When I left Austin Friday morning, it was almost 80 degrees, sunny and humid. But when I arrived in Washington, D.C. I had to grab my trusty maybe-it-will-rain jacket from my suitcase because it was probably 25 degrees cooler. I jumped into J’s car and we headed to the race expo. I got my stuff and K’s, managed to find nothing at the expo to buy, and we were out of there.
The U.S. Capitol is undergoing renovations
K and her family left Cleveland before 5am Saturday, and they arrived at J’s house later that morning. The kids hadn’t seen each other since July so much shrieking ensued.
We ate a huge pizza lunch, then mostly sat around in a food coma the rest of the afternoon. I watched college football with J’s middle son while K and her family, overachievers that they are, drove into the city, starting at Lincoln and walking all the way to the Washington Monument. We were still full from lunch so we decided to forage for something small rather than go out for another big meal.
And then it was bedtime.
I don’t usually sleep well before a race, but I actually did okay this time. My alarm woke me up with the Top Gun Anthem, and I staggered around collecting my stuff. I had a lot of trouble with my ponytail this morning–I have long hair and use three elastic bands to hold it out of the way–and I had to take it down three or four times before it ceased to annoy me.
I had a small amount of coffee and bagel, and it was showtime.
We got to the Pentagon City Mall parking garage before 7am, and thank goodness we were not relegated to the top deck this time. The walk from the car to the Pentagon itself served as a good warmup. Literally. It was in the low 50s–a temperature I haven’t seen in months! I wore short sleeves and arm warmers, and I felt fine. My more northern compatriots, wearing multiple layers, shivered.
We ran into Cynthia and met up with J’s work team before entering the corrals. J and her husband (Speedy McSpeedersons) started early while K and I were in a later wave.
When we signed up back in May I had recently nailed a 10-mile PR and optimistically entered a time eight minutes faster than that. Little did I know that I’d spend half the summer injured. So as the race got closer, I revised my goals a bit. My “
almost completely out of reach” goal was that original goal time, my “maybe” goal was to beat my 10-mile PR time from April, and my “doable” goal was to beat last year’s time for this race. I’d set my Garmin to alert me if we were slower than the “maybe” time.
These goals rattled around the back of my mind as we waited. I tied and retied my left shoe seven or eight times–I couldn’t get it to feel right. And I had to redo my ponytail yet again because one or two hairs had been pulled tight and it was annoying me. K got tired of standing, so she sat on the ground for a while.
We chatted with a couple of nearby runners for a while. Finally our wave made its way from the parking lot to the starting line, a trek of probably a quarter-mile.
Spectators lined the bridges.
Most of the runners were veterans, active duty, married to soldiers, or running on behalf of soldiers who were injured or killed. T-shirts and signs honoring them were everywhere.
Remembering fallen soldiers
The announcer pumped up the crowd while we waited. I briefly wondered why the flags were at half-staff but didn’t want to embarrass myself by asking. Then a woman we’d been chatting with (married to a soldier) asked the same question and I felt less ignorant. Finally, at the sound of a cannon, we were off.
Not every race starts to a cannon blast
The first mile went by pretty quickly. Every time we passed under a bridge, runners whooped and shouted. Then we looped up onto the Arlington Memorial Bridge. Ahead, thousands of runners filled the span, heading toward Lincoln with Washington in the distance. There is not a better view in road racing than that.
We made the dogleg turn onto Constitution Avenue where a small brass band played. As we approached, they struck the opening notes of “Chariots of Fire.” We cheered.
The road inclines up Virginia Avenue to the Watergate, and I remember it being a bit challenging on my hip flexors last year. But we kept up a good pace. We circled the Watergate and turned left, with the Potomac on our right. Another brass band began playing “Rocky” as we passed. Epic.
We continued past the Kennedy Center where a spectator blasted “What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Stronger” from her iPod and someone asked if she could follow us playing that song. We continued on, sans Kelly Clarkson, past the MLK memorial on the right, then running parallel to Lincoln, the Reflecting Pool, and the WWII Memorial on the left. Trees lined the road, slowly changing colors, framing the Washington Monument in the distance. We were halfway.
As we ran along the back side of the National Mall and the Smithsonian museums, returning runners ran along the other side of the street. I moved over to the center line and high-fived runners coming the other way. They cheered “Good job!” and “You’re looking awesome!” as we slapped hands. I was ridiculously amused by this for at least half a mile, until we reached the turnaround.
K started struggling here. I could hear her wheezy breathing over my own, but when I asked her what was wrong, she couldn’t articulate it. “Everything,” she finally said. Tight hamstrings. A need to pee. General misery. Considering we weren’t quite done with seven miles, this presented a challenge.
I knew the stretch crossing the Potomac over the 14th Street Bridge was gonna suck. It’s actually three separate sections, and just when you think you’re making progress, there’s more bridge. In a car, you don’t notice the incline, but on foot, surprise! Just as G reminded me last year, when K seemed mentally spent I pointed out a group of Wounded Warriors and their carbon fiber legs. She rallied.
The last section of the race was different this year. At the end of the bridge we went up another damn incline, made a left, and wound around unfamiliar territory for another mile. I ran a little ahead of K, looking back periodically to ensure she was still hanging in there. I was suffering, but she was suffering more.
At the final water stop, she stopped at at a portapotty. I kept going, hoping she would turn on the post-pee jets and catch up. I got some water, used my inhaler, and ate a gel to buy her some time.
Under the overpass, into the Pentagon. Not much further. Someone yelled that The Bridge Right Up There! was the finish line, and I tried to speed up. Without my last year’s drill sergeant next to me (she had moved overseas), I had to channel her and get it done on my own. My hip flexors screamed, my lungs ached, and I was at my limit. But then I passed a huge group of service members in matching shirts. And in the lead were two soldiers supporting a young man who struggled to walk on two carbon fiber legs. He had his arms over their shoulders, and the whole group chanted and cheered him on. The guy in front carried an American flag. Wounded Warriors started at least an hour before my wave–this group had been at it for more than three hours. The grit and perseverance this must have taken? Wow.
I added my claps and cheers to the chorus, then tried to speed up. I have two good legs and the ability to run, so dammit I was gonna give it all I had.
Last year it felt like we finished at the back of the pack amid kind of a thin crowd of runners. The announcer called everyone’s names. Today I was surrounded by people, and he could only announce maybe 10% of them. It was a weird feeling.
According to my Garmin, I crossed the finish line two minutes faster than last year. K hadn’t caught me, and I was disappointed that we didn’t finish together, but I knew she wasn’t far behind. I walked through the ridiculously-long finisher chute, beyond wheezing. I think my breath sounded more like puppy whining for a treat than actual oxygen-CO2 exchange. I drank half a bottle of water and collected my challenge coin.
I backtracked to look for K and somehow missed her. Then I got a text: where are you?? Oops. I found her waiting with J and her work team. We took a couple of quick pictures and began the long trek around the Pentagon. This involved
scaling gingerly lumbering over not one but two waist-high concrete barricades. Oy.
Along the way, we looked up to see an enormous flyover of vintage military planes. They were different colors, flying in perfect formation. This article says they were AT-6 Texan aircraft flying to honor disabled veterans. How appropriate!
Vintage plane flyover
Fortunately we had parked on the second level of the parking garage, so we theoretically only had to haul ourselves up one flight of stairs. But we couldn’t find J’s car and inadvertently climbed up (and then stumbled down) an extra level. Again, oy.
We took the back way out of the garage, then meandered along neighborhood streets to her house. As we drove, I felt my blood sugar crashing. I’d eaten a bagel for breakfast and I’d taken a couple of gels during the race, but my tank was empty now. No bueno. When we got home I ate a couple of cookies and drank more water, hoping to stave off a repeat of the post-race disaster in Cleveland. I showered and tried to rally, but as I walked to the car, the thought of sitting upright amid the vibrant smells of Thai food worried me.
In the end, I went back inside and crashed on the couch. I woke up an hour later when K texted to check on me. I realized I felt better and the thought of food no longer made me queasy, so I took her up on her offer to bring back some Pad Thai. I ate about half of it, and when the rest of the dinner party arrived (they walked the half-mile to the restaurant while J and K quickly dismissed that idea and took the car) they said I definitely looked better too. I had a headache but didn’t want to take anything–the thought of enduring stomach distress on my three-hour flight home horrified me.
There was much ass-sitting the rest of the afternoon. We checked out official finishing times online, and my two-plus-minute improvement held up–official time was pretty much dead-on with my Garmin time. K finished two minutes behind me–also faster than my time last year. She had a tough race, but she gutted it out and I am really proud of her. J ran with a torn Achilles tendon that will be surgically repaired in about two weeks, and although her time was slow-for-her, she finished strong as well.
Slow, sick, injured, healthy, fast, strong: we all earned the same finisher coin. And that means a hell of a lot to me. An emotional race through amazing views, toughing out physical discomfort for a strong finish is something I will remember forever.
I wore the race shirt home.
As I got ready to board my plane home, the terminal erupted in applause and cheers. About twenty WWII and Korean War veterans lined up with their Honor Flight escorts to board first. I’m not exaggerating when I say that the applause and standing ovation lasted unbroken for more than ten minutes.
When I stepped onto the plane, one of the paramedics accompanying them thanked me for my patience while the service men and women (yes, there was at least one woman) boarded. I stammered over a reply–how could I be anything else? Wearing my Army Ten-Miler shirt, having the capability of running ten miles this day, seemed very small indeed. I wished my WWII-expert kid were here to talk to them and hear their stories firsthand. All I could do was smile.