March 25, 2010

Race Report: National Marathon

I took a half day at work on Friday so my mom and I could get out on a 1:30pm flight. I was so thrilled to have her with me for this trip! My mom is so supportive and I just love having her along with me for marathons. This one was especially nice because it was a quick and easy trip that I knew she’d enjoy (she’s not a fan of long plane rides). We arrived in Dulles around 3pm, and were quickly met by my friend Jackie’s husband, Pons. Jackie and Pons live right near the airport, so it was just a quick 15 minute drive till we arrived.

We took the Metro into the city in order to pickup our packets, and I was impressed by how clean it was – I had forgotten about that from the last time I was in DC. Why can’t the NYC subways be like that? I mean, I know they don’t allow any food or drink on the Metro, and that’s probably a contributing factor, but I think even if they banned that in NYC, no one would pay any attention!

We got to the Armory, where the start/finish would be, and there was a huge banner out front – perfect for a great pic with my mom! I was so glad she was there.

Packet pickup was relatively seamless, especially because the pace team booth had my packet already set aside for me. However, picking up Jackie’s packet was pretty easy – go race organization for doing a good job! The expo was also pretty packed with vendors, which impressed me. I’ve been doing a lot of smaller marathons lately, and it feels like I hadn’t done a marathon with an expo in a long time.

We headed back out to the suburbs, arriving back at the house just shortly after Jackie got home from work. After a delicious dinner of pasta, meatballs, and more Trader Joe’s Ciabatta bread than one person should ever eat in one sitting (oops! But it was so good…), we hit the hay for an early bedtime. The race started at 7am, and as a pacer I needed to be there at 6am, so that meant getting up by 4:30am and being out of the house by 5am. I had gotten to bed by 10pm, though, so 6.5 hours of sleep wasn’t too bad. It’s more than I’ve gotten for other races!

The Metro to the start ended up being packed – not surprising when you have 14,000 runners plus who knows how many spectators all trying to get to the same place! Unfortunately, delays on the escalator getting up out of the Metro to the Armory meant that I was about 10 minutes late to my 6am pacer meeting time. I called the head pacer to let him know of my impending arrival, but it all worked out fine and I had plenty of time to put my gear down and grab my balloons and sign.

They distributed pacer t-shirts, which were neon yellow (looked great with my electric blue skirt – you couldn’t miss me!), and I was given an extra bib to wear on my back that had my pacer time. There was a big blank on it and I saw other people filling it in with things like “Follow me to a BQ!” or “First Marathon (of the year)!” However, when asking around for a marker to fill out my own, two strapping young guys offered to do it for me. They giggled like schoolgirls as they wrote on my back, but when I asked what they wrote, they told me I’d “just have to wait for the end of the race to find out.” As I headed for the start with Jackie, Pons, and my mom, they laughingly told me what it said: “Check out my rear!” I wasn’t too thrilled, but tried to laugh it off with good humor, and decided that if everyone else thought it was funny, I should lighten up and enjoy it 🙂

I had to make a quick bathroom stop before heading to the start, but I had been warned that our special “pacer bathroom” had a backed up toilet, so I was supposed to just go to the front of the line in the regular bathroom. I felt a bit guilty doing that, but the lines were REALLY long and the person at the front let me budge without incident, so I figured it was okay, especially since I was helping out the race by pacing. However, as soon as I got in the stall, I heard other women in the line bitching about me: “Well, you would think if she was a pacer she should have gotten here earlier instead of cutting ahead of the rest of us! Who does she think she is?!” I felt horrifically guilty, but there was nothing I could do except get in and out as soon as possible and head for the start.

The start was a bit of a mess – it seemed like there weren’t any corrals, and it was already packed with people, so I just tried my best to space myself far behind the others, as I was the last pacer (yes, at 4:15 – the other pacers ranged from 3:00 to 4:05, a very fast mix!). We got to enjoy some classical music with beautiful French horns that was really inspiring (I used to play French horn when I was younger), and as the music climaxed, the announcer told us that the race had begun! I got a huge swelling of pride when I heard the music and this news, and I’ll admit to getting even a little teary. We were off! Joan Benoit Samuelson and Bill Rodgers were leading the charge, and Joan was apparently trying to break the world record for the fastest half marathon by a woman over 50 – how cool!

As we inched forward to the start, I suddenly realized that I had messed up. All the other pacers were off to one side (behind me), and they were releasing one at a time into the crowd as appropriate. I pulled off to the side as well, taking my small-but-growing band of followers with me, and waited until I saw no more balloons and I thought I was the last one. Across the start line we went!

The first mile had a slight downhill to it, which felt nice, and I was pleased to discover that my knee wasn’t bothering me at all. However, I realized that this was just the first mile – there was a decent chance it might act up later in the race! For now, I introduced myself to the runners in my group and explained my pacing strategy.

There was Jen, a girl about my age wearing a Team In Training singlet – this was her first marathon. Next we had Sanjay, who was from Long Island and was doing this as his second marathon – he had gone out too fast in his first attempt and finished in over 5 hours, so he wanted to avenge that time. Next we had Charmaine, who was also a marathon virgin looking “just to finish,” but hoping that sticking with our group would be a good way to get through. My friend Jackie was going to try to stay with me, at least through the first half, and our little group was rounded out by Steve, an experienced half-marathoner who wanted me to get him to the halfway point on time.

I had decided to pace by mostly even-splits instead of even-effort. Even-effort pacing is a bit harder to achieve – it means you go faster on the downhills and slower on the uphills, but requires you to know the course very, very well in order to time it just right. For even-split pacing, it’s exactly what it sounds like: you hit even splits for every mile regardless of how tough that mile is. I was going with a bit of a hybrid model, where I allotted 9:35 per mile for every mile in the first half (putting us at the halfway point at 2:05), and 9:55 per mile for each mile in the second half. The end result would be a net of about 9:45/mile for a 4:15 finish. I hoped!

I also made sure to give them a warning: I was really excited to run with all of them, and we’d have a great time out on the course, but if they were still with me at mile 25, they had better watch out. I explained that I was all fun and games until mile 25, but that if they made it that far, the last mile would be all mental and I would make them finish with me! Drill Sergeant Laura, that’s me 🙂 I always tell this to my pace groups, and I’ve found that it really works to help people when their bodies are really struggling. At Missoula, I even picked up a new runner or two at that point, and they later told me that they really appreciated the extra push. All I’m saying is, you can run with Bob for the first 25 miles, but sometimes you need a little Jillian to force you to go that last mile!

Anyway, back to the race. The first mile was really crowded and I ended up about 40 seconds behind. I tried to make up for it in the next mile, but this too was crowded and I lost another 40 seconds or so. By the third mile things cleared up, but I was now about 1.5 minutes behind and knew I’d need to make that up somewhere on the course. However, I didn’t worry about it – with 23 miles to go, I knew I could catch up somewhere.

I knew that there were a few Biggest Loser contestants who were running the half-marathon, and in the second mile we passed two of them: Miggy and Migdalia, the green team. They were never my favorites (I didn’t like their attitudes, at least how they were portrayed on the show), but I yelled over that they looked great and congratulations. I really do love that show – it’s so inspiring to see what you can do when you put your mind to it.

The course had us running right down one of the main thoroughfares in DC and by the domed Capitol and Washington Monument – how cool! I kind of wished I had been able to schedule DC as my last marathon, as that would have been a neat way to finish up running the 50 states 🙂 I recognized a few of the sights from a prior trip to DC, but mostly found myself just enjoying taking in the city for the first time.

I had heard that the water stops last year were a big problem – that some had run out of water/drinks but had plenty of cups, and others had run out of cups but had plenty of water/drinks. The organizers seemed to have paid attention to runner comments, though, as this year they were plenty well-stocked. Unfortunately, this year it was a shortage of volunteers that caused a bit of a problem (or maybe not a shortage of volunteers, but a shortage of planning). While the later aid stations were find, the first few had run out of pre-poured drinks and were creating a bit of a pileup as runners grabbed a cup and then had to wait for the volunteer to fill it before moving on. Additionally, the mile 3.1 and mile 7 aid stations didn’t seem to have Gu as promised, which made me nervous – were we going to be Gu-less for the whole race? It was going to be a hot day, so if people were counting on Gu for fuel, there was going to be some nasty cramping in the later miles. Fortunately, the problems seemed to be confined just to those early aid stations and were fine from then on.

Mile 5 was a big cheering zone, and the fans were out in the full force – fun. I particularly enjoyed someone’s sign that said, “I am fat and lazy but you are my hero!” How cute 🙂 This section involved a slight uphill, but fortunately, nothing major. I thought the course was almost pancake-flat 95% of the way, and the few hills that were in there was just minor little inclines, and pretty short ones at that. I guess after my mountain climbing marathon in Colorado last week, everything else will seem tiny!

At mile 6.5, I cheerfully let the half-marathoners know that they were halfway there – great job! To the marathoners, I said not to think about how far we were and how much we had left to go 🙂 Everyone seemed to be feeling fine, though, and while we hadn’t yet made up those 1.5 minutes we had lost in the first miles, we were keeping a steady pace that matched what my goal pace had been for the early miles.

As we approached mile 7, I reminded everyone that there was supposed to be Gu at the next aid station, and to please make sure to fuel. We were now over an hour into the race and the sun was starting to peek out – I knew that the day could turn very hot very quickly, so it was important to get some salt and energy to avoid cramping and fatigue. However, they seemed to have run out of Gu at mile 7 – there were signs for it, but no one saw any volunteers giving any out! That sucked. I doled out the Gus I was carrying in my fuel belt, passing out all but one to the runners around me. I felt bad not giving out that last one, as there was a guy nearby who asked for it, but I knew that if there was no Gu later on, I would need it myself to ensure that I could stay on pace. I just hoped that there would be Gu up ahead!

We turned back toward the starting line where we had begun and got a gorgeous view of the Capitol rising in the distance – wonderful! The next few miles had a few ups and downs, but the biggest of those was just going through an underpass with cheering fans all on the bridge over us. Not too tough 🙂 As we approached mile 10, a lot of half-marathoners started asking me if we were on pace, and I ended up getting a few more to join our little group. As we approached mile 11, I kept reminding the half marathoners around me: “you’re only two miles from the finish… that’s less than 20 minutes of running… don’t give up now!” I felt bad pointing out to the half marathoners how short a distance they had left, when I knew it could get depressing for my full marathoners that they still had a ways to go, but I joked a bit with them about that and everyone seemed to be in good spirits.

Mile 12 gave us a nice long downhill… but on the other side were full marathoners coming back up that hill to continue the second half of the course, so it wasn’t quite as enjoyable as it could have been. Around mile 12.5, the course split, and I wished the half marathoners lots of luck as they headed for the finish line. As my loyal band of full marathoners chugged along with me, it was now time to reassess: how was everyone doing? So far, so good, and to make things even better, we found an aid station at mile 13 that had plenty of Gatorade and Gu. Woo hoo! I took one to eat and then stashed a bunch in my fuel belt, in case I needed to hand them out later in the race.

We circled around at the bottom of the hill and then it was time to start making the climb back up it. After my adventures in Colorado the week before, this hill seemed like nothing, so I was able to keep up a steady stream of chatter and encouragement to get my runners up it. I lost a few to the porta potties we passed near the bottom (including Jackie), so I hoped they’d be able to catch up!

The course followed a bit of the same route we had originally done for the half marathon, and it was cool to see the familiar landmarks. The Washington Monument is now my favorite place in DC because it has a fantastic downhill right next to it that we got to enjoy twice 🙂 In this area, I started picking up more and more new runners to stay at our pace, which definitely made the race more fun.

As we approached the water stop at mile 16, Jen suddenly veered off – her family was there to cheer her on and supply her with fresh Gu and fluids! So awesome to get that kind of support in your first marathon. We continued on without her, but I hoped she’d catch up soon.

We turned a corner and entered a tunnel that went down under the river, and in doing so, I lost reception on my Garmin. I hoped that when I came out on the other side, the GPS would connect the dots from where it lost service to where it picked it up again, and that my mileage would be accurate, but luckily the course had very well-marked miles, so even if I lost the distance, I’d be fine as long as my watch time stayed accurate. As a pacer, it’s so important to have backup systems, so that’s exactly why I always wear a pace band with splits for each mile – the Garmin pace buddy is just too unreliable for a task like this.

In the middle of the tunnel, Jackie and Charmaine caught up to us, and I was thrilled – I had been afraid that they were gone forever after their bathroom break. Coming up out of the tunnel was a bit of an uphill, but we got through it okay, and I was relieved to see that my Garmin seemed to have figured out the mileage pretty accurately. We were now past mile 17 – “single digit miles to go!” My group cheered at that one, as we knew it was less than a 15k left to run.

This side of the river had some pretty views for running – through a college campus (Jackie and I noted that it was like a “nice weather version” of the Breakers Marathon, where we got to run through Salve Regina College) and along a river, all with the sun shining pretty pleasantly. It was just starting to get warm, but so far it didn’t seem like it was going to be a brutally hot finish, which was good news. Heat can cause all kinds of problems with extra exhaustion and your gastrointestinal system (not sure if that’s scientific, but at least in my experience), so I was glad the heat was holding off so my group could meet their goals.

As mile 20 started approaching, I started getting my group excited. All along, I had been promising them a little surprise for when we got to that point – something to help get them over “The Wall” and keep them going. Mid-race, I revised my earlier statement that they just needed to stick with me through mile 25, and told them it was actually mile 20 that they needed to get to, because from there, I’d motivate them enough to make it those last 6 miles 🙂

As it turned out, mile 20 was the perfect point for my surprise. We turned a corner to approach, and found ourselves heading up over a bridge that would take us back to downtown DC – great views and a great place for some extra motivation. Telling my group that it was time, I explained that while a lot of the big races have music all along the course, I’m usually not a fan of those big races – it can be a lot more fun (and a lot more cost-effective) to run with fewer competitors instead of in one of the mega marathons. However, the music can be something I miss in a smaller race, so today, we were going to get a little dose of music to pep us up as we ran. Reaching into my fuel belt, I pulled out my Droid – which fortunately has a pretty large speaker. I set it to my “Marathon Power Songs” playlist, and informed my group that the next mile was going to be “music mile.” As the opening song queued up (Heather Small’s “Proud”), my group cheered, and I even sang along with the chorus: “What have you done today to make you feel proud?”

Following “Proud,” we listened to Rascal Flatt’s “Stand,” another one of my favorites that really has some great parts. As with “Proud,” I sang along to emphasize the quote I wanted my group to take with them: “Every time you get up, you get back in the race, one more small piece of you starts to fall into place!” Everyone seemed really happy to get a little inspiration (and particularly happy that it wasn’t one of my dumb platitudes I had been saying all along), and our little “music mile” flew by. I was so glad I had done it (and talking to people after the race, they thought it was fantastic), so I’m definitely going to use that trick again for all my future marathons.

We were now on a nice little 1/2 mile out-and-back along a river path – super flat, and it was fun to see the runners going the other way. When we hit the turnaround, it was even more fun to see the people just behind us and try to convince them to catch up and join our group. I discovered that Jen (who had lost us when she stopped to see her family back at mile 16) was only a minute or so behind us, and she seemed to be doing great so far.

Now we were in the last 3 miles of the race, and I really started pushing my group from here. We were exactly on pace, but would need to keep it up for another 30 minutes, and I didn’t want their motivation to flag. We talked and joked as we went, but the tough part was that there was a series of small rolling hills in this part – yuck. It seemed that every time we got to the top of one hill and started on the downhill, there was another one looming. I decided to use the “speed workout countdown” approach to help my group get through it: at the bottom of the hill, I’d gauge how many seconds it would take to make it to the top, and then I’d count the time down backwards, indicating how long we’d have to go at that max effort before we could ease up. It seemed to work pretty well – we all stayed together and no one was walking!

Soon we were turning onto a downhill ramp onto a highway and passing an aid station just before mile 25. I warned my runners that it was getting hot, but that they only had 10 minutes left, so to consider that before stopping for fuel. A few people grabbed a cup, but for the most part we all just kept going… and then we hit the 25 mile mark! My favorite part of pacing.

I laid down the law, not just for my runners, but for anyone around me: “if you can hear my voice, you CAN achieve a 4:15 finish… you just need to make sure you stay ahead of me! And if you are already ahead of me, you are not allowed to let me pass you!” I encouraged the runners in my group to give it everything they had and speed up to go beyond me – I promised that if they burned out and I came upon them, I’d get them going again, so it was a no-lose situation. Meanwhile, I started looking for other runners to pick up and bring along with me to the finish.

There were a bunch of guys around me who were walking, but the trouble with not having someone in my group was that I didn’t know if they were following a walk/run pattern, if they were injured, or if they were just tired. The first two I happened upon, I asked if they were injured or just sore/tired. When they said sore/tired, I introduced myself and gave them my spiel about there only being 10 minutes left and how they could sleep then but now was the time to go for it. It worked, and they picked up the pace and headed for the finish. Awesome!

The next runner I came upon was clearly struggling. He had blood running down the front of his shirt (I am SO GLAD female runners don’t get bloody nipples), and he was so exhausted that he was struggling to talk or do anything but breathe heavily. I instructed him not to talk, but just to nod or shake his head to my questions of injured vs tired. He was just tired. Through another yes/no question, I found out he was a first time marathoner, and from his bib, I discovered his name was Taka. He became my special project: I was going to get him to that finish line without giving up, and give him a finish he could be proud of. I had to stay on pace, so sometimes in that last mile I got a little bit ahead of him, but I would turn around and yell “Taka, hurry up! You have to stay with me!” and he’d manage to catch back up.

My watch was a little off on the distance, so I preemptively told him that we were at mile 26, but when the real mile 26 mark came along, there were a ton of volunteers and spectators around. Considering my job of getting him to the end without giving up almost done, I turned my attention to telling the whole crowd that he was a first time marathoner and garnering some extra applause for him. I knew that would clinch the deal: there is just no feeling like that of running down a finish chute lined with people, all cheering you on as you went! As we got to where we could see the finish in sight, I told Taka to just sprint for it… and he did! Way to go, Taka!

Meanwhile, I kept a steady pace, holding my stick and balloon proudly and giving a big smile for the crowd as I came in. The announcer saw me coming and acknowledged my accomplishment, pointing out that while the gun time might be several minutes off because of where we started, “our 4:15 pacer is coming in right on time!” I was so proud of myself. I crossed the finish line just a few seconds behind Taka, and he gave me a HUGE hug and thanked me for my help. I told him no thanks necessary – he was the one who put all the training and work in and made it to the end.

From there, it was a crazy experience. I’ve paced several marathons before, but never have I gotten so many thanks from people. The group who had gotten in ahead of me had all waited around to express how grateful they were, and soon after came a few people who I hadn’t brought with me all the way but were thrilled nonetheless – even Jen, the first timer, made it just a minute or so behind me. It was just so incredible to hear how happy everyone was with the job I did pacing – so often, people just melt into the crowd and I never hear from them again, but as I discovered in the days following the race, a lot of people even took the time to Facebook me and try to stay in touch!

All in all, a gorgeous day for both racing and pacing. The chip time ended up putting me about 1:40 off a “perfect” finish of 4:15:00, but I think I had the most fun pacing I’ve ever had, and inspired the most people along the way. And isn’t that what being a pacer is all about? 🙂

Race stats:
Distance: 26.2 miles
Time: 4:16:09
Pace: 9:46
Overall place: 1318/2325
Gender place: 335/804
Age group place: 70/150


26 thoughts on “Race Report: National Marathon”

  1. Love your marathon outfit with that pacer shirt! That sounds like a great course! Glad you did so well and had such a good time! Playing music at mile 20 was such a good idea!

  2. You did awesome!! What a great job!!

    I hate to be negative, but it does kind of irk me that Miggy and Migdalia were running that race. It has a qualification time that is faster than my half marathon PR, so I am not permitted to run it. I just think maybe they should have been in a different race – I mean, the Shamrock Half was the same weekend. Anyway.

    DC is awesome, so maybe once you’re done 50 States you can come back and run the Marine Corps Marathon!

  3. I am still sad that I did not get a chance to see you race, but you did fabulous, as always! I think you would be the perfect person for anyone to run their first marathon with!

  4. It’s totally embarrassing, but I’m totally crying as I read this in my cubicle at work (I really hope no one walks by my desk in the next few minutes). I used to live in the DC area and ran many many miles on the streets that you got to run during that marathon. Such great memories. I love/miss that place.

    Awesome job.

    Ooh, I agree with Kim, you should definitely run MCM. It’s such an awesome course, and such a cool way to see the sites. 🙂

  5. I wish you got a pic of that sign on your back! Tee hee 🙂
    You did a great job, and for the first time I have the excitement to want to pace a marathon – a way to give back. Good job girly!

  6. What an awesome job pacing! I did National Half last year and it was a blast! I was debating doing it again this year, but it conflicted with FitBloggin’

    I love your creative ways to keep people motivated on the course! You rock!

  7. You are an amazing inspiration! I’m running my first marathon in October and will be searching out a pace group because of this amazing post/experience of yours. Thank you! – Olivia

  8. I am drafting a whole post about pacing and how great of an experience it’s been pacing friends but my eventual dream is to be a marathon pacer. I hope you don’t mind but I will be linking this post. You are a great pacer and had some really great ideas in here for me to use for mental tricks not only for myself but for the future pacing I hope to do. If you have a chance, I know you are crazy busy but I’d love to pick your brain about pacing marathons and how you got into it. Email me redheadrunning (@) gmail. Thanks and congrats again to all the 4:15’ers!!!

  9. Interesting post – I really like reading about your experiences as a pacer. So, would you recommend the National Marathon? As a former DC resident, I’ve thought about doing that race many times – the thought of training all winter has been what has kept me away!

  10. Awesome job Laura! I wish I knew you were going to be in DC for National, so I could’ve said hi. I was there both days volunteering.

    Anyway, great job with the pacing! You definitely helped a lot of people cross that finish line and you should be very proud of your accomplishment.

    I think I might sign up to be a pacer there next year after volunteering this year!

  11. Nice work on the pacing! I’m with you – I would MUCH rather have even pacing vs effort based pacing. I never seem to be able to run based off of effort and end up blowing up at the end if I do that.

  12. I loved reading this race report! your story about Taka brought tears to my eyes! im signed up for the Chicago marathon, which will be my first one and i have been feeling pretty nervous/doubtful. Reading this was really motivating!!

  13. Wow. Amazing that you and I ran the same race (for the most part)–you’d never be able to tell from our reports! So many congrats! You’re definitely convincing me to become a pacer.

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