Matt and I positioned ourselves in the start area somewhat behind the 4:30 pace group, in the back half of something like 25,000 runners. The race announcer counted down to the start signal which was sounded by a howitzer blast. And we waited for the crowd in front of us to start moving. We started shuffling, then stopped, then walked and gradually worked up to a slow jog by the time we crossed the start line about 13 minutes after the start signal. And we were off - moving wherever and however the crowd permitted or forced us. It was somewhat like being in a crowd of Christmas shoppers on the worst shopping day, or like being swept along by the crowd when leaving a big concert.
Our first couple miles through city streets were at 10:40 to low 11 minute pace. Always someone was too close in front of and beside us. We didn't really need to run faster but the desire for more space seemed to get us moving around and through the crowd to find some running room. At least once this caused Matt to turn his ankle as we were passing on the curbside. The first hill section ended about mile 3 and was followed by a downhill to flat stretch that was in a more park type setting with some woods along the road. We ran onto the Francis Scott Key Bridge and toward Georgetown. The water station here, like all others was staffed by Marines in uniform.
Over these first miles there were gloves, hats, shirts on the road that were dropped by runners who were warm enough without them. After we crossed the Potomac River to the DC side, we ran along the C & O Canal National Park. There were dozens of runners who stopped along here to pee in the bushes – eventually I was one of them. The crowd was starting to spread out. Then another uphill came along about mile 6 or 7. This section of road was narrower and we were again more restricted / frustrated. The course went through a residential neighborhood. Our run plan was to keep to our familiar training pace and walk through the water stops, filling our water bottles and getting some sport drink to supplement our shot block nutrition - one block every 15 minutes.
By mile 9 or 10 our pace had picked up enough that our overall average pace dropped to about 10:30 per mile. We had been keeping pace with a couple guys carrying flags, so it gave us a little motivation to keep them in sight. We began discussing where our support team might be - right side of the road, or left. Rose, Kim, Andrew, Lindsey, Kristal were to be along the course at about miles 10 and 16. Eventually Matt spotted them and we moved to the right side to stop for a quick visit. There was nothing to resupply or exchange and soon we were running again. (I did make a request for some coffee the next time we would see them.) Matt is quite familiar with the sights around Washington so he pointed out where we were and what was coming up. I would have been just following the crowd. As we neared the halfway mark we both commented our feet were getting sore/tired. This was also where we came alongside Missy, a Chambersburg running friend of mine. We ran with her and chatted for several minutes. Soon Matt and I took our first walk break separate from a water stop. For the rest of the course we would walk for about a minute per mile.
We continued on as had become routine. Easy pace, look around at the sights/runners/spectators, eat a shot block on schedule, walk the water stops and refill bottles/drink sport drink, resume running as we joined up at the end of the water stop. We came onto our crew as expected at what seemed to be the same area where they met me last year. Rose had coffee for me and I drank about half of it. Matt dropped off the belt pack he had used to carry his packs of shot blocks. Then we moved on. Matt told me they were planning to meet us again at the end of the loop on the DC side before we crossed the bridge toward Crystal City. That gave us something pleasant to look forward to.
Before this next meet-up with our support crew, I needed to pee again (thanks to the coffee?). We were watching for porta-potties for what seemed much too long. Finally we came to a set of 6 or 8 potties and I got into line - maybe 10th in line to wait my turn. Matt would walk till I caught up. My "pit stop" took about 3 minutes and then we were back together running and looking for our next crew meet-up. We didn't need anything at this stop and ran by without stopping. And on we went. We were now beyond the longest distance Matt had ever run. Our overall pace was slowing due to extra walk breaks and slower run pace.
Soon we were on "the bridge". Mile 21+. This is a long stretch with few spectators. More and more runners can be seen taking walk breaks or stopping to stretch sore or cramping muscles. By this point I was pretty sure I could hear Matt's breathing and he confirmed it. This was different from the previous miles. It isn't unusual that keeping the same or even a slower pace takes more effort by this point in a marathon. We were clearly into the place where feet and legs are hurting from the pounding and multi-hour effort. We talked about how our finish time was looking. Not much else to talk about and not much in the sight-seeing category. Just keep going. Coming off the bridge we entered Crystal City with lots of spectators making friendly noise and energy to keep us moving. We discussed whether a 4:45 finish time was within reach and what pace increase it would take.
The remaining miles were slowly ticking by and we left Crystal City for the last couple miles. With less than 2 miles remaining, Matt started to pick up the pace. We passed more people than passed us. Not much else changed. We looked ahead for signs of the final turn to “charge” the hill with the finish lines in front of the Iwo Jima Memorial. Uniformed Marines stood along the road up Iwo Hill and encouraged runners toward the finish. Some runners exchanged high fives with them. Matt’s quickened pace meant more weaving around other runners and I pushed to stay alongside him. The final stretch up that hill is narrower and more crowded, making passing more challenging. And we crossed the finish line at 4:51:07.
We got in line to receive finisher medals from young Marine officers who placed the medal around your neck, salute you, and shake your hand. And they told me “God Bless you sir.”