Chasing Canted Pavement: Marine Corps Marathon Inaugural 50K
In between World Series games, I lined up for the inaugural edition of the Marine Corps Marathon 50K (MCM50K). As one of the signs I ran past during the run read, it seemed like a good idea six months ago.
This was not only the first time Marine Corps had offered a 50K option, it was also my first time running the distance. My reasons for signing up essentially boiled down to some registration change in my pocket going jing a lang a ling, fear of missing out, and plain old impulsivity.
When I registered in February, I was not thinking pragmatically about the year ahead. I’d been running a lot – more than usual, thanks to the furlough – and the Marine Corps 50K sounded like a fine idea.
In my excitement, I overlooked all the energy and time that would also be spent on that other event that I had registered to do with Felkerino in August. You know, that little 1200K bike ride called Paris-Brest-Paris. In February, it all seemed perfectly manageable.
At least I had given some thought to what MCM50K race weekend would look like… CRAZY! Packet pickup has moved in the last few years from downtown to the Gaylord Convention Center at National Harbour. The Gaylord can easily accommodate a huge expo like Marine Corps, but it sure is a pain to get to compared to the old days of downtown D.C. pickup. I did a combo of Metro and shuttle to the Expo, and then rode Bikeshare back from the hotel to Old Town, Alexandria.
If I participate again and packet pickup is at the Gaylord, I will just ride my bike there and back. However, I wasn’t familiar enough with how the trails connected after Old Town to feel comfortable figuring it out en route to pickup.
Marine Corps Marathon Expo
Like the run itself, the MCM Expo is also crazy. Packet pickup is easy – and guess what, Marine Corps Marathon peeps? Zip tees as the race premium this year, versus those mock tees of prior years! But after picking up your bib and NEW AWESOME ZIP TEE you enter the vendor area and I just cannot figure the space out. I don’t know if others find the Expo like this, but I just have a tough time in spaces with so much going on in them.
Fortunately, I went to the Expo fairly early on Friday so it was lively, but not overly crowded. I spent maybe an hour trying to figure out what was going on, and as I said, enjoyed a nice 4-mile or so Bikeshare ride back to Old Town. It was a sunny fall day and I was glad for the fresh air and pedaling to calm my pre-race nerves.
Race day arrived after another tough World Series loss for the Nats that I refused to stay up and watch. Fortunately, unlike the Nats the Metro seemed to be running smoothly so I made it to the Pentagon Metro station without incident. Typical for race day, the crowds in the Metro station were thick and the walk to the starting line after exiting Pentagon Metro was at least a mile. So all that to say, no quick jaunt to the start and I made it with three minutes to spare despite leaving my house plenty early.
The Start and Spout Run, Miles 1-4
Organizers sent the approximately 700 runners in the 50K field off 15 minutes before the handcycles and 30 minutes before the main field. The 50K runners split from the main course at mile 4.1 to run a five-mile out and back section along Canal Road and then rejoined the main field.
I suspected that the whole MCM50K addition was somewhat of a concept, but after seeing these starting times and route choices I realized that it was critical to approach the event with flexibility and patience, as so many of the logistics were fraught with potential problems. And I was able? unfortunate? insert your word here to see some of these issues play out in real time.
First, a 15-minute head start on the handcyclists was definitely not enough, given the range of paces already evident among the 50K runners. I’m typically a 10:30 per mile marathoner and anticipated that the lead cyclists would come through on us. They certainly did and during the hillier section of the course, too. Handcyclists were churning uphill into people who were already walking, and then flying downhill with runners who were not used to sharing space with cyclists. In addition, we barely made the turn onto the out and back section before the lead group of marathon runners were coming through.
Canal Road and Georgetown, Miles 4-9
The Canal Road segment was super pleasant. Hardly any spectators, but plenty of space to run. I saw a couple of people I knew and we also got to see the 50K front-runners, which is always fun.
Just prior to Canal Road, I had joined up with a fellow participant, Jen, and we ended up running several miles of the course together. Jen remarked that the Canal Road section was lonely and she looked forward to rejoining the main field in Georgetown. Then we rejoined the main field in Georgetown.
Georgetown was all kinds of crazy. Tons of people cheering, which was awesome, and a wall of runners flowing down the street. Because of our out and back, we were now rejoined with people running slower than we were. Like I said, it was CRAZY. Jen said that she wanted to retract her statement about Canal Road being lonely and we both laughed. Sharing miles with Jen was a highlight of the run, as her positive energy and steady pace helped me keep my sense of humor and kept me moving well, which set me up for success later in the event.
Rock Creek Parkway, Miles 9-16
We left Georgetown and joined the canted pavement of Rock Creek Parkway. Ugh, that pavement. The street is definitely designed for cars to maneuver Rock Creek’s constant twists and turns, and not for a runner like me who doesn’t have wheels for feet. People were also bunching up here since we had lost some of our road real estate in our convergence from Georgetown to another out and back section.
Runners swerved to avoid the puddles in the street – which were not that bad. People were seriously funny about getting their feet wet. Jen declared that the best place to run was in the puddle and that became our strategy.
I was all about minimizing my jostling. I’ve run other events where I wasted many unnecessary footsteps trying to weave and surge around other people. Throughout the 50K, I tried to run as steadily as possible in order to minimize my energy expenditure. It took patience, but I was successful in the end, and only ran an additional three-tenths of a mile.
Jen was running faster than I was by now and there were lots of people choking their way through Rock Creek Parkway so I let her go in order to run my run. I was headed toward Ohio Drive and the Tidal Basin when buckets of rain unleashed on us. It had been raining prior to that, but not like this. So much rain, it was ridiculous!
On the up side, the overcast wet conditions made the temperatures bearable. They were warmer than I had hoped for – low 70s, I think – but the rain and gray did have a cooling effect.
Hains Point and the National Mall, Miles 16-25
Near Hains Point I stopped for a walk break and someone approached me to ask how my run was going. It took me aback and I told her it was going okay. Maybe I even said it was going well. I found out later that she was part of a “Psyching Team” out providing support to runners on this section. I’m not sure if it made a difference, but I did start running again so that the person would not talk to my anymore, so maybe!
The 3.2 miles on Hains Point was a good segment for me. I’ve done so much running and riding on Hains Point that it feels like home. I knew we’d have a tailwind as we headed north and that boosted my spirits. The main downside on Hains Point was that it was flooding on the south end due to the downpour so we had to slog through some real water. No avoiding the puddles for anyone on Hains Point!
I made my way off the point and hoped I would see Felkerino soon. I asked myself if I would run home if I didn’t, then scolded myself. I most certainly would not run home because this run was too damn expensive to even consider doing that. And I wanted to wear my new zip tee with pride! Plus, I basically felt fine. Nothing hurt, it was just rainier, warmer, and more crowded than I preferred.
As I rounded the bend toward the Mall at mile 19 for the MCM50K runners, I saw Felkerino’s helmeted head pop out from the spectators and heard him yell, “Go Mary!” It was a huge boost, and I scooted off the course to talk briefly with him about the weather (still rainy, but letting up soon) and our post-run meetup plans (he would swing over near the finish on the tandem and meet me).
Over the next couple of miles the rain abated and we saw blue sky ahead. Big groups of spectators cheered us all along the Mall to the Lincoln and then down to the Capital and back toward the 14th Street Bridge.
I was grateful it stopped raining, but had definitely preferred the cooler temperatures. Ever since I passed out during a summer run, I’ve been extra mindful about overheating so as the day warmed up I moderated my pace a little so that I would not run myself into trouble.
14th Street Bridge and Crystal City, Miles 25-31.1
Something about seeing Felkerino at mile 19 and then reaching the point where I had 10 miles to go settled me into the run. Finally! I was pleased with how I felt. Yes, I was walking some, but I was enjoying the experience. The 14th Street Bridge – which also coincided with mile 26 for the 50K runners – is generally where I notice bad things happening to runners, perhaps because it’s relatively solitary up there and there is not a lot of scenery for distraction so the bridge becomes a slog and you notice other runners more.
Runners leaned against the sides of the bridge, stretched out, and some grimaced. Not everyone, though. One runner smiled and said this was the farthest he’d ever run before and now he’d made it to a point where he had to keep running because he couldn’t get an Uber up on the bridge.
The sea of people never abated, but at the bridge it definitely became more manageable. Maybe, after 26 miles of running, I had figured out how to run with the masses. Our loop into Crystal City after the mostly somber padding across the bridge was an energizing party. People were giving out candy, Fireball shots, and other treats. The cheers were nonstop. I even saw the Marine Commandant, who was running the 50K course, stop so a bunch of Marines could have their picture taken with him.
Departing the energy bubble of Crystal City, under three miles remained. I padded them out in a walk/run combo, and then picked up my pace to look good for the crowds gathered near Iwo Jima. I finished feeling strong, and somebody who I’d seen earlier on the route shouted “Go Fashionista!” since I was wearing a Nuu-Muu running dress. It was nice encouragement.
After 5 hours and 41 minutes of running, I crossed the finish. A Marine gave me my 50K medal, and I asked for a photo with him. I snagged a couple of bananas in the finishers zone, and headed over to Arlington Cemetery to meet Felkerino. Throughout my half-mile walk to connect with him, people offered congratulations. My first 50K was officially on the books.
My Mini After Action Report
This is going to be a bit long because it was my first 50K, I have all the feels about Marine Corps as an event, and it was my last event after a big year of running and riding in 2019.
Marine Corps Marathon is a wall to wall running parade from start to finish. For a midpack runner like me, that means I’m constantly on the lookout to see if the person in front of me is going to weave, suddenly start walking, or veer over for a water stop. I was correct in my estimates about when the 50K runners would reunite with the marathoners and what it would mean for my pacing. I ran slower (not a lot slower, but slower) and went with it.
I did not worry much about time, although I wanted to keep pressing forward when I could and had hoped to finish around 5:30. I missed that target by 11 minutes, and I initially felt some disappointment. That’s evaporated now because as I reflect on the run, I did the best I could.
- I pushed my pace when possible, and ran with Jen as long as I could, which helped the early miles go by quickly.
- I kept my wits about me – and my sense of humor! – throughout this crowded event and did not tire myself by surging around other runners.
- I adapted to the temperatures. The temps were warmer than my body prefers so I altered my pace and hydrated more like a summer run than a fall event. That worked out for me, especially in the later miles when the sun came out.
Most significant on the mental side, I overlooked how much the preparations for Paris-Brest-Paris would take out of me. In order for Felkerino and I to qualify for PBP this year, we were riding our brains out from March up until the big dance in August. Even though Felkerino managed the bulk of the logistics and all of the bike maintenance throughout the year, a 1200K – especially one like PBP – is a big lift for me.
We had an amazing ride at PBP, and I was eager to keep the endorphins flowing. Felkerino unpacked the bike and I busted out my running shoes and hit the streets. But after doing a marathon in early October, followed by the Army 10-Miler the next weekend, I started to feel crispy. My mental state was not as sharp as I hoped, or I never would have asked myself about heading for home at mile 18.
When the thought of quitting entered my head, I accepted that my brain was not quite in the right space due to our busy year, and then I felt better and kept going. Funny how an acknowledgement about one’s lack of motivation can actually increase motivation. Seeing Felkerino soon after that mental soliloquy was also a boost to my mental state, and I realized that I love seeing him along the route cheering for me.
In the future, I would not dovetail an event like Marine Corps 50K onto PBP. It’s too much time for me to keep up the training as well as enthusiasm.
This post is also a thank you note to my body for holding up so well. I had a twinge of right knee pain at various times during the run, and my left achilles which has presented minor irritations since May continued to present minor irritations, but never worsened. I believe the knee pain was at least partly due to all the miles on pavement, especially that bleepity canted pavement on Rock Creek Parkway. Having done many of my long runs on trail surface, I forgot how tough pavement is on the body. Other than those niggles, though, the body was solid.
As mentioned, I moderated my effort to allow for the humid and warm conditions. I fueled well, having brought along my own water bottle as well as a Lara Bar to eat during the run. I love carrying my own water, since it allows me to drink when I feel like it, and I don’t need to waste a cup whenever I’m thirsty. I know Marine Corps is using more compostable materials now, and that is great, but I still like saving the cup on the front end.
I drank way more than I ever thought I would, but it resulted in no cramps and a strong final 10 miles. I was also saved by orange slices offered at mile 15. They were the best tasting oranges ever and kept my energy up. Felkerino gave me some banana at mile 19, and that also fueled me on.
The rain was quite something, but I think all the running has toughened up my feet. I applied Bodyglide on my body and feet before the run and experienced zero chafing. My Balega socks, which I just started using this year, were awesome and I can’t imagine running in any other socks now.
I wore Saucony Ride shoes, and they did a decent job of draining, something I was unsure of since they’ve never been tested in a downpour. My feet love the fit and cushion of the Saucony Ride, and I’m so grateful I found a pair of running shoes that work for me like these do.
Though I was surprised by how tired I was after finishing the 50K, I only had a little physical discomfort with some post-run cramping in my right calf. My quads still feel it three days out from the run, but I’ve been stretching and foam rolling to get myself back to regular.
Like I said, the MCM50K was a bit of a concept in action. I know the organizers have about a billion factors to consider, but it would have been better for the MCM50K runners to start an hour ahead of all marathon participants. It did not seem fair or safe for the handcyclists to have to deal with a bunch of runners in their path, especially since the early miles are the hilliest and hills make speed/momentum management between runners and cyclists even trickier.
I liked splitting off onto Canal Road for the bonus miles, since as roads go, it’s a nice one. We saw the front-runners on the out and back, I saw my friends who had also signed up, and the trees alongside the road gently shed their colorful leaves onto us in various parts.
But going back to Georgetown into a slower pace group was rough. Maybe some degree of slowing is to be expected when additional runners converge into an already full space, but I still think an earlier start would be beneficial to minimize disparate pace groups mixing at this point. Alternatively, I suppose I could train more and figure out how to run lots faster!
The mile markers were also mentally confusing to me, since they were all for the marathon. I finally figured out that the MCM50K runners had markers every 10K, compared to every mile for the marathon. Since I don’t conceptualize distance in kilometers (despite this being a 50K run), the markers were not that helpful.
Similar to when I’m on a long bike ride, the longer a run goes on the more confusing the math. Fortunately I only had to add five to the marathon mile markers, which was mostly doable for me. In some ways it was helpful to have the marathon miles lead the way, especially later on in the run, as I began to realize that I was beyond the familiar boundaries of the marathon distance and continuing to run well.
When I finished the MCM50K, I could not imagine myself signing up for it again. Now I can totally see myself signing up for it, but one of the reasons that I wrote this report is so that I approach it clear eyed. Marine Corps is a festive running parade that has many highs and lows, and I give up control over certain aspects of my run in order to be a participant.
As it stands now, I’d also definitely be up for another 50K, but I’d prefer it to occur on a softer surface in a less crowded atmosphere.
If you made it to the end of this post, thank you for reading! And if you’ve been a regular reader of Felkerino’s and my activities throughout the year, thank you. We’ve had so much fun this last couple of years, and it’s been great to write about and share with all of you.