Coming into the Marine Corps Marathon my biggest challenge, enemy and hurdle appeared to be the miles ahead and the voices in my head. I knew I can run faster and farther than I did at Philadelphia last fall. I knew I could run faster and farther than I did at National this spring. In both of those races I hit a wall where I simply could not push any more and needed time to walk and slow down before running again. My goal was to push that wall all the way back to Iwo Jima, to shut down the voices in my head, which always give up long before my body. I thought those voices would be my biggest enemy.
But before I could get to that wall I needed to face something I had not expected. The day before the race, the day before my 40th birthday, I went to packet pickup and got my number and shirt, when the Marine who handed me my shirt said “Semper Fi.” I said thank you and turned away, just in time for the image of my father, a mean bastard, SOB who I spent the first half of my life hating, popped into my head, the one honorable thing that he was most proud of in his long sordid life being that he was a Marine. I broke down. I broke down through the expo, out the doors, down the sidewalk and into my car, where I sat for a while, out of control.
On MCM morning the race announcer did not help. He went through a long diatribe about remembering that “since 1775 the Marines have fought at home and abroad, in every fight and every battle to keep us free, and this race stands as a way to honor that sacrifice.” Then he shifted to reminding us of all the preparation we had done for this race. He said to think about all the mornings we got up in darkness or missed time with our families, or ran when it was raining, or when it hurt, or when we had other things we needed to do. He said this race also stands as a way to honor our sacrifice. There were not enough pre-race water bottles for this kind of manipulation. I shook the hand of every Marine I could find, wished every runner around me grace and strength, and felt elated just to get going.
A big shout out must be given to George Buckheit and Capitol Area Runners. I did not train with them for this marathon, but his suggestions about the course were invaluable. “All the danger here is in the first nine miles.” The beginning of the race is uphill and downhill and uphill and downhill. Coach Katie set out a perfect race plan for me based on that. The goal was simple: 9:30/mile until past the nine mile mark, and then 9:00/mile until Crystal City, then 8:45s coming home. That appeared to be the least risky, highest likelihood of reward plan to break four hours. So for the first few miles I just kept 9:30 in my sights, getting as far away as 9:42 at one point, but getting most of it back on the downhills. Steady, steady. I honestly don’t remember much until we headed out of Georgetown. I remember us going down Canal Road and seeing the leaders coming back down the long hill on the opposite side. At this point I had a math problem in my head. If we were going downhill and they were going downhill, there had to be a big-ass uphill at some point in between us. 9:30. Stay calm. Keep the pace.
By the time we found that big ass uphill, turned around and came back through Georgetown, I could see the people who were just going out where we were miles before, many of them already walking. I knew they were going to have a long day. But my day was going fine. The people of Georgetown were great. They were lively and upbeat. And one little kid had the best sign of the day, “We Can Hear You Farting.” This beat out, “No more Saturday long runs means more Friday night sex.” Many, “Rock me like a hurricane” and “Paul Ryan already finished,” signs. And one I have now seen at all three marathons, held by women, that I still do not understand, “Free Nipple Massages.”
Anyway, enough of this 9:30 stuff. Through Georgetown meant we past the nine mile mark. I flipped from podcasts over to music and ran downhill down Wisconsin singing Gnarls Barkley out loud. The comforting thing about much of this marathon is how many times I have run much of the course, past the Kennedy Center, along the mall, around the memorials. This is running home for me. The bad part of this race is that Hains Point is also running home for me: flat, windy, boring, soul-sucking, mind-numbing running home. This was the halfway point of the race and the hardest part. This is where I felt my ability to hold 9:00/miles start to slip away, and the bad voices in my head start to take over, and the self-doubt and self-destruction start to cut into my race plan. Damn you, Hains Point.
Coming back out of this there were people everywhere, all the way to the end of the race. All the way up to Congress and back (they weren’t running a f’ing marathon). All the way across the bridge and toward Crystal City. I was looking forward to Crystal City all day, because I knew several things were going to happen here. I was going to see my two favorite women in the world, Katie and Molly.
There would be hoards of cheering people. I would try to see if I had anything left in my legs (or more accurately my brain). I would get to play my “Last Mile” playlist. My girls did not disappoint, giving me a huge lift. My music did not disappoint. My brain did. I just didn’t have anymore left. I didn’t walk. I didn’t hit that wall. I didn’t run a mile that started with 10. But I knew here, there was no chance at four hours. And then we were back on 110, passing the place where I started in the grass in tears. We turned left to head up to the Iwo Jima memorial. Yes, that was me singing, “If you ever ever feel, like you're nothing, you’re fucking perfect, to me,” at the top of my lungs up to Iwo Jima.
Once the race was over I did what I had done twice before. I collapsed in the grass around the memorial and cried like a baby. I am forty years old. By the time my father was this age he had been in two marriages, two wars, had four or five kids, multiple careers, two names, a criminal record. It’s too much. It’s too much to equate one life with another, or to think that I am affecting anything by running around in circles.
I honestly don’t know if I will ever run a marathon again, or if I will ever try to break four hours. I don’t know if I have the desire or hope in me. I know I will never be the man my father was, neither having his honor nor his atrocities. I know I will never be the men or women in uniforms whose hands I shook and high-fived all day long and in whose shadows we ran. No, this was just a long run that paled in comparison to their sacrifices. Yet, I can say this, the Marine Corps Marathon is different than any other. Running it, and preparing for it has changed my life. It has given me goals and confidence and heart I did not know I had. Each time I run a marathon my life gets better. So I leave this one behind, my tears in the grass, my honor and my memories. And I move forward to a better life, towards the next distant, seemingly unreachable shore.