By Philip Runco.
If you’re one of the 30,000 people running the 42nd Marine Corps Marathon this Sunday, I have some good news: The hard part is over.
Sincerely, it is.
Getting up early on random weekdays, legs exhausted and muscles tight, and running by yourself in the August heat? That shit is the absolute the worst.
Plowing straight down the middle of a major street with tens of thousands of people in 50-degree (or, hey, even 60-degree) weather following a week’s rest? That’s something to look forward to.
If you’ve put in the miles, you’re good to go. Even if you haven’t, nothing that happens between now and Sunday at 7:55 a.m. is going to change the shape you’re in, so you still get to relax. There is no cramming. This is not Biology 201. All that’s left is the consumption of bread. And nothing is better than the consumption of bread.
So, let’s take a deep breathe and think about you need.
Water Block Plus Band-Aids? Yes, and don’t even think abut skimping with the store brand.
Petroleum jelly? Or are you fancy with that Body Glide? Either way, apply liberally.
A good iPod (or iPhone) (or, fuck it, Zune) playlist? So goddamn necessary. We’ll come back to this in a minute.
Sorry, let’s take a step back. This is BYT’s guide to running the Marine Corps Marathon. A lot of what we’re about to discuss applies to pretty much any marathon, but we’re also going to talk about this particular course and how to approach it. I will be your guide. I can’t promise that I know what I’m talking about, but I can say that I have run 26 marathons and lived to blog about it. At the very least, I’ve run Marine Corps three times (most recently in 2014), so I’m familiar with this particular bad boy.
If this is your first time running Marine Corps, I have more good news: This is a great race. The course is relatively flat. There’s strong crowd support. The scenery varies in ways Chicago and New York and Boston don’t, and that helps a whole lot. It could probably use a few more water stations, but members of the U.S. military station the ones it does have, and that is probably the single coolest part of any marathon out there. All in all, you’re in for a good time.
Below, I’ve broken the course into seven parts. When tackling a marathon, compartmentalization is vital. Don’t think about it as one long race. Think of it as seven small races mushed together. And for each section, I’ve gone ahead and made some suggested musical pairings.
OK, let’s take a brief moment to talk about iPods. Most all marathons have loosened their rules to allow portable music devices, but usage remains a divisive issue. Officially, it is almost invariably “discouraged.” A lot of what I would call “serious runners” still frown upon it. They argue that it deprives you of important sensory perception – most notably, being able to hear how you’re breathing. Additionally, they assert that it lessens the marathon experience because you’re not taking in all of the sights and sounds around you.
I recognize the validity of this point of view. I also want nothing to do with it.
Here’s the thing: I have never run without music. I didn’t run track in high school. I don’t go jogging with friends and talk about my day. In my mind, music and running are inextricably connected. In fact, I started running largely because it seemed like an active way to listen to music. (Shout out, Sony Discman Sport.) I do not want to hear myself breathing. It freaks me out. I want to take my mind off what I’m asking my body to do.
And, look, if you’re going to tell me that DMX yelling in my ears doesn’t make me run faster, then you are a liar and I am going to tell DMX about this.
Music and marathons is a tricky business, though. I consistently meet people who mess up their race soundtrack. The biggest mistake? Using the same playlist they’ve trained with. Big mistake. Big. Huge. “Pretty Woman” huge. Even if Marine Corps’ 26.2 miles is not all that far off from your longest training run, this Sunday is not just another long run. Don’t treat it like one. It’s time to discard the familiar.
You know the feeling that you get when a song that you haven’t heard in ages comes on the radio or a jukebox or your iPod, and you immediately smile, chuckle to yourself and/or literally say, “Oh man, this is my jam”? That’s the feeling you want to replicate, again and again, for 26.2 miles. Putting that playlist together takes time. Luckily, we have some.
If you’re planning to run with Spotify, I’ve assembled a 15+ hour mix just for you. Check it out here. Please note: It is not sequenced, so just put that bad boy on shuffle and crank it.
The Jump Off: Miles 1 – 4.5
Here are the three most important things to remember when running a marathon:
1. Don’t start too fast.
2. Don’t start too fast.
3. Don’t start too fast.
I can not emphasize this enough.
Your adrenaline is going to be pumping. You’ve probably trained four months for this moment. You’re going to want to let it rip. But coming out too fast will absolutely ruin your day.
When you come out blazing, your body produces more lactic acid than it can convert to energy, and even though you won’t feel it right away, you are screwed in the back half of the race. By mile 20, your legs will feel stiff and heavy and you will wonder why anyone runs marathons. Trust me. I’ve done this to myself. Several times.
When I started running marathons, my actual “plan” was to run the front half as hard as I could and then hemorrhage time in the back half. This is what I wanted to do. I was like a kitten shot out of a cannon at a hundred foot velcro wall, desperately clawing to hang in there for the last hour of the race. It is painful. You will not have a good time. You will have the opposite of a good time.
And now a word about pace groups.
I saw the light on pace groups a few years ago. They are a fantastic resource. Even if you don’t want to run with one the whole way, I’d recommend sticking with one for at least the first four miles of this race. In fact, I’d go even father: Most of the “good” marathons I’ve done in recent years have come when I’ve run with a pace group a few minutes slower than my goal time until mile 17 or 18. Once you get to that point of the race, you can comfortably turn up and go for it without worrying that’ll catch up you later. Also, you get to pass people. Passing people is fun.
Running with a pace group makes you realize how much your body cycles between extremes over the course of the race. There are times when you feel like you’re running in slow motion and all you want to do is put your foot on the accelerator. There are also times when you feel like you can’t maintain your pace, you’re in too deep, and your body is going to implode. These are both natural things for your body to be telling you. You just need to tell your body to shut the fuck up. Weathering these waves – the urges to speed up or slow down – is one of the biggest challenges of running a marathon. A pace group essentially removes that concern altogether. You just follow the rabbit.
During the Marine Corps Marathon, the importance of keeping a moderate pace is compounded by the elevation change in the first four-and-a-half miles. This is the only portion of the race with a real climb – about 200 feet in the first two miles and change. Keep it nice and steady. If anything, slow it down and give up some time. You can make it up in the back half.
I’ve started a handful of marathons listening to DFA’s remix of Soulwax’s “Another Excuse”. I couldn’t engineer a better song. It’s a real slow boiler. It lasts about a mile. And it’s got Nancy Whang telling me, “It’s just another excuse.” I’m not sure what she’s talking about, but from here on out, Nancy is right: no excuses.
No marathon mix is complete without the RZA, the GZA, Ol Dirty Bastard, Inspectah Deck, Raekwon the Chef, U-God, Ghostface Killah, and the M-E-T-H-O-D Man. You’ll want to save the harder stuff like “Triumph” for later in the race (when you’ll really need it), but mid-period Wu is appropriately goofy and fun to start.
Protect ya neck. Also, watch your ankles around tight corners.
As you will soon be able to tell, this mix goes fairly heavy on the rap, but ’60s girl groups – or mid ’00s fake ’60s girl groups – have a nice way of making you feel you’re starring in a feel-good Ann-Margret musical. I strongly encourage finger wagging and any other miscellaneous hand motions.
The Power is On: Miles 4.5 – 11
In the past, the Marine Corps Marathon formerly had runners take a left off of the Key Bridge and run down Canal Road. It was cool. It was different. And, of course, they had to change it.
Over the last few years, pretty much every major DC race has altered its course to send runners up and back down Rock Creek Parkway. I’m looking at you, Rock and Roll DC Go-Go USA American Flag Fireworks Marathon. I will never forgive you for removing the Dupont portion of the race. Is Rock Creek a nice stretch? Sure, it’s fine. You get a chance to take in the turning of the leaves. I just don’t like the idea that DC races are becoming homogenized.
Anyway, that’s my Rock Creek rant. Thankfully, you still get to run down M Street in Georgetown, and it’s one of the race’s cooler stretches, especially following those four snoozer Arlington miles. It doesn’t last too long, though, and from there you’re headed down to K Street and underneath Whitehurst Freeway. That will lead you to Rock Creek. And if you’ve run MCM in the past few years, you’ll notice they’ve extended this stretch of the race about a mile and a half. The only downside of this is an additional slight incline as you approach the Taft Bridge.
Regardless of any course’s specifics, though, you should hopefully be on autopilot from miles 5 to 11. You shouldn’t really be sweating. If you’re perspiring or feel flushed at this point, you need to pump the brakes. Keep a pace that allows you to hold a light conversation with the people around you. In fact, I encourage that. Even though I have earbuds in, I try to shoot the breeze with other runners. You can get recommendations on other races. You can exchange some words of encouragement – particularly down the stretch. It’s nice. But be warned that not everyone else feels this way, and you may draw the occasional nasty glance.
This is also a good time to encourage you to drink water at every opportunity that you get. Even if you’re not feeling particularly thirty, just take a sip. Most major marathons provide water every mile. The Marine Corps Marathon can make you wait two or three miles at a time. This is a serious pain in the ass when it comes to timing your consumption of gels/goo, so familiarize yourself with where the water stations are on the map and plan ahead. (Personally, I would take mine at 6.5, 13, and 19, but I know some people who prefer four gels over the course of a marathon.)
No matter how you feel about Greg Gillis, Girl Talk’s ADD mash-ups are damn near essential for any marathon. If you’re putting your iPod on shuffle, every song off his three albums belong on your mix. Download them for free here.
See also: 2 Many DJ’s “As Heard on Radio Soulwax”
I would not file Bubba Sparxxx under “damn near essential,” but this is exactly the type of semi-remembered (s)hit that belongs on your mix. When was the last time you heard “Ugly”? You should be listening to “Ugly”.
The Go! Team have a song called “Everyone’s a VIP to Someone”. Most everything off of Thunder, Lightning, Strike makes you feel like an MVP.
We’re Sweating in the Winter: Miles 11 – 15
You’ll hit a nice crowd as you approach Hains Point. Enjoy it, because there won’t be a ton of support once you get out there. Course planners in years past had participants jog around the National Mall before Hains Point, but they thankfully realized that it was better to get this out of the way earlier.
If it’s a windy day, you’ll probably be running towards a headwind in one direction here. This time of year, wind can be a real factor with Marine Corps, and this a spot where you’re most susceptible. That being said, there is something nice about hitting the halfway point at the tip of Hains Point; it literally feels like the turnaround point of an out-and-back. The scenery isn’t tremendously interesting, but it’s green and on the water and you can see the airport. There’s also a tribute to fallen Marines and if that doesn’t stir something in you then you’re dead on the inside.
If all goes according to plan, you’re feeling good at the halfway mark. The goal is to run a faster back half than front half. They call this “negative splits” in the biz. It’s a concept that sounds sort of batshit crazy the first time you hear it, but it’s actually well within reach if you run the front half under control.
The second time I ran Marine Corps, I saw a sign on Hains Point that has always stuck with me. It said:”You Can Try Harder Than That.” That always seemed like a pretty dick thing to say! I was trying pretty hard! Who the hell was Sign Lady to judge? Stick to nice signs, people! A Christopher Walken/Walkin’ pun never hurt anybody’s feelings!
Last year, I ran the Chicago Marathon and saw a much better sign: “Pain is Temporary. Internet Race Results Are Forever.” Whoever made that sign gets it.
Your legs may start to feel a little tight around this point. That’s OK. Don’t overthink it. Don’t let doubt creep in. You’re probably running faster than you train, but your body can handle it. Just ride the wave.
Synthy, uptempo dance music is obviously a must. Hot Chip’s music isn’t normally at a sufficient marathon BPM, but Richard X carries them across the finish line here.
If you ever get asked how much Clipse is on your marathon mix, the answer is “not enough.” Same goes for prime-era Neptunes.
Karen O makes super hero music. It’s also pretty good for jazz hands.
The Body Says No: Miles 15 to 20
Let’s get this out of the way: That course map looks like a penis.
OK, moving on.
Miles 15 to 17 were new to the course last year. You run around on Independence Avenue alongside the Tidal Basin, out towards the Lincoln Memorial, and back. If you’ve run the Cherry Blossom 10 Miler before, this should be familiar to you. See: My rant about Rock Creek Parkway. Sigh.
Miles 17 to 20 are mentally a little bit of a hump. Coming into mile 17, you’ll feel like you’ve run a lot (you have!), but you’ll also feel like there’s a lot left (there is! nine miles! sheesh!). Fortunately, you’ll get a nice turnout of crowd support around the National Mall. Give some hi-fives! Giving hi-fives is the best.
You also won’t catch much wind around here, which is nice. Overall, running to the Capitol and back passes pretty quickly, which is all you can ask for at this point. It’s a nice bit of course planning. It’s basically a pleasant little purgatory before descending into the hell of miles of mile 21.
Spectator’s note: This is the best stretch of the race to come support your friends and family. It’s easy to get to via all Metro lines, and by this time in the race, there’s a good amount of space between runners, so there’s less of a chance you’ll miss someone.
What do Carl Newman lyrics mean? No one knows what they means, but they’re provocative. They get the people going.
A-Trak’s two Diry South Dance mixtapes are equally as essential as Girl Talk’s albums. And A-Trak’s songs stay in one place a little longer, which allows you settle better into the groove of them. Download the second mixtape here.
Tasteful and refined synthpop may not cut it late in race (when you need people shouting at you), but in the first 20 miles, something light and hooky goes a long way.
Breathe: Mile 21
This is where the rubber hits the road. Marine Corps can be broken into three parts: Everything before the 14th St. Bridge, the 14th St. Bridge, and everything after the 14th St. Bridge.
People talk a lot about “hitting the wall” during a marathon. Honestly, I don’t buy into the concept. If you’ve trained and run a smart race, you don’t hit a wall. Sure, there are rough patches where your body is mad at you or you’re filled with self doubt, but there’s no singular moment to overcome.
That being said, if there ever was a wall, it’s mile 21 of MCM. It’s about as close as you can come to race organizers literally erecting a wall for you to traverse.
Running on 395 is just a killer. It’s a ghost town. On a bad day, it can feel like you’re running into a wind tunnel. The concrete is especially unforgiving. There’s some incline, to boot. It sucks. You just gotta tough this shit out. Sorry. There’s no way around it. Wish I had something more motivational to say. But once you hit mile marker 21, you are in the homestretch.
And each step brings you a second closer to the end.
“Breathe” is the official anthem of picking off other runners in the final six miles. You need to suppress that competitive urge early in the race. It’s tough, but you have to let overambitious people pass you. File it away. Make a mental note. Because once you hit mile 21, it’s time to go Pokemon and catch ’em all.
DJ Khaled can continue his entire existence being the most obnoxious and annoying and worthless person on the planet, but the man had some role in bringing “We Taking Over” into my life, so he gets a pass.
Hutch Harris sings a lot about life and death and feeling alive. He is the exactly the motivational speaker you need during a marathon. It’s gonna rain.
Grand Finale: Miles 21 – 25
This is the homestretch before the homestretch. You’ll probably start feeling sorry for yourself during the penultimate four miles. Basically, all you’ll really want to do is sit down. That’s it. My kingdom for a beanbag chair. But you are so close! Don’t slow down! You can do it!
Coming off 395, Crystal City is a site for sore eyes. The “Crystal City Family Festival” draws a good crowd. You’ll find yourself thinking, “Oh, damn, Crystal City has all of these restaurants? Why did no one tell me? I should come to Crystal City more often!”
You’re thinking these things in part because, yeah, there are some really good restaurants. You are also thinking about it because your brain is turning to mush. You will seriously be losing some cognitive and communicative functions around this point. You will not be thinking straight. You are not coming back to Crystal City to get a hamburger! Just finish the damn race already!
If you’re feeling good, between miles 22 and 23 is where you want to turn up. It’s time to make a push. It’s time to get competitive.
It’s time to John Wick the club.
If you’ve John Wicked the club, you’ve had a good day.
The hardest part of running a marathon is not punching someone in the face when “Ante Up” comes on your iPod.
ONLY GOD CAN JUDGE ME.
DMX is better than you remember. He is also much meaner than you remember. How did they play this on the radio?
It’s around this point that you’ll want to start skipping songs you don’t give you an immediate rush. Icona Pop are audio meth. This duo can make picking out produce at the grocery store feel like a life-affirming experience. They can definitely get you excited about the final miles of this race.
Love in a Hopeless Place: Mile 26
It’s showtime. Activate your lizard brain. Go H.A.M.
Hopefully, you have something extra in the tank.
If you don’t and you’re hemorrhaging time, I’m sorry. I have been there, and it sucks. Your legs are going to feel like they’re 200 pounds each. But the end is near.
Either way, you should get a lift out of the people who are lining the road for the final mile. Ultimately, four months of training comes down to this. If you can’t walk correctly when you cross the finish line, you’ve fought the good fight.
Also, the hill thing at the very end? It’s very much overhyped. Do not stress about it. Any climb in the final five miles is obviously not appreciated, but this is a pretty short one. It is not the Central Park roller coaster at the end of the New York City Marathon.
I run marathons with a massive playlist on shuffle, but there is absolutely a “power mix” for the final mile. I can’t be sifting through 15 hours of music and hoping I hit pay dirt. It’s Uma Thurman adrenaline shot time.
It’s Rihanna time.
I have a saying: I run marathons alongside a lot of people, but in the end, there is one set of sneaker prints… for it is then that Rihanna carries me.
GOOD LUCK, RUNNERS. YOU GOT THIS.