I had waited over two years for this day to come. On my training runs, I would sometimes close my eyes and imagine running the course. As the finish line would approach, I would have the “perfect image” in my head of what the last few hundred yards would look like…feel like to me. Sometimes those runs would get so emotional that I would have to stop just to catch my breath and fight back tears of joy. I was so excited to run this marathon that I just wanted this day to come so quickly.
But along the way I realized that it is not always the destination that I should strive, but rather the journey. I know that sounds very cliché, but in this case it was absolutely true. I learned so much about myself in my dedicated training in the six months leading up to the 41st Marine Corps Marathon.
About three years ago I approached my friend at Brooks Running, Rick Wilhelm – the VP of Specialty Running Sales, and asked him that if I ever decided to run Marine Corps could he get me an entry. Since Brooks is the footwear and apparel sponsor for the race, getting an entry wouldn’t be an issue. I had always wanted to run this event since my Dad was in the U.S. Marine Corps from 1961-1967. But then I asked him for two entries as I was going to be running with my good friend Rachel Booth.
Rachel and I met when her family was relocated to Mandeville in 2011 as her husband had received new orders from the Marine Corps. She was training for the 2012 U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials at the time and I facilitated many of her workouts. After my wife, Jill, and I watched her complete the Trials, Rachel told me that if I ever wanted to run another marathon she would run it with me. It seemed perfectly appropriate to then focus my next goal on the Marine Corps Marathon.
Two years may seem like a long time to have a goal like a marathon on my radar. Most training programs for marathons last four months or so. But I wanted to make sure that I stayed healthy the entire time through my training. So I took a very long-term approach to this event. Approximately one year ahead of time, I sat down with my calendar (starting at the 2016 event and working backwards) and sketched out what I wanted the training to look like.
I also sat down with Jill to let her know what I would like to do. She knew it would take some sacrifice on the family’s part as there would be times when my three hour plus runs would leave me a bit depleted for the rest of the day and there would certainly be some “family slack” that I would leave dangling. Thank goodness I was lucky enough to marry a fellow runner as she knows what it takes to train for 26.2 miles.
I had built plenty of training programs for others before following simple formulas of a long run on a Saturday, medium distance or tempo run on Thursday, and shorter or faster run on Tuesday. Maybe throw in a little strength and flexibility work in there too, but that was not a major emphasis. I decided on a three day fitness rotation – run, strength/mobility, off.
Here was my rational: take a full rest day the day before my run (no matter the length of the run), next day run based off of time (and not distance) so that I could determine my route based off of what I felt like, and then recover with some strength work as to not impede any running movements.
Training for this year’s event went very, very well. Best I have ever had while training for a marathon. I believe that it was due to my rotation of activity that I was able to cover the mileage that I did over the six months (832) of training. As I have heard time and again from elites as well as many coaches, the ability to recover is more important than what we accomplish on a run as we get older. I certainly heeded this wisdom and it paid off.
While most of my runs started at the “dark o’clock” hour (usually 5am) to avoid the Louisiana heat and were solo, I did have great training buddies on some of my longest runs. Steve Mauer, Jeff Gennusa, and Jeff Boudreaux were regular wingmen when I needed it most. There is something about floating over the miles with friends that gives me a real sense of accomplishment.
In the final week leading up to 10/30/16, I little bit of anxiety crept into my mind. Had I put in the time, was I strong enough, would my nutrition work out – these were all questions that I thought I had the answers for. The Thursday before the race, I slept like garbage. And I wasn’t even at that race destination yet!
Typically it is the night before the race that one’s sleep is not perfect. But I was three days out…yikes! I think that I had anticipated this event for so long that it was starting to snowball my emotions. Then a funny thing happened on the flight to Washington, DC. Jill and I are sitting in our seats about halfway through the first leg of our flight and I noticed some commotion about ten rows ahead of us.
Being an athletic trainer, I have become keenly aware of my surroundings and what clues to look for when someone needs medical attention. I whispered to Jill that I thought someone was in trouble up front and then the flight attendant came on the loudspeaker and asked if there were any medical personnel on the flight.
A woman and I got up to assist the man that had fainted. The physician got to him first and then I came up and identified myself as an athletic trainer and that I could assist her with anything she needed to help the man. Turns out the man was dehydrated and had not eaten so it was a fairly easy fix.
During this whole ordeal that took the entire second half of our flight, my focus was on the impaired man and I had an overwhelming sense of calm come over me. All the focus of getting to and through the marathon was off of me and that was reassuring.
We arrived at the expo on Saturday and there we met my parents and sister, Elise. They live in New Jersey so it was an easy drive down for them. My sister was running her seventh or eighth Marine Corps 10K so she knew the ropes.
Having your family around you is another reassuring feeling when you are going to tackle a monumental event. The expo was your typical one with plenty of booths set-up for people to spend their life savings to commemorate the event. Dad even got to meet the Marine Corps mascot.
But the Marines that were at check-in, shirt distribution, and sporadically spread through the convention hall gave the expo a different vibe – this run was going to have a purpose. Honoring our military, both active and veteran, was something not to be taken lightly and this event was going to celebrate their commitment and sacrifice to our country. Still I maintained a calm feeling as the focus was on the military.
We got to the hotel late in the afternoon and got our things settled. Outside our hotel window was the Alexandria National Cemetery. Yet another reminder of why we were here at the event. Those buried in those graves paid the ultimate sacrifice when it comes to our country. I got my race morning items laid out as I don’t like to wait until right before bed to do so in case there is any last minute item that is needed. I changed my Garmin 630 just to show heartrate and not to worry about pace or distance.
This was truly going to be a running tour of Washington, DC. Then Dad presented Elise and me with some really special items. He gave us each his Marine Corps chevron (he was a Sergeant in the infantry) and his eagle, globe, and anchor pin. I got the matte black set that he wore on his dress greens and Elise got the brass set that he wore on his dress blues. It was going to be an honor to carry some of Dad’s military presence with us on the course on Sunday. I pinned his Marine Corps chevron to my race hat.
Then twelve of us gathered at a restaurant across the street from the hotel for an early dinner. Meredith and Devon came up from Towson with their sons Jack and Lance, Elise and her two friends that were also running the 10K, Tricia and Lisa, Rachel, Mom, Dad, Jill, and myself sat at an “exclusive spot” in the establishment.
I sat in the middle area and took the opportunity to look around at all that had joined me for a meal and realized that running has really enhanced my life so much and I was so lucky to be able to be as healthy as I am. After dinner, Rachel and I made plans to get to the race shuttles in the morning and Jill, Mom, Dad, and Elise made plans as to the best way to spectate on the course. Then we all retired to our rooms to get ready for race day.
4:30am came early as it normally had when I was going out for a long run. Rachel was coming to pick me up at 5:30am and I wanted to make sure I was not late for the lobby. Jill got up with me as she was just a little bit excited too…and she wanted to go to the closest Starbucks to get her tea and Mom and Dad’s coffees. I got my last good luck kiss and then off I went to the shuttle area. Shuttle lines snaked in and out of the parking garage like lines at Disney World. But the 26.2 miles ride was going to be better than any Tower of Terror or tea cup ride I had been on before.
We were finally shuttled to the starting area near the Pentagon.
I had not been to the Pentagon since middle school and it was sort of surreal to be back there knowing that since eighth grade the landscape of the Pentagon had changed so much. We disembarked and then walked past the row of UPS trucks (always a fun “nod” to my training buddies/UPS drivers Jeff and Steve) that would take our post-race gear bags to the finish line area.
Once bags were dropped, Rachel and I could get into “runner mode”. The morning air was slightly cool although the temperatures were supposed to rise in to the low-70’s during the predicted time of our last few miles. It is good having a little chill knowing that the ensuing miles would heat our bodies up and temperature regulation could make or break a successful event.
The 30,000 of us made our way towards the starting area with many making stops at “John’s John”. Runners were jumping up and down, singing songs, taking “selfies” (I was that person later in the race), and warming-up in their own respective way. Rachel and I just walked along Route 110 and solidified our plans to stay together the entire race.
I still had an unusual sense of stillness amidst all the chaos happening around me. Then another surreal moment. We heard helicopter blades of the Marine Osprey MV-22B coming up behind us, the race announcer’s voice got more excited, and then there was a blast of the 105mm Howitzer M2A1 (see video on Ryan Green Facebook page). We slowly made our way towards the official starting arches and eight minutes after the Howitzer fired, we officially crossed the starting line
Rachel and I took our time as the first four miles or so led us up and down hills past Arlington National Cemetery, through Rosslyn, and across the Key Bridge in Georgetown. We turned onto Rock Creek Parkway and then past the Kennedy Center and behind the Lincoln Memorial. The Potomac River sat off to our right as we past the FDR Memorial. All the cheers of the crowd and the conversations amongst runners began to fade as we approached miles 10 and 11.
This is the “wear blue Mile” section of the course. This a true reminder of the purpose of the Marine Corps Marathon. Alongside Ohio Drive are pictures of fallen Marines with the name, age, and when they were killed on the placard. It is a somber reminder of the sacrifice of our military. A very emotional section of the course, it almost caused me to stop and walk from hyperventilating as I was overcome with emotion. (see video on RunDocRyan Facebook page)
I was fortunate to have in my head the words of my Dad as he would always say to “stay focused” when I could get distracted from the task at hand. Some runners stopped at a particular Marine and would appear to be saying a prayer to the picture. There is a story behind each member of the military and this mile helped participants push through the difficult sections of the course.
Miles 12-18 brought us many of our nation’s most famous landmarks: World War II Memorial, MCM Gauntlet, Washington Monument (perfect selfie opportunity), and the U.S. Capitol where my #1 spectator was positioned as an oasis amidst the desert of humanity surrounding me (thank you Jill!).
Then Rachel and I headed out of the energizing meat of the course into some of the outskirts heading back towards the Pentagon. But first we had to “Beat the Bridge” at miles 18-19. This section of the course takes us across the Potomac River where the bridge rises into a hill and the spectators are scarce. The rate of participant walking increased at this point in somewhat of a cascade effect. Heading towards Crystal City and the Pentagon was one of the less glamorous areas and required some self-talk and coaching from Rachel.
My personal pacer was huge during this entire event. It would have been a much less enjoyable run if not for her. As we circled the parking area surrounding the Pentagon, I played the “lightpost game” jockeying walking and running between markers to get myself closer to the finish line. Rachel followed my lead and sometimes pulled me along to get me going. I am sure it was quite humbling for her since in 2013 she ran a 2:51 to place third female at this event. She was trooper.
When the Pentagon was fading in our rearview mirror and we were back on Route 110 where we had started, I knew we were getting close. I kept my eyes open for Mom, Dad, Elise, and Jill to show their heads one more time before I crossed the finish line. Legs were feeling very heavy at this point and I knew that a hug or two from any of them would help lighten the load. As I crossed the line where we started, I looked to my left and saw Dad up on a hill positioned in a clearing as to be seen very clearly.
His red tshirt with “MARINES” emblazed in gold across his chest, his phone raised up to capture the moment in a picture, and a big smile on his face under his Phillies hat was an easy target for me to pick out. That is the moment that I had dreamed about on my solo training runs. His wave, him yelling “RY!”, and his smiling beacon of hope gave me the confidence to push to the finish line the same way it had pushed me through the thousands of miles in the years previous to the final quarter mile.
Seeing Mom and Elise by the roadside with tears in their eyes was another indication that all was going to be good and I was going to make to the finish. When Rachel and I finally made that left turn and I looked to my right and saw the Iwo Jima Memorial, all the pain and discomfort of the previous 26 miles melted away and I charged the final hill. I found strength and speed that must have been saved up for this final ascent. It was sort of symbolic to me of the way the Marines had charged up Mount Suribachi and planted the American flag in the top.
I crossed the finish line with arms raised and eyes closed in a private moment of accomplishment. One of the finish line Marines placed medals around our respective necks and congratulated us on our accomplishments. That was quite humbling knowing that this was coming from a Marine that may someday put himself in harm’s way to protect the freedoms that I enjoy every day. Thank you sir!
I finally had the chance to link back up with my gang. They found me parked underneath the shade of a nearby tree and all had big smiles on their faces as they approached. Their support certainly carried me through the miles and miles leading up to and in the marathon. It was a long journey and I can’t thank them enough.
While I won’t miss the physical stress on my body this time around, the 4:30am wake-ups or the depleted feeling after a three hour run in the Louisiana summer heat, I will miss the silence of the roads at 5am, the stars and moon that acted as my guide, and the quite time to think as the miles passed by. Training for the 41st Marine Corps Marathon transcended any physical or emotional experience I had previously had as an athlete. I am forever grateful for this opportunity. Oorah!