March 23, 2013

Race Report: 2013 Marine Corps 17.75K

The 2013 Marine Corps 17.75K, a distance chosen to honor the birth year of the Marine Corps, served as the "golden ticket" race for the 2013 Marine Corps Marathon; simply put, running this race would guarantee you entry to the marathon. So almost every runner of the 2,200 was simply there to earn the right to run in October. As a side note, if folks are willing to drive to Quantico and run 11 hard miles to avoid your general registration system, there's probably some room there for improvement.

It was almost silly how much the organizers focused on the marathon in October; even the tech shirts said "Access Granted" on the front rather than mentioning the actual race. This dynamic made for an interesting atmosphere at the race, one that I can't really come up with a good word to describe other than apathy. It was a mood I really didn't like, but more on that in the final section below.

The Course

The course looked like a bear on paper, and the elevation chart made it clear that this was no easy cruiser.

It started along a three-mile stretch of paved roadway leading to the Prince William Forest. The course then took a turn into the National Park and the first major hill was on a dirt and gravel fire road. This quickly ended and the course picked up a paved park roadway that plateaued from miles 4 to 8 before some pretty steep rollers started. The final kick is along a double-track gravel trail with another incline to the finisher arch.

Race Day

Race day started with a 45-minute drive down to the Quantico area. I arrived early, hit Starbucks to mooch the indoor plumbing, and grabbed a parking spot in the business lot next to the starting line (most runners had to park in a nearby commuter lot and take shuttle buses to the start). This turned out to be a great find, as the temperatures were very chilly, topping out around 28 degrees or so before the race; getting a parking spot at the line allowed me to drop a bag of cold weather gear for delivery to the finish line and then hop back in my car with the heater on until minutes before the starting gun. The starting line logistics were okay, but the five portajohns for 2,200 runners (plus spectators and family) was a little short-sighted; the lines were far too long, people were trying to get in every building in search of bathrooms, and ultimately men and women ended up ducking behind large trashcans near my car.

A few minutes before the starting gun, I hopped out of the car looking ready for summer in short sleeves and short pants, but armed with a pair of throwaway gloves. Not going to act may have been a bad decision as it was very, very cold out there.

Just minutes after the starting gun went off I found myself in a pack of runners that was very quickly separating from the main field. I felt I had "heavy legs" already in the first stretch, but since the pack contained most runners in the top 14, I got greedy and started thinking top ten finish. That resulted in me committing the cardinal sin in running, going out too fast and ignoring my pace plan; I ran the first few miles in 6:25s but was starting to 'yo-yo' off the back of the pack by the back end of the big hill around mile 4.5. If you watch cycling and are familiar with the back of the pack yo-yoing on uphills and catching up on downhills, you know it's only a matter of time before that person blows up. And I did. By mile 7 I was a lonely man, seeing my pack ahead on straightaways and occasionally catching a glimpse of a solo runner behind me, but for the most part through the curving park road, it was just me and my thoughts. That's a very tough race to run, and one I dealt with in the 2011 Flying Pirate half marathon; running solo without being in contact with the race makes it hard for me to keep pushing and leads to constantly glancing over the shoulder to see if I'm getting caught. It's a big mental part of racing that I need to improve. And on this morning I knew I didn't have "it" and my heavy legs through the hills left me laboring.

The Marines left some great signs along the course, including
motivational gems like "You're not even close!" and my favorite,
"You'll quit when I'm tired."

I ran 6:25s through the first six miles (never, never, never go out too fast!), but in the rollers after that I paid for it and started running closer to 6:50s, probably 7:00+ in final two miles. I was caught and passed fairly easily on the mile 8.5 hill and again on the mile 9 hill. Pretty demoralizing to know I didn't have the legs, go out too fast, and get rolled a couple times in the final miles. Just a brutal feeling to get passed like you're standing still, and a feeling I don't get too often, but today was not my day. Though I didn't exactly enjoy my run and didn't finish strong, still ended up 17th overall and beat my goal time over the unconventional distance.

At least finishing among the first runners meant there was no line at the massage tent, and some nice massage school student had a free table waiting. She certainly didn't rush through anything, spending a long time on each leg and really working out my muscles to make the drive home a little easier. I also grabbed a bottle of Muscle Milk and used their foam roller station. After that I picked up my finisher's coin and most importantly, the card with my online access code to register for October's Marine Corps Marathon. Then it was just a quick shuttle bus ride by to my truck and a sunny drive back to northern Virginia.

The Results

17.75K (11.03 mi) :   1:12:47  |  6:35/mile   (7th AG, 17th overall)

The Swag

All runners received a long-sleeve technical shirt; as mentioned before, the front referenced the Marine Corps Marathon access codes waiting at the finish line, and the race logo was on the back. The finisher award was a coin, but unlike the metal Army Ten Miler military-style finisher coin, this one was closer to a poker chip in construction material and quality. It was still a nice takeaway and tucks neatly into my coin display case with the Army Ten Miler coins and some age group awards.

But really, there was only one piece of swag people were interested in, and that's the magical golden ticket that had a unique password on the back to grant advance access to the 2013 Marine Corps Marathon.

The Verdict

To go back to my thought from the opening paragraph, this race was clearly secondary to the Marine Corps Marathon, from the runners to the organizers. I feel bad for anyone who was running this race as a standalone goal race, because to put it bluntly, no one cared. The organizers played up the Access Granted angle at every turn, in communications, signage, and attitude. The general apathy at the starting line was shocking, folks weren't really connected at all to the race; most people were just going through the motions to get their access card. I spoke with some people who were injured and just going to slog or walk through it to get that card. It was just an odd, almost disconcerting, attitude in the air; I'd never been to a race and never toed a starting line with so many competitors seemingly unmotivated and apathetic about the entire event. I felt silly taking this thing seriously and actually putting in an honest effort.

Ultimately, it was a very hard course and it was fun to test myself on a day I know I didn't have my best. Assuming this remains the "golden ticket" race in 2014, I'll definitely be back, but unless the general attitude changes, it isn't a race that I'm overly excited about or really looking forward to on my race calendar.