March 19, 2013

Race Report: Rock N Roll USA Marathon

Unlike Sevilla, my night before the race in DC was practically perfect. My flights to DC from Dallas went smoothly, including upgrades to first class so I could stretch out, and I even had time to grab some oatmeal in the Delta SkyClub on my layover in Cincinatti. I arrived in DC midday, hungry for lunch, and after meeting up with Theodora, I picked up a falafel wrap for lunch at a nearby food truck. The pillowy pita bread was perfect – exactly the kind of carb-y indulgence I love just before marathon. Thank you, House of Falafel!

After getting a bit more work done, Theodora and I met up with Emily and headed over to the expo at the Armory. As usual, the Armory was packed, and I found the expo really overwhelming. It’s set up in a grid, which is convenient if you want to get to a specific booth, but really inconvenient because there isn’t one set directions – so people were pushing in all directions and it was hard to get anywhere quickly. I lost Theodora and Emily a few times as I snacked on some of the samples (Powerbar Gel Blasts are delicious!), and also managed to finally meet up with Lesley for the first time. Theodora also introduced me to the super-sweet Anne, so it was a whole afternoon of meeting new friends!

We headed back from the expo and Theodora snuck in a quick two mile shakeout run while I lazily caught up on email. I couldn’t believe how fast she was done – it seemed like I had barely gotten through three work emails before she was back! – which just goes to show there’s no excuse for skipping on exercise. By the time she returned, we were both starving, so we eagerly headed out for pasta.

Theodora and I chose to go to Famous Luigi’s, which I remembered from previous years as having average pasta, but excellent bread and large portions. The bread unfortunately wasn’t as good as I remembered it, but I was very happy with my big plate of spaghetti, and I did really like the kitschy and crowded atmosphere. The restaurant was totally packed with runners, so as a result our waiter forgot my second glass of wine, but when the bill came and was only $20 per person, I couldn’t complain! And perhaps it was better that I skipped that second glass of wine anyway.

When I went to bed, I made sure to plug in my phone, Nike+ Fuelband, and Garmin to charge (so many devices these days!). However, when I woke up and pulled my Fuelband from my laptop’s USB port, I heard my Garmin chirp. Huh?? Turns out my computer apparently only allows use of one USB port at a time – so while my (fairly worthless) Fuelband had been sucking up juice, my Garmin was still at 0% charged! I quickly began to panic – as a pacer, my Garmin is pretty much the most important thing for my race, and I knew there was no way I could now charge it in time. The best I could hope for was charging it as long as possible until I had to be at the start… which unfortunately was less than an hour away! This is the second time I’ve had Garmin charging issues (the first time due to sheer idiocy when I forgot to plug it in), but I think I’ve now learned my lesson: charge it two days before, just in case!

I headed down 14th Street with Emily and Theodora, but then parted ways so I could take advantage of the indoor VIP area at the Willard Hotel to hopefully find an outlet for my Garmin. I was lucky enough to find tons of outlets, and in the meantime, chowed down on half of a whole wheat bagel and a bit of light cream cheese. With only 20 minutes until I had to be at the start to meet my co-pacer, that didn’t leave much time for charging, so my Garmin only got to about 35% before I pulled the plug and left. I knew it wouldn’t be nearly enough juice to last for an entire 26.2, and I was so frustrated!

But when I arrived at the start, I found more cause for alarm – I didn’t see the pace team leaders anywhere near 14th and Constitution, where we were supposed to assemble. Assuming they had just headed out to the corrals early, I headed for #17… but found no pace signs in sight. What the heck?? Dread now crept over me as I realized I was about to pace a marathon with no co-pacer, no pace sign, and hardly any Garmin. I frantically tried calling both the pace team coordinator and my co-pacer, but both had their phones turned off. Should I just give up on pacing and run whatever pace I wanted? While I love meeting people and helping them to reach their goals, I wasn’t confident that I’d be able to do either in this race, since I had neither a sign nor a fully-charged Garmin. Honestly, I get kind of stressed out before I pace a race (what if I screw it up??) and this was now all my worst fears about pacing come true.

But just when I was about to throw in the towel and decide to run my own race, a guy approached. “Are you the 4:10 pacer?” he asked, pointing to the sign on my back. Of course, we had given out similar signs to anyone at the expo who declared they were going to run with us, since it’s a good way to keep the group together, but apparently he didn’t know that and instead had guessed my identity correctly. I took a deep breath and pasted on a smile – “Yes, I am!” I explained the snafu with meeting my co-pacer and getting my sign, but boldly stated that I’d still be doing my job – and just the act of saying that helped my nerves to subside. I didn’t stop looking for my co-pacer to show up (I later heard that there were huge issues with the bag check and that thousands of people were late to the start as a result), but I started to assemble a group of runners around me as word spread that I was the 4:10 pace team leader. Okay, then, off we go!

I told my group that we were going to aim for even splits of 9:32/mile throughout the race – but honestly, that was a huge mistake on my part. What I meant was, each mile I’d make sure that we were in the neighborhood of where even splits would have put us cumulatively, but that some miles would probably be slightly faster or slightly slower just depending on the course and the terrain. Rock N Roll had changed the first half of the course from the standard route I’ve done for the last three years, and while I had studied the course map in advance and watched the video walkthrough at the expo, I wasn’t 100% certain what we were in for.

The first few miles went fairly smoothly, although they were much more crowded than I remember them being in years past. I wished like crazy that I had my pace team sign, since it usually helps a group to form around me and then other runners get out of the way of the herd, but there was nothing I could do about that now. Instead, I focused on trying to keep a steady pace (despite the weaving), and hoping that my group could still stay together.

On that front, I quickly learned that water stations were definitely going to present a challenge! I always have a policy of walking through the water stations when I’m pacing, since it allows everyone in the group to get what they need, but usually waving my sign high in the air is what helps everyone to regroup afterward. Today, I didn’t have that option – and while I tried yelling out “4:10 group here! 4:10 group turning the corner!” and other directions, I lost one or two people at each water stop. People always ask me if it gets tiring carrying the pacer sign while I run, but now I can say without a doubt that I am so happy to do so!

After a short bridge out-and-back, we turned onto Rock Creek Parkway in a part of the course that was brand new to me. According to both the elevation profile and the course video, we were now in for a 3 mile steady incline that would bring us into Adams Morgan.

I kept reminding my group that while this incline was long, it was steady – so while everyone would be a bit out of breath, there wouldn’t be anything killer that would require us to take a walk break. With this in mind, I focused on keeping the pace right around 9:35 per mile, including a nice water break midway through.

But then we came around a curve and I saw runners going up, and up, and up… seemingly into the sky. This hill did not look gradual, it did not look steady, and it looked freaking long. What the heck? I submit to you an elevation chart of what everyone’s GPS watches showed we actually ran.

Hmm, notice a difference between those two elevation charts? It looks to me like they took the elevation profile from previous years (which had a steady incline from Dupont Circle up to Adams Morgan), renamed the image “2013”, and uploaded it to the website. I am incredibly pissed off about this – the job of a pacer is hard enough, but providing inaccurate information makes me look like an idiot and makes my job a lot tougher. I had been telling people all along not to be scared of the hills, and here was a freaking 9.6% grade for a quarter mile, after we had already been doing a slight incline for a while. Most of the runners around me slowed to a walk as they trudged up that beast of a hill, but now that I had seen that the course was not to be trusted, I was afraid to do the same. What other surprises lay around the corner?

We were already about 20 seconds behind where I wanted to be thanks to the congestion in the first few miles, and while I was fine with that little discrepancy, I didn’t want to lose any more time on this mysterious hill that hadn’t shown up in any of the race plans. So I cranked it out, attempting to just keep a steady pace as my little band of followers began passing others on the hill (who were mostly walking). I tried to give encouragement to my group as we ascended, but I was partially out of breath myself, and partially incredibly pissed off at the Rock N Roll organizers for putting me in this predicament. As a pacer, the best thing I can do is know the course and be able to guide others along it. (That’s why pacers are usually people who have done the course before.) When you get a brand new course, pacers have to rely on the course map / elevation profile, since we rarely have the ability to run the course beforehand, and it’s up to the organizers to make sure that those are accurate. In this case, they were way off base, and I was now really concerned about fulfilling my duty to finish in 4:10.

On the bright side, the top of the hill brought some familiar sights, and I realized that the 2013 course had now more-or-less rejoined the old course that we had used for the last four years. The hills were rolling for the next few miles, and I tried to push it a bit on the downhills to attempt to make up for some of the time we had lost on that near-cliff you saw in the elevation chart. However, the up-and-down nature of mile 8-12 meant that we were constantly losing any time we gained back. I deeply regretted telling the runners at the beginning that we were going to be doing “even splits,” since I was definitely going for an “even effort” plan (where you go a bit slower on the uphills and a bit slower on the downhills) instead. I felt like the worst pacer ever!

But as we approached mile 12, I started to regain a bit of confidence. The second half of the course was the same as always, and we were now approaching the course split, where the half marathoners would turn left to the finish and the full marathoners would head back to the monuments. A course I knew plus less congestion? I’d take it!

We crossed the 13.1 mark at almost exactly 2:06, which meant I was one minute behind a dead even split for the race. I was mostly okay with that, though I knew that the last few miles of the race contained some rollers that would be tough on tired legs. I generally prefer to run this course with a positive split of 2:04 first half, 2:06 second half, but it seemed I was now going to be doing the opposite. (I hoped, otherwise that would mean complete failure as a pacer!)

Meanwhile, the sun was starting to come out. Oh, did I forget to mention the weather? I had been stressing since the night before the race, when all the runner gossip was about the chilly temperatures and forecasted rain. So far, it had held off, and I just kept reminding myself that every mile further we got into the race was one more dry mile before the rain began. But now, the ominous-looking gray sky had turned blue and sunny – much more like in years past. Had those storm clouds been a figment of my pessimistic imagination? Whatever the case, I was glad we’d now have a pretty (and dry!) second half of the race.

We got a nice downhill as we ran past the National Mall, and I encouraged my group to pick up the pace here. Soon enough, though, we reached the bottom – but at least we had a water stop to break it up! There were fewer crowds in this area than I remember from past years, but I was so happy the weather had turned nice that I didn’t care.

On the not-so-lucky side, my Garmin chose this mile to die completely, so I was now without a GPS watch. I had my phone with me, and knew that I could turn on one of the GPS running apps on my phone, but I was afraid that I would run the battery down too far if I did that, and be left with nothing at all. Instead, I used the simple stopwatch app (which I had started at the very beginning of the race, anticipating this moment), and started making sure to hit “lap” at every mile mark. Smartphones sure do have some fancy apps these days, but if your battery won’t last to use them, they don’t do any good!

We headed through the 9th Street tunnel under the highway, popping up on the other side for a short uphill on the exit ramp. I didn’t mind the slight incline, since this was familiar territory… or was it?? Instead of staying left at the fork, I saw the runners ahead of me heading right and continuing upward. I had completely missed that the course organizers had added an extra 1/2 mile jaunt in this section (to make up for a slightly shorter course in the first half), but I was not pleased to find that it incorporated more uphill. This part wasn’t at all steep – just annoying – but I didn’t understand why the organizers had chosen to add the extra mileage on where there was a hill instead of tacking on some extra time along the pretty (and totally flat) Anacostia River/Park. I’d much rather run along there than on a highway exit ramp!

Alas, the course was not my decision – so we continued onward. Reaching mile 16, we had only 10 miles left, and I was thrilled! Meanwhile, this is always one of my favorite parts of the course, running along the Anacostia Riverwalk Trail, getting to hear some live music at the corner, and then turning one more corner to a water stop just before mile 17. Sin-gle dig-its! (Clap, clap, clap-clap-clap.)

We circled around the tip of a peninsula and began making our way back to where I knew we’d take a right, do a quick out-and-back, and then head over a bridge to mile 20 and the aforemention Anacostia Park. But before any of that, I heard another musical act – and discovered that we had ourselves not just Michael Jackson music, but a full on Michael Jackson impersonator! He was dancing on top of a big Mack truck while a camera crew filmed, and my group was thrilled at the sight. As much as I think Rock N Roll does a poor job with a lot of race logistics (alternating Gatorade and water instead of having both at each water stop, no food at the end for full marathoners), I will grant that they get really great entertainment along the way and after the race!

But it was when we hit mile 19 and the bridge that I realized something not-so-great – we were still about 60 seconds behind our goal time of 4:10, having never quite made up for the time we lost on the big hill. I know that my obligation as a pacer is to come in right on time, but I felt really guilty that I had let us get behind like that, so instead, I was brutally honest and posed a question to the small group that was still with me. I explained that we were about a minute behind, and that with 7 miles to go, we could still hit 4:10 – but only if we picked up the pace about 10 seconds per mile. I told them that I’d be willing to do whatever the group wanted – either stay steady at 9:30 or pick up the pace to 9:20 – but that if we did the former, those who wanted to hit 4:10 exactly would have to go on ahead. The runners with me said they wanted to stay steady, so while I felt bad about having kind of sucked as a pacer thus far, it made me feel the tiniest bit better to know that they wanted to stick with me.

However, when we hit Anacostia Park, it seemed that my group was feeling better than they claimed – beause we were easily running at a steady 9:20 pace instead of the 9:30 they wanted to go. Maybe all we needed was to get off the hills and get some nice river views? I figured from here on we could play it by ear – I knew that there were still some rollers to come from miles 23 to 26, so I didn’t want to count on making up any more of that 60 seconds. Instead, I just tried to keep up conversation despite my exhaustion. We had come a long way, but now we were so close to the end!

It was a huge relief when we turned out of Anacostia Park, just because I knew we only had a 5K to go. My memories of the course were that this part would fly by, too, despite the rolling hills we’d face. Sure enough, miles 23-24.5 went by in a blur. When we’d see a hill ahead, I reminded those around me that it wasn’t nearly as steep as it looked. This year, that was particularly true – nothing could be as tough as that awful hill at mile 6!

But at mile 24.5, something nearly stopped me in my tracks. We had just crested a hill, and saw a male and a female runner on the side of the road. This wasn’t anything unusual – despite how close we were to the end, there were many people stopping for walk breaks or on the side of the road to stretch. However, this guy was doing some kind of kneeling stretch, with his hands on the waist of the woman in front of him. Was her stomach hurt and he was massaging it? And then he pulled out a small black box. PROPOSAL!!!! The woman started nodding and crying at the same time, and the girl running near me and I both start screaming in excitement. This was the best thing I have ever seen in any race! I was so excited for the couple (although a little perplexed why he would choose 24.56 or whatever distance), and I honestly got a little bit teary-eyed watching. BEST RACE SIGHT EVER!

By the time I dried my eyes, we were coming around the exit ramp that I knew would lead to mile 25. Only one mile to go! I knew there would be a bit of uphill as we approached the finish line, and how exhausting that could be. However, by overhyping it in my mind and thinking about how much it was going to suck, it ended up being not that bad at all – and I felt great as we charged up it. As usual, I encouraged those around me to get ahead of me and finish strong, while I jogged in steady pace. Since my phone wasn’t as easily accessible as a watch (particularly in the bright sunlight), I didn’t bother checking it in advance. I don’t think a pacer should ever intentionally slow down or speed up to come closer to hitting their goal, so it didn’t matter. But I did get it ready so that when I crossed, I could hit stop. And when I did?



I don’t think I have ever finished that close to my pacing goal, and I was so proud of myself. Despite not having my Garmin the whole race, despite that stupid surprise bitch of a hill in mile 6, and despite being 60 seconds ahead at mile 19, I had somehow gotten myself right back on track and finished pretty much exactly on time. I was so freaking proud of myself!

That said, like Emily (with whom I discussed this phenomenon over post-race beers), I should have been happy… but I quickly realized that I wasn’t. While I was only a tenth of a second off my goal time, I didn’t think I had done the best job. I shouldn’t have told my group that I was going for even splits (when what I meant was even effort), and even if I was going for even effort, I think I could have kept the pace more steady throughout. I was also mad at myself for not finding the rest of the pacers at the start, since that was what caused me to run without a sign. Honestly, that sign makes all the difference – it helps others to find me, and it makes me feel like some kind of flag-bearer that everyone is watching. The extra pressure makes me more cognizant of my duties and that others are looking to me for support, and that sense of responsibility in turn makes me pull it together.

On Saturday, I may have finished on time, but I feel like I was a completely mediocre and forgettable pacer, since I didn’t have a big group around me and I wasn’t pepping everyone up like I usually do. And this was the second year in a row I wasn’t happy with my performance at this race! I helped people when I could, sure – letting people know where the next portapotties were and providing them with extra gels from my fuel belt. But I didn’t act very much like a cheerleader, which I think is how a pacer goes above and beyond the simple act of running in the right amount of time. The best pacers engage everyone around them, cheer everyone up when they’re tired and hurting, and tell fun stories to distract the other runners. On Saturday, I had run my part, but I wasn’t super talkative and honestly spent a lot of the time just trying to run steady and not really interacting with everyone around me.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from marathoning, it’s that it’s not about the finish line or the time in which you get there – it’s about the hard work and fun along the way. In this race, I fulfilled the goal of finishing on time – but I didn’t do such a great job with the journey to get there. I’m glad that I was honest with the runners around me about our time at mile 19. I’ve seen pacers flat-out lie about being on track, and I totally get it – you don’t want to upset or discourage those in your group. But in some ways, I wished I had gone slower from miles 19-26 to keep more of my group with me, instead of going slightly faster to help some people finish in 4:10 while leaving others in the dust. It’s a tough balance, since my job is technically to finish on time and not to help people. But I take the “helping people” part of the job very seriously, which is why I’ve even stopped a few yards short of the finish line during races to encourage others to finish (even when that meant my recorded time would be late). Obviously, if I had really done things properly, I would have done each mile at an even clip and not had to make a choice about finishing on time or finishing with those around me, but once I was at mile 19, it was too late, and I had to choose. In retrospect, I kind of think I should have said “screw the clock” in order to be more of a cheerleader, which is what most marathoners desperately need in the final miles.

What do you think? As some friends tried to tell me, am I being way too hard on myself? I’d be curious to hear what you all look for in a pacer.

Race stats:
Distance: 26.2 miles
Time: 4:09:56
Pace: 9:32/mile
Overall place: 1529/3552
Gender place: 496/1493


12 thoughts on “Race Report: Rock N Roll USA Marathon”

  1. This was really cool to read the experience of a pacer. I didn’t realize you were a pacer, as I’ve only known about your blog and story for a few months. I always have opinions and thoughts on pace groups and whether I should try running with one, but hearing this side of the story makes me realize how difficult it is and how much pressure it adds to things. Congrats on getting through this race in the right time, and I’m sorry that it was a tough experience! It seems like you definitely did learn a lot from it, though.

    1. Meghan, hope this didn’t dissuade you from running with a pacer in the future! This is a big part of why pacers usually work in pairs – so that even if one isn’t having a great day, the other can pick up the slack.

  2. I can’t believe you didn’t mention the proposal to me after the race! Sweet! I think you rock for making it 1/10th of a second before 4:10 and great attitude taking it on in the midst of so much frustration!

    1. Aww thank you! And yeah, that proposal was one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen while running… I was SO lucky to run by right at that second!

    1. I agree with Zenaida. In that first picture you look like a million dollars. You just radiate awesomeness in that photo, something to remember in those occasional dark moments.

  3. Very cool reading from the perspective of a pacer. I’ve never ran with a pacer. I Actually came across this post as I’m looking for RnR DC marathon reviews. I’ve heard the full marathon isn’t that great? What would you say? I would like to run a spring marathon but no clue which one!

    1. I’ve run the DC Marathon three times (including when it was independent and when it was Rock N Roll). The course isn’t the most exciting, but it’s fairly easy – no major hills but enough ups and downs to change up your muscles. The time of year can be a little difficult, because sometimes it gets a bit hot in the sun, but that’s the case with a lot of spring marathons. Check out my post here on how to choose a fall marathon, it’s actually applicable for all seasons!

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