A Non-Runner Runs the D.C. Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon

Even though it’s been over two decades since I left high school, I still struggle to escape defining my athletic self in terms of physical education (P.E.) classes and (gasp!) high school sports. That definition repeatedly reminds me that I have no right to consider myself an athlete in any sport.

I was never picked dead last for those days in P.E. where we divided up and people picked teams, but from elementary through high school I was consistently in the bottom half of the selection. I participated in a couple of sports, but never made the varsity team of anything.

When I look back, I see the distorted importance of sports in our community, and how we respected and valued people because of their athletic abilities. And really, that was stupid.

And despite knowing in my head how stupid it was, I still fight against the definition of self that cemented over years of being in the bottom half of the team selection and never being considered good at sports.

That’s one of the many reasons I gravitated to bicycling and eventually, randonneuring. It was something I could do without worrying about being good at it. Cycling was about transportation and freedom, not speed or sport-related.

Whenever I toe the line of a marathon, a little part of me recalls P.E. days, sighs internally, and wonders who I think I am. It’s not as though I’m good at running. I look at all the other runners, and think they look way more runner-like than I do.

Running through SWDC, the industrial part
Running through SWDC, the industrial part. All photos by Felkerino

Technically, I’m bad at running. I’m a slowpoke. I have an awkward and inefficient gait, and I’m happy to run an overall pace of 10-minute miles over a marathon course. I have minimal interest in speedwork, and my general strategy is to simply build base miles.

Yet I am compelled to run and be part of many of the marathon events in D.C., and Saturday marked the fifth time I have completed some version of the D.C. Rock ‘n Roll Marathon  route.

This course is one of my favorites, as it includes several extended climbs (particularly in the second half) and passes through all four quadrants of the city. It’s an ideal urban runner’s D.C. tour.

I have no aversion to pavement. Running off asphalt is certainly easier on the knees, but it’s fun to have runners take over the city streets. It’s refreshing not to bow down to vehicular traffic for a few hours. Sorry cars, plan accordingly. I’m sure you’ll survive.

I spent all of Saturday thinking this was my 20th marathon, which I considered an important milestone (literally!). After reacquainting myself with basic addition and preparing this post, I realized this was my 19th official 26.2 so I’m still eyeing my 20th. (I’m coming for you, 20!)

During this year’s run, I was deeply in tune with my head and body. While I was part of a big event, absorbing the crowd encouragement and enjoying the bands that played along the course, my focus was on how every part of my body was faring.

As regular readers know, one week prior to the marathon, Felkerino and I  had joined with our friend Jerry to go in search of our brevet legs with a 157-mile bike ride.

This is not a taper! It is the antithesis of a taper, and probably not the best idea for someone who wishes to kick off a marathon with fresh legs.

The ramp-up for brevets and the marathon taper awkwardly collided, but I tried to view each separately in order to fool myself into a fresh leg feeling.

Leaving Capitol Hill for the second half
Leaving Capitol Hill for the second half

The snappy leg sensation never manifested, but my body felt remarkably strong on Saturday, and I believe that is due to the increased running miles over the winter months. I established a 20-mile per week (minimum) running goal in addition to my cycling miles, and this has aided my overall fitness in the early months of 2016.

Between miles 14-16, I experienced a dull sidestitch. Fortunately, Felkerino and his daughter were out to cheer me on and offer me a well-timed bite of banana , which helped me push through. After the sidestitch subsided, I felt awesome, and the miles through Anacostia Park were far less effort than they have been in previous years.

My legs threatened to cramp on me at various points during the final four miles through Fort Dupont Park and up Minnesota Avenue. Our previous week’s bike miles were making themselves known, as I had dealt with cramps in the same spots after last week’s ride as well.

“Don’t you dare, legs! Don’t! I can’t hear you!” I yelled at my limbs, stopped briefly to stretch them out, and continued to run forward while trying to ignore the leg-driven conversation, cramps lurking all the while. “We’ll talk later, legs. So don’t even.”

Part of me thought it was totally irrational to first yell at, and then attempt to ignore, my legs. “The cramping is real,” a little voice told me. But another part of me was sure I could cajole my legs into silence and push through. And the latter train of thought proved its dominance.

I flicked my feet around in hopes of delaying the cramp onslaught, while trying to move as fast as possible to the end. I saw Felkerino and his daughter, gave them a wave, and wiggled my way to the finish line.

The final two-tenths felt like at least a half-mile, but I crossed the finish without any show-stopping leg cramping. “Way to go, legs, you’re the best! Still, please do not cramp on me!” My legs listened and after some relaxed walking and a few moments of rest, they felt much better.

Bikeshare home in the marathon finisher's jacket
Bikeshare home in the marathon finisher’s jacket

With that finish, marathon 19 is in the books. I even ended up with a personal best on this course by about two minutes or so, with an official finish of 4:25:59. Go me! Yeah, it’s not fast, but this non-runner will take it.

A huge thanks to our friend Jerry for coming out to cheer me in the early miles, and to Felkerino and D for meeting me in the later parts of the course.

It means a lot when you have people you know rooting for your success. They don’t know about your P.E. baggage, and your reluctance to call yourself a runner.

Your friends – and for that matter, all the spectators out there cheering and clapping- think you’re a runner. You may run slow, but you’re out there doing it, after all. They don’t give a $h*& about your town and what happened in P.E. or high school sports. You’re still managing 26.2 miles on your own two feet. You might be a runner after all.


  1. High school sports is all about others’ expectations. Your teammates. Your coach. Your family. Your school. Endurance sports are all about your expectations of yourself. I laugh when I hear people talk about mindfulness. About being in the moment. Nothing puts you in the moment, of making you more self aware, quite like the last few miles of a marathon when your body says “Hell no!” and your mind says “Let’s just make it to the next mailbox. Then we can discuss this.” And you negotiate with your legs or side stitch or your back for another mailbox and another until you see that finish line.

    19 is the new 20.

    Not half bad for a PE wannabe.


  2. That’s a terrific post! How does high school sports get it so wrong? I was never “an athlete,” and, like you, I resent “the distorted importance of sports in our community.” I’ve been cycling for five or six years, and it’s given me a new perspective on sports and my own abilities.


  3. If running a sub-4:30 marathon makes you a non-athlete… well, I won’t complete that sentence because it’s just self-deprecating and there’s no need for that. Truthfully, I think there are more people who turned to riding a bicycle and who had similar experiences in school. I know for myself, I always enjoyed P.E., but was never any good at it.

    Several years ago, I decided that athletes come in all forms and there’s no need to take away from accomplishments (though I still fight with this when it comes to self). It’s sometimes difficult to have two opposing ideas come together (for me, that is feeling like a complete fool in P.E. and truly not having any athletic prowess, yet still enjoying and participating in athletic endeavors). It’s easier to say, “I’m not an athlete” because there is a realization that I will never win a race, but in truth there can only be one winner, and I don’t think that takes anything from 2nd place finishing or 1500th place finishing. A finish is a finish.

    I’m starting to ramble, so I’m going to stop now as I promised myself I wasn’t going to leave multiple-paragraph, rambling responses to posts anymore (I’ve already failed, so I do apologize).

    I will say, CONGRATULATIONS on your 19th marathon completion! One was enough to scare me off for life, so I have great respect for those who complete multiples – you non-runner. 🙂


  4. Yep, you’re spot on about high school sports and their dominance in our society. Kids will quit music that they can do their entire life for the sake of football. I’ve yet to meet a 70 year old (American) football player. Cycling though! I’ve ridden with 90 year olds on bikes!


  5. I went cheering via bike with a friend and had a great time cheering for you all, especially in the hilly forest towards the end. When not cheering for races, I also lead a running group and if we had a slogan, it would be “slow is a feeling not a number”.

    I want to say something like “your 10′ miles are someone’s dream” but that doesn’t mean you have to be happy, content, or upset with that pace, so I shouldn’t instruct you like that.

    I guess I just wanted to add a phrase to your life that might help you celebrate the motion you are creating.


  6. MG,
    My daughter just completed her 1st marathon – Shamrock marathon in VA Beach today. At times there was a 15MPH headwind (yikes). She does triathlons and actually qualified for nationals at the Olympic distance, but this was her first marathon. 3hrs 40min. Proud papa!


  7. MG,
    My daughter just signed up for the Marine Corps marathon in October – some kind of lottery system but she just found out that she is in! Her chip time for the Shamrock was 3:38:56. She is like you, MG – she does a lot of things well. Maybe you two will run together in October!


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