Relief and smiles at the finish line: SWF with her family after finishing the Marine Corps Marathon.

I heard the Ospreys before I saw them. Actually, I heard the oohs and ahhs of the crowds around me, accompanied by raised arms and fingers pointing to the sky. I followed their move and lifted my gaze to the sky above. Heading towards us, against a horizon thick with gray clouds, were two V-22 Osprey aircraft, flying side by side. A flyover! The first I’ve seen at any running race. My eyes welled with tears as I grasped the enormity of the challenge I was about to take on: The Marine Corps Marathon.

MCM isn’t the biggest running event out there. Or the grandest. It’s certainly not the fastest—at least not in last week’s unseasonably warm weather. But it is arguably the most revered, one that commands respect and remembrance at nearly every turn, from the famed Blue Mile, which honors fallen service members to the active military members who line the course as volunteers, wearing fatigues and huge smiles, ready at a moment’s notice to spring into action on the marathon course as they would on a battlefield. 

Just before the starting howitzer sounded, the tens of thousands of runners gathered in corrals were reminded by a top Marine’s booming voice of our orders: Keep Moving Forward. Do. Not. Quit. In other words, no matter what, finish the damn thing. 

Prior to mile 19 or so, all signs pointed to an excellent race day. I was loving life out there, buoyed by the  crowd support. I saw my family a few times, high-fived, tapped signs for power-ups, cheered for my fellow runners, said hi to friends, and felt so appreciative to be part of it all. Did I expend too much energy? Probably. But I couldn’t help it. The rush of adrenaline felt too good to temper. And besides, my number one goal of the day was to simply have fun. 

Sarah snagging some high-fives from the kids (in front of the Kennedy Center!).

And then, like a balloon pricked with a pin, I deflated. My legs tightened up. My form diminished. I went from strong, powerful strides to a shuffle. I admonished myself to get it together, to shake it off, that it was just a bad patch. But I was having a very hard time moving forward without pain (which plagued me in various spots of my lower body) and began to feel weak. Maybe the humidity got the best of me. Maybe I didn’t do enough strength work in the build-up and my weak glutes forced my hip flexors to do too much work, eventually causing them to tighten to the point that simply taking a step felt like a herculean effort. Maybe I didn’t drink enough. Maybe it just wasn’t my day. 

Starting to feel it here, but continuing to put one foot in front of the other.

So what do you do when it’s not your day in a marathon? As a relative newbie to the distance, I wasn’t quite sure myself. All that was certain is that I wasn’t going to quit. So here’s how I got through the toughest parts of the Marine Corps Marathon—and how I’ve moved on from the disappointment. 

Sarah’s Squad: Her four kids, husband, and other family members managed to see her four times on the course.

Forget The Clock And Focus On The Finish Line

I went into this race expecting to run close to my PR, or better. My build-up was strong, I trained more consistently than I did last year for the Twin Cities Marathon, and I had more experience. What I didn’t anticipate was a couple of minor, but nagging, injuries that had popped up recently and were both present on race day, plus the aforementioned humidity and warmer temps. I didn’t feel great from the start, but I didn’t feel horrible, either. I resolved to enjoy every step and held on to hope that I’d be able to muscle through and finish strong. 

Of course, that didn’t happen. And as my pace slowed, my frustration began to cloud my once super positive mindset. In the more desolate areas of the course with few spectators, I got grumpy. But before I let my growing frustration steal my joy all together, I resolved to the fact that the time on the clock was no longer my focus. Finishing—some way, somehow—was. 

Walk It Out

I come from a competitive running background. And, while I no longer place myself in that category, I still cling to the mentality that walking = weakness. Well, shocker…it’s NOT. After refusing to allow myself to stop running for 19 miles, I walked. First, I walked through a water stop. And then I kept walking. I ate a GU. I stretched a little. I seriously contemplated walking the next six miles to the finish line. That thought lasted about eight minutes (which, honestly, felt like an hour) before I decided to try to run again. When I did? I felt SO. MUCH. BETTER. Both physically and mentally. That walk break was exactly what I needed. 

Consider the Conditions 

So close! All focus on the finish line.

I still had about five miles left to go after my walk break. And while I felt pretty decent physically, my ego was fairly bruised. I knew I would finish well off my PR. And I questioned whether I’d taken the easy way out by walking. Should I have pushed on? Suffered more? 

The logical answer, of course, is no. By pushing on, I probably would have injured myself, or worse. It’s not lost on me that there were several medical emergencies along the course, including, tragically, one death from cardiac arrest. The conditions were anything but ideal, and grew increasingly worse throughout the morning as the sun emerged from behind the clouds. I was reminded of this several times as I ran by runners in far worse shape than I received medical assistance. What’s helped me move past any disappointment from the day is knowing that I made a smart choice. Because with conditions like we had on Sunday, slowing down was certainly not the easy way out.  

Embrace the Joy Of It All 

The feeling of crushing a marathon in your best-ever time is tremendously rewarding. But it’s a fleeting feeling, as we’re always looking to chase another PR. What’s not fleeting? The heart-bursting pride I felt when greeting my family around mile 25.5 with high fives and “love you’s!” just before making the final (brutal) climb to the  finish line at the Iwo Jima Memorial. Of their hugs and admiration of my very cool finisher’s medal when we met up after the race. Of knowing that I was able to demonstrate how to problem solve and figure out a way to get through the hard stuff, especially when you’re least expecting it. 

And that’s just what I did. I figured it out. Was it perfect? Far from it. But I walked away, albeit rather sorely, with so much satisfaction for, well, finishing the damn thing. Oorah!