The Ultimate Marine Corps Marathon Race Strategy
The Marine Corps Marathon is one of the most inspiring, scenic, and well-supported marathons in the US. When you have America’s finest service members passing out water and energy gels, you can be sure things are getting done right!
With a relatively flat course, great spectator support, and typically ideal Washington, DC weather, the Marine Corps Marathon is also a great opportunity to set a new PR if you run the course correctly.
In this post, I will be detailing when the typical problem spots occur, when to conserve your energy, and when to let it loose. If you follow this guide and execute your race plan, I am confident you can run to your fitness level.
I hope this guide helps you out and I encourage you to forward it on to your friends who are racing.
If you have any feedback, please leave a note in the comments. While I am not the official site for the Marine Corps Marathon, I can help you with race strategy questions.
The Last Few Days Before the Race
- Pack your race gear in your carry-on baggage if you’re flying to the race and put any casual clothes on checked baggage if you are checking. Casual clothes and shoes are great to have, but your whole trip relies on your running gear. Plus, you’re going to be surrounded by runners; so being stuck in running clothes for a day or two if your bags get lost won’t look weird at all. When you’re packing, lay all your gear out on the bed and make sure you pack everything you need in your carry-on bag. Don’t forget band-aids, chafing prevention, and nutritional products (usually energy gels, electrolytes) that you plan to use in the race. Pack these in the carry-on bag. Leave nothing to chance.
- Carry food with you at all times. In the peaking phase, you never want to get hungry (especially the last 3 days before the race). Don’t overeat, be prepared in case a meeting goes long or you are late for a meal. Always have a good snack available. In addition to your race gear, pack some good food in your carry-on bag. You may want something to eat on the plane/train/car. If you’ve flown in the last decade, you know how frustrating airlines can be with the arrival and departure times. Also, try to keep fluids with you at all times as well. If you’re flying, empty a water bottle out before going through security so you can avoid buying the $4 bottle of water. Don’t over drink, but be prepared.
- The first thing you should do after settling into your hotel is find a grocery store. Ask the front desk for the nearest one or call ahead to expedite the process. Go immediately to the grocery store and stock up. Buy the foods you like and you know prepare you best for running. I like bagels, peanut butter and jelly, energy bars, yogurt, and sandwiches. Again, you never want to get thirsty or hungry prior to the race. Being stocked will help avoid this. Don’t just eat out of nervousness but have food available if you need a snack.
- Plan ahead for your meal on the night before the race. Getting a table on a Saturday night in DC is hard enough. But, now there are going to be thousands of runners, plus their families, coming to the city. Restaurants fill up quickly, especially those suitable for pre-race marathon meals. Search the Internet before you leave and consider making a reservation. I usually try to eat close to my hotel so I can take a leisurely 10-15 minute walk after dinner. Don’t eat too early or too late.
- You’ll need to visit the expo to pick up your race number, chip, etc. Enjoy the expo but don’t spend all day there. It’s too much time on your feet. Browse through it, pick up what you need and get out. The expo is where many runners get dehydrated and hungry so carry fluids and fuel with you to keep this from happening.
- Plan your sightseeing so it happens after the race. Walking around before the race will get your legs tired and defeat the whole purpose of your visit and all your hard training. Plus, sightseeing after the race is more relaxing (you’re not stressed about the race) and it gives you a good chance to stretch out your legs.
- Give your family and friends the information they need to follow you early so you don’t have to worry about it as the race gets closer. Here is the spectator guide from the Marine Corps Marathon website, which includes how to setup runner tracking so they can follow your splits.
- Have a plan to meet family after the race. Everyone wants to meet right near the finish line, but consider picking a spot further away from the finish in Arlington cemetery. It will be easier to meet-up and find each other.
- Remember that the Metro will be absolutely packed. While I wish I had a secret solution, I don’t. Just be warned and plan some extra time in for your commute back to the hotel.
How to cope with bad weather
- If it’s raining take a trash bag, cut a whole for your head, and wear it while you wait at the starting line. DO NOT RUN with the trash bag on for any distance; use it to keep yourself dry at the start. More than likely, you’ll be standing in the starting corral for a long period of time before the race with little shelter.
- If you have friends/family on the course, give them a dry shirt or socks that you can swap at 16 or 20 miles to get a nice fresh feeling and to get rid of any soggy clothing or shoes that are holding you back.
- If it’s a very cold rain, using Vaseline on exposed body portions will help keep you warm. Vaseline is waterproof, which will help keep your hands and lower legs from getting too cold. One caution, Vaseline does not allow your body to sweat efficiently, so don’t put in on your head and neck. You want excess heat (yes, there will be some even in such cold temperatures) to dissipate as needed.
- If it’s cold, find that ratty sweatshirt/pair of gloves/hat/sweatpants you’ve been meaning to throw out for years. If you don’t have any clothing items ready to be ditched, head to Wal-Mart or a cheap clothing store and buy some warm weather clothes you could run in for a mile or two. You can wear these warm items in the corral when you’re standing in the cold and have nowhere to move to stay warm. Once you get running past the first mile or two, your body will begin to warm up and you can shed them. Most marathons pick up discarded clothing at the start and donate to charity.
- Likewise, layers are key while actually running. Remember, you’re bound to heat up as the race progresses, so having layers that are easy to remove will allow you to stay cool.
- There are a lot of strategies you can use when running in the heat. In the interest of brevity, here is a link to a very detailed post of tactics you can implement for running a marathon in the heat.
Marine Corps Marathon Course Profile and Race Strategy
Getting to the start and warming up
You’ll likely be taking the Metro to get to the starting line. The good news is that the Metro runs frequently and it isn’t quite as crowded as you might fear. The unfortunate situation is that the Metro drops you off at the Pentagon Station, which is a solid 2 mile walk from the starting line.
My suggestion is to use this time to jog a little (5-10 minutes) to loosen up and hit the multiple bathroom stops along the way. I didn’t cover it in this post because it’s not specific to the Marine Corps Marathon, but here is a good nutrition guide for the last few days and hours before a marathon.
The First 3 miles are slightly uphill
The gun goes off, the bands start playing, and the adrenaline starts flowing. Just thinking about the start of a marathon gets your heart racing and the body ready to run. Because of this, the first few miles of the race are going to seem like a blur and you’re going to feel like superman.
The problem with this is is that the first three miles are deceptively uphill. Unfortunately, for those runners that don’t read this guide, it means running even a little faster or at goal race pace is going to take more of a toll on your body than you realize or even feel. Therefore, it is absolutely critical you focus on your early pace and don’t let yourself start too fast. In fact, you should plan to be a little slow to account for the early hills.
My recommendation is to have your effort be about 5-10 seconds slower than goal marathon pace. Take not of the word EFFORT. Because of the slight uphill, the actual pace will be about 15-20 seconds slower than goal pace. Remember, what your watch says and what you feel can be quite different
Miles 3-8 – still slightly uphill
You’ll also notice that after 3 miles, you’re treated to some quick downhill miles as you head out of Clarendon and towards the river. More importantly, after crossing the bridge, you start to back up again until you hit mile 8.
Remember, this is still a very early part of the race and it’s ok the be a little slow during these first dew miles. Actually, it’s better to be slow through 10 miles than fast.
A lot of runners, especially those that run Marine Corps, feel fantastic for the first 10 miles. When they come through half way faster than goal pace, they are excited to have “time in the bank” – meaning they can now run x:xx slower during the second half of the race and still finish under their goal.
I’m not sure where the “time in the bank” theory came from, but the strategy has lead to the demise of more marathon runners than any other source. I wrote a little recap of how going out too fast at the NYC marathon cost Mary Keitany the course record.
The trick with a race like the Marine Corps marathon, with a deceptively uphill first 8 miles, is to really focus on being slow the first 6-8 miles of the race. This is much harder to do than it seems, so here are some tips:
- If you have to start far back in the corral so you don’t get caught up running with others, it’s a smart decision. Put your pride away and don’t worry about other runners heading out way faster than you.
- Target a pace that is 15-20 seconds slower than your actual goal race pace for the first 2 miles. Yeah, I know it’s much slower than pace, but it does two things: (1) it compensates for the uphills and ensures that admits all the adrenaline, you’re not burning precious glycogen; (2) it allows you to be more patient around the crowds until they thin out. Since you’re going slower, you don’t have to freak out and get around people quickly. Just take a deep breath and relax.
Why does Running Slower the First Half Work?
Running a little slower than goal marathon pace for the first 3 or 4 miles works for two reasons: (1) by running slower, you conserve critical fuel and energy you’ll need the last 10k; and (2) running slower gives your body a better chance to absorb and take on fuel and fluids.
- Just like a car, the faster you run, the more fuel you burn. Almost everyone has seen the effects of fuel consumption while driving at 80mph versus 55mph. Your body reacts in a similar way. When you run over your marathon pace (scientifically defined as your aerobic threshold), you start to burn significantly more carbohydrates. Similarly, weaving in and out of other runners the first few miles, which tends to happen more with runners who go out too fast, is like driving your car in the city. We all know cars get significantly reduced miles per gallon while driving in the city. Your body is the same way.
- Your body can store enough fuel to run about 2 hours at marathon pace. This means you’ll need to take on a lot of extra carbohydrates during you run. Unfortunately, your body has a difficult time digesting the carbohydrates you take in while running. The best way to combat this unfortunate bodily function (besides practicing taking gels and fluids in practice) is to take on carbohydrates in fluids early in the race when your body is feeling good and not stressed. If you started the race a little slower, you’ll have a chance to absorb more of the nutrition you take on board.
During this time, you should concentrate on eating and drinking whenever possible and as much as you know your stomach can handle. You definitely want to put energy in the bank.
Miles 8-21: Don’t get excited
After 8 miles, the race starts to get pretty exciting. You run some quick downhills that inject a bit pace into your legs and you start heading towards the monuments and larger crowds.
With the crowds and historical monuments, not only are miles 8-20 the most exciting part of the race, they are also the place most Marine Corps marathoners start to pick up the pace and burn themselves out for the last 10k.
When you get excited and people are cheering your name, it’s easy to start picking up the pace and dreaming about how much you’re going to crush your goal time. However, it’s still very early in the race and going too fast now can cripple your last 10k.
Marathon veterans say the race is split into two parts: the first 20 miles and the last 10k. As you breeze through miles 8-20, remember that you’re not even half way yet.
Be methodical in your pacing and pay attention to your rhythm. Focus on relaxing and not getting ahead of yourself. If you were patient early and maintained discipline during this section, you’ll set yourself up for a strong final 10k.
Miles 21 to the Finish
This is where the race gets hard. The crowds start to dwindle and you’re no longer running amongst awe-inspiring monuments. Instead, you’re in the open highway in what feels like the middle of nowhere. More importantly, miles 21-24 are a slight uphill, which can make your legs feel like they are churning in cement. The realities of the work you have left to start to set in and it can suck the excitement right out of you.
Be ready for the mental letdown to happen. It goes from real exciting to real boring quickly and it feels like someone kicked you in the gut. Remember that and be prepared to make a push and really focus.
Get in a rhythm and focus on you and your internal pace. Here are a few tricks for this section of the race:
- Keep you mind and body relaxed. Look within yourself and focus on you. Think confident thoughts and repeat confident mantras to yourself; “I am fast, this feels good” or “I am strong, I’m running great”. Every time you feel tired or feel the pace slip, repeat to yourself that you need to refocus and concentrate and get back on pace.
- Often times, I’ll watch a video of fast marathon runners and when I start to hurt, I’ll imagine myself running like them. Good form – head straight, arms swinging forward and back slightly, powerful strides. Just having the mental imagery of good form helps me maintain my pace when the muscles become increasingly tired with each step.
- If the pace starts to slip, I’ll throw in a surge to get my legs fired up again. Sometimes all it takes is a small burst of speed to reinvigorate your legs and pace. Since you’ve done surges during your long run, this will be just like practice for you.
- Finally, I try to break the remaining distance into bite size and easily digestible pieces. After doing lots of hard training runs, I’ll break the race up into one of my best previous workout sessions. For example, if I had a great 2 x 3 mile session, I’ll remember how it felt and think to myself, “hey, I did this workout before, let’s get back on pace and do it again”. Likewise, sometimes a mile can seem like a long distance, so I’ll break it down into a time instead. Thinking I only have 3-4 minutes until I hit the halfway point of a mile makes it seem a lot easier. 4 minutes is nothing.
- Keep your head up and start to try and catch people in front of you. Pick one person and focus solely on reeling them in, nothing else. As you pass them, surge and put your eyes on the next person and repeat. Imagine tying a fishing line to their back and reeling them in. This will take your mind off the tiredness in the legs.
The hill during the last .2 sucks
There’s no way around it. When you hit 26 miles and think you’re almost done, only to look up and realize you have to climb Mount Everest to reach the finish, it really sucks. Don’t be scared or worry about this portion – it’s a really short and you’re done when you get to the top. Just be aware of it so you don’t start crying like I did
Good luck at your race this year. Run smart, execute your race strategy and let your fitness and preparation shine through to carry you to a new PR!