Four Minutes, Part I
The alarm on my phone went off at 5:30, but I had been awake for two hours. I wasn’t exactly nervous so much as excited. I had waited ten years for this. Ten years to replace that 5:39:39 next to my name with a more respectable time. A runner’s time. I was excited, because my training had gone off near perfectly. No major injuries to report. I not only survived all my long training runs, but had also managed to improve my cruising speed. If all went well today, and I saw no reason why it wouldn’t, I would be finishing this marathon in 4:45:00 or so. I was convinced I could sustain 11 minute miles into eternity, and I had actually trained myself to speed up over the final few miles of a long run, routinely finishing runs faster than I started them. After ten years of biding my time, I was ready to knock The Beast right between the eyes.
I got up and quietly got my gear on. My wife got up with me and put on the coffee. My sister was picking my up at 6am to take me to Crystal City, where I would hop on a shuttle to the runner’s village and the start of the race. She planned on meeting me again between miles 17 and 18 to run out the rest of the race with me.
The shuttle ride and the working my way through the runner’s village went pretty smoothly. Coming off the bus there was large migration to a massive checkpoint, where marines looked through each and every bag carried by each and every runner. It was an amazingly efficient operation, and I got through it with a half an hour to spare. The ‘village’ itself was basically a veritable city of port-a-potties. I mean, hundreds of them lining the Pentagon North parking lot. Despite the fact that I’d never seen so many of them in one place at one time, the line for each was at least twenty deep. I stood in line for one for a few minutes and then just gave up.
About ten minutes before the start, I ditched my sweat pants and sweat shirt … an offering to the running gods, and headed for the start line. With over 20,000 runners, the marathon had set up starting zones (or ‘corrals’) based on your projected finish time. I found my spot with the 4:30-5:00 crowd and re-checked my gear for the hundredth time. You may all remember that the last time I ran the marathon my cousin had fashioned a make-shift sign that said ‘Super Henry’ which I had pinned to my shirt for the final ten miles. This time we planned ahead and she bought a shirt and painted ‘SuperHenry’ right on it, in perfect ‘superman’ lettering. I have to admit it was pretty cool. She also put it on the back in big block lettering just in case the people behind me missed it. So appropriately adorned and geared up and ready to go, I waited.
As I was waiting I heard a ‘Hey SuperHenry!’ and looked over to my right. A photographer was there taking pictures and wanted a shot of me. I humbly obliged.
Then the starting gun sounded several hundred yards to the north and a cheer cascaded down towards us slowpokes. And we knew the people up front were already starting. For us in the cheap seats, it was a slow march to the starting line, and we diligently meandered our way towards the big red arches off in the distance. At this point my wife texted me that she was in position at the starting line and which side am I going to be on? I responded that I would be on the left side, but I was still so far away from the starting line I didn’t realize that was completely wrong. By the time I did cross the start, fifteen minutes later, I was on on the right. I didn’t see my beloved so there was nothing to do but start running.
I had my running plan all set. I was going to run the first mile at a 12 minute/mile pace, then the second and third miles at 11:30, and finally settle in at an 11 minute/mile pace from the fourth mile on, until I met up with my sister. This included a one-minute walking break every mile, so I was actually going a little faster during the running parts. I figured that if all went well, I’d ditch the walk breaks around mile 20 and maintain a 10:40 or so pace, and with any luck I’d finish with a sub 4:45:00 time.
And the plan was working swimmingly. Though during the first few miles the course was very very crowded, and runners were sorting themselves out, trying to settle in with the group of people running the same pace, I managed to maintain my early pace pretty my right on schedule. I stuck to the right of the crowd, so that when I stopped for my walk breaks hundreds of people behind me didn’t have to suddenly swerve around me. There were a lot of walk/runners in my immediate group, and it was kinda like a stock car race, where at certain times certain runners would move off to the right for a stint of walking. Eventually we all got the hang of it.
The beginning of the course went through Arlington. And for the first three miles there were some hills. I tried to time my walks with the uphills to help conserve my legs, not that I felt I needed to at that point in the race, but I knew from experience that the early part of the race is deceptively easy. I forced myself to take my walking breaks even though I didn’t feel like taking them. And I stopped at every water stop, even though I wasn’t thirsty. This was my shot. I had trained too hard and too long and I was not going to make any mistakes that would cost me later on. Water stops were another adventure. I knew the PowerAde was doled out first but I didn’t realize just how long the stops were. It wasn’t until I heard one of the marines yelling ‘water is in the white cups!’ that I learned to run past all the guys holding the black ones.
At Mile Four we crossed the Key Bridge and then headed west along the Potomac on Canal Road. At this point in the race you could see that the course was doubling back on itself, and heading in the opposite direction were runners that were about four miles ahead of us, running very much faster and looking much sleeker. Most of the runners around me had some sort of costume on. I had settled in behind a couple girls in red shirts that were supposedly running for Frank. One of them had a shirt that said “Franks my daddy-o” and the other had a shirt that just said ‘Running for Frank' on it. There were a lot of ‘running for [whoever]’ shirts all over the place. I started to feel a little selfish running just for myself, but I at least I was feeling super. There was one shirt that really caught my attention early on. It was just one sentence across some guy's back: 'I won't quit.' I have to admit that one stuck with me a lot longer than most of the others. Anyway, the speedsters across the road had no such adornments. They all looked very serious. I figured I wasn’t going to catch up to any of them.
We chugged along to Mile Seven, when the course turned back around and headed back East. The same part of the course those fast people were on a half an hour earlier. At this point we hit The Big Hill of the course. I had studied the course extensively before the race. I knew The Hill was here, and I had figured I’d walk most of it to conserve strength. And a lot of people were doing that. (At one point I passed an older guy, probably about 70, wearing a shirt with the years of the two dozen Marine Corps Marathons that he'd run printed on his back. As I passed him I said "Now that's a career!" He gave me a thumbs up and said "I'm not finished.") But for some reason I didn’t walk it. It wasn’t time for my walk break and I was feeling good and didn’t want to lose my momentum. Or something. Whatever the reason I decided to chug up the mile-long hill. I ran it slowly, but I did run it. I hit my walking break right as I crested the hill, and told myself that the walk would make up for the effort I had just expended to climb it. Of course all the people I passed on the hill were now running and passing me. That’s ok, I told myself. I’d catch them.
to be continued ...