Yesterday, I ran the 48-th running of the Washington's Birthday Marathon. I had a suspicion that the roads behind our home in the agricultural research station were the site of a marathon for years. The spray painted markings, "M" with an integer between 2 and 24, were clear evidence to me. Denise would dismiss my speculations as one of my usual running projective fantasies. I found the race web site this winter by Googling various combinations of the words "marathon", "Beltsville" and others. My running fantasies were vindicated. A marathon through the woods and fields of the research station on February 15 could only be hilly, cold, and desolate at best, brutal at worst. I had no desire to run it.
Sunday, I woke to a cold, clear dawn. The sky was clear blue, temperature in windy 30's. Driven by a homing-like instinct I stuffed down a large breakfast and made my way to the Greenbelt Youth Center to register. Denise and I found an amazing group of people there, roughly 250 runners, almost all seasoned marathoners and ultra runners. Many were routine veterans of the JFK 50-Miler. Whereas a Boston Marathon jacket is a rare sighting at most large races, they were a commonplace in Greenbelt that morning. During the pre-race wait and the occasional conversation during the subsequent, challenging 26 miles, I met no one with fewer than 7 marathons' experience.
The race was sunny, windy, cool, and hilly. I had planned to run it as a training run, but my excitement and the fitness of the field goaded me into racing it. It was a beautiful, brutal run. The first three quarter's mile was mostly up hill out of Greenbelt. Cresting a hill at the neighborhood boarder, the agricultural research facilities to the north opened up roughly 200 feet below us. A mile descent followed as I realized this would be at roughly 24.5 miles on the return. Upon reaching Beaver Dam Road, we began a seven-mile counterclockwise loop that we would run three times. We ran eastwards following the southern side of the tree line that protected us from the wind. On most of the route, the trees did not shade us and the sun warmed us to the point of perspiration. Beaver Dam is mostly a succession of small steep hills. We turned north along Springfield road, the hills lengthening with decreasing slope. Crossing fields, we got our first shots of the wind from the north-west again, drying our perspiration. The road entered copses that protected us from the wind only to re-expose us minutes later. At Powder Mill Road, we turned west, for two miles of running into the wind. Powder Mill is mostly long, smooth, ascents and descents. At the visitor center, we turned south briefly to re-join Beaver Dam. The loop had the interesting effect of giving the runner a inkling of what was coming up. He has a direct experience of waning strength as miles and laps go by. Future challenges melted into past obstacles. At my last pass by the visitor center, I knew it would be mostly downhill, to mile 24.5. I can easily admit I walked the last, steeper half of the ascent back into Greenbelt. I think I was walking faster than I could have run. After that, it was mostly a 0.2-mile downhill run to the finish line.
I do not remember actually seeing the finish line, just hearing Denise calling out my time. The voice I have known for over thirty years sounded particularly sweet as I numbly sprinted across the finish.
I do not think the Washington's Birthday Marathon is a particularly good place to come to try for a PR. However, an older oriental man minutes ahead of me qualified for Boston that day. I ran it 4 minutes off my marathon PR, without training specifically for this race. My thesis in running is that achieving a level of fitness that allows the individual to run 26.2 miles on any weekend and remain consistent with the responsibilities of a professional and personal life, and graduate school is possible, even desirable.
The hardship of racing a marathon being what it is, I am not training this morning. As I share this, I am sitting cross-legged on the floor in our home gym. Denise is on the treadmill in front of me doing her run while I keep her company. We have the Nova documentary on marathon training playing on the LCD TV.