This is a post I started working on before the unexpectedly early birth of my daughter — but I’d still like to share a bit about my most recent road race, the Navy/Air Force Half-Marathon, which started and ended at the National Mall in Washington, D.C. This was a smaller event than some I’ve done (just under 3,000 entrants), but it was very enjoyable — even if the enjoyment took no small degree of effort to attain.
The logistics of getting to the starting line for a race at the National Mall are a bit more complicated than some of the races I’ve done. For one thing, there’s almost no reliably-available public parking anywhere near the National Mall — and certainly not on a day when an extra 3k folks will be showing up at zero-dark-thirty. So my supportive wife (she was exactly 35 weeks pregnant on the day of the race, so she didn’t run this one) drove from our home in Alexandria to a nearby metro train station, parked, and quickly made it known to everyone that we are not used to riding the subway. We walked up to the automated ticket booth, and scratched our heads; we knew we needed to take the Yellow Line into D.C., but we didn’t know how to add up our fare. Our questionable math-in-public skills aside, we are both pretty good at asking strangers for help (“I have always depended on the kindness of strangers…“), and we marched up to the sleepy-eyed attendant to do just that. After rolling his eyes and slowly shaking his head, he came down from his cozy little booth and punched in the appropriate fare to get us where we wanted to go. Tickets in hand, we were on our way.
Two trains and a bus ride later (there was some construction–otherwise we would have had a straight shot into D.C.), we emerged into the misty morning sunlight, with only 15 minutes to spare before the race started. We were still a few blocks away from the starting line, so we started to jog. I kept looking around for a porta-potty, because 1) I needed to use one, and 2) I knew I didn’t want to stop along the race course for a bathroom break and add minutes onto what I hoped to be a decent race time. After a few minutes, we arrived at the National Mall — the Washington Monument, clad in steel girders, at one end, and the Capitol building at the other. We were still almost half a mile from the starting line, so Cori told me to sprint ahead, and she’d catch up in time to see me start.
As I quickened my pace — mindful that the race hadn’t even started yet — I was certain I was spraying gravel and dirt like an off-road dirtbike, and wasting energy that would ultimately keep me from my goal time. Still, the starting line came into view, with an inflatable giant arch proudly proclaiming “NAVY/AIR FORCE HALF-MARATHON” and then in smaller, slightly ashamed lettering “And Navy 5 miler”. I’m not entirely sure why the Navy got exclusive rights to claim the shorter concurrently run race, but I didn’t waste too much mental effort on that point, as I spotted a porta-potty at the very back of the throng of runners. I took advantage of the facilities, and as I exited, I heard the race master of ceremonies announce the official start of the race. By the time I worked my way back to the starting line, I was behind almost every other half-marathoner, except one guy who was speed walking and juggling, and another guy who was skipping rope.
After gawking at the juggler just long enough to know I needed to get ahead of him, I started the race. Because I was behind so many people, I spent probably the first six or seven miles just weaving in and out of little pockets of runners at slower paces. As an aside: If you’ve never watched or participated in a road race, you should know that there is some excellent people-watching to be done; and I was definitely entertained. The outfits people wear to run in — it amazes me… Anyways, I’ll leave that issue without further comment, but the other views on the race course were pretty amazing too. Some of the sights along the course included the Lincoln Memorial, Woodrow Wilson Bridge and Potomac River, the Jefferson Memorial, the aforementioned Washington Monument, and, inspiringly, an able-bodied Marine running in “boots and utes” (camo uniform without the top blouse — and I know this, thanks to the six months I spent living among Marines in Afghanistan…), and a truly heroic Army soldier amputee jogging while wearing a heavy rucksack. The weather was also great for the race — I love the way the air feels on a cool morning, with just a bit of mistiness skimming above the dewy ground, to make it feel like I’m zooming along, and the hundreds of other runners were simultaneously targets to “snipe”, opponents to catch back up to, and teammates to encourage along the way.
One of those “teammates” pulled alongside me late in the race, with one of his buddies. I heard these two slightly-older (40-50ish) runners chatting intermittently, and one commented about how hard he trains for marathons, but it’s really difficult to stay motivated for just a half. I silently agreed with him, as I had just been thinking the same thing: training for a marathon demands strict discipline, because 26.2 miles is such a punishing distance for the unprepared. 13.1 miles, on the other hand, is really pretty easy, and just about anyone, with a little base-conditioning, can at least complete a half-marathon. The half-marathon is not only easier to train for, it’s also easier to enjoy for the pure pleasure of running, without over-thinking things like pacing, “hitting the wall,” and fueling. So, as I ran, I kept thinking of how miserable I had been during the second half of the Seattle Marathon a year ago… And yet I also kept feeling the strong desire to do another marathon, if for no other reason than to redeem myself — and get one more chinzy medal.
With those thoughts bouncing around my brain, I pushed myself to “kick” for the last three miles; I knew my wife’s personal record (PR) for the half was one hour and 42 minutes, and I had a good shot at coming close to her time. I worked on keeping my footfall quick and light, landing on my midfoot and not falling into the “heel first” fallacy. As I rounded a street corner, I saw the Washington Monument and the finish line, and I heard my lovely wife cheering me on.
I did not beat her PR, but I did set a new one for myself (1:47); but more than the PR, I was reminded of how much I really enjoy running for fun — but the “fun” for me is also tied to running with a purpose, with some objective or goal to strain toward, even on “easy” runs. Put simply, I like the structure and sense of accomplishment that goes with training for and completing a race. There’s also something so enjoyable about the routine of going for a long run early on Saturday mornings, coming home to a hot shower, a cup of coffee, and the euphoric glow that envelops even the mundane details of the rest of the day. So with that, I’m setting my sights on the Marine Corps Marathon in 2014.