A week and a half ago, I had one of Charlotte's slower runners share her unique (and inspiring) perspective on completing a major U.S. marathon in six-plus hours. Tonight, I present you with the exact opposite: a view of a big-time 26.2-miler through the eyes of one of our area's fastest.
Jay Holder, the 2009 Run For Your Life Grand Prix Series champ and a charter member of the Charlotte Running Club, ripped through Sunday's Marine Corps Marathon in 2:44:35 -- 48th overall out of more than 20,000 official finishers.
He wrote an excellent recap of his experience earlier today, and graciously gave me permission to reprint an edited version of it here. By the way, here's a fun fact: Jay turned 26 exactly one month ago ... making him almost (but not quite) 26.2 years old.
I am always amazed at the ease with which I fall asleep the night before a big race. I was the little kid who couldn't sleep on Christmas Eve because the thought of what may be under the tree in the morning. But, Saturday night, stuffed full of pasta, meatballs, bread and salad made by Aaron's mom [editor's note: the Aaron is Aaron Linz, another top Charlotte runner whose name you've seen on my blog a lot], I was out by 9:45. Right on target.
The alarm went off at 4:45 Sunday morning. The intent was to get up, pee, drink some water and crawl back under the covers for 15-20 minutes. But, once I was up, I was up for good. My singlet was already laid out with the number pinned to it. The race day bag had passed my checklist task. As I did before Myrtle Beach, I put my iPod on and bounced around the room to whatever came up. "Staying Alive" -- the 1997 version by Wyclef. By the time that private episode was over, Aaron was up. I grabbed a bagel, a banana and a half-cup of black coffee and we were off.
Our plan to avoid the crowds and park close to the starting line was flawless. Too flawless. We were at the starting line by 6:30 for an 8 a.m. start. [We] took at least three shots at the porta potties during that time. The last thing you want is to have to duck into the woods as you try to pace yourself through 26.2 miles. It was cold, and because we weren't checking bags, I just had an old long-sleeve dri-fit shirt on over my singlet, and a Redskins hat that Aaron gave me. Two things I planned on donating to the side of the street. People often ask how you warm up for a marathon and the answer is, you warm up during the first 10 miles. So, we waited. Shortly after the National Anthem, [we were] in the 2:30-2:59 corral. We exchange high-fives and wouldn't see each other again until the finish.
A World War II cannon took us from stagnant to striding. It was an incredible feeling to have the race underway. Eighteen weeks of hard training all for this day. For those of you who have not run marathons, it's important to know that it is yes, a race of speed and strength, but it also takes a wise runner -- often an older runner -- to complete it successfully. I don't claim to be one, but I know and train with a lot of them. All of them made it very clear that running at what feels like a painfully slow pace and running consistently is the key to not blowing up at the end. This was something I did not understand until I raced Myrtle Beach last February, and experienced pain I say may only be rivaled by giving birth (clearly, I do not know this from experience) for five consecutive miles. With the adrenaline going and the crowd cheering, it's a challenge, but hitting the wall is much more of a challenge.
The watch said 6:14 at Mile 1. Perfect. 6:18 was my goal pace; the pace for a 2:45. Everyone was right, it felt terribly slow. Fortunately, last weekend I ran the [LungStrong 15K] at the pace, so my body knew what it felt like. For the next few miles, I looked for "running buddies." I had a brief chat with a guy named Kevin, looking to break 2:50, but he ended up getting roped into the battle between the USMC and the Royal Navy that was happening in front of me. I knew a lot of those guys were quick and decided to be a spectator in the intercontinental road war.
By Mile 4, we were heading into Georgetown, a more crowded portion of the course. I had linked up with a former Division 3 stud from Pennsylvania who was running his first marathon, but looking to go 2:45. I told him we'd work together ... and he provided some good conversation. Took my first water at Mile 4, and from there on out, alternated between water and Powerade at each stop.
The next several miles proved to be incredibly hilly. Marine Corp is advertised as a flat course, but even as someone who trains on hilly terrain, I would say the advertisement is false. We climbed up M Street into the only real neighborhood area of the course. That's where we faced another steep uphill before a nice rolling downhill into Mile 8. The pace had dropped to 6:06, ambitious and dangerous. At the Mile 8 marker, the front pack passed by the HUGE crowd going through Mile 5.
Rolling into Mile 9 is where the crowd support became unbelievable. Crowds of people five, six deep, holding signs, clanging cowbells, blaring music ... all in support of family, friends or total strangers. At some points, it was like running through the tunnel of a football stadium. Deafening. Goosebumps. The crowd on the back steps of the Lincoln Memorial was like nothing I had ever seen. It gave the mind a chance to detach from the legs and focus on surroundings. A needed break. At the 15K point my watch said 57:15. Too fast. I told the Pa. runner, and he said he felt OK. I decided to err on the side of conservation and back off. I wouldn't see him for a while.
The final 17.2 miles would be my own journey. At Mile 10, I could see the Kennedy Center on my left, the Potomac on my right. This is where [a friend] told me to start picking people off. When I first [heard] that, I thought to myself "far too early to kick," but out on the road, it started to make sense. Runners who had gone out with the force of our starting cannon were beginning to pay for their mistake. One by one, I started to move up. Aaron's parents were moving strategically around the course, shouting out my place. Mile 11: 74th. Through the park surrounding the Tidal Basin, I caught up with the first and second female runners, watching these two elites battle it out before passing them.
1:20 at the half marathon point. To call it the halfway point would be a misnomer. It gets much harder from here. Each mile more painful, and more mentally draining. 1:20 was a bit fast and put me at 2:41. I was angry with myself because I got carried away leading up to the 15K, but happy there was some cushion time now to absorb the blow of a BONK.
I continued to pick off runners from Miles 13-16, down Constitution Avenue, by the front of the Capitol Building, onto the Mall. Aaron's dad shouted, "You're moving up. 67th place." His mom handed me my second vanilla Gu.
A certain mental relief comes with Mile 17. Single digits left. Problem was, I never saw the Mile 17 marker. Now, I was worried I had slowed tremendously. Mile 18 was a welcome sight. Let me take a second to describe the mile markers. Most were giant yellow arrows held by course volunteers. Each twirled as if it were a baton. When you are running such a distance, mile markers break the race into segments, and making them something interesting to look at is a nice touch. Along the same lines, the water stops were organized to perfection. It was lines of uniformed Marines each holding a cup in their palm. Powerade in the red cups, water in the white. Each marine had something encouraging to say to the passing runner. Every 20 minutes or so, a Blackhawk helicopter flew overhead, low, loud and with a patriotic feel.
Mile 19. 61st place. One mile and the real race starts.
Most marathoners will tell you that the marathon is two races. There's a 20-mile race and then the 6.2-mile painful run to the finish. Mile 20 took us over what seemed like an incredibly long bridge and back into Virginia. On the bridge -- few spectators -- a man dressed as the grim reaper holding a sign that said "The End Is Near." It was. It was near for the Pa. runner. I could see him getting closer to me before he eventually stopped to walk. I felt his pain. This is the point of the race where I started waiting for the "wall". It hit me at Mile 21.5 in Myrtle Beach. Would I fall victim again?
The thought haunted me as I entered Crystal City. It was a loop. I could see the leaders. I was in 50th ... clicking off 6:18s. I circled around past Mile 23 and was headed back out the way I came. Aaron was headed in. We exchanged cheers. No wall. 3.2 miles to go. Now, Kevin, who had gone out with the Royal Navy, was walking.
Miles 24 and 25 came with a terrible headwind. Can you run into the wind and not get Bob Seger in your head? I dare you. As I ran through the parking lot of the Pentagon, I looked down at my watch. 2.2 miles to go, 2:31. If I could keep the pace, not succumb to the horrible pain that was shooting up through my legs, I was going to make it. I was in 46th place. We exited the Pentagon, onto a highway that would lead us to the finish. Two runners with a kick motored past me. 48th. No one else could pass me. Earlier in the race, I had adopted a new goal: finish in the top 50 of the fifth-largest marathon in the United States. The homestretch was in sight. I saw Aaron's parents one last time. I turned down an offer for a final Gu. I could eat in just minutes. Mile 26, and I look at my watch. 2:43:50. I can break my goal. I took the sharp left toward the Iwo Jima monument ... the finish line. Some sadist put the finish line at the top of the steepest hill on the course. Of course at this point, a speed bump would feel like Mount McKinley. I started to falter. A Marine came out of the crowd and screamed at me. "You can't quit now!" He was right. I picked it up and motored toward the finish, crossing the line and looking down at my watch. 2:44:35. 48th place. Fourteen minutes faster than my debut marathon.
A Marine lieutenant slipped the heavy finisher's medal around my neck and shook my hand, addressing me as "Sir." I'd be lying if I said it wasn't emotional. It was even more emotional seeing Aaron cross the same line less than two minutes later. He'd shattered his goal. Months of logging thousands of miles together had paid off.
There's a lot more background and stories to tell about the race, the weeks leading up to it, and the hours following it. But, if you've made it this far, you've read enough of my rambling. What's next? I know I'll run Boston in April, but I am going to take the next couple of weeks to relax. Running will go back to basics for a while. No goal, just good conversation, better friends and stopping when I feel like stopping.
Jay Holder, with Ieva Augstums (also of Charlotte), after Sunday's marathon.