we finally made it. I didn’t find anything (I was quite fond of the “Virgina is for Runners” shirts, though) but Alicia picked up some sweet clearance deals. We then headed to the Marine Corps Base in Quantico.
Since I-95 had been such a nightmare, I asked my GPS to avoid freeways, because it appears there were secondary roads that paralleled I-95. I figured the worst we would sit through was traffic lights. In a way, I was right, but I hadn’t accounted for all our fellow rush hour commuters doing the same thing. It was 5:45pm and I was worried that we wouldn’t make it to the base, 7 miles away, before pickup shut down at 7pm.
Finally the traffic cleared (inexplicably) and we made it to the base with time to spare. They were not doing packet pickup the morning of the race, so we had no choice… or so we thought. Apparently traffic was a nightmare everywhere that evening, because there was, in fact, packet pickup right outside our hotel in the morning. This would have saved us some time, for sure.
Packets in hand, we headed to our hotel to check in. At this point we were starving and after dropping our stuff in the room, hit the nearest Panera to carb load. I was already battling some stomach uneasiness (most likely due to the pasta I had eaten Thursday night), but bludgeoned ahead and ordered more pasta, half a panini, and soup. I also got some goodies for later. I basically overdosed on carbs – you would have thought I was running a marathon, not 11.03 miles.
Carbed up, we headed back to the hotel to settle in and try to relax before it was time for bed. Alicia set out her race outfit and took a picture, saying “I’m going to Instagram the shit out of this!” It was awesome because her race outfit was pretty cute. We had decided to go matchy-matchy with pink! Our shirts from the Wineglass marathon (yeah, I didn’t write that recap) were perfect.
As we settled in to relaxing, we realized that the course elevation might be a bit scarier than we had originally thought.
Oopsie. I quickly realized that this may not in fact be a race pace run (10:18), and Alicia was regretting the intense leg workout she had done the day before. We decided to just see how we felt, and if we needed to split up, we would. I was disappointed that I wouldn’t be able to run at race pace, because there are only a handful of training runs when I’m supposed to do this. The next one would be 16 miles, and I wanted to at least see if I could manage it for 11.
For some reason, both of us somehow did not sleep for the entire night. Or, if we did, it was in short, broken increments. There was really no reason – there wasn’t outside noise, the beds were super comfortable… maybe anxiety? Who knows. We both got up to get ready, not feeling all that positive about what we would be attempting.
As we ventured outside to the drop bag trucks, we saw that there was indeed packet pickup prior to the start. Wish we would have known – it would have saved us some time, stress, and expletives. We met up with a fellow Steel City Road Runner before the race start to grab a photo, and Paul went on to start towards the front of the pack as he is a fasthole.
The weather was basically perfect – sunny, clear, and around 35 degrees to start. It was pretty exciting to be running in warmer weather for a change – winter in Pittsburgh has outstayed its welcome. Alicia and I decided to start out together and see how we felt as we went along. I amended my goal pace to my long run pace of 11:00 per mile.
The first three miles or so were on a busier-than-expected road, and there was a lane blocked off with traffic cones. I was a little bit nervous about this, but there were police everywhere and drivers seemed to be taking things slow, so I felt better about racing with traffic.
We made it to the turn into Prince William Forest Park and enjoyed about a half mile of downhill. However, it was a gravel & dirt trail, so I tried to be careful not to roll/snap an ankle. It was pretty fun, despite my caution. As with every race, what goes down must come back up, and we were quickly greeted with a 130 foot climb over the next half mile. At this point, I lost Alicia, who was feeling that leg workout.
Knowing I would possibly be alone for part of the race, I had brought my iPod along, so I switched it on for company. The next seven miles were on paved roads, so my footing was much surer than it had been on the trail portion. I tried to concentrate on my breathing – three steps inhale, two steps exhale. Read more at runnersworld.com about this method – it’s really interesting.
Things stayed relatively climb-free until mile 8, and from here till the end we had some seriously rolling hills. I made myself focus on effort over pace on the uphill portions, and enjoyed gravity helping me out on the downhills. Unfortunately, the downhills can be a real quad-killer when you’re already tired. I made it my goal to run all the hills, and I did!
There were some pretty great signs along the course – at the beginning: “You’re NOT almost finished” and other Marine-style messages like “Today, Barbie,” “Let’s go, twinkle toes” and “You Can Stop When I’m Tired.” There were also Marines serving as course marshals, and lots of volunteers at the aid stations.
In true Marine Corps race fashion, the finish line was uphill. I had pretty much nothing left in the tank, and my last mile was the slowest. I tried to smile as I crossed the finish line, especially when I saw that I was finishing under two hours! Very exciting for me. Then I realized I started way in the back, so my actual time ended up being 1:55:14. I placed 1300 out of 2184 finishers and 529 out of 1083 women. 6 of my miles were at or below race pace! I couldn’t believe it.
I had a quick cool-down walk and realized that I should stay at the finish line to get some photos of Alicia, in case the finish line photographer charged for photos. Soon Alicia came bounding up the hill, as though she hadn’t just run 11 miles of cray-cray hills.
We headed up yet another hill to the finish line area to get our Access Granted cards, which would give us a link and passcode to register for the Marine Corps Marathon before general registration opened.
Check out the awesomest feature of a finish line area I have ever seen:
We picked up our cards and drop bags, and had a short stretch/yoga session when we noticed that the shuttle line was epically long. We grabbed our free beer and joined the line, quickly realizing that we may not make it back to the hotel in time to shower, pack up, and check out before noon. Fortunately we made it with a few minutes to spare, took the fastest showers of our lives, registered for the marathon, and hit the road for home.
I was incredibly proud of my performance at this race. It was probably the hilliest non-trail race I’ve ever run, and to have finished within my race pace was amazing. I had a lot of factors working against me for this race, and I was able to overcome them all and perform above my expectations. It was a huge confidence booster for Pittsburgh in May, and I would definitely run this race again.