Event: 2014 Navy/Air Force Half Marathon & 5 Miler
Event Date: September 14, 2014
Event Location: Washington, D.C.
The 2014 Navy/Air Force Half Marathon capped off what turned out to be an unintentionally patriotic and inspiring weekend for me. At the risk of my fellow Casual Runner out there thinking I’m nothing but a weepy, flag-waving nutcase (not that there’s anything wrong with that…), here is my recap:
Why I decided to run this race.
A year ago the 2013 Navy/Air Force Half Marathon was my first half marathon. My husband and I signed up for it on a whim: he had just returned home from a year-long deployment; we were at a point in our training where we could easily slip in a long race that would count as a training run; and I wanted to make sure I knew what to expect of a “real” half marathon event before we showed up for the craziness that would be our first Disney race later that fall. I fell in love with this race after that initial experience, and although there were some problems with aspects of this year’s events, I still really like this race and will probably continue doing it.
Getting there/the lead-up to the race.
This race came 2 months into my training with Jeff Galloway (http://casual-runner.com/2014-08-25-six-months-with-jeff-galloway-part-1/). As the program is customized, he had worked it into my overall training schedule, so all I had to do was stick with the plan and I would be prepared. So training-wise, everything was on track.
Where I veered off was everything else in my life in the week leading up to the race. After my tapered long run the Sunday before the race, I started feeling aches and pains in my muscles that I couldn’t attribute to my workout. Instead, these felt suspiciously like when I’m coming down with the flu. I’m still not entirely sure what I had, but I spent the next 4-5 days feeling pretty terrible. I skipped my weekday training runs and wasn’t even sure I’d be feeling well enough to go to the race.
Luckily, by Friday I was feeling better. Which was good because I had a crazy weekend planned. As it turned out, our season tickets for the Broadway series at Baltimore’s Hippodrome theater kicked off that week with “Once.” So Friday, after a long day at work, my husband and I headed into downtown Baltimore for the show. It was an excellent performance and it was worth the trip, but I didn’t get to bed until midnight.
Saturday morning I had to drive down to DC for the race expo, then immediately turn around and head back home to get ready for the Air Force Ball, which was being held in downtown Baltimore. Don’t get me wrong, I love a good reason to get dressed up and I was super-excited to wear the awesome 1920s-inspired beaded dress that went perfectly with the event’s Great Gatsby theme. But the timing couldn’t be worse given the fact that I had a race the next morning.
The Ball ended up being a lot of fun and because Baltimore was also hosting a celebration for the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Baltimore and the writing of the “Star Spangled Banner,” the event organizers made sure the dinner and guest speakers finished in time for everyone to head outside to watch the fireworks over the Inner Harbor. I love fireworks. Even watching them from a weird angle and over buildings, they were fantastic. But again, it was a late night and I didn’t get to bed until midnight.
After about 3 hours of sleep, the alarm went off and I got up to drive back down to DC for the race. I had taken the time on Saturday to set out all of my gear and food for the race, so all I had to do was eat, get dressed, and hit the road. That’s good, because I’m not sure I could have accomplished much else at that point.
The race Expo.
The organizers changed up the expo this year. Last year the race was on a Saturday, so packet pick-up was available on Thursday and Friday afternoons from a location on the host military base. Unfortunately, the following week saw the shootings at the Navy Yard, so it was not a surprise that the expo was held off-base this year.
They really tried to do something special with the expo this year. It was held at nearby Nationals Park (D.C.’s baseball team). It was a day-long affair on Saturday (the race was on Sunday) and was scheduled to include a DJ and fun games for kids on the field. But since I knew I needed to get in and out, I arrived before all the fun things were supposed to start.
I got there about 10 minutes before the doors opened and there was already a line to get in. After they opened the doors, you had to go through a little security checkpoint where they gave a cursory look in all bags. Inside the expo, the first booth was packet pickup. Even though I was pretty close to the front of the line to get in, by the time I got inside there was already a line for bibs. This line never got shorter during the entire time I was at the expo. And, in fact, when I left the expo, the line for packet pickup was so long that people were prevented from going inside the stadium and they were being held outside in a line that reached almost down the block.
I saw a lot of comments online about how people assumed the expo was poorly organized because of the lines. I don’t think that was the case. In fact, I think the inside of the expo was pretty well organized. I think the problem was that there weren’t enough booths for packet pickup and the volunteers manning it were slowed down because bib numbers were assigned when you got there, so they had to hand-key the bib into the person’s computer profile at that time. I think it would have been faster if they had pre-assigned bib numbers and had everything ready in a bag to just hand to the runner. Also, I don’t think they anticipated that so many people would want to come to the expo first thing in the morning; most of the fun wasn’t scheduled to start until noon and I think they assumed people wouldn’t arrive until then.
Once I made it through bib pick-up, I had to walk through the entire expo to get my shirt. This is actually a pretty smart layout. It forced all the people to walk by the vendors, allowing the line at the shirts to thin out as people stopped to shop along the way. There were a decent assortment of vendors and I was tempted to buy a sparkly headband or a Georgetown Hoyas shoe charm, but I resisted…somehow.
The shirts were right by the exit door. Having picked up my shirt, seen all the vendors, and knowing I had a tight schedule to keep, I headed back to my car (free parking in the stadium garage!) and headed home.
Overall, I think this year’s expo was an improvement over last year’s. I think they have some lessons to learn about the physical location of bib pick-up in relation to the door, but I think that’s easy to solve. I also wish that it would have been possible to get bibs on another day or even the morning of the race. Commuting to DC is not convenient for me, but I could have organized some meetings downtown in the week leading up to the race and killed two birds with one stone. Instead, I had to waste 3.5 hours of my Saturday morning just to get my bib.
For the cost of the race, the swag really isn’t as extravagant as you’d expect. We got a long-sleeve tech shirt, which is an improvement over the cotton ones from last year. I don’t know that I’d wear it for running: it is a little big on me and since it’s a unisex cut the neck fits me a little weird. But it’s actually pretty comfortable and I wore it the day after the race when I had to take my dogs to the vet. We also got some shoelaces with the logo of one of the race sponsors. I’m not sure that I’ll ever use these for running, but who couldn’t benefit from having a spare set of shoelaces around the house? We also got a link to a virtual goodie bag, which is becoming more and more popular for races to offer. And I will definitely use the code for 25% off Injinji socks (my favorites!) since I’m due to get new ones soon.
A cold front moved into the area the day before the race, so it was pretty cool when we got there. But having run it the year before, I knew it would warm up once the sun came out. I ended up sticking with my typical summer running attire rather than opting for a t-shirt or long-sleeve shirt, and that ended up being the right choice for me. But I did see a lot of people in jackets and gloves, especially at the beginning.
As for skirt color, I opted for purple for this race. I could have dug out the flag skirt, but I’d already worn it once this year. I could have gone with a red/white/blue motif, but I knew a lot of people would be doing that. But in military terms, “purple” refers to joint command – an organization made up of people from more than one Service (for example, the Pentagon is purple because it is staffed by all military branches), so I thought it was appropriate for a race hosted jointly by the Navy and Air Force. Also, I had a new purple skirt and I really wanted to wear it.
The specifics: purple Sparkle Skirt, purple Nike sports bra, dark blue Nike tank top, purple Bondi band headband, black Under Armour compression running shorts, Injinji socks, Brooks Adrenaline GTS 14 shoes, Garmin Forerunner 620, Gymboss interval timer, and Camelbak Marathoner hydration vest with two bladders (one for water and one for my electrolyte drink). TMI Alert: Apparently I’d never worn this sports bra for a long run, because I now have a wicked case of chafing on my back along my bra line. I felt it happening on the course, but there was little I could do at that point. Ouch!
After successfully finding the garage they recommended for parking at the Ronald Reagan Building and almost causing a security incident when I tried stepping out of my car to open the trunk rather than just unlocking it (it was early, I had almost no sleep, and the guy said “open all your doors”… I think it was an easy mistake), I grabbed my stuff, found a real bathroom inside the building, and then walked to the race start. The race starts and ends under the Washington Monument, so it was pretty easy to find. They had a TON of potties at the celebration village and I got in line for those, too, before the race started. They also had water available pre-race, which was nice because I didn’t have to use the stuff in my Camelbak. Otherwise, there was not a lot going on. There was a DJ playing music, but I think most people just took the time to stretch and take selfies with the monuments in the background. I snagged a picture of the Color Guard preparing for the presentation of the flag because I knew I would not be able to see it from my spot in the back of the corrals.
Speaking of corrals, there are no corral assignments at this race. You self-select based on where you think you belong. They did have signs up for general paces, so you had some idea where to go. But there was no enforcement if you selected the wrong location, except for the Wounded Warrior and the Elite Runner sections.
About 10 minutes before the race start, they asked all runners to head to the starting line. Shortly thereafter I could hear the announcer give the order for the Color Guard to present the flag. As it turned out, it wasn’t a problem that I couldn’t see the official presentation of the flag, because two runners had flags that they would be carrying with them during the race. So they lifted their flags high and most runners just turned to face those during the national anthem. I’ve been to races where many of the runners ignore the playing of the national anthem, and I’m not sure if it was due to the fact that this race is hosted by the military or the fact that we had just commemorated another year since 9/11, but almost everyone took the time to pay their respects at this race.
After the playing of the national anthem, they rang the Navy bell to release the Wounded Warriors. Due to my spot in the back I couldn’t see them take off, but I did end up seeing some of the athletes later in the race. Then they gave the remaining runners the 1-minute warning, rang the Navy bell, and we were off!
Along the course.
I really like this course. It starts under the Washington Monument, winds along the water, crosses the bridge out to Arlington National Cemetery, passes by the Lincoln Memorial, goes through Rock Creek Park, crosses back along the Mall, out to Haines Point, and then finishes under the Washington Monument. It’s mostly flat, though there are some inclines in the Rock Creek Park section. Several parts of the course are out-and-back, and I’d be upset at this if all you could see were angry drivers honking because you are blocking the road (I’m looking at you, ZOOMA Annapolis…). But I think the scenery along this course is enough to keep you entertained both coming and going.
There was very little crowd support on this race; even less than what I remember from last year. And while that it is normally a huge detriment in my book, it isn’t on this race. Because I draw a lot of inspiration from the people and symbolism around me on this race. I find this race a good one to meditate on the meaning of the monuments I’m passing, to celebrate the military personnel running past me in cadence, to be entertained by the running juggler (I love him!), to draw inspiration from the Wounded Warriors proudly completing the race on prosthetics or crutches (while I’m struggling to finish on my two healthy legs), and to thank the older veteran who carries our nation’s flag in his hand (seriously, I can’t even stand holding my iPod while running) while wearing a hand-written vest thanking our active duty military members for their service. I don’t need spectators for this race. For me, this race is about my fellow runners and the history that took place in the streets I’m running through.
As for my running performance, I met two goals during this race! For the first time in at least a year, I ran a long-distance race to completion. I slowed down a lot in the final miles, but I didn’t give up and walk. I ran my intervals the whole time. Victory! Also, for the first time in a year I came in under 3 hours. It wasn’t the PR that I hoped it would be when I signed up 6 months earlier, but given the problems I was having this spring and summer I’m pleased with my performance.
Last year all finishers received a coin rather than a medal. Challenge coins are a unique thing in the military, and people will compare who has the rarest or who received one from the highest ranking person. I really liked the symbolism of getting a finisher’s coin rather than a medal.
But apparently a lot of people complained, so this year we got medals. And they were big, heavy medals, with nice ribbons (ahem, Charles Street 12…you could take a lesson here). Obviously I was pleased to get my SMO, but I kind of missed the coin.
The post-race experience.
Having passed one of the older flag-carrying gentleman and a group of Wounded Warriors in the last mile of the race, I hung around the finish line to watch them cross. I take a lot of inspiration from those who persevere despite their obstacles (whatever they may be), so this kind of capped my inspirational patriotic weekend.
After leaving the finish line, I headed to the celebration village where they were already giving out awards. Clearly I wasn’t going to get one, but waiting for me in that village was one of my favorite race sponsors ever: Nesquik chocolate milk. I think I heard angels singing as I wandered over to the tent…(side note, if Nesquik is looking for a running ambassador, I’m available!).
I took my chocolate milk and banana, sat down on the ground, posted an “I finished!” selfie on Facebook, and made sure I had enough energy to drive back home. I also tried to catch up with my cousin, who was manning a “refreshment location” for his running club. But we missed each other on the course…just another instance in our long history of living in the same city (twice!) but still never managing to meet up.
Looking back now.
Yes, there were definite problems with this year’s race: The lines at the expo, the fact that there was only one day for packet pick-up, limited crowd support, and reports that they ran out of post-race refreshments for the very last runners. But I really like this race. It’s a good way to run through DC if you can’t get into the Army 10 Miler, the Marine Corps Marathon, the now-defunct Nike Women’s half marathon, or the Cherry Blossom 10 Miler. There were registration spots available into September (and possibly even available for purchase at the expo). It is smaller than any of those other races, so the crowd thins out in less than a mile and you have plenty of room to maneuver and run your own race. I absolutely plan to run this one again.