I did my very first marathon on Sunday and it didn’t go as well for me as I’d hoped. It was a nightmare, really, which is a shame because the Marines really do put on a great event. I just couldn’t take full advantage of it.
The 2011 Marine Corps Marathon was scheduled to start at 8 AM. The shuttle was scheduled to leave my hotel at 5:30 AM. I got up at 4:30 AM, which is 1:30 AM in Los Angeles where I live and where I was only a couple of days ago. See? Already my day was off to a bad start.
At 6 AM we were in the VIP area at the race, which normally would’ve been great except the temperature was in the low 30’s and the grassy area where all the tables were set up had turned into a cold soggy mud pit from all the rain and snow the day before.
I was wearing my race clothes (running tights, a t-shirt and a slightly heavier long-sleeved top over that) covered by a pair of cheap sweat pants. The sweat pants were going to be left at the starting line. The Marines have people collect all the clothes that get discarded at the starting line and then they wash them and give them to charity. I had a cheap hoodie too, but it was back at the hotel because I didn’t think I would need it. I needed it. I was freezing. Shivering. Teeth chattering. Feet and shoes getting wet from the mud. I had a pair of waterproof running shoes, too. I brought them with me from LA but I left them at the hotel because I didn’t think I would need them.
Someone was kind enough to get me a small piece of cardboard to put on the ground so I could stretch, kind of. I was able to do a short hip-flexor stretch but not much else. I normally stretch for about 30 minutes when I do a long run like this. And I always do a little bit of a warm up before I stretch so I’m not stretching cold muscles. That was all out the door today.
I was able to get a couple of cups of hot water before we were taken away to the starting line to do an interview for Comcast. The interview took place outside. There was frost on the table. Again, I was freezing. Not properly dressed or prepared. Wondering how my hoodie and waterproof shoes were doing back at the hotel.
The highlight of the morning was being able to stand in the crowded but heated Comcast production truck for about 20 minutes or so. I was with John Doman (From The Wire. He played the prick Deputy Police Commissioner. He always plays a prick but is a very nice man in person.), his wife Linda, and Robert Swan, OBE. John Doman fought in Vietnam. Robert Swan walked the South Pole. (That’s right. He walked it.) A bit later, at the starter’s podium, I stood next to retired Marine Lt. General Richard Carey. General Carey fought at the Chosin Reservoir (the “Frozen Chosin”) in Korea with Chesty Puller. I wanted to complain about the weather and mud and such a lot more than I did, but being around those kind of people I just couldn’t. The one thing you simply do not want to say in front of a guy who walked the South Pole and a guy who lost toes from frostbite while fighting in Korea is “Gee, I’m cold.”
I was also the official starter for the marathon, which was extremely cool. I had a perfect view of the starting area. I noticed a lot of the runners were wearing nothing more than shorts and a singlet. They weren’t shivering like me. I did not hear their teeth chattering, like mine were. I thought they were crazy.
My run, once I climbed down from the starting stand and got going, started better than I thought it would. My toes were numb, but I was excited. Everyone was. It’s a fantastic feeling being in that mob of people, everyone determined to run 26.2 miles no matter what. I was surrounded by hope.
By the first water station, around mile 2, I was nice and warmed up. I was feeling good. I was pacing well. My heart rate was right where it was supposed to be. The only problem, and it wasn’t really a problem because the energy was so positive, was that it was so crowded on the road it was hard to maneuver. But despite that, everyone was extra polite and supportive. Everyone knew how to say “excuse me” and “thank you”. They got out of the way of the wheelchair racers when they needed to. (“Make a hole! Left side!”) They all offered support to other racers who seemed to be struggling. They all seemed liked they were raised by good parents.
It was a fantastic experience to be anonymous in a crowd like that.
Soon, I had caught up to the pace runner for a 4-hour finish. Soon after that, I passed him. I felt strong. My stride was good. Everyone around me exuded confidence and love and positivity. Nothing could go wrong.
Until around mile 14 or 15. It’s hard for me to say exactly when, because it was such a blur of pain after that I can’t remember. My quads started cramping up. Just a bit at first. “Oh, maybe this is the ‘Wall’ that everyone talks about”, I thought. “I’ll just run through it and it will go away.” But it didn’t go away. It got worse. And worse. And worse.
After mile 20 there were a few times I had to stop completely because of the cramping. I could barely walk. With a little bit of make-up I could’ve been a zombie extra in The Walking Dead. Then the cramping would subside enough for me to run again, if you can call what I was doing “running”. I had a splitting headache. My running clothes were soaked with sweat and cold wind was blowing through them. I though I was catching pneumonia.
It took me almost 20 minutes to complete the final mile. I was devastated. I privately was very confident about completing my first marathon in under 4 hours. I finished in 4:37:11.
But again, positivity reigned. Everyone was so happy for me. “Hey, you finished!” I heard that a hundred times after the race. People hugged me and shook my hand. At least I finished.
My fiance told me about all the people she saw throw up at the finish line while she was waiting for me. She also saw a guy at mile 16 who stopped and took off his shoe and it looked like “his toenails blew up”. All his toenails except the big one had come off. Blood all over his socks. So at least I wasn’t one of those people.
Nearly everyone I saw at the finish looked fine, but there were a few that looked in worse shape than me. The Marines had it all covered, though. Medics everywhere. Support troops everywhere. They really know their business.
I sat in the sun with my medal around my neck for a bit, aching. I ate. Talked to Rob Swan, the arctic explorer. Did a couple of interviews. Soon I was shivering again. My clothes were soaked and the wind was blowing. I couldn’t stop shaking or stuttering. I felt hypothermia coming on. I had to be held up to walk. I got a ride back to the hotel to start recovering, starting with an ice bath, which was necessary but sucked harder than you can imagine.
I want to do it again next year.