This race report has been a few weeks coming – but this time, for a different reason than just not having the time to write it. Even during the race, I was wondering how I was going to write about it later (ugh, I sound like such a blogger cliche), because it was really a not-very-fun pacing experience for me (as you’ll soon see). Then I got so far behind, that I personal-paced another race in between, and that one was pretty much the best pacing experience of my life! It made it a lot easier to write this one knowing that I can follow it with an amazingly awesome pacing report tomorrow. Life is all about balance and taking the bad with the good; today we’ll start with the bad, and tomorrow I’ll end it on a sweeter note with the good 🙂
The weekend started out great – I headed down to DC on a Megabus on Friday afternoon, doing work all along the way thanks to the free wifi on the bus. When I arrived at Union Station, I hung out for a little while to take care of a conference call, and then met up with my friend Leticia when her Amtrak got in. We took the Metro to the Armory, where the expo was, and I was surprised how quickly the city came back to me. New readers may not know that I worked in DC for about 8 months in 2010/2011, and I really loved the city – gorgeous sites, convenient layout and public transportation, and great food and drink. I wished I could stay longer than just one night in town!
Having done this race for the past two years when it was sponsored by SunTrust, I was curious to see what changes had been made now that Rock N Roll owned the race. I knew from friends that the price had gone up, so I hoped the high entry fee would at least provide some benefit to runners. Immediately upon entering the expo, I could tell there was a change – it was definitely bigger than usual. I split off from Leticia to find the pace team booth, and on the way, snagged a sample of hot mac & cheese. Whoever got the idea to put mac & cheese out the night before a marathon was a genius! I am surprised there was still any left by the time I got there. Note to friends: next year, we find a way to do a race after the mac & cheese cookoff. What a great way to carb load! So far, I was liking the changes.
Because I was pacing, I didn’t need to pick up my packet; however, I had all the documentation necessary to pick up packets for Theodora, Ashley, and Caitlin, who were doing the half marathon but getting into DC too late to go to the expo. However, when I looked at the website to figure out exactly what I would need to pick up their packets, I couldn’t believe what I read. Runners were allowed to pick up a packet for one other person; any more than that, and you would have to pay $20 per person for the privilege of picking up their packet. WTF?! I puzzled over this online with my friend Adam, since you would think that allowing people to pick up more packets would reduce overcrowding. But then I realized the rationale: RnR was charging quite a hefty fee to vendors to get space at the expo, and I bet they guaranteed them some kind of minimum amount of foot traffic/business. So if you weren’t going to go to the expo yourself (and presumably buy tons of stuff), they needed to make money off you somehow! Ugh. I was disgusted when I figured this out. On the bright side, when I went to pick up the extra packets, I discovered that no one checked my ID or cared how many I got – and even had I wanted to pay to pick up extras, I didn’t see a place to do so. Lesson learned for next year!
I hung out at the expo for an hour or so, fulfilling my pacer duties by staffing the pace team booth and saying hi to runners who stopped by wanting pace bands, pace bibs, and to sign up for a group. I was excited to meet several runners who would be in my pace group! Meeting people/making new friends is one of my favorite things about running marathons, and my favorite part of pacing is getting to cheer people on and encourage them. The night before a marathon, a lot of runners are very nervous, so it was nice to see them then and encourage them to just relax, eat a carbalicious dinner, and perhaps drink a
bottle glass of wine to calm their nerves and help them go to bed early 🙂
Speaking of going to bed early, my dining companions had decided to push our dinner time up – which I was pretty happy about. However, the new time meant that I had to hightail it out of the expo so I could hop on the Metro to Dupont Circle in time for our reservation. On the way, I worried about being late – but I actually ended up being the first one there, which is always my preference! Theodora, Ashley, Caitlin and I were also joined by Sam and Beth, and we spent the delicious Italian dinner discussing all things related to blogging. I learned a lot about some of the big blog conferences that go on throughout the country – they sound like a really fun way to make more new friends with similar healthy interests! Definitely could be fun to try to attend…
After dinner, Caitlin, Theodora, Ashley and I headed down to our hotel in Foggy Bottom. Slumber party! I was teased for how different I look with my glasses (apparently I do not make it clear enough on the blog what a nerd I am at heart), and it was fun to have friends to chat with as we all prepared for our upcoming races the next day. Of course, the downside of that is how late we stayed up talking – oops! I didn’t stress though – I’ve learned over the years that the sleep you get the night before a race really doesn’t matter as much as the sleep you get two nights beforehand, and I had at least gotten a decent 7 hours that night. Good enough for me!
Instead of the morning coming way too soon, I actually felt pretty good when our alarms (yes, multiple) started going off – however, it also felt a tiny bit surreal to me that I was going to be running a marathon that day. Maybe it was because I haven’t been doing them as often as I once was, and maybe it was because all my roommates were doing the half, but I didn’t quite feel prepared to take on 26.2 miles. But ready or not, here I come! At least I had paced this race twice in the past, so I knew exactly what to expect.
We planned to take the Metro to the start, but when we found out how cheap cabs were when shared amongst four, we decided to just do that. Luckily, we had left plenty early and didn’t have to worry about too much traffic! We made it to the start in record time, and I was pleased to see that we were still able to hang out in the warm and well-lit Armory before the start.
Upon meeting up with Nate, who organizes the pace teams, I discovered that he was very much in the St. Patrick’s Day spirit – as he passed me a beer mug hat to wear for the race. Done and done! My pace team shirt was bright yellow and my skirt was neon green anyway, so the hat was a perfect match to my outfit. (Okay so it was also totally tacky, but whatever, it was festive!)
I met up with my co-pacer and headed for the start right on time… but this was where things started to go a little bit downhill. While chatting on the way to the start, I discovered that my co-pacer and I didn’t exactly see eye to eye on pacing strategy. My co-pacer was used to pacing much faster groups (3:45/3:55), whereas we were going to be pacing the 4:40group today. For me it was no problem – I usually pace anywhere from 4:10 to 4:40, so I’m pretty comfortable with that pace. However, my co-pacer told me that it was going to be “interesting” pacing the 4:40 group vs “a group that had really trained for the race.” At the time, I kind of let that comment slide… but it turned out to be just the tip of the iceberg.
As I expected, I had a lot of first timers who joined us at the start to be in our pace group, and I was so excited about that! While I find it rewarding to help someone meet a time goal, my favorite pace groups are those where I can help someone to complete the distance for the first time – it’s just so much fun!!! (See my upcoming More Half Marathon race report for my favorite pacing experience ever). My co-pacer and I introduced ourselves and let the group know our plan – steady pace except for walking through water stations, and a heck of a lot of fun all along the way!
The plan was for each corral to get released 2 minutes apart, to ease congestion at the start; however, by the time we got to the front (I think about 20 minutes from when the first start happened), it seemed like they were just letting people go whenever, without a lot of fanfare. Not a huge deal, but not what I was expecting given all the hoopla about each corral getting their own special starting gun. But with that, we were off!
The first few miles were fairly easy… but while our pace was supposed to be 10:40 splits (or perhaps a teensy bit faster – I typically like to average around 10:30 for the first half and 10:50 for the second half, to build in some buffer), we were all over the map. 10:25 for mile 1, 10:05 for mile 2, 9:49 for mile 3, 10:28 for mile 4, and 10:19 for mile 5. Even when pacing in pairs, I’m used to being the more gregarious pacer, and the one that runners cluster around (while my co-pacer is usually along for the ride); however, my co-pacer in this case was just as much of a chatterbox as I was. On the one hand, I was thrilled to not have to “carry the team,” especially since it was going to be a hot day and I knew I’d be getting tired near the end. On the other hand, our pace was way too fast, and since I wasn’t in the lead, it was hard to pull the group back. I kept saying that we needed to slow down, but since the first few miles were mostly flat/downhill, my co-pacer kept telling me that we were doing even effort and would make it up when we hit the hills.
But when miles 6, 7, and 8 came along (some of the hilliest in the race), we were still going 10:37, 10:44, and 10:46, respectably – nowhere near slow enough to call our pacing “even effort.” I was really uncomfortable with how our pace was all over the place. Part of why I like pacing is it forces you to adopt a steady rhythm right from the beginning, which I think actually makes it easier to stay strong. When you get your legs into an even cadence, it starts to feel natural after 3-5 miles – and I like that no matter how tired I get, that internal rhythm has been drummed into my head and it’s easier to keep up. As a result of being so erratic, I found it hard to get the “feel” of a 10:52 pace, and so I had to keep checking my watch every few seconds to monitor our pace. It really took a lot of the enjoyment out of the race to have to stay so focused on my watch! People often ask me how I can enjoy pacing a race when I need to be such a Clock Nazi, but usually, I’m able to internalize the rhythm and then chat – not so today. I made some small talk with my group, but I spent a ton of time just checking my watch and trying to quietly tell my co-pacer that we really needed to slow down (I didn’t want to shout it out and scare my group).
By mile 10, we had finished the worst of the hills… but we had also lost a lot of our group. However, with only 5K left till the halfway point, I decided to turn my attention to the half marathoners. After all, they were almost done with their race! I mentioned to my co-pacer that perhaps we should cheer them on, but he told me (none too quietly) that he was there to support the “real” marathoners. I kind of understood the dilemma – it can be hard to pep the half marathoners up by pointing out that they’re almost done without scaring the full marathoners with how much is left – but I was shocked by the way he said it, and that he used the term “real marathoners.” From then on, I tried to keep my distance from him (well, as much as I could given that we were supposed to be running together), and quit being quite so chummy and chatty.
There were a few small hills heading up to the big straightaway at mile 12, and I decided that if my co-pacer was going to focus on the full marathoners, I would spend the next few miles cheering on the half marathoners. I “picked up” as many half marathoners as I could find that seemed to be struggling, asked their names, and then cheered them on by name, warning them things like “come on, Derek, stay with me! You can do this!” This is one of my favorite parts of a race – helping people to push through the last mile or two and find strength to pick up the pace and go faster than they thought possible. I love finding a walker who thinks they don’t have it in them and turning them into a runner who’s done the impossible!
This year, though, the course was a little bit different. I usually find it easy to shout some last minute cheers for the half marathoners as they come to the half quarter mile or so, because the course used to be a downhill on which the half marathoners split off for the last quarter mile. Since all the marathoners are feeling relaxed and easy on the downhill (not hurting), I don’t feel bad at all cheering on the half marathoners, and I usually get some people in my group to join me with the congratulatory shouts. Furthermore, it’s a nice long downhill on which to get people to push themselves harder – it may be 13 miles in, but it’s not that hard to sprint when you’re on a downhill! Unfortunately, the course split long before we got to that downhill (and in fact, I don’t think the downhill was even on the course this year), so I said goodbye to the half marathoners a lot sooner than I expected.
The road got very quiet as we listened to our own pounding feet and sized up who was left. While there are usually a lot more half marathoners in this race than full marathoners, it seemed like this year the balance was skewed even more (maybe because it turned into a Rock N Roll?). As I reflecte don that, it also made me think about how Rock n Roll had changed the race – oddly enough, there seemed to be fewer bands and spectators than in prior years, and we hadn’t really seen any Gu handed out on the course either (yikes, not good). In addition, the water stations didn’t seem any better organized than in years past (at one point, my group had to rely on spectators who handed out water because the planned water stop was totally out). Made me wish it was still the Suntrust National Marathon!
But before I could lament the disappearance of bands too much, we found our own entertainment – some fratty-looking guys tailgating on the side of the road. They were definitely very drunk, and I got the impression they were cheering on a friend of theirs, but their signs said things like “GO SLUT!” and other somewhat derogatory remarks. Um, what? We were all pretty confused, but at least their drunkenness gave us a bit of energy as they cheered our group on. (This is part of why I love carrying a pace sign in races – extra cheers because people stop to read it!)
We continued back through the downtown area, with the crowds much lighter than before – but our pace still faster than it should be. UGH. It was also starting to really heat up, and I knew we were in for a doozy. I reminded people to drink water and Gatorade at the aid stations, because the warm temps were going to be plenty dehydrating, especially when we got out on the unshaded river path. For now, though, we enjoyed the cool tunnel under the river – and an RnR-sponsored car blasting music in the middle. Okay, so that’s one thing the race didn’t have last year!
Soon after crossing the river, we hit the 16 mile mark – “only 10 miles to go!” Shortly after this point, there were some spectators offering something multicolored to eat. I grabbed what I thought from afar were going to be M&Ms… and they were multicolored Goldfish! (Wow, is my vision really that bad?) They were delicious, though a little hard to swallow until we got to the next water station. Definitely a sign that I needed to drink more!
As the miles ticked by, we started losing more and more of our group – which was extremely frustrating to me. By now, we were running right on pace (and had run a few slow miles, so we were actually more or less on track). However, I had never before paced a group where so few people had stuck with it, and I felt strongly that it was because we hadn’t set the pace accurately in the early miles. Again, I think it’s so important for your legs to get into a rhythm – I knew that even for me these later miles were taking their toll, and without the internal cadence and rhythm, it was even harder to keep it going. Honestly, I wanted to just quit pacing and finish the race whenever I darn well pleased, especially now that it was getting so hot out. But I knew I had a job to do, so I kept pushing on… though my thoughts toward my co-pacer were definitely not charitable ones.
The course again changed from what it had been in previous years – now, before hitting the bridge to get to the river path, we had to do a boring and seemingly pointless out-and-back on the street – with the turnaround point positioned just after an underpass. This meant we went down th the underpass, up the other side, turned around after we had been at the top for a few steps, and then went down and up again. What a pointless hill! I was frustrated by how the race organizers structured this – not to mention that running on the unshaded asphalt in the middle of a not-so-nice area was not very pleasant. When we eventually crossed the bridge and got to the river path, we found that they had lengthened the course on that side as well, having us loop all the way around a park before the usual turn that would begin the journey back to the start/finish area. The park was pretty, so I didn’t mind that part, but again, just seemed like poor planning to have us do so many miles on that weird stretch of road beforehand.
And it was in that stretch of road that we lost our final pace group members: by the time we hit the riverpath, my co-pacer and I were alone. In the past, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the river path – running by water has always been peaceful to me, and having only 6 miles to go revs me up and gets me to my peppiest. Today, though, I was feeling a lot less than peppy. I was miserable to have lost our group, and said so to my co-pacer. In an attempt to cheer me up, he told me that people who run 4:40 marathons probably didn’t really train, and were just guessing about what time they wanted to finish in; therefore, we shouldn’t expect them to stick with us, since they had probably picked the 4:40 pace group at random. I was appalled by this statement – but for lack of anything to say other than a complete tongue-lashing, I opted to keep my mouth shut, and mostly gave him the silent treatment for the rest of the race. I could not believe the things that were coming out of his mouth, and in retrospect, I wish I had been a bit more aggressive in pointing out just how wrong he was.
I wish that I had stuck to my guns sooner, taking the pace that I wanted to take, and helping my group to stay with me instead of to fall behind. Technically, the job of a pacer is just to finish “on time” (meaning, within 60 seconds of your assigned time); however, I consider a pacing job to be a failure if I haven’t managed to keep a group with me and helped them to finish stron as well. There will always be a few who drop out and can’t keep up, but I believe that my job is to carry as much of the group as possible to the finish line, so that they finish with or ahead of me. I was mortified to be pacing without a pace group – this was not the National Marathon experience I’ve had for the last two years, and I was miserable.
Meanwhile, the sun was out in full force, and it was now far hotter than anyone had anticipated. The riverpath area is completely unshaded, and the heat had caused many people to slow from their anticipated pace. As we circled the park that was part of the new lollipop course, we kept passing people who had slowed to walk – and as we approached, they would turn around, see my sign, and groan. “4:40??? Are you kidding me???” was the welcome I got from most people, which only made my mood even worse. I tried to get people amped to pick up the pace and stick with us, but even I’ll admit that my attempt was halfhearted at best. All I wanted was to be done with this terrible pacing job and on a bus home.
As we covered the last few miles, I remembered the terrain from years past. I thought of how last year, when at mile 23 I had to tell my group that I could no longer keep the pace (because I was running while recovering from a flu), they told me that they wanted to stick with me and finish late instead of going on ahead. With that memory in my mind, I felt terrible about not having a group – even while sick I had managed to encourage people last year, so why not this year? And with that thought in my mind, I rallied.
We ran past a gas station and then hit a slight uphill, and instead of silently passing the runners ahead of me who had slowed to a walk, I slowed to their pace to ask their names. Once I found that out, I pointed out that we only had 3 miles to go, and encouraged them to keep up the pace for just a little while longer. And they did! The next mile or two passed fairly quickly, with me alternately introducing myself to people and then using their name to spur them on. The final hills of this race can be tough, with no apparent end in sight, so I was glad to have finally gotten my groove back in order to help runners with tackling them.
Before I knew it, it was down and around the exit ramp and onto the highway, where we hit the final mile of the race. This stretch has always been where I take the most pride in being a pacer – where I go drill sergeant on everyone I meet, all about forcing them to pick up the pace and finish strong. This year was no exception, and my mind became jumbled with all the names of runners that I was shouting out whenever one fell even the slightest bit behind. Some were first timers, some were veterans, but everyone was struggling on the hot and sunny day, and while RnR had changed some of the course, they had not changed this final uphill to the finish line. Fortunately, I had paced it enough times to know exactly how long it was and exactly what lay ahead: “There are crowds just a tenth of a mile in front of you! Run for just ONE MINUTE and they’ll cheer you on and bring you home!
I had not counted on the finish line being moved back further from where it used to be, so the 26 mile mark was not exactly where I expected either – but I was right about where the crowds started. And on the plus side, they were pretty decent! When I saw one of my newfound “group members” struggling, I yelled their name to the crowd and asked them to cheer for so-and-so… and the crowd was happy to oblige. When I finally crossed the finish line, I was thrilled that many of the runners I met in that last mile had finished in front of me – so that was at least something to be proud of. I ended up finishing with a big dopey grin on my face, same as always!
It may have been a pretty unhappy pacing experience, but I did finish right on time, and I took solace in the fact that I had helped at least a few runners to do better than they otherwise would have. And to cheer me up after the race, I bumped into one of my blog readers, Melissa, who ran with her boyfriend and finished just after I did!
Melissa was incredibly sweet, and it was exactly what I needed to hear that she enjoyed reading my race reports and had used them for inspiration! Sometimes you don’t know what an impact you’re making until someone comes right out and tells you, and I hoped that while I hadn’t kept my pace group together till the end, I had at least helped the original group to go part of the way, and that I had maybe helped some other runners along the way. No one is perfect – least of all me – and I can really beat myself up when I fall short of a goal. This time, I was definitely not happy with my performance – but no matter what else, I had run another marathon, and I had finished right on time.
Distance: 26.2 miles
Overall place: 1999/3129
Gender place: 797/1414