Happy post-marathon Monday, everyone! I have to start off by saying I wasn’t necessarily thrilled to walk down the stairs this morning, but the coffee tasted extra good so it was totally worth it.
I ran the Marine Corps Marathon through Washington D.C. and the surrounding area yesterday and I did so as a bucket-list race to honor my friend and fallen Marine, Levi Angell. Levi and I went to school together and were friends for years. He was an honest, amazing friend with a crazy sense of humor and LOVED the Charlie Daniels Band. His favorite song was “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” and one of my favorite memories of all time was watching him air fiddle to the song with intense passion during our senior prom. I can still see it like it was yesterday and it brings a huge smile to my face! I actually had a photo of him mid-fiddle, but buried a copy with him and gave the other to his father at his funeral.
Levi went into the United States Marine Corps right after our high school graduation in 2002. He graduated from Camp Pendelton and was assigned to Combat Service Support Group 11, 1st Force Service Support Group, I Marine Expeditionary Force, Camp Pendleton, California. The Humvee he was driving was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade on April 8, 2004 in Anbar province, Iraq. He died as a result of his injuries in Abu Ghurayb on the road to Fallujah.
I don’t remember where I was when I found out about his death, but I remember a blur of sadness for months afterward. Over 500 people attended Levi’s funeral and at the end of the emotional service, a Marine sergeant conducted a roll call of the present fellow Marine unit members. When he got to Levi’s name, there was no answer. He repeated it twice more, but louder, as though he was simply calling a straggler back into the ranks. The silence after each call was an incredibly emotional and deafening reminder of the permanent sacrifice Levi, and many others had made for our country’s freedom.
In an attempt to honor Levi’s spirit and lighten the grief a little, we played “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” on repeat as we exited the church. Levi was buried at Fort Snelling National Cemetary and on several occasions, friends and I would visit his grave to pay our respects and play his favorite song. Although it has been years since I have been to his site, I think of him everytime I drive by, as it is directly across from the airport we fly into and out of on a regular basis. I’m looking forward to paying my respects in December and bringing my medal with to honor him again.
I wasn’t aware of the magnitude that this race is! The MCM is one of the largest marathons in the US and throughout the world. It currently stands as the largest marathon in the world that doesn’t offer prize money, earning its nickname, “The People’s Marathon.” The MCM has been voted “Best Marathon in the Mid Atlantic,” “Best Marathon for Charities” and “Best Spectator Event.” The 2017 event boasted over 27,000 finishers, a far cry from my largest race-to-date of approximately 10,000 runners at the Twin Cities Marathon! It was a little overwhelming and I can only imagine the amount of coordination it takes to pull off a race event of this magnitude…
That being said, there were a lot of pros and cons to this race. Overall, I’m going to say it was one of the best runs, most beautiful courses, and most powerful experiences I have ever had… EVER. But, with 27,000+ runners, there are a few logistics that I feel like a newbie to the course should be aware of.
Bathrooms: oof… while there were plenty at the start, they were organized well and the wait was minimal, there were very few stops along the way. Thankfully, I didn’t have an issue; however, I’ve had races in the past where my gut doesn’t agree with me and I remember thinking at one point how big of a disaster that could have been. Additionally, with so many runners and spectators, the lines at every single portapotty stop were outrageous. I will say, when I finally committed to making the stop and using the restroom, somehow I lucked out! The line was super long, but as April (fellow MRTT-er, check her IG out at @embrace_the_pace) and I walked up, all the spectators that were in line to use them allowed us to cut and we literally had less than a 30-second wait! We were both so grateful and really astonished because we were certain that a pit-stop was going to cost us close to 10-minutes.
Aid Stations/Water Stops: I have to say, these don’t really apply to me on this run. I ran with my Nathan hydration pack which carried my water, a bottle filled with Tailwind, and my extra nutrition (Honey Stinger Waffles, Health Warrior bars and resupplies of Tailwind). I did read a lot of feedback that more stops were needed, especially around the bridge at mile 20. I can see how this is definitely needed. That last 10k is very exposed and with the heat we experienced yesterday, that would have been a massive concern. I also would have liked to see ice or cool-down efforts at the aid stations. Runners received an email prior to the race advising of the extreme conditions expected, so race directors were aware of it. Additionally, last year should have been a learning experience as well (I believe it was 80+ degrees last year!) so having sponges, ice, cold compresses, etc would have been extremely helpful to the runners. I saw many people with symptoms of dehydration, heat-exposure, and other heat-related or exertion issues, even one man seizing at the finish line who had to be carried off on a stretcher. One of the more terrifying scenes I have ever seen at a race…
Support: All things considered, there is an incredible amount of support in this race. You’re never alone, there are always CROWDS of runners around you, and an enormous amount of people cheering you on constantly. Additionally, the support from the USMC along the way leaves me just speechless. I honestly do not have the words to express what their dedication and presence means to the runners along the way. What an incredible event to honor them as service members to our country.
Course: The course is stunning. We started a little after sunrise near the Pentagon with a skydiving demo (right up my alley!) and a flyby of two V22 Ospreys (like a hybrid airplane/helicopter aircraft – really cool!!!).
It’s a gentle uphill 5k to start, and then mostly flat the rest of the way. There are enough small hills to keep it interesting and it weaves through a lot of beautiful places and monuments. The jaunt through historic Georgetown was a nice stretch, and as the course weaved through Rock Creek we got a nice break from the city hustle and bustle.
We ran past Watergate, the Kennedy Center, and the Lincoln Memorial before heading out to Hains Point. Mile 12 was the Blue Mile, where I was able to honor Levi and pay respects to him. I played his favorite song as we ran and shared stories with April about him and his sacrifice. At one point, a fellow runner stated that he was going to give me a little grief about blaring “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” but caught enough of the story to know it was a “moment” for me and welcomed the song instead as a result. Throughout the Blue Mile, the course pays tribute to fallen soldiers with their photographs on each side and volunteers line the path with American Flags. I expected to be emotional but instead was invigorated with the spirit and the ability to recount some memories I haven’t shared in years.
We made our way off Hains Point and continued past the Tidal Basin and Jefferson Memorial. This is about the time I started noticing the heat a little more and started feeling some aches and pains that usually don’t come until much later in a long run for me. My foot was really tender, my hips and IT band were getting cranky, and my lower back was starting to ache. (I eventually diagnosed that my shoes had reached the end of their life, but was stuck with them for the rest of the run… ughhhhh, ouch).
Around 18.5 miles we pulled off for a quick stretch and a photo op by the Capital building. It has been under construction the last few times I have been to D.C. so it was a stunning sight to see in all its glory! It was not long after this that I started to deteriorate. I let April run ahead since she was still feeling great, and I made the decision to slow down while continuing to enjoy the race. The crowd was still very active and even though it was getting brutal hot for runners, I can imagine that was probably the perfect temp for spectators and volunteers to stay out an enjoy the event! I guess for that, I’m grateful… They definitely carried me the rest of the way!
Everyone during the race talks about “beating the bridge” which all MCM participants much reach before 1:15pm in order to continue the race. I was well ahead of this pace, but I can tell you my concern wasn’t about beating the bridge, my concern was the amount of exposure I knew would be on that darn bridge at mile 20. Completely exposed to the sun, heat, and elements without an aid station and only the support of other weary runners; that was a game changer in the race for me. I took precautions, kept sipping from my hydration pack, and kept taking shots of Tailwind for electrolytes and salt as well.
The final 10k of the race takes runners through Crystal City, where it seemed like the entire town was out cheering! The fire department had opened the hydrants and I’m sure that was a welcome relief after that darn desert of a bridge. (I stayed out so as to not ruin my phone, but the light mist felt so good!) I saw April probably 1/2 a mile ahead of me on one of the out and backs and she looked so strong! I’m sure I was the epitome of death at this point and had begun the “walk-run” method to keep moving forward while repeating my favorite mantras from Yoga Teacher Training.
We passed Arlington National Cemetary and I knew the finish was right ahead of me… By my Garmin watch, I knew I was closing in. At this point, I heard “is that Amy??” and found that two of our fellow MRTT runners had caught me. (Sorry, ladies – I was #nothavingit) As I was approaching a slow death and just wanted to be done, I had little energy to turn around and chat, and being in the middle of the internal conflict that nearly every runner has at least once during most marathons (you know the one, why am I doing this? I paid for this? Why isn’t this over yet? while still trying to remain optimistic about the experience since it was for Levi and a greater cause)… Anyway, Sarah and Kimberly got a solid wave until they were by my side and I was able to muster out “it’s fucking hot… why is it so fucking hot?!” They chatted a minute and continued up the final 0.4 miles to the finish. I took one quick hip-stretch at 26-mile marker before turning the corner and hustling up that dreaded, disgusting hill to the finish line… There’s no way I would walk this part! I pulled out my shirt that I had made with Levi’s picture on it, held it high over my head and ran the rest of the way in with him until crossing that finish line.
There’s usually this wave of speechlessness and almost confusion upon finishing a big race like this. It’s done, and over… but you have to keep moving and make your way through the masses. I saw the man on the stretcher being carried out screaming in pain as his body seized involuntarily, and the Marines all around us congratulating runners on their accomplishment. What a paradox…
I thanked our Marines, choked up of course and unable to come up with any other words to say… I walked through a corral where Marines saluted me, congratulated me on the accomplishment, and presented me with the Eagle Anchor Globe medal on a ribbon with the Marine decree “Semper Fidelis” meaning “Always Faithful.” This took me back to the final words from Levi’s funeral from Pastor Brinkley: Well done, good and faithful Marine… Well done, good and faithful servant of the Lord.
I was able to meet up with April, Mary, Sarah and Kimberly, my MRTT ladies who also finished this amazing accomplishment. We cooled down with ice from the aid tent, discussed our race experiences and then made our way to the beer tent. The energy was high and the excitement didn’t waver. We eventually found our bags that had been checked in at the start line, boarded the metro and went our separate ways. Chad picked me up and we celebrated with beer and pizza – the perfect post-race meal!
I wanted to share one final experience from the finish line… It’s hard to put into words, but I’ll do my best to do it justice:
I don’t know what hit me, but it hit me hard right after the finish and I started choking up. I knew I had to keep moving forward, but my body started convulsing with emotion and I couldn’t stop the tears. It was at this point that one of the Marines, a young man probably close to Levi’s age when he passed, grabbed me by the shoulders and pulled me in for a hug. He didn’t say anything, he just wrapped his arms around my shoulders and held on tight. I hugged him back, squeezing tightly and let myself cry. There were so many emotions happening, so many thoughts going on through my mind… This man didn’t know me, didn’t know my story, didn’t know my reason for running, and didn’t know why I was choked up, but it didn’t matter… He had compassion. He recognized some form of suffering and treated that with empathy. It hit me so hard that in a world filled with people who couldn’t care less, he was someone who – at least for this moment – decided he needed to care more. It’s a moment I wish I had words for, and yet I’m so grateful that I don’t have the words to explain it. A moment I wish I had a photograph of, but a moment that is so profoundly engraved in my memory that I can stay in it and experience it better than any photograph ever could capture. (However, if someone happened to catch it on camera, can you send it to me or tag me in it? I’d love to have that…) To this random Marine, this man… thank you from the bottom of my heart. And to all service men and women, thank you…
I’ll leave you with this video, a playing of Dispatch’s The General, which became an athem for us after Levi’s death and still reigns as one of my all-time favorite songs. Enjoy, and thanks for reading…
Oh, and happy #MedalMonday to my fellow marathon finishers!!!