Running the Marine Corps Marathon Course
When I was 12 years old, I lived in Northern Virginia. We were on our way into Washington, D.C., one Sunday when suddenly we stopped moving. We couldn’t go straight, we couldn’t turn, we were totally blocked in because of a bunch of street closings.
“What’s going on?” I asked my mom.
“It’s Marine Corp Marathon Course day,” she said.
Back then we didn’t have smartphones to Google things, so I went to the library a few days later and looked up a book on marathons. It said they were 26.2 miles long.
“Umm, that’s insane,” I thought and put the book back on the shelf.
For 15 years, though, I thought about that marathon every October when the roads closed and we had to use a different route into the city. Seven years after I first encountered MCM, I became a runner. And two years after that, I made a vow that I would run the Marine Corps marathon course one day.
Eventually, I did it twice, as did my sister, while my mom finished once. I can say without any bias whatsoever (ha) that it’s the best marathon in the world. If you got in through the lottery, congrats. You probably just started your training, and you may be wondering how you’ll make it through.
Here are some tricks and tips for running the best Marine Corps Marathon Course possible.
Put Your Supporters on the Metro
We can debate all day whether it’s better for you yourself to ride the Metro (D.C. subway) to the race (I drove one year and rode one year; both have signed up and downsides). But I would highly recommend your support crew hop on the train. By doing so, they can see you at least four times during the race, as well as at the finish line.
Smart runner tip: Have your fans buy SmarTrip cards ahead of time loaded with enough money to get them to each stop. The trains will be busy that day, so the less time they spend waiting, the better. Advise them to take photos at Mile 14.5, the Lincoln Memorial—great background and runners are spread out enough by then that they’re easier to spot.
Download the App
They didn’t have this during my most recent MCM, but you should download the Marine Corps Marathon course app. It’s helpful for spectators to help track you during the race but also has useful things for runners, such as schedule and transportation info. Apps just make running easier, right?
Thank a Marine
Several people, I spoke with after my first race didn’t realize how many Marines were helping out on the course at water stops, cup cleanup, high-fiving (many in plainclothes)—be sure to thank them for their service! It’s inspiring to think of all they have done for our country, and the race becomes more enjoyable when you think about the legacy of the Corps.
Pace Yourself for the Bridge
Part of the allure of the Marine Corps is the big crowds that generate so much excitement, you float through the first 16 miles. But when you hit mile 18, you go over the 14th Street Bridge. Their things grow quiet.
Suddenly there are no spectators lining the sides of the street. You leave behind the cries of encouragement and hit nothing but concrete. Maybe that doesn’t sound bad right now, but when you get there, trust me, it’s discouraging.
Smart runner tip: If you listen to music or podcasts while you run, save a rewarding one for the bridge. Many runners hit the wall at this point in any marathon, so anything you can do to keep yourself moving helps. I saved my favorite Gu for midway through the bridge in year two, and looking forward to it did at least give me a focus beyond “dear God when will this bridge end?!?”
Be Ready for the Final Climb
The road up to the Iwo Jima Memorial isn’t THAT steep … unless you are running it after 26 continuous miles on your feet. Those final 0.2 feel like the hardest steps you’d ever taken. I’d heard that about the final climb before the race, and yet the first year the end truly felt interminable for me.
Smart runner tip: Practice running up short hills at the end of your long runs. I’ve talked to some who feel that’s too intense, but mentally it helps to know you can do it. I didn’t have hills anywhere near my house the second time I trained, so I did a few sets of stairs after. I did way better the second time I finished, and I don’t think that’s a coincidence.
Remember, Crowds, Crowds, More Crowds
I feel like New York City and Chicago marathons have the reputations for being seriously crowded. But don’t underestimate MCM. Over the years, as its popularity has risen, it’s become insanely crowded. That can make it difficult to find your family at the finish and even get to a decent pace at the start.
Unless you are sure you can start up front and get ahead of the crowds, I wouldn’t recommend trying to PR on this course. It took me nearly a quarter mile the last time I ran it just to be able to jog at a decent pace—and I am a slower runner, to begin with. This also makes the port-a-potties at the start a challenge.
Smart runner tip: I’d recommend going before the race at a café or other public restroom beforehand. Each year it seems to vary which places get crowded. There are a few hotels, restaurants or coffee chains you can try. There’s also some turnover in the area in terms of businesses, so what I used a few years ago doesn’t even exist anymore, but I found runner forums to be helpful in recommending the most recent places.
Arrive Extra Early
The past few years, security at the start of the Marine Corps marathon course has slowed down entry to the runner area. Two years ago when it rained, some runners still hadn’t passed through the metal detectors when the start-of-race flyover occurred.
Smart runner tip: Get there AT LEAST two hours early. I’d say two and a half is safer. You’ll be too excited for the extra shut-eye on race day anyway, right?