“State” # 5: Washington, D.C.

My next marathon took place in our Nation’s Capital: the Rock N’ Roll National Marathon in Washington D.C. The race took place in mid-March, which in the Northeast can mean early spring or dead of winter. Wind is usually a major factor. You never knew if the ground would be covered in ice and snow, or mud from spring thaw. It was a tough call to decide to run this race, but I managed to snag a discounted registration fee and decided it was now-or-never to run D.C.

Although we had a very mild winter, training wasn’t especially fruitful. I never managed more than 17 or 18 miles for a long run, holidays and travel got in the way of a few weeks’ worth of serious training, so while I was confident I would finish, how well remained to be seen. I wanted to PR badly, and tried to see if it was even possible to qualify for Boston this time around. All I needed was to run 15 minutes faster than my Harrisburg time and finish in 3:40. How hard could that be?

Chris and I arrived in D.C. on a rainy Friday afternoon, fighting traffic and aimlessly searching for parking at the Armory where the expo was taking place.  Luckily, packet pick-up was effortless once parking was established. That night we walked around the streets of D.C. and shared a gluten-free pizza at Ella’s Wood Fired Pizza, a highly recommended place to get your gluten-free carb load on – just be sure to secure a reservation!  The one major disappointment we had was that the National Mall, a fantastic green space surrounded by museums and monuments, was closed for renovations. Instead of the awesome “Nation’s Front Yard” for young and old alike to enjoy, it was a muddy dug-up disaster surrounded by police tape and barriers.

The Race: First Half

Race morning was everything I expected: massive crowds cramming into the Metro to get to the start at the D.C. Armory, enormous lines for the porta-jons, the possibility of missing the start in my corral. Fortunately we allowed ourselves ample time to get to the start; although it could have been a logistical nightmare, it was fairly smooth sailing.

Waiting in the starting area a woman noticed my CDF Team Gluten-Free shirt and started to chat with us; it turned out she also had celiac! We chatted amiably, swapping stories of our diagnoses,  recommendations for places to eat and foods to try. While I never feel joy in meeting others who endure celiac, it’s definitely a breath of fresh air discover a kindred spirit when you spend so much time feeling incredibly alienated or misunderstood.

The race started and we were on our way.  It was a great morning for a race! The crowded corral spread out comfortably and the runners were fairly cheerful. The first half of the race takes you through the downtown D.C. area, past memorials and the Smithsonian Museums. Despite the Mall being a major eyesore, it was still wonderful getting to run past famous memorials.  Viewing the sunrise with the Washington Monument in the foreground was definitely a Kodak moment.

I was running a quick clip, averaging 8-minute miles; my brain was abuzz with thoughts of qualifying for Boston – it was all I could think about. I flew past hundreds of runners feeling on top of the world. The streets were slightly rolling, and the sun was winking behind tall buildings; initially the course was cool and breezy, a perfect day to PR.  Several spectators saw my CDF Team Gluten-Free shirt and cheered, which was a total morale boost. By Mile 7 I was feeling a little tired and sore already, but ignored the signs. I was on my way to qualifying and nothing would stop me!

A good percentage of runners were half-marathoners and we split off from them around mile 11; it was quite obvious once this happened, as the crowds suddenly thinned out, the bands grew quieter, and the streets seemed wider. The battle was truly on now, as we headed out of the streets of D.C. to cross the Anacostia River into our second half of the race. You could practically hear the crickets.

The Second Half: A.K.A. Crash and Burn

All I could think with every step for the first half of the race was Boston.  All I could think of for the second half of the race…when is this over? Sun. Concrete. Thirst. Heat. So many factors suddenly drained my body’s stamina almost to a screeching halt. The scores of people I had passed in the early miles of the race suddenly passed me by the hundreds.  That PR I was reaching for was way out of reach as valuable minutes piled onto my positive split time.  My pride was shattered; I threw away any hopes for doing well and just needed to cross the finish line. DNF (Did Not Finish) was not an acronym in my vocabulary. I WOULD finish.

The second half of the race was more or less a wasteland.  There was zero shade. Very few spectators. Bands were few and far between. The crowds were there for the half marathoners, which is very typical of Rock N’ Roll Races and a common complaint. The half marathoners greatly outnumber the full marathoners, so once you split off from them the course is far less interesting, sparse, and more industrial.

Dehydration truly took its toll as the temperatures climbed into the low seventies with 75% humidity.  The open and bare sections along the Anacostia were a no-man’s land with no end in sight. The one saving grace was getting to run through a tunnel where the temperatures were at least 10 degrees cooler, with a lovely breeze and a DJ playing music to get us through. It was an incredibly welcoming and short-lived break, but just enough to give us a little boost to keep going.

As the miles passed, my morale weakened. I shambled a few minutes, jogged a few. It was like Vermont Revisited, but this time was different. I hadn’t been glutened, I simply took off way too fast and saved no gas for the second half of the race.  I didn’t think about heat and humidity, didn’t think about the fact that lack of shade would devastate any semblance of stamina. I think it was something many of us didn’t realize until it was far too late.

As we approached the finish line, we saw that many of the “halfers”,  proudly wearing their medals, coming out onto the course to cheer us on in the final miles; to be honest, it was a wonderful confidence boost. Despite the pain and agony of the concrete streets combined with the heat, the enthusiastic spectators, runners and non-runners alike, almost brought a tear to my eye. More people shouted out for CDF Team Gluten-Free, and some even thanked me for being on the course representing people like their mother…sister…self.
As the finish line loomed I could hear Switchfoot, the headliner band, playing their final song (gotta love that the headliner concert started 3 hours after the race began, so only the much faster marathoners would get to see ANY of the show…again, cater much to the halfers? I think yes.), and I did my best to give myself one final push towards the finish line with just under a 4:15 finish. As I shuffled and gratefully accepted my medal and water bottle, others around me all had the same sentiment: that was a tough race, many people finished much slower than anticipated (some by a good hour). I chalked it up as a bad race, nothing more. I simply earned my “state”, didn’t set any records. You can’t win them all no matter how much you psyche yourself up for a PR.

A marathoner approached me in the finish area, and it turned out she also had celiac disease. It was a day full of surprises to encounter so many gluten-free friends! She was very excited to meet someone else like me, and we chatted for several minutes about the race, lessons learned with celiac, and our plans for future races.

I came to realize that, in the end, getting to share the same experience with others that endured celiac was more rewarding and valuable than crossing any finish line.

My Results:

Finish Time: 4:14:58
Overall Place: 1313/ 3155
Sex Place: 443/ 1423
Division Place: 58/ 191

What I Learned from This Race

  • HOLD BACK YOUR PACE. I ran WAY too fast to start this race. And you know what, I still did it in a future race in Ohio, and could kick myself for it. You CANNOT bank minutes even if you think you can, it’s a foolhardy way to run a marathon and I never recommend this approach EVER. It’s pretty much a guaranteed crash and burn.
  • I cannot run Rock ‘N Roll races anymore. I just can’t. They are too crowded, expensive and overhyped for my tastes. I have heard horror stories about events in other cities, and I have had my own bad experiences at other races they’ve hosted. Chris thinks I am being a snob, I think I just prefer smaller events with less flair.The less there is in terms of runners, flair and fanfare, the more I enjoy it.

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