Saturday morning, we ran 2.5 miles around Arlington. The temperature was in the 50s–so pleasant, it felt easy and comfortable. Then we went to the race expo and got our stuff–I love the long-sleeved race tech shirt every year. We scored freebies (I did ten push-ups for a t-shirt!) and a fluorescent yellow ATM shirt just jumped into my hands. So of course I had to buy it. Then later in the afternoon, in a completely unexpected turn of college football events, Texas beat Oklahoma. I was happy.
I hadn’t slept well Friday night, so by 8 P.M. I was exhausted. I set my alarm for six and crashed early. Considering I felt nervous about my sub two-hour race goal that I told the free world, I slept decently well.
By 7:15, we were parked at the Pentagon City parking garage with several thousand of our closest friends. I took a picture of the nearby column marker so we wouldn’t repeat last year’s mistake of walking extra flights of stairs looking for the car.
“Level P4” turned into “P. Sherman, 42 Wallaby Way” in my head, for no other reason than I thought it was amusing.
K and I spent much of the pre-race time waiting in a porta potty line, and when we finally got out of there, the purple balloons of our wave had long since moved on around the corner. We had to jog to catch them–the waves seemed to be moving much faster than last year–so I called it our warmup. We never did find our other friends, though, which was kind of a bummer.
Even though the overnight low had been in the 40s, it was warming up quickly and I took off my arm warmers before we started. I’d gotten them for free at the expo and almost just tossed them, but they were pretty nice so I tied them to my belt instead. I had also brought my headphones, but my plan was to only turn them on once I turned onto the 14th Street bridge, with about 3.5 miles to go. I queued it up, took a picture of the start line banner, got my Garmin ready to go, and waited.
With the cannon blast, we were off.
The first mile traveled parallel to the Potomac, then looped up onto the Arlington Memorial Bridge. This is, hands down, my favorite view in road running. Arlington National Cemetery behind us, the Lincoln Memorial ahead, and thousands of runners moving between the two. It’s truly an awesome sight.
We hit the water stop around mile two, and I slowed briefly to take a couple of sips. Then I was moving again, up toward Virginia Avenue with its slightly rolling hills. Three miles in, and my pace was good. But I noticed that before each mile marker, my Garmin beeped slightly earlier than the last. This will be important later.
Around the Watergate, past the Kennedy Center, another quick slowdown at the water stop. At one point, along the stretch between the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument, I passed a spectator who held out a small tray. His sign said, “Take candy from a stranger!” which made me snort out loud.
I didn’t look at my watch a whole lot–other than checking it each time it ticked off another mile, I mostly ran by feel. Halfway done, and I was running a pretty consistent 11:45ish pace. To finish under two hours, I needed to average just under 12:00/mile, so I felt like I was on track.
I lost K somewhere before I hit Independence Avenue and the Smithsonian museums. I forged ahead, running along the center line to high five people coming back the other way. A high school band played “Livin’ on a Prayer” in front of the castle. I slowed through the water stop, then made the loop to double back. At the 10K mark, I was within seconds of my 10K PR.
But I could tell I was slowing a bit.
Before the left turn leading to the bridge, I fired up my playlist. I’d called it ATM Bridge because this segment is mentally difficult for me. It just seems to take forever before we’re over it, and then we have to climb an overpass. At nearly mile nine, this rattles me a little.
But I tried to put it into perspective–earlier I’d come up behind a group walking eight or nine wide, and I was briefly grouchy about it. Then I noticed one of the young women walked on what was obviously a very new leg. Nope, never mind. Walk 25 wide, I’m good.
I made it up the overpass, but my pace had tanked. I don’t remember any of the songs from my playlist except one, as I crested the damn overpass: “Hurricane” by Lifehouse, with the lines “We made it through hell and back again” and “it just gets better” which felt appropriate considering my feelings toward the bridge.
I tried to take advantage of the downhill portion of the overpass, but the even that was difficult. My playlist wasn’t shuffling, and I was tired of hearing songs in alphabetical order so I shut it off and focused on absorbing energy from the spectators. Crowd support was terrific here, at the turn into Crystal City. I slowed one last time for water, then looked at my watch. One forty-eight and some change. Oy, with a mile to go, it was gonna be close.
I ran as hard as I could. I passed people. I noticed a shirt that said Will Run for Beer and the name Elaine on the back, and I remembered running behind her on the bridge last year. I passed her too. I didn’t look at my watch, even when it beeped 10 miles–well short of the finish line.
When I finally crossed, I didn’t look at my time. I wasn’t sure I wanted to know. I kept walking, trying simultaneously to catch my breath and keep from throwing up. I made my way through the chute, which seemed ten thousand miles long, and finally found volunteers with water.
Then I looked. Garmin time was 2:00:31. It said I’d gone 10.16 miles. Remember how it beeped a little earlier before each mile marker? While it was telling me I was running 11:50/mile, it was also ahead distance-wise. Which meant it took longer than 11:50 to get from marker to marker. Which meant I was thirty-one seconds too slow. THIRTY-ONE SECONDS.
I made a beeline shuffled to the people handing out finisher coins. No one took the tab on my bib for the coin, which was fine with me because that meant I didn’t have to stop longer than was strictly necessary. I found an empty table and rested my head on my arms. Someone asked me if I was okay, and I nodded.
Eventually I found K, then the others. They’d run out of finisher coins (!) sometime between my and K’s finish, and I could hear the announcer calling for a race official. Who had apparently left. K left her bib tab with the poor woman trying to sort it all out, then said sardonically,” I really did do this for a fucking banana.”
We climbed over one concrete barrier, then a second on the way back to the Pentagon City parking garage. I found the picture I’d taken of our parking area. I could only repeat “P. Sherman, 42 Wallaby Way” over and over as we climbed the stairs.
It took more than half an hour to escape
P. Sherman Level P4 of the garage, and for much of that time I couldn’t get a phone signal to check ATM’s website for results. I wanted my chip time to be :32 faster, although I didn’t hold out a lot of hope. But eventually I found them.
Thirty seconds from a sub two-hour race and my goal.
If I’m being optimistic, I could remind myself 2:00:29 is a seven-minute PR and 12 minutes faster than this time last year. But damn. Thirty seconds.
In the end, though, I love this race not because of my personal accomplishments. K struggled for ten miles through a foot injury, and it was J’s first big race after almost a year of recovery from surgery to repair her Achilles. Thousands of people ran in memory of loved ones, and some completed the race on artificial limbs. Run in the shadows of Lincoln, Washington, and Jefferson, this race represents friendship and energy, perseverance and strength.
Thirty seconds? Maybe next year.