On Slowly Becoming “A Runner”

To the extent I have any athletic talent at all (a dubious proposition in the first instance), it is that I can continue at a high effort level for a long time. I was a merely mediocre 500-yard freestyle swimmer in high school, and an abysmal 100-yard swimmer, because I could maintain my slow 100 pace for 500 yards. (The less said of my misadventures in the 50 free, the better.)

So perhaps it was inevitable that I would find myself standing in 39-degree weather on the National Mall on Sunday, waiting for my second Marine Corps Marathon 10K to begin. (The paradoxical name comes from the fact that the MCM folks rather cleverly organize a 10K on the last six miles of the marathon route, using roads that are already closed to accommodate people who think that 26.2 miles is a fortnight’s worth of running.) The camaraderie of strangers at a mass start like this is infectious: everybody is somewhat bored, a little anxious, and genuinely hopeful that their “competitors” do well. With the exception of the few who hope to win, this is not a zero-sum game: my success does not necessarily mean another’s failure. By the time the starter’s gun (in this case, a piece of small artillery) went off, I had stretched three times, tired myself out, and been re-energized by adrenaline. In short, I was ready to go.

The first two miles of the race have a vaguely postapocalyptic feel: the route takes you across the Potomac on the path of I-395. With the sun just rising, no cars on the road, and thousands of people running en masse away from the city, it’s an odd feeling, even just to travel on a multi-lane highway by foot. This year’s race featured an additional obstacle: Saturday’s rain and snow had frozen overnight to create patches of black ice in the shade. I wish I could say that I navigated it with skill and grace, but I have to concede that I was probably just lucky not to fall.

The next two miles take you through Crystal City, the only part of the run on roads that one might conceivably run under normal circumstances. This middle third is the hardest part of the race: you’ve been going for 15 minutes at a difficult pace, which is enough to begin to feel authentically tired. On the other hand, the bulk of the race lays in front of you. This is where I begin to think that the people who took their first two miles slowly had a good idea; it’s also the point where the race turns for the first time, so you see the faster runners well in front of you, and finally get to see the mass of people behind you for the first time. Pre-race camaraderie aside, it’s nice to have some people at your back.

Finally, it’s back on the highway and past the Pentagon. This is, for the most part, a gently hilly section of the course, and with the end in sight (figuratively, at least) it’s tempting to start the kick early. Here is where you need to hope that you planned correctly; if you have run your race correctly, you will have just enough energy to keep going until the end.

The course concludes with a sprint uphill to the Marine Corps War Memorial, which is the point at which your brain really needs to overrule your body’s better impulses. Finishing the run uphill, I found myself gasping for air, not exactly pleasant with temperatures still in the low 40s. And then it’s over. Check your watch, get your finisher’s medal and picture taken, get on the Metro, and be home by 10 o’clock.

Of course, it’s not over. By the end of the day, I was online, figuring out my next race: another 10K? A 10-miler? A half-marathon? I had always been sure that I was not “a runner,” but just somebody who runs occasionally. But, no; I’m looking for the next race, trying to get the time down, searching for those lost seconds. (Stupid ice patches.) There are worse hobbies, right?

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