Leo Tolstoy famously notes at the beginning of Anna Karenina, "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." Happy marathons are all alike, and this year's George Washington's Birthday Marathon (GWBM) is a happy one for me. The weather is nice, the people are friendly, and I finish a bit under 4:44 for a new personal record at the distance by more than five minutes. It's my fifth GWBM in a row. (Maybe I should skip next year to break the streak?) Lest anyone should think that's an objectively good performance, however, let it be noted that I was 30th out of 40 in the 50-59 year old male group, and overall finished behind 104 of 140 men and 26 of 36 women. Yep, I'm slow.
Much credit for my good experience goes to three friends I recruit to run the GWBM Relay as a Masters Women team: Caren Jew, Christina Caravoulias, and Betty Smith. "Last year there was only one team in that category; maybe there won't be any this year, and you'll get first place automatically!" I tell them. Alas, two other trios materialize, both composed of fast ladies. But Caren, Chris, and Betty --- the "MCRRC Dragons" --- cheerfully race the distance to capture third place and take home bronze medals.
Sunday morning 2008 February 17 begins as I give Betty a ride to Greenbelt. We arrive ridiculously early, so instead of waiting for the Youth Center to open we drive the course in the USDA's Beltsville Agricultural Research Center. It gives Betty and me a preview of what we'll be experiencing in a few hours. Through a windshield the hills don't look nearly as daunting as they soon will from a pedestrian perspective.
When we get back to downtown Greenbelt the GWBM organizers, led by Marathon Race Director Pat Brown and Relay Director Bob Platt, are ready for business. Yesterday Christina picked up the relay team's shirts and bibs, so I'm really the only one who needs to stand in line. Unlike at a mega-marathon it takes only a few seconds. I wander around the clubhouse and take photos.
Soon Caren arrives. Her training regime has her doing ~15 miles today and she wants to get rolling early, so I lead her out to where the course begins and she commences a four mile warm-up jog. It's almost time now for the one-hour-early start of the race, so I wait there and shoot a few more photos. Then it's back to the car to drop off camera and pick up water bottles, and return to the clubhouse to chat with folks there.
Caren returns in plenty of time to get ready for her leg of the relay, the first one. We start together, cross the line 14 seconds behind the official "Go!", and soon have captured last place. This is in fact exactly where we want to be, since it helps us resist the temptation to go too fast for the first several miles. But after three miles of the race Caren begins to feel a wee bit tired — not surprisingly, given her pre-race training run — so with her permission I plow on ahead.
The first several miles feel great, as they so often do in a long run. I drink Gatorade and refill my bottles at the aid stations, and at about mile 8 I suck down an energy gel. That's when I start to worry: I realize that I only have one gel left, and wish I had carried twice as many. At the 9 mile point a friendly runner gives me an electrolyte block to chew, and after 9.4 miles I arrive at the relay exchange area.
That's where Christina saves the day: she gives me a big handful of chocolate/peanut candies and insists that I take a gel packet from her. I don't realize that it's her only one (she implies that she doesn't need it when I ask — naughty Chris!). A quick hug sends me on my way. The crunchy-sweet candy plus Gatorade keeps me going through the first half of the marathon, which I finish in 2:17:05. My stomach is feeling a little queasy, perhaps from drinking too much too fast, and reality begins to sink in: I doubt that I can maintain this 10.5 min/mi pace much longer.
Nonetheless, onward ho! The GWBM course is rugged and I keep running the downhill segments and walking as briefly as possible during the climbs. A nearby firing range maintains a steady fusillade as runners traverse Beaver Dam Road. At mile 15 I consume Christina's gel and it keeps me rolling along nicely. When I return to the relay exchange zone near mile 17 optimistic Betty greets me. I refuel at the aid station, thank her for her patience, and trot onward.
The last ten miles are as usual the most challenging. Twinges and incipient cramps in my legs portend problems, so I take an electrolyte capsule and my last gel at mile 22, washing them down with more Gatorade. Even so, my average pace slips. On the big hill at mile 25 this year instead of walking between alternate telephone poles I manage to walk only at every third pole. My second half pace is 11.2 min/mi. It thus takes me over 9 minutes longer to do that part of the race, and by my rule of thumb I could have taken ~3 minutes off my total time by going slower and steadier. That's easier said than done.
After finishing the race in an official time of 4:43:37 I get my camera from the car, meet Christina and comrade Jim Cavanaugh at the Youth Center, snag a bowl of veggie chili, and return to the finish line to await Betty. She's later than expected, for a scary reason: shortly after beginning her leg of the relay, as she runs alone in an isolated area, a pickup truck pulls up next to her and three men in it verbally harrass her. Ugh! Betty does the right thing: she reverses course and jogs until she meets another racer. The truck doesn't turn around to follow her on the narrow road, and together Betty and her escort run and walk until they reach a safer area. Thankfully, it turns out well.
The next day my legs are a bit sore. Dr. Betty prescribes a long walk, and Christina and I spend two pleasant hours ambling along Sligo Creek Trail. The GWBM has a happy ending.
Many thanks to the race directors and volunteers, congratulations to all the runners, and huge kudos to the MCRRC Dragons who so kindly helped me along the way!