The Marine Corps Marathon Course Preview
A marathon course that is steeped in history and lined with spectators
As a 15 year veteran runner of the Marine Corps Marathon, it’s always held a special place in my heart. While MCM is by no means an easy course, it is steeped in history, lined with spectators, and the best seat in the house on the fourth Sunday in October.
Boasting nearly 21,000 marathon finishers in 2011, Marine Corps is indeed a crowded affair. Your race here doesn’t start when the gun goes off, but much earlier in the morning. Training may be key to your best running performance, but being prompt – and even early – for subways, bag drop and corrals will make your experience markedly better.
While the start of the race is at 8:00 am, most runners take the subway to the Pentagon or Rosslyn stations. What many runners new to Marine Corps don’t realize is that they then face a walk of nearly a mile to the actual starting village – and with the crowds and darkness of morning, it’s often a very SLOW walk. To get in your corral comfortably – without too much pushing, shoving and crowding - you should be headed down or IN the corral no later than 7:15. That means bag drop by 7:00 am, which means arriving at the Pentagon or Rosslyn stations no later than 6:30 am. Plan accordingly – it may mean an earlier wake-up call than you’d hoped, but that extra hour will save tremendous amounts of pre-race stress.
Once you’ve safely arrived, you can find your pace team leader inside the corrals around 7:15 am. We’ll be lined up according the race’s own pace signs – so nothing tricky there. Come on over, say hi, and start a conversation – we’re eager to get to know you and happy to discuss our strategy and put your nerves at ease.
After a long morning, the start will go off at last – and it’s one you’ll never forget. Poignant and respectful, the National Anthem, flyovers and military rituals will help you center and focus before the rush of adrenaline hits anew at the starting pistol.
And now you have started. The race begins on Route 110 in Arlington in the shadow of the Pentagon, and gives you all of one mile to warm up. ONE.
If ever there were a race to follow the standard rules of marathoning, this is the one. Please, listen (and read) closely.
The marathon is a race about conservation of energy. You need the first 50% of your energy for the first 20 miles. You need the second 50% of your energy for the last 6 miles. Think about that, and then think about this:
The second mile of the Marine Corps Marathon is straight up a hill on Lee Highway. It is STEEP. It is TOUGH. And no matter how good you feel, no matter how tapered, rested, fed and hydrated you may be, you need to RESPECT THE HILL.
Your pace leader will pull the pace back on this hill for two reasons; one, we realize that this is a very steep hill very early in the race and we don’t want your heart-rate skyrocketing at mile 2. Second, the crowds are still very thick here, with many runners slowing on the hill or even stopping to walk after a too-fast adrenaline-fueled first mile. Instead of driving you up the hill as hard as we can, we’ll keep you focused on an even effort and continuing your warm-up. Between the thick crowds and the natural slowing on the hill, you should expect this mile to be a bit slower than target pace. Let other runners pass – any runner that passes you flying up this hill is likely to see you again – when you pass them at mile 24. Stay calm, and trust that your pace leader has a plan to make the time up gradually over the course of the race, not all at once.
Which also means that YOU have to resist the urge to pound the swift downhill that starts just a bit after mile 2, and takes you all the way to the base of mile 4. Again, your pace leader will focus on even effort, letting gravity naturally give some time back, but not racing down. Remember, it’s mile 3: this is not the time to make your move.
The next section of your race will take you onto some narrow park pathways, winding and descending. It’s still quite crowded here, so settle into your race and keep an eye on the balloons. Don’t despair if you get separated in the crowds; as long as you can see the balloons, you’re still in good shape. As you head out of this gorgeous park, you’ll face another climb over the Key Bridge, though not as steep at the first climb. The Key Bridge is a prime spectator spot, and will be loaded with spectators, music and cheering crowds welcoming you to Georgetown, one of my personal favorite parts of the course. Through a small community, followed by a trip up to the reservoir and culminating in wide streets lined with shops and spectators, you’ll have the perfect chance to here to shake out your arms, get a little personal space, and get your first assessment of how you’re feeling with a third of the race gone.
From M Street in Georgetown, you’ll face the first of two new sections in this year’s (flatter) course. After a number of quick turns out of Georgetown, you’ll make a right hand turn on Rock Creek and Potomac Parkway, where you’ll be treated to tree-lined roadways and stone-covered bridges – before a sharp U-turn that will take you back towards the Kennedy Center and the Lincoln Memorial. Take some time here to enjoy the sights and sounds, because you’re headed for the most taxing part of the course – and your “rite of passage” – Hains Point.
Many runners fear hills the most, but those who have tackled Hains Point know that desolation may be far worse. Your turn onto Ohio Drive will take you on a four mile out and back stretch, the highlight of which is actually reaching Hains Point just past mile 13. While you’ll sometimes see other runners, and the DJs and water stops will put some pep in your step periodically, this a l-o-n-g, flat, deserted stretch. This is the time to really lean on your pace leader; focus on their balloons, listen to their coaching and advice, and stay focused for the race ahead. You’ve got some incredible sights, sounds, and crowds coming up, so dig deep like those before you, and CONQUER Hains Point.
Leaving the out and back around mile 15, you’ll be greeted by large crowds as you exit the park, getting up close with the Jefferson Memorial and Tidal Basin. Your course remains relatively flat here, with just some small rolling hills, as you pass the new Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial as well as the FDR Memorial. At last, you’ll loop back onto Independence Avenue at about 17.5 miles for another true highlight of the MCM course – the National Mall. Running down the north side of the famous “MCM Gauntlet,” you’ll pass the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History and the National Gallery of Art. Crowds are thick here and the noise driving – plenty to focus your attention on as you get deeper into your race. You’ll loop around the reflecting pool in front of the U.S. Capitol, and then head down the south side of the Mall past the Smithsonian Castle, greeted by more large crowds and music as you make a few last turns toward the infamous “14th Street Bridge.”
That bridge is no fun, and you’re faced now with yet another serious climb – just before mile 20. But you’ve got this! Get behind your pace leader, put your head down, and push up that bridge. It doesn’t have to be pretty, and it doesn’t have to be graceful – but it does have to be done. Adding to the challenge is that crowds and spectators are sparse here – your pace leader will keep you focused and moving toward your goal.
Luckily, though, you get to spend a good part of your final 10K in Crystal City – an area of DC that throws just the party you need this late in the race. Miles 21 – 23 are sure to be filled with adoring fans, loud music, and cheering spectators, replenishing that energy you left behind on the bridge. Soak it all up, and store some up, because this is the Marine Corps Marathon – and they’re going to make you WORK for your finish. The route through Crystal City has changed a bit, and that means – yes – another hill around mile 22. While it’s slow and gradual, it’s just enough to play tricks with your mind – tricks that your pace leader will talk you OUT of. You’ll be paid back sweetly and poignantly at mile 24, however, with views of the National 9/11 Pentagon Memorial as well as your turn onto the final stretch of the course.
That’s right, your final two miles will take you back onto George Washington Boulevard and Highway 110, and they are going to be long, sparse and bleak. Once again, your pace leader will make sure to keep you pumped up and focused, but at the time you’re working the hardest, you’ll find the course the most quiet. Turn inward, focus on your reasons for being here, and whatever you do, do NOT let those balloons slip away.
As you get deeper into mile 25 and further down Highway 110, the crowds will pick up again, and you’ll start to hear the glorious finish in the distance. Yeah, you know you’ve got to CLIMB THAT HILL to the Iwo Jima Monument, but you’ve come this far – you’re not letting go now. At long last, you make that final turn, look up, and see the finish. You dig deep, sit a little lower in those battered legs, and you PUSH up that hill, inspired by the chants of the Marines and the cheers of the crowd. As you leave the pace leader’s balloons in the dust and feel your breath getting away from you, you’re filled with elation no matter what your legs might feel like – you did it! Yes, you are an official finisher of the Marine Corps Marathon. Congratulations!