The t-shirt says “Life is not measured by how many breaths you take, but how many breathless moments are in it.”
That seems like a pretty good proxy for a well-lived life to me, and today certainly had its share.
[Note: there's some preamble here. If you want to cut to the chase (heh), go here.]
Much to the astonishment of most people who know me (not least myself), I had decided some months ago to sign up for the Rock ‘N Roll USA Marathon being run in Washington, DC today. More correctly, I signed up for the half-marathon version. There was a unexpected confluence: I got healthy and started running a bunch, and then I stumbled across a particular situation with a friend that seemed to want some support.
So when I came across the ad for the Rock ‘N Roll run, I found myself clicking the “Sign up” button before I knew really what I was doing.
Not too long before the official start of my 12-week training, I developed a serious IT band issue in my left leg. The IT band is a tendon that stretches from your knee to your hip. The end where it attaches to my knee had gotten inflamed and I was completely unable to run on it. After some physical therapy on the Isle of Man and stretching wouldn’t help it, I ended up consulting a sports medicine doctor named Britt Marcussen in the States when I was back for a visit. He listened to my story, twisted my leg and knee around a bit, and took some x-rays. When it was all through, he said, “This is classic IT band, which is good news, because it’s the easiest to fix of all the things that it could be.” The short-term fix was a cortisone shot in the knee to reduce the inflammation. “If you just stayed off it for another two months, it would get better on its own. If it were me, I’d be chomping at the bit to get back on the road and I’d want the shot.” Yeah, me too.
Then he said something that strikes terror into the heart of medical patients everywhere: “Of course, if I just give you the shot and send you out the door, it’ll all happen again; that’d be bad medicine. So I’m going to send you to our physical therapy guy who’s going to show you how to strengthen your abs. They’re not strong enough, which means your leg is compensating, and that’s why you’re hurting your IT band.” In short, I was going to have to work at it, too – the magic injection was just the first step.
So I was turned over to Dan Cobian, who showed me a bunch of exercises (some of which are brutal) to strengthen my abs. He also gave me an incredible stretch for my IT band – the first one that had ever actually worked. 
Time to start training. Now, I’d never run more than 10K (6.2 miles) in my life – and that distance maybe 3-4 times. A half-marathon, at 13.1 miles, is a bit over twice that. I was, at the moment I signed up to run the half, woefully unprepared to do it.
And it’s worth a moment here to talk about training. There are dozens of half and full marathon training programs available on the web. I looked at a handful and settled on the one I found in about.com. The prime feature of this one was that it involved doing a run/walk pattern (e.g. three minutes of running, one minute of walking). I had started doing that almost by accident in my shorter runs and discovered that it gave me far more stamina and endurance. Furthermore, I’m told that that that pattern is recommended for older runners (of which I am one).
But as any good geek will, I copied the training schedule onto a Google docs spreadsheet, and the created a separate sheet on the same document to show what I’d done.
And then I followed that schedule pretty close to religiously.
Go read that last sentence again, because it is, as far as I can tell, the single most important thing required to successfully run a half marathon. If you’re in passably good shape, then this (or any decent) training course will get you to the point you can run a half-marathon. If you’re not in passably good shape, get yourself there and then start the 12-week course. I know people in worse shape than I was who did the same thing and got there.
But of course there’s that “pretty close to religiously” component. Living on the Isle of Man, that meant running in mist and sometimes rain, oftentimes significant wind and cold. It meant running on a treadmill at the gym (Lord save us) when the weather was completely intolerable. It meant taking my running clothes on business trips and running through London or the Hague. Then again, some of my most enjoyable runs were training runs through Hyde Park and along the ocean in the Netherlands.
And speaking as somebody who likes routine of a sort, it was good to be told what I had to do. Look at the spreadsheet, do it, rinse and repeat. “Today is four miles.” Problem solved, modulo, of course, the actual running of the four miles.
So yesterday morning, I woke up at 5:00 AM in a downtown Washington hotel. Clothes and running paraphernalia were already piled carefully in a corner – I didn’t trust myself to not miss something really important at that hour. I went out the hotel door at 5:30, caught the Metro down to Federal Triangle.
And that’s when the fun started. I had gotten on at McPherson Square and there was already a big crowd of runners on the train. We all rolled out at Federal Triangle (as directed in the pre-race instructions), headed through the building complex, and started walking toward the race. I was following a group of not fewer than 30 runners. I wasn’t sure of the direction and was glad to have the leadership.
But then something struck me – they headed uphill. I grew up in this area and if there’s one thing I know, it’s that this corner of D.C. slopes down to the Mall and the river. Even at 5:30 AM, my spidey-senses were tingling. Then we crossed E Street and alarm bells started going off. I looked up ahead of us and saw F Street.
We were, in fact, headed the Wrong F***ing Direction. Just then I saw a group of three women ahead of me pause and look confused. “Ladies, we’re going the wrong way,” I said. “We thought something was wrong!” They turned and yelled to the runners ahead of them “You’re going the wrong way!” Again, this was at least 30 runners. I turned around and saw at least 50 runners following us.
I’ll let you draw your own conclusions about crowds and sheep and such. Me, I’d assumed that in such a group, there’d be a natural tendency for the unsure to hang back while those who (e.g.) worked in that complex and knew it like the back of their hand would take the lead.
I hadn’t counted on the “Extremely confident but dead wrong” contingent, for which I have absolutely no excuse; I should have known better.
Anyway, I made it down to Constitution Avenue, still with no sunlight. But what a scene. Runners (there would ultimately be 30,000 of us) were making their way in (it was just barely 6:00 AM), but obviously the infrastructure was well in place.
“Corrals” were already set up (running from 14th Street to a bit east of 9th Street) to stage the runners’ departure. They had 34 corrals and I was assigned to Corral 31 (I had officially moved up from 33). They put the fast runners (by anticipated finish time) in front and then release one corral every 90-120 seconds. That way, the group fans out comfortably and minimizes runners passing each other. Now realize that mean that with a 7:30 start, I was going to cross the start line around 8:15. To give you an idea of what this means, the guy who won the half-marathon finished in 1:06. When I crossed the start line, he was about 3/4 of the way through his run.
Anyway, I dropped my gear bag at the school busses where they collected gear (I was in the JOH-KAN bus), and walked past where tables were set out with bagels, bananas, and water bottles. Yes, it costs $85 to enter the race, and yes, the Rock ‘N Roll Marathon series is a profit-making venture. But in my interactions with them, they struck me as an incredibly professional operation in every respect. Figure what it takes to get Washington, DC to let you shut down Constitution Avenue on a Saturday morning, and I was impressed.
Vignette: I am standing on a near-empty Constitution Avenue, mostly in the dark. I am flanked by the Department of Justice building on my right and a Smithsonian (barely visible) to the left. Looking up Constitution Avenue, I see a few hundred people milling around in the glare of the work lights set up to light the street. Red and blue police lights, marking off the areas blocked to traffic, flash in the distance. Somebody lights up the impressive sound system with the Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again”. I wonder how different the scene will be come the Revolution. I wish, not for the last time, that I had kept my camera with me. But that was a conscious decision. I had never run with it and didn’t know if it would affect my gait. More importantly, I felt it was important to concentrate on the task on hand – getting through 13.1 miles of Washington, DC.
People start to gather, lines begin to form at the porta-potties that line the avenue. I realize that I’m really glad I showed up way early, got my gear checked, and used the potties. The crowd grows, dawn comes to the Mall, and the energy is building. Announcements come over the P.A., including an explanation of why chocolate milk is the perfect runner’s drink (yes, sponsored by a dairy). I mean, you’re trying to persuade me that chocolate milk is good?
Taking the advice of more than one running friend, I pause and reflect how incredibly fortunate I am simply to be doing this race. As I told them, I wake up every day and reflect how fortunate I am to be starting that day. But indeed, this is just plain awesome. I mentally run through the names and faces of the people who have gotten me here. Good thing we have time – it’s a long list.
As 7:30 nears, the energy and anticipation is palpable. I think of the training I’ve done and multiply that by 30,000 – some certainly trained more and some less. No wonder it’s like a bunch of racehorses anxious to get into (and out of) the starting gate. They play the national anthem over the P.A., the crowd gets mostly (but not completely) silent. When it finishes, an incredible roar goes up. The starting gun goes off at an atomic-clock 7:30 AM and the crowd goes nuts. Of course, back here in Corral 30, there’s nothing to do except warm up and anticipate. As the minutes pass, we start to walk forward toward the start line. They’re counting down each corral over the P.A., and with each “GO!” we’re that much closer to the official start line.
I meet a woman who is wearing the singlet from the Organization for Autism Research – the same people I’m running for. We chat briefly and wish each other well.
Then suddenly, we’re almost to the start line and they’re pulling a rope across the course, arbitrarily cutting off the next group to start. And, um, that rope is about two people behind me. Here we go.
I start my GPS watch just as we cross the RFID detector. I have a plastic loop in my shoelaces that will allow them to tell where I am. In fact, for $5 I had arranged to have automatic text messages sent to people as I cross various checkpoints. Sometimes technology is wonderful.
The actual race starts and it’s like every training run I ever went on. People had warned me that the energy of the crowd would get my adrenaline on hyper-drive and there was a serious danger of running too fast, running the “group’s” race rather than mine. Yes, the energy of the crowd is amazing and I’m on a serious adrenaline high. But my left brain stays in control – I look at my GPS watch and settle into a pace that my feet know pretty much by heart. Three minutes into the race, I drop into a walk, just as I’d had planned.
Course-side sign: TRUST YOUR TRAINING
There are spectators all along the course. Not shoulder to shoulder (in most places, though there are a few such locations), but you’re never really out of sight of them. They cheer, sometimes for specific runners, often just for the group as a whole. Even the ones who have signs for Mike or Ashleigh or Robin yell at random passing runners, “You’ve got this!”, “You own this course!”
And I do trust my training. In fact, I’m not going to say much about the mechanics of the run because, well, it’s not that interesting. Harkening back to my days as as scuba instructor, we had a mantra: “Plan your dive; dive your plan”. I had planned this run. For over three months. And I just ran my plan. I had already done 11 and 12 mile training runs; there was nothing about 13.1 miles that seemed overwhelming, as long as I stuck with the plan and the IT band didn’t give out.
Very early into the race, the IT band announces its presence. Mild pain (1-2 on a scale of 10). Nothing new there, I’m used to it now. If it gets worse, I’ll stop and stretch it – I’ve already done that on training runs and have no fear whatsoever of giving up 60-90 seconds to give it a good stretch. For now, I simply say to it, “Don’t bother me – I have a race to run.”
Course-side sign: DUE TO SEQUESTRATION THE COURSE HAS BEEN SHORTENED BY 10%
We’re running down Constitution Avenue past the Washington Monument and that’s pretty awesome. We veer off on Virginia Ave, up around the State Department and (what used to be) the Civil Service Commission, both of which employed me during college summers. Then we head out across the Memorial Bridge and it’s an amazing view up and down the Potomac River. Halfway across the bridge…
Encounter: the back of his sweatshirt says “Winston-Salem Fire Department”. I pull up alongside, “Hey – Asheville here.” “Beautiful area, that.” “Yeah, it is; you have a good run.” “You too.”
We get to the far side of the bridge, looking up toward the Custis-Lee mansion and Arlington Cemetery. The course makes a U-turn right back across the bridge. As we make the U-turn, a runner in front of me trots out of the pack, faces up the hill, comes to full attention, and snaps a sharp salute toward the military dead buried up there. I’m sure I’m not the only runner who thinks, “Quite right”.
Vignette: as we turn back across the bridge, Tom Petty’s Free Fallin’ comes on the headphones and the Lincoln Memorial fills the horizon above a sea of runners. I would have done the race for that view right there. A woman alongside me pulls out a camera, and never dropping a step, shoots the scene. “It’ll never convey how awesome this is,” I say. “No, but I gotta try,” she replies.
We turn and run down under the Kennedy Center balcony and over toward Rock Creek Park, the river on our immediate left. We drop into the park and run along Rock Creek. “Wonder if there’s a trout in there,” I think. 
Encounter: I find myself behind two women wearing pink t-shirts. T-shirt on the right says “I’m three days past my last chemo treatment – nothing can stop me.” I pull alongside them. “That t-shirt, is it the truth?” “Yes sir,” she smiles “Three days.” I don’t even know what to say. “You’re awesome” is the best I can manage. “Thank you” she says.
Encounter: I’m running along and suddenly I’m aware there’s a petite blonde running alongside me. I pull off my headphones and she says, “Are you Lee?” Seriously? I mean, I’m a C-list poker celebrity, but this crazy. “Yes…” “I’m Chelsea.” Of course, she is the head cheerleader for the autism runners (and obviously a runner herself). I had put her on my text updates, so she knew when I crossed the start line and was able to extrapolate when I’d get near their cheering section. I was incredibly impressed and touched that she did that and then came out into the crowd to cheer me on. Chelsea, if you’re reading this, thank you – that was huge.
We head up the hill toward Calvert Street – it’s the only significant climb of the race and after the various hills in the Isle of Man, it doesn’t seem that daunting. I walk the part of it that my 3/1 wants, so in that sense it’s nothing different. But it’s nice to see the signs as we reach the top of the hill:
Course-side sign: THAT WAS THE HARD PART – YOU CAN COAST FROM HERE
We turn the corner and one of the bands that’s set up alongside the course is in full swing. It’s a soul band and they are cooking the Rufus classic Ain’t Nobody. I pause the iPod to get full enjoyment. Lot of the runners are half-dancing as they go by. Brad Willis had told me to be sure to get high-fives from course-side supporters – he said they made the run easier. So I swing by two women who are in front of the band, dancing and high-fiving passing runners. I touch hands with both of them, all of us singing along the whole time.  Brad’s right – it’s a true energy boost.
I pull a Gu energy gel out of my fanny pack and squeeze it into my mouth, grab a cup of water off the table. There’s something equally guilty and enjoyable about dropping both water cup and Gu package to the asphalt, knowing that it’s somebody’s paid job to sweep them all up (there’s a veritable sea of dropped cups and the occasional energy gel packet on the road near each water station). I will eat a Gu gel about every 45 minutes and wash it down with water. The chocolate-mint one actually tastes like an After Eight mint that you left in a hot car – so great.
We pass the 10K point and cross over one of the detection strips. I visualize text messages flying around the country telling people where I am. Even that is a kick.
Encounter: Around mile 7.5 along Harvard Street, I see my friend Haydee, who has been good enough to come out and cheer for me. We had planned a two-block range of meeting places and even a specific side of the street, but as it turns out, the crowd in that area is relatively sparse and it’s easy to spot her. I stop and get a hug, “Now run!” she says. Hint: getting a supportive hug during the run is a huge boost.
Course-side sign: WORST PARADE EVER
Harvard Street is becoming gentrified and families and groups have set up shop on stoops to cheer and support runners. Free beer is being offered at various places and people waving Human Rights Campaign signs are giving out Dunkin’ Donuts holes. I get high-fives from them, but I have no desire to test my stomach with a sugar-fat bomb. Little kids are having a blast when they discover that they can stand street-side, hold out their hands, and runners will veer over to give them high/low-fives.
We turn down 5th street past the reservoir and through the Howard University campus. There have been D.C. cops all along the path, keeping traffic out of the course. Along the University campus, a cop with a more than passing resemblance to a young Barack Obama is cheering on runners and high-fiving them. I holler “Thank you, DC police!” as I pass.
Course-side sign: FIND YOUR INNER KENYAN!
Vignette: We turn down East Capitol Street and there’s the U.S. Capitol rising above a thousand, two thousand runners. I’m thinking that the building is far too beautiful for the people that work inside it. But man, what a great scene of all those people in their colorful running clothes headed for the Capitol.
We cross mile 10 and I know this is where the longer runs are tough for me. But then something strikes me and I say to two women alongside, “Hey – it’s just a 5K from here.” “Really?!!?” “OMG, he’s right – just a 5K to go.” “Ladies, this one is in the bag.”
Course-side sign: THE BEER MISSES YOU!
We run down (and a bit up) K and H streets in Northeast, but it’s mostly a blur to me. I do have a mildly nervous moment when I step too near a trolley track (yes, a trolley track). Nothing bad happens, but I have a sense that in a very nearby parallel universe I just suffered a race-ending twisted ankle. I get my focus back – this is where the real danger lies, at the end of the race. I am not going to injure myself out of it this close to the finish.
At 12-miles plus, we hit the split where the half-marathoners go left toward the finish line and the full marathoners turn right and head out for another 14 miles. There is not a single iota of regret that I’m not doing the full; if I were on that path, I’d be physically ill right now.
The 13-mile marker comes into view and people trying to reach personal records (“PR” as they’re known) or specific times (“Gotta make 2:30″) are running as fast as they can, passing a lot of people. Most of them are quite polite (as has been the norm throughout), but a few have lost their manners in their quest for whatever time. It’s unfortunate, but I can certainly understand the feeling. I had been tracking myself on my GPS and was on a comfortable pace to finish under 2:37:12, which would be exactly 12:00 minutes per mile. That was at the top of my “possible goals” list (3:00 and 2:45 were my original goals), so I didn’t even have to speed up.
There was another twist to the time. My GPS had marked off one-mile laps ahead of every course-side sign – the further we went, the greater the gap. Later, my childhood friend (and fellow half-marathon participant) Randy Kuldell explained the situation. They measure off the course (I wonder if it’s with a laser) so that 13.1 miles is the absolute shortest distance you could legally run. Of course, when you veer left to avoid a crowd, veer right to a water table, and then veer back left to get a free beer – well, it adds up. My GPS said that I ultimately ran 13.36 miles, so I ran almost exactly a 1/4 mile “extra”. My official time was 2:35:29; I’m very happy with it, but it’s very much the icing on the cake of running the thing to the finish.
Finally, the 13-mile marker and then the longest one-tenth of a mile to the finish line. That last tenth was lined with people screaming and yelling as we got close – it was great.
As we crossed the finish line, some amount of chaos ensued as they handed us bananas, medals, water, mylar warming bags, and chocolate milk (did you know that chocolate milk is good for you?). It was really a matter of reuniting runners with their families and friends, their dropped-off gear (the lines were massive), and dispersing them toward the Metro, or whatever cars were crazy enough to get within five miles of the Stadium-Armory that day.
So I’ll leave you with you a few random thoughts:
- It was an amazing experience. I never thought I would say that – I’m pretty sure I never thought I would do one of these, right up until the moment I clicked the “Sign up” button. I’m incredibly glad I did.
- The sense of community among the runners and between the runners and supporters along the course was awesome. Sometimes it seems like our country is hopelessly divided; it felt so good to be part of something where everybody was rooting for everybody else.
- I have no intention of ever running a full marathon. I know many of my runner friends will say, “Yeah, I said that too, and now…” Well, if anybody cares to make a small wager on that, the lines are open. After this race I felt good – emotionally and physically. It was the perfect mix of challenge, achievement, and enjoyment. I don’t need to be in agony to prove something to myself (and I saw too many full marathoners around D.C. that afternoon who were obviously hurting badly). In fact, there are ads all over town for the Cherry Blossom 10-mile run in April. I was just thinking, “Wow, that would be an awesome distance to run.”
- Will I do another half? Perhaps, maybe, probably. I’m not out scouring the Net for the next one, but if the right one falls in my lap, I’ll definitely give it another go.
- On that topic, it was fun to be around D.C. and spot other runners (the timing loop around shoelaces was one obvious giveaway). “How’d your race go?” “Awesome – how about you?” “Good thanks.”
- The part of D.C. I was hanging out in (call it a rectangle bounded by K, D, 14th, and 7th) is unrecognizable from what it was when I was a kid. It felt vibrant and alive, tucked up against all the great federal buildings. Lots of funky restaurants and clubs, lots going on.
 The details of the exercises and stretch are beyond the scope of this piece, but if you’re interested, leave a comment and I’ll get in touch with you.
 I did some research. People have spotted small brook trout in the park, but as one fisherman put it, “You wouldn’t want to wade in the creek – it’s too polluted. And those poor fish have a tough enough time staying alive – they don’t need the added stress of being hooked and released.” Fair enough.
 Properly pronounced, it’s “Ain’t no-bo-day, luv me bet-tah”