I cannot even tell you where to begin, y'all. This was the race of my life. It was my family reunion at the Old Folks Home for Calcified Habitually Unrepentant Marathoners (CHUM) and the best 72 hours of my life to date. So be warned. Like Gunz posted on Facebook Saturday, THIS IS GOING TO BE EPIC. You might want to make some popcorn and pour yourself a Makers and Coke.
First, there was drinking and toasting our dear Jimmy Dale, who is stationed in Japan and couldn't make it but ran 500 miles this month in honour of the Semper Fi Injured Marines fund (this is the same idiot who once ran 177.5 miles from Tun Tavern Philadelphia to the Marine Corps barracks on Eye Street and THEN ran the marathon!) Here, fellow Gunnery Sergeant Michael J. Kottmer (aka "Gunz K") toasts our Jimmy:
Then, of course, not to forget the 26.2 miles of running the next morning. Which, in true race-morning style, began with Carl singing at me. Fortunately this time it was only via text message. I don't remember much of the pre-race, which is probably good, because Carl and Karen were dressed as Batman and Batgirl (what? It was Halloween) so Carl decided that my name that morning was Alfred. Here, Alfred, hold this. Alfred, where's my mask? Alfred, go get Nita.
Yeah yeah yeah.
The first thing I remember clearly is a very long line for porta-johns, which I actually mostly didn't need. Just gave it a quick all-clear and then we all stood around waiting for Gunz, whose first choice of porta-johns was not up to his standard so went in for another round of lines.
Met up with the Yellow Pom Poms on Sticks at the start and finalized the hand-off of the colours: because Jimmy was stuck in the Kuni, Mike arranged for all the Marines (and a corpsman) in the group to run with the colours in his honour. On a big honkin pole. For four hours. That's what she said. I left everyone and headed back to The Land of My People (you know, the corral marked "to infinity, and beyond") with Mike, who was searching frantically for our fourth Marine leg. One minute I was talking to Mike, the next he was gone in a blur of flannel, looking for CW. So I snuggled myself into a corral.
Which turned out to be the 4:30 pace group. Oops.
The howitzer goes off, we cheer madly, I ditch my overshirt, and.....we stand around for another 20 minutes. This is what happens at the back of a marathon, people.
Finally, we cross the start line. Here we go. I'm not pumped, but I'm awake. At the first mile, I see our Pom Poms on the right. One sighting, two to go. These are My Crew. These are the people guaranteed to get me from station to station. These are the light at the end of my tunnel. Every six miles, I get Pom Poms, waves, and wild cheering. Most of which is drowned out by Charlotte, who is the loudest of them all. (That's what she said.)
So I settle in. Tra la, tra la. Lots of spectators in costumes. I haven't run this course in three years, and I distinctly remember thinking then, "Oh my god, I'm only at mile three? I am so screwed." This time as we cross Key Bridge I'm thinking, "Wow, I'm here already? Awesome." I'm not running a simple 12/2. At this point I'm just running, seeing where it goes, and how it takes me.
And it takes me far. It feels awesome. The weather is perfect, the crowds are perfect, my fellow runners are perfect, the "European trees" are filled with overhydrated runners at Spout Run (how very aptly named are you, Spout Run) and--holy crap, that was 5k. All right, cool. Whatever. I'm keeping my eyes peeled for my fellow CHUMs coming back past me on the inbound loop. I spot a tall, moving traffic cone. It's Jerry, our own personal Army of One. For once, I can actually get his attention just by calling his name. Usually, he's so in the zone I have to throw Snickers Marathon bars at him. Moments later, I spot the colours flying high (though not quite so high as later, when six-foot-three Gunz is carrying) and get a shout out to Charlie and Nita. I keep my eyes peeled for Gunz and Len, or Carl and Karen. Or CW. Where the hell is CW? (As it turns out, at that point, CW and I were probably within earshot of each other, but the runners are thick enough that we never even knew it. Besides, we've never met in person, so I wouldn't know him if I tripped over him. Which, in a marathon, is entirely possible.)
As I head up the hill, Batman and Batgirl pass me from behind. I spend a few minutes trying to figure out how I was ever in front of them and saying rude things to Carl. Because, you know, I can.
Warning: picture of me ahead. This will almost never happen here, so treasure it while it lasts.
There. And now you know why I never post pictures of me.
Then? There was lots more running. Coming back down the hill out of Spout Run, I hear an incredulous voice: "FireCat??" She actually says this, not my given name. I turn, because it's obvious from the direction and tone of the voice someone has recognised either my ass or the back of my shirt (which is, of course, the lovely Fire Cat herself, complete with VW bus). It's Shell. Oh my God, it's Shell! Shell who I haven't seen since Pittsburgh in 2009, Shell who we missed terribly two nights in a row at supper, Shell of Shell-and-Ike, isIkerunninghowareyou??? People manage to divert around our admittedly girly-scream-filled reunion right there in the middle of Spout Run Parkway. She paces me for about a minute and then I wave her off. She assures me I'll see her again, but I seriously doubt it. I tell her of the new post-race meet-up and beer-fest location, and off she goes.
The last time I ran this course, in 2007, it was diverted out of Georgetown. And it was a damn shame. Because Georgetown, you are the shit. (That's what she said.) Georgetown, you are also downhill. I love you, Georgetown.
A few miles, some orange slices, me having to bellow at the top of my lungs, "Wheelchair on the right, make a hole goddamnit!" and then? More Yellow Pom Poms on Sticks! Well, the same yellow pom poms on sticks, just in a different place. I launch my arm warmers at Lauren, who recoils in horror before she realises what they are. She safely stows them away in Charlotte's bag so I can retrieve them that night at the bar and then promptly leave them on the table, never to be seen again.
Haines Point is lovely when it's earlier in the race. More people, more stuff, more Shell! Her stomach hasn't been great, so she's been slowed down, but she heads out from the latest pit stop, and leaves me to more running, more people, more....uh, mocha Clif gel. Which I think may have been my undoing in a little foil packet. Note to self: this is why you carry your own Gu. Use it.
By the end of Haines Point, I have made friends with Pokey's mom, who is about my pace and a good fifteen years older. Pokey died flying a mission in Iraq in 2007. The picture on the back of his mom's shirt shows a beanpole of a kid, ears the size of Nebraska, smile as wide as the Potomac, barely out of his teens. This race makes me cry, every single time. Semper fi, Pokey.
By the time I round Haines Point, I have lost track of Pokey's mom in that cat-and-mouse game that marathon running is, but I've picked up a couple of Marathon Maniacs and Jenn and Laura, who will end up as my companions for most of the second half. Rounding The End, where The Awakening used to be (where now there is a water stop with the bitchingest cadence I heard all course) it finally occurs to me to look at my watch. Manic cackling ensues as I discover that I have beaten my half-marathon PR by eleven seconds. I turn to Jenn and repeat the words immortalized by Gunz at the Baltimore Marathon on a similar occasion: "The crash is going to be glorious!" In the meantime, I keep cookin.
And urping. The mocha Clif Shot is not happy with me, nor I with it. Or maybe it's the compression shorts squozing my poor little intestines to death. Or I don't know what. But I tuck in with the Maniacs and settle into their Garmin-regimented walk/run pace. It kind of works for me. I can totally do this. Maybe.
We head up onto the Mall, where Rick Nealis has saved our porta-johns from the ravening hordes of unwashed hippies (of which I am one, much to the chagrin of my Marine friends. Did I mention how surreal it is to be surrounded by equal parts Marines with boots and guns and pissed-off liberals with a Jon Stewart fetish? I did not know what to salute. Truly.) I find myself uttering words one never expects to hear out of one's own mouth: "Really? We're at Mile 19? Already?"
The urpage continues. I mention to Jenn (or Laura, or NancyAndMary) that this has the potential to start sucking fairly soon. And then, rather suddenly, we are without Nancy, who has been having trouble all week and warned Mary ahead of time that this might happen. There is a short debate. Should we leave her? Should we stay with her? I know that whatever happens, I'm going. Not because I don't know her, but because if someone tells you beforehand, "If I tell you to leave me, go ahead and leave me," then this means one thing. Leave them. They're not martyring themselves, they're not hitting the wall. They're using their safe word. So to speak. (Dude. I did not just go there. Not during a race report. Really? Did I just go there?)
Anyway. We leave her. Two miles later, there she is again. I think nothing of this in particular, though later I have a thought I shall leave unspoken. Read it if you know the code.
Coming off the Mall, past the horses, there's Holly. Hey! There's Holly! She's handing out 3 Musketeers. Because of the lovely combination of my first marathon partner and chocolate, I decide to recover from the deep sorrow of somehow having missed My Yellow Pom-Pom People at Mile 16. It also seems somehow sort of fitting, since the Mall was really the last time I saw Holly in 2007.
And there we are. There are the wailing female drum corps. (There is also Jeremiah, but at this point I am so out of my gourd it doesn't even occur to me to be looking for him. I'm so fixated on what's about to happen.) And then? Then I see it. The sign. The sign from God.
Ok, actually, the sign is from Tuan at DSG. But it might as well be from God. At this point in the game, it doesn't much matter. The bridge is, in fact, my bitch. I own it. I also have a very interesting conversation about marathon etiquette that causes me to remember the difference between some Marathon Maniacs and other Marathon Maniacs. And again, I refer you to Gunz K, whose first tattoo says it all: Death Before Dishonor. And there it was, and that's all I'm gonna say.
At this point, something begins to dawn on me. I'm actually having fun. Actual, honest to God, marathon-running, where's the wall I'm supposed to hit five miles ago, fun. What the hell? I'm working harder than ever before, I'm definitely feeling it (especially in the part of me that is gurgling and urping and wishing like hell I could take off my fuel belt and throw it at the next person I recognise because I cannot stand one more thing touching my abdomen, and it would be really rude to take off my shorts, which is my other option), I'm pretty tired, and I would really like my nose to stop running for once in my life, but other than that, I'm doing ok. Also? I start doing some serious math in Crystal City, after Batman and Batgirl scare the crap out of me yet again, this time on the turnaround. Ok, I'm getting a little clueless, but I'm still running more than I'm walking, none of my walk breaks are more than a minute, and.....well wait just a minute here. I might make a race time I never even dreamed was possible, let alone possible today.
I tell NancyAndMary that if I have this chance, I'm taking it. They look at me like I'm nuts and immediately shoo me off ahead of them. To my delight--and almost immediately to my eternal and undying gratitude--Jenn comes with me. Jenn becomes my rock. We reset her Garmin and try to pick up the pace. At this point we're at Mile 24 (site of the infamous Len! I Gotta Pee! sighting of 2007). The last two miles are pretty ugly.
I don't just mean that in the sense of that's the closest I came to any wall. Having been fairly touchy all weekend, at this point my stomach is cramping enough to make breathing evenly a problem, and my mouth is dry, which is compounded by the problem that I'm too nauseous to want to take in fluids. I am sloshing and spitting fuel-belt water. It isn't helping. Jenn offers me a cough drop. I could kiss her if I could get my lips to pucker. But dammit, we still have a chance. And we take that chance as we careen down an exit ramp onto a very desolate and ugly stretch of concrete, taking advantage of every bit of gravity and momentum we can muster. I know some people find this part exhilarating. It's the home stretch, the last mile and a half, all sorts of finishers are swimming back upstream with their medals to stand in the stunned exhaustion that passes for encouragement to other runners after you've run your own guts out.
Not me. I just find it endless. And, in this case, nauseating. With each step I watch that impossible time goal become actually impossible again. Jenn tells me that when we hit Mile 26, we have to run it out. Because we have to. Because there is no way we are limping across that finish line. Only I really think I'm about to run till I puke. Which would be fine if I could actually breathe deeply enough to find the energy to puke, which I can't. And there goes my time goal, right at Mile 26. I take a deep enough breath to yell at Jenn for all I'm worth, like she's running for her life and I'm letting the lion eat me instead. Because, in a sense, I am. "Run, Jenn! Run!" I do not know this woman. I have never seen her before this race. I will probably never see her again. But right now, her hitting that timing mat in under six is more important than my taking another step ever again. I watch her disappear around the corner and up the hill.
And oh my god that hill. How am I not going to eat pavement on that hill? What happened to my Spout Run battle cry of "I eat hills for breakfast, Marine!"? And where the hell are Nita and Mike, who promised me under the penalty of beer that they would come back and run me in? I don't feel abandoned so much as worried that something has happened to one of them. Also, deeply annoyed that I have to hump this fucking fuel belt another 0.2 miles. Because these are the stupid things you think of in the last two-tenths of a mile. And then I'm around the corner and my legs remember that they're supposed to have a final kick about now, which is good because I can't feel them, but they appear to still be working because people are falling behind me a little more rapidly now.
And then it's over. It's over and I am bent over hanging onto the corral sucking wind, and I don't particularly give a flying fuck about the medal, or cookies, or even a bottle of Powerade. Which is really unusual for me. Mostly, I want to get out of my shorts (that's what she said) and find out what happened to Nita and Mike.
I'm lying on the ground, trying to figure out how to un-pretzel myself from the most gratifying stretch ever--or even if I want to get up again--and I look up and there's Jenn. Hi Jenn! We did it!
I vaguely recall wandering back to my hotel, spending some quality time with my shorts-free ass in the shower, trying to remember which came first, shampoo or conditioner. Then I walked the three blocks back to the finish, to the cool kids' hotel. Beer-drinking, football-watching, Frito-throwing, and (in certain cases) hamstring-cramping is already in progress in Nita's room.
Despite the fact that I am the last to finish--and I am always the last to finish--I am hailed as victor when I finally haul my ass through the door to join the party in progress. And this is why these are My People. This is why we created the Old Folks Home for Calcified Habitually Unrepentant Marathoners. It doesn't matter that some of them literally run twice as fast as I do, or that some of them run ten marathons a year. They know I'm not racing against them. They know I'm racing against me, and they're as excited for me as I am. They couldn't meet me at the finish line, but they were back in the hotel suite, trying to revive Mike from certain pukedom and tracking my progress online at the same time. You'd think they were the ones who just crashed a 20-minute PR, judging by the reception they give me (even though they mostly can't get out of their chairs yet). Leave no man behind. That's them. These are my people.
That's what she said.