Stephen's MCM Story
After several years of running, I finally took the plunge to sign up for my first marathon in 2019. Like many first-time marathoners, I decided to go with Hal Higdon’s Novice marathon training plan. I did the majority of my training throughout the spring and summer with fellow Striders Valerie and Ralph. The high point of my training was in early October when I cruised through a 20 miler on the Mount Vernon Trail and felt like I could have easily kept going. The low point came on a blistering hot Thursday evening in September when I found myself walking four miles into a planned six mile run and told everyone that I was quitting running.
Despite these ups and downs, I felt confident and ready heading into race day. Many people were asking me if I had a target time, and I always said “no, it’s my first marathon, my only goal is to finish.” This is a nice sentiment, but every runner knows this was a complete lie. I had the idea in my head that I would be in the low four-hour range, and even possibly flirt with the four hour mark itself.
After months of training and preparing, the forecast for race day called for heavy rain. Extremely heavy rain lasting all morning. Despite my slim hope that the forecast was wrong, race morning arrived with the promised rain. I told myself everything would be fine and made my way to the Pentagon. As I shuffled my way through the race morning ritual in my dollar store poncho, I carefully stepped around puddles trying to keep my feet dry. The crowd was very quiet and tense, and everyone seemed to be sharing the same feeling of dread about what the day had in store for us.
The cannon went off, and suddenly I found myself moving. Almost immediately, I felt like I was in trouble. My legs felt heavy, and the guy who had cruised through a 20 miler a few weeks earlier felt like a complete stranger. I struggled through the first few miles at 9:41, 9:34, and 9:45 paces. As I crossed the bridge into Georgetown around mile 5, I started to get my nerves under control and finally got in a groove. I started to see the numbers I was expecting to see on my watch: 9:14, 9:09, 9:29, 9:22. Things were looking up and I was back on track.
The rain was intermittent throughout the first 8 miles, and it even felt good at times. I was feeling confident that my goal was still within reach despite my rough start. Around mile 9 or 10, the refreshing intermittent rain went away, and the sky opened up. I was suddenly in the middle of a torrential downpour. Sheets of stinging angry rain relentlessly pounding down. I was completely soaked and rapidly losing energy trying to keep going through the rain. Despite this, I kept a decent pace and still felt pretty good. 9:42, 9:27, 9:42, 9:36.
As I hit the 13-mile marker, I looked at my watch and saw 9:59. This would be my last sub-10-minute mile of the day and the last time I felt any sense of keeping it together.
The rain continued at an unbelievable rate and water was quickly starting to puddle on the roads. Right after the half marathon marker, the entire road was covered in ankle deep water. I splashed through the water, and my feet were instantly soaked. Not that it mattered, because ankle deep water was pretty much constant throughout the next 6 miles. As I sloshed through the puddles, my feet felt like bricks and my pace really began to slow down. 10:11, 10:22, 10:52, 10:58, 11:03, 11:33.
You might be thinking this is the part of the story where everything turns around and I find the grit to press through and finish strong. You would be wrong.
Miles 20 and 21 of the MCM are on the 14th street bridge. Its features include no shade, no spectators, and no water stations. As my luck would have it, my arrival here was also when the rain stopped, the sun came out, and the temperature immediately went up about 20 degrees. What little energy I had left was gone. The sun was baking the water off the pavement and my clothes felt like I was wearing a wet blanket. Multiple people were down along the side of the course waiting for ambulances to come get them. I would be lying if I said I didn’t consider joining them. I somehow managed to turn in 11:40 and 12:18 miles for this section.
As I dropped off of 395 into Pentagon City for the last section of the race, I was done. Beyond done. It was impossible to pinpoint what was hurting at this point, because my legs were one giant cramp. The sun was relentless, and the humidity felt like it was continually rising. At this point, I basically gave up on running altogether. As I walked past a medical tent around mile 24 I found myself wondering if they would let me go in and just lay down for a few minutes. 12:41, 12:18, 12:34.
As I staggered through the last miles at 13:57 and 13:04 paces, I knew relief was in sight. As I approached the hill leading up to the finish line, I tried to salvage my remaining dignity and run across the finish line. That lasted all of three steps before my legs locked up again. I limped across the finish line and started to make my way through the chute. I looked at my watch and saw 4:45:35. It honestly shocked me at that moment that I had broken five hours.
I must have looked as bad as I felt, because a medic approached me and tried to steer me towards a line of waiting wheelchairs. I managed to shoo him away and made my way through the medal pickup. At the MCM, the medals are presented by newly minted Marine Corps officers. All around me, I saw people eagerly returning their salutes, giving hugs and high fives, and taking selfies. It took every bit of energy I had to remain standing and whisper a barely audible “thanks” to the Lieutenant giving me my medal.
I slowly limped through Rosslyn to meet up with my wife. The handful of post-race snacks I had collected at the finish line wasn’t cutting it, so she ran to a restaurant and grabbed me a sandwich. I inhaled it without tasting it and started inching my way back to the car. As I recovered and reflected on what had happened over the next several days, I felt a mixture of pride at finishing despite the terrible elements, self-pity for what had gone so terribly wrong, and moments of laughing at the sheer absurdity of running my first marathon through miles of ankle-deep water.
For those who have been asking me ever since this happened, the answer is yes, I am planning to run another marathon someday. I can only assume the weather will be better.