Friendship, Racing and the Missing Marathon Mile
I jogged up the hill and spotted Sam R. about 10 yards in front of the finish line and we grinned and exchanged high-fives. Sam’s Rapunzel-like, silver-blond, braided hair glinted in the bright sunlight and her easy smile warmed me. A few strides later, I crossed the finish line and frowned. I felt no elation. Not yet. My marathon was not over. My watch read 25.86 and though I had added as much mileage as I could during the last 3 miles, I still had not made up the missing mile and damned if I was going to stop. I grabbed my medal and jogged past all of the empty food and liquid stations and slowed down as soon as Sam rounded the corner and limped toward me.
“Come on, wanna run my last bit with me? They cut a mile loop off the course without telling us, and they wouldn’t let us go back and run it, and I only made some of it up before the trail car caught me and told me I had to run to the finish line or else take a ride.”
“WHAT?” Sam exclaimed. “And sure I will run with you, assuming I can.” She grimaced and we both laughed at our aching legs. Sam trotted along beside me, around a corner, down an alley, and we traded war stories regarding our time on the course.
It all had started more than 5 hours earlier, when I crossed the starting line at 8:30 a.m. Or maybe it started on Friday morning when I swung into Dulles airport and picked Sam up by the Virgin Atlantic door. Perhaps it even started seven months ago when we signed up for the inaugural Suntrust Rock-n-Roll Marathon. I promised via Facebook that, “it will constitute a fabulous Boston qualifier Sam!! It is almost completely flat and it will be cold on March 17th, just like it was during the 2011 marathon. And you can stay with me and we’ll have a blast . . . come on Sam!! Let’s do this!!!”
Months later, a week before the marathon, I had this dream. In it, I was running in a marathon but I saw a dangerous-looking house and so I stole a police car, drove a mile, and after parking the cop’s car, continued running. Then I realized that I had cut a mile off my race, and fear, shame, dread and a sense of dishonor flooded me, so in the dream, I figured out how to add the missing mile before I finished the race and woke up in a puddle of sweat. It turns out that this dream may have been a premonition of sorts; at a minimum, it gave me the mental training I needed to handle an otherwise unforeseeable obstacle on the day of the real marathon.
A serious challenge greeted us on the morning of the 17th: near-record heat. Each of the first eight marathons I have completed has taken place at sub-50 degree temperatures. The average high temperature in our area on March 17th is 56 degrees; the low, 36 degrees. Saturday morning dawned with a low of 60 degrees and it heated up within a couple of hours to 76 degrees, with high humidity. Neither Sam nor I had trained in warm weather and we both reckoned that the heat would slow us down. In my case, I was coming off the flu; was running with a few extra pounds and for the first time had undertrained (rather than over-trained) for a marathon.
At the starting line, we parted ways with a nod. We had been talking more or less nonstop for hours but we both had real serious looks on our faces as we searched for our corrals. I talked with two sisters and a few other runners in my corral. The one sister, a tall brunette, had qualified for Boston with a 3:30 marathon and she and I tried to convince her little sister to sign up for a marathon too. Today, like the vast majority of runners, they ran the half-marathon. We, in the middle of a vast sea of runners, at least 25,000 strong, crossed the line at 8:31 a.m. Sam had crossed the line 20 minutes ahead of me.
Sweat poured off me at the two-mile mark. At the first water stop, I grabbed a lime-green Gatorade, a water and poured a second cup of water over my head, which I would repeat for the subsequent 10-12 water stops. At the three-mile mark, I passed by a table containing salt packets and shrugged off the need. Too much salt makes me feel ill, and I felt nauseated almost the entire race, except for the rare moments when we passed through tunnels. One of the medications I take makes me more susceptible to heat exhaustion and the almost constant sun exposure taxed my reserves from the very start of the race.
A few months ago, the Rock n Roll series took over the Suntrust Marathon, which had been a small, regional event, and they marketed the hell out of it until they sold out the race. Just as in Las Vegas, the Rock n Roll event organizers proved unprepared for the crowds, the heat and needed supplies. In DC, for example, they promised 7 gel stations but only provided 3 gel stops, and none between 15 miles and 23 miles, when runners need it the most. And they ran out of water and Gatorade for the slower runners at some of the later water stops.
At least in DC the Rock n Roll organizers did not serve water that made runners ill as they did in Vegas. As one friend said of the Vegas race, “Something went wrong with the water and made a great number of people ill.” Indeed, the Vegas Rock n Roll event was, in the words of another friend, “a great debacle.” As a runner who has completed untold races I am honor-bound to add that the DC Rock n Roll marathon amounted to a great fiasco as well.
What else happened? Without adequate notice prior to the start of the race, they cut the time limit from 6 hours to 5 hours and 30 minutes, which is barely adequate for many runners during normal temperatures. I learned of this at the 14-mile mark and the news of it shook me, since I had followed an unusually conservative first half strategy; indeed, I included walk breaks from the 2-mile mark to guard against heat stroke. Another veteran runner in a violet tank pointed behind her and told me that the tail car stalked us and was sweeping folks off the course, which made no sense. At no point had the course organizers advised us of any “sweeping” strategy in advance of the 20-mile mark. From the 14-mile mark to the 25-mile mark, the tail car drove back and forth from a few miles behind us to a few miles ahead of us and ordered some runners into a white van.
I was furious and as sick as I felt until then, adrenaline soaked into my system and I upped my pace and tried to reduce walk breaks. No one is tossing me in any damn van. They would have to hit me over the head to get me off this course. Occasionally, I stopped sweating and a motherly voice in my head whispered, “Walk, El. No ambulance rides.” And I have run through much harsher conditions. I knew I was going to be okay as long as I did not push too hard. Meanwhile, I kept reviewing my calculations, checking my sports band and I realized that I was on track for a 5:40 marathon finish. So long as the 5:30 time limit included an additional 45 minutes for the last runner to cross the starting line, I was nowhere near “sweep-worthy.”
The course had thinned out after the mass of half-marathoners veered left and the full marathoners turned right at the 12-mile mark, and the course was so poorly marked that at times, I searched for other runners. I had run almost the same course last year and worked in DC for several years and still, it was hard to follow the route. Very few course volunteers directed runners. At times, the only thing that demarcated the course and out of bounds areas were orange cones. And despite a multitude of ramp-mile checks in the first 14 miles, from mile 15 to the end of the race, no mile checks existed. In other words, someone could have received a ride from mile 16 to mile 25 and still have been counted as an official finisher. As it turned out, this is almost exactly what happened.
I coasted over a bridge and passed mile 21 at a reasonable clip. I remained on track for a 5:40 finish according to chip time, which would have me across the line at 6:10 approximately. Ahead of me stood a line of orange cones. Runners headed towards me and turned left (their left or my right) but the only way I could go was to my right. I followed the course and after about a quarter-mile I gasped. I saw the 23-mile marker. I glanced at my sports band, which has been calibrated and had tracked the course mile markers accurately until then, but now it read 22 miles. I was confused. I ran a few more steps then stopped and dithered for a few minutes. Then I turned and started back, thinking I could retrace my steps and find the 22-mile marker. I almost ran into this other runner, a juggler, who said to me, “They closed the course to us.”
“What the hell?”
“They said we could try to run it but we could get lost and there will be no police around.”
I glanced around at the post-apocalyptic environs surrounding me on DC’s famed SE side and shivered. I am not a very large woman. I kept running in the direction of the finish line and cursing and trying to figure out what to do. I was missing a mile and I felt like a fraud, a liar, and a cheat.
What should I do? What can I do? Again and again I thought it through. For two more miles, I considered my options. I had to keep running and once I got to the finish line at RFK stadium, I would keep running until my calibrated sports band read 26.2 miles and maybe a bit more to be safe. But could I, should I, not run over the finish line? What about the medal? Should I take it? Even without a real time? Of course I would complete the full marathon within a few minutes of receiving the medal, so would it be wrong to take a medal?
As I tried to process all of these options, I struggled with heat exhaustion. No gel packs and not enough fluids in near record heat left me at a mental and physical disadvantage. And then I saw my friends with the violet tank running towards me, so I turned and joined her. “Are you trying to add the missing mile?” I asked. “Yes, but they keep threatening to pick me up,” she replied, and nodded toward the tail car a half-mile behind us. I gave her a fist bump and continued running in the opposite direction from RFK for about a quarter-mile, until the tail car passed me again.
I glanced at my watch. I had picked up a half-mile and I did not want to get too far from the finish line in case they swept more runners, so I headed back toward RFK. And then I saw a van holding runners stop. A woman wearing a Rock n Roll shirt jumped out, opened the door, and let several runners out of the white van. One of these swept runners joined me and cussed over and over again. “They swept me. Should I take a medal? I haven’t run the full race.”
I reasoned with him. “Then run the extra distance after you grab the medal. Or double-back and make it up.” He went off on how they had shortened the cutoff and he was so bitter, I had trouble understanding him. Off to my right, a woman staggered but the race organizers ignored her.
Meanwhile, I slowed to a walk because I was not sweating. Many folks were walking it in. Even Sam had to walk the last two miles in due to excruciating heat cramps. And then a race organizer screamed, “All walkers will be picked up. Anyone not running will be swept in.” They were shaming us, all of us warriors mind you, into running when our bodies could take no more.
Flabbergasted, I stared down a male race organizer. “What the hell are you thinking? Do you not care about liability? If you pressure someone who has heat exhaustion into running and they die, you realize you will get sued don’t you?”
In a nasal voice he droned, “We did a bunch of these people a favor by dropping them off a mile from the finish line. Now they can cross the line and get medals.” I used some choice language and yelled, “You’re offering medals without accomplishment.” My voice rose higher and higher as I continued to question their honor and their humanity. “Why hold a race? Why let people across the line who have not completed the full course?”
Lamely, he replied, “I can understand how you would think that.” I held the back of my hand up in disgust and continued running. All I could think of was the Marine Corps Marathon. They sweep the course and drive people who are unable to reach the 17.75-mile mark and the 20-mile mark in a bus to the baggage claim area. No one who fails to reach these cutoff times is allowed to cross the finish line. The Marine Corps treats its runners with honor and fairness. As long as a runner beats the cutoffs, he or she is treated with as much respect as the man or woman who wins the overall race. Unlike the Rock n Roll marathon, the Marine Corps does not treat non-finishers like Little Leaguers who deserve the same medals and treatment as bona-fide finishers.
In retrospect, I cannot keep this medal. I did not cheat. The course organizers cheated me and they cheated all of the folks who ran the marathon without missing the 23rd mile or without hitching a ride for part of the race. And while I completed my 9th marathon on March 17th, I want nothing to do with a race that lacks honor and respect for all of its participants.
Epilogue: I officially alerted the Rock and Roll authorities that my chip time is inaccurate due to their unannounced altering (and shortening) of Saturday’s DC Marathon course. I still ran a complete marathon by doubling back and adding mileage after I crossed the line. Now I am looking into contacting the press and the USATF to file a grievance re course infractions.