If you couldn't tell from my previous post's title, and still haven't caught on from this one, not everything in DC was sunshine and rainbows. The marathon is one of the great tests of mental and physical strength, but it's also a test of patience and doesn't always provide the best running experience - as I was quick to learn at the Marine Corps Marathon. Here's what didn't go so well last weekend.
A virtual lack of starting line "corrals" - and the agonizing weaving that followed.
Large races usually have some sort of corral system at the starting line. For you non-runners, corrals are basically metered starting groups that are based on projected running time. Fastest runners (the "elites") go before the more recreational runners who will be traveling at slower paces. This system eliminates obstacles for people running for time by moving slower people out of their way. Every race I've ever been to with actual corrals had roped off sections with assigned numbers or letters - and you could ONLY go in your corral, which was pre-assigned based on your projected times. At the MCM, however, "corrals" were not so well designated, and were not at all policed. This meant that people were on their own honor to follow the large posted signs indicating the proper place to line up for your anticipated finish time. This also meant that a lot of people threw corral sensibility to the winds and lined up wherever they wanted.
Why is this a problem? Weaving. When slower people are ahead of you, and the course is relatively narrow for the number of runners, you have to go side-to-side along the course to get around people. That adds time and distance. That also has you slowing and surging more often. You know how your car gets worse gas mileage in the city because of the stop-and-go? The same principle applies to runners, with the added bonus of a higher risk of injury. For me, the weaving curse led to more foot-swelling and toe-squishing in my shoe that quickly created a blood blister under my big toenail. By mile 10 I was hurting badly, and still had a long way left to go - and most of that way was just as crowded as the first half, as MCM apparently never really thins out like other races I've run.
The rudest runners I've ever seen. Ever.
Even as I write this, I realize a big part of this particular problem is that many participants in MCM really aren't runners. This is "The People's Marathon", and they really mean it. I saw all kinds at the race - and you know, that's not the part that bothers me. I love that people who have never run a day in their life want to tackle a big challenge. It's awesome to know a large number of participants are on the course to commemorate a lost loved one or family and friends still in the service. The problem comes when those people aren't following race guidelines, common courtesy, or even common sense. As mentioned previously, the MCM coordinators exacerbated this problem with a lack of policed corrals, but even so, you'd think people would have a little more awareness of what is happening around them. It's easy to tell who has done big races before: they move to the side, put their hand up, and some even announce vocally that they will be slowing down or stopping. Y'know, polite things that help prevent injuries and allow people to move about at their own pace during a huge event.
The non-runners, however, do NOT provide so much courtesy. They walk with their whole group side by side, taking up the entire courseway. They hold hands and stretch out around corners, forcing faster participants to have to go not only around them, but around the outside of the curve which adds distance to an already long race. They STOP, with no warning, for no apparent reason other than they have decided it's time to stop, and they don't even look around before doing so to make sure they're not in someone's way. I had several unpleasant encounters with the Sudden Stopper during my race, the first of which was during the Wear Blue Mile that honors fallen soldiers. A whole group of people must have been watching for their loved one's photo along the course, and just stopped when they saw it. I had no warning and had to execute a crazy maneuver to get around them, which twisted my knee very badly and affected the entire rest of my race.
But that's not even the worst. I bumped people a few times trying to weave, and a few people bristled or shot me dirty looks, but the creme-de-la-creme was in Crystal City, somewhere around mile 23, when a group of girls decided to stop dead while I was trying to pass them. Once again sacrificing my knee, I twisted and managed to get mostly around them, but bumped the one girl's shoulder a little as I passed, saying "excuse me" as I went. I turned slightly to apologize, but before I could even get the "sorry" out of my mouth, the girl's hand was flying. She smacked me across the face and swore at me! I had struggled to get up to an actual run again at this point, so instead of stopping to deck her like I wanted to, I just kept going - while her friends started yelling at me. Unbelievable. I've heard of people hitting the wall in a marathon, but never hitting another runner!
Yeah that's right, I said it. I don't even mean the hills or the out-and-backs that most people complain about. The MCM course was a nightmare for totally different reasons. Primary among those reasons is that it's way too narrow in many areas to accommodate the number of people, especially if pace groups aren't properly spread out (hence the aforementioned weaving). A very close second is the horrendously boring stretches of barren highway that show up between miles 18 and 20 (the Bridge from "Beat the Bridge") and again from 24 to 26. As if running a marathon weren't enough of a mental challenge, MCM takes away the surging course support for which it is known at two of the most difficult stages, leaving runners in miserable silence for miles at a time. These stretches were only made worse by the surprise 80 degree temperatures that were totally unexpected at a late October race. With "spirit squad" cheer stations along other parts of the course, I was a little surprised to find there weren't any cheering groups at least along the final stretch of highway, which could easily have accommodated some support.
Finally, for a "Marathon of the Monuments" as MCM is sometimes touted, we didn't really pass many monuments. Sure, they were just a stone's throw from the course in some areas, but the only truly visible monument along the route was the Washington Memorial (and let's be honest, that's "visible" from all over the place). Running along the National Mall was, admittedly, pretty cool, and we passed right in front of the Capitol - but I had been expecting FAR more bits of DC history and fame to be visible during my run. I won't say I'm not disappointed that the course didn't live up to the considerable hype placed on the "running in DC" part of this race.
I ran WAY more than 26.2 miles.
My GPS got "ahead" of the course early, and never caught back up. At first I was maybe a quarter mile early, but soon I was a full mile early, and it was very demoralizing to have my GPS say "12 miles" when the sign I passed a little later only said 11. It continued to get worse throughout the course until finally I had to turn my tracker off. At that point, my GPS had a total of 25.89 miles recorded, and looking at the map, it doesn't appear that my signal jumped or misread, it's actually following the course we ran. Unfortunately, that point at which I turned it off wasn't just prior to the 26 mile sign, it was a quarter mile before the MILE 24 sign. I was more than two ahead of the course, meaning the additional weaving I was forced to do throughout the entire race had upped my 26.2 to more like 28.5. SURPRISE ULTRA!
It is possible that, when MCM made some course changes this year, they accidentally added some distance. Many other runners have posted to the Facebook page about GPS tracking running longer than most races usually do (since most of us do know to account for the weaving). Either way, if I had finished at the 26.2 miles on my GPS, I would have shaved almost 40 minutes off my overall time, putting me much closer to my goal even in the heat.
I didn't get any finisher gear, including the advertised freebie items.
It's my first marathon, and it's kind of a big deal to me. But I'm a runner and I'll probably do another sometime (don't quote me on that quite yet). So many of the people at the MCM are not likely to do another marathon, or even any racing. It's one of the biggest accomplishments of some people's lives, and they usually want something to show for it. I know I certainly do. So when the MCM spent months advertising that every finisher would get a Mission: Accomplished jacket at the finish line like they always do, I was pretty excited. Sure, it's just a slightly nicer version of the heat shields you'll see at most marathons, but it's a wearable that says I finished, and I love the whole "Mission Thing" that has been an ongoing theme of the Marine marathon. When the jackets were nowhere to be found at the finish line, I was intensely bummed. Yes, I know it was 80 degrees and most people didn't need the heat shield, but it was an advertised item (that we presumably paid for in our entry fees) that has meaning to the people who participated. Even if "it's hot" was the excuse, the race had presumably already purchased the jackets for this year, so why not just hand them out? A couple days ago, their Facebook account finally acknowledged questions about why the jackets were missing, letting us know there was a shipping error but making no mention of whether finishers would ever get one.
Additionally, the finisher gear store was sold out of all Mission: Accomplished gear long before even my cousin got there an hour prior to my finish time. Had the jackets been available, this probably wouldn't even bother me (and they might not even have sold out), but because I couldn't get the jacket I had been promised (and technically had already paid for), I would have liked to buy the finisher gear. Alas, out of luck, and the official word on whether there will be more available for purchase later is simply "whatever is left will be put online" - which probably means I won't be getting one.
Yes, I finished the course and earned my bling. But was the Marine Corps Marathon all that it was made out to be? Unfortunately, my race day experience left me more than a little disappointed. My training was on-point; even the unexpected heat of the day wasn't going to stop me from finishing, but suffering injuries that could have been avoided by a little courtesy or better corral planning made it a much longer and more difficult journey. Add to that the realization that some of the "highlights" of this particular race aren't all they were hyped to be, and I walked away from MCM with less than positive memories. I'm going to be talking more in my next post about the "aftermath" of my experience, so I won't linger too much on that here - you'll just have to come back to see how I'm feeling about marathons and running in general a week after the MCM!
Read about the rest of my MCM experience! Expo - Part 1 - Aftermath
Have you ever participated in a race that let you down? What made the experience so difficult to enjoy? How do you manage negative feelings after a race?