On October 2nd I ran my first marathon in 6 years: the Potomac River Run Marathon in DC. Over the 6 years of not marathoning, I was dealing with injuries, had a baby, and then there was COVID. In the spring after I got vaccinated I became optimistic about a fall race. However, with an unvaccinated 2 year old I didn’t feel great about traveling or taking him to a big event. So I found this small race that was about an hour from where I live, and it seemed to check all the boxes for what I was looking for, or so I thought. In this marathon race recap I’ll tell you how that all played out.
Potomac River Run Race Recap
This race was advertised as “The easiest marathon in America” which I find kind of hysterical now that it’s over. It is not a particularly hard race, but I’ll explain more. It is on a very flat course which is nice. It’s also described as being “scenic” but that depends on what you like to see for 26.2 miles.
Last week I shared a post about my training reflections. I trained well for this race, but I did not do many trail runs. The course is described as “unpaved gravel”. If you are familiar with the Baltimore area you may know the NCR trail. That is what I was expecting it to be like, and I did one of my long runs there. (Spoiler: it was much softer and rockier than the NCR).
In terms of mileage, I was able to peak at 50 miles per week, but I did a slow build to get there. My main goal was to not get injured. I was also balancing 2 strength training sessions a week with all my running.
I was worried about two things leading up to this race: that it would be canceled or go virtual because of COVID, or that myself or someone in my house would get sick (which was happening all summer because my son started daycare in April). I couldn’t believe it when a week before the race neither of those things had happened. I finally got my first E-mail about 8 days out from the race.
There were alot of ups and downs throughout race week. I had all the typical taper experiences. Some runs felt great, others felt horrible. I was a ball of nerves, my body was feeling all tight and achy despite keeping up with foam rolling and mobility. I just tried to focus on what I needed to do going into the race and made lots of lists to stay organized.
The race start time was 8:00 am and packet pick-up started at 7:15. Google maps predicted that at that time of day it would take me anywhere from 55 minutes to 1 hour 20 minutes to drive there. I woke up at 4:45, ate oatmeal with almond butter and drank coffee, and finished up packing. When I checked the traffic it was saying there was a lot of traffic in DC already and it would take 1 hour 15 minutes. (Why is there traffic at that time on a Saturday??) I left at 5:45 and took an alternate route to get there, which avoided some of the traffic but was a little slower.
I had some issues getting into Fletcher’s Cove, where the race starts and where there was parking, because you could only turn onto the ramp to get there from one direction on the main road. So I needed to keep going, ended up in Georgetown, turned around and made my way back. It didn’t add on too much time but was enough to add on some stress to my morning.
Once I pulled into Fletcher’s Cove (right around 7:20) parking was super easy and I was able to walk over and get my packet. I went back to my car to get myself ready and ate a honey stinger waffle. Around 7:40 I headed over towards the start line to find bathrooms. There were a few portapotties with a short line, as well as indoor bathrooms with no line. So I chose the indoor bathrooms.
I started to warm up and jog a little. It was in the upper 50s but warming up quickly. I decided to toss my arm warmers back in my car since I wouldn’t need them and didn’t want to carry them the whole way. Then it was time to line up at the start. I took a gel while I was waiting to start. There really weren’t many marathoners- maybe 100-150? I started kind of towards the front but not too far up. I heard some people talking about their times but there was such a range that it was impossible to know where to start. Around 8:06, we were off, and I was running my first live race in 2 years!
The course was on the C&O towpath, which is a trail along the Potomac River. It was 2 out and backs, each measuring just over 6.5 miles. There was also a half-marathon that started at 9 am and would run the out and back once.
When we started we all had to merge together to fit onto the narrow trail. It probably fit 3-4 people across, but since we needed to leave space on the left for people to pass, we mostly ran all on the right side of the trail, only really moving to pass someone.
During the first mile I didn’t look at my pace because to be honest the people around me set the pace, and it felt fine. I didn’t want to waste too much energy passing people since it was still pretty crowded. When my watched showed 8:33 for the first mile I was happy with that. I tried to keep a similar pace for the next two miles. The runners were thinning out but there was still someone right ahead of me and right behind me. Miles 2 and 3 were 8:41 and 8:38.
I took my first gel at 30 minutes and mile 4 was 8:33. This was around the time I wanted to get my pace a bit lower, but the course was already feeling hard and it seemed that my pace was slowing down. However, my watch was behind the mile markers so I thought maybe my GPS was just off. I was concerned about how heavy my legs felt that early on. Miles 5 and 6 were 8:30 and 8:41.
It felt like it took forever to get to the turnaround point, and then we had to go back and head the other way again. The only crowd support was the volunteers at the water stops. I brought my own water, so wasn’t stopping, but did appreciate seeing people along the course!
The sun was out in full force and it was warming up quickly. We were running along the canal which looked green and swampy. With all the rocks and bumpy trail I decided to stay far from the edge because tripping and falling in there sounded pretty horrible. The Potomac river was on the other side blocked by trees, but every once in awhile i could catch a glimpse of it.
At this point I was just trying to hold onto a pace below 9 minute miles. This was harder than it should have been. I just kept thinking “get to the halfway point”. I was so tempted to just stop the race there and try doing another marathon this fall. But I reminded myself of how much I had put into getting there on that day, an didn’t want to quit. So I reached the turnaround point and kept going, hoping I made the right choice. (Miles 7-13 were 8:40, 8:35, 8:45, 8:48, 8:51, 8:51, and 8:59.)
At this point I realized that now my watch was way ahead the mile markers, so my pace was actually slower than what I thought. My legs were feeling worse and worse, cramping up and making me want to stop and walk. But I knew if I walked it would be so hard to start running again when my legs already felt that bad. I played alot of mind games, telling myself I could walk when I got to certain points, but then convinced myself to keep running. I thought I would never get to the turnaround point. By the time I got there my watch was .6 miles ahead of the course markers.
For this stretch my pace slowed to 9:06-9:49. It was all I could do to keep moving forward and I got to the point where I didn’t care what my pace was. I tried to take out my phone to distract myself. I’m not sure if I would have texted Rob or tried to play music or what- but when I took it out it was disabled, saying there had been too many attempts to unlock it. It said to try again in an hour! (I even had it in a ziplock bag in my hydration vest to prevent this from happening.)
I would have thought that for this final stretch I could have pushed it, but nope. I continued to feel worse and worse and my pace kept slowing down. There were so many other runners, walkers, and bikers out on the trail (not part of the race). It took all my energy to even pass other walkers. I saw people carrying canoes and people fishing in the canal. It was so weird to be racing and in so much pain while all these other people were just out having a relaxing Saturday afternoon.
I didn’t see many other racers at this point. There was one guy I ran behind for a mile or so, but eventually I was able to pass him. At mile 23 I got a rock in the back of my shoe. I debated stopping to get it out, but I felt like I would need to sit down to do that and wouldn’t be able to get back up again. So I kept running. It wasnt until the last mile that it slid under my heel.
Having my watch so far ahead of my course was very disheartening. My watch beeped at 25 miles but I was only at 24.4, which is a big difference when you’re on those last few miles. There was no one cheering, no one to run with, and the sun was beating down on me. I tried to wear my sunglasses but because there were trees around it became hard to see with them on any time I stepped into the shade. I figured it was more important to see where I was going than to keep the sun out of my eyes. My paces were in the 10 minute/mile range at this point.
Finally I passed the actual 26 mile marker and had .2 to go. I gave what I had to push to the finish, which wasn’t much. The clock said 4:09:xx as I finished, which would be my slowest marathon time to date. At the finish line no one was really cheering. There was one guy who stopped to get my chip off my bib and gave me a medal. From there I didn’t know what to do with myself. I didnt want to take out my phone when I was still so sweaty and risk disabling it again. I found some water/gatorade that I took with me as I walked back to my car.
I was so glad to be done, but also feeling disappointed about how it all played out. I knew I gave it my all, but part of me expected my first race experience back to be more fun. I think if I knew people at the race it would have been better, but it was so small and there were barely any spectators as it was.
Once at my car I poured some Liquid IV into some water bottles I had packed so I would have them ready to go for the ride home. I changed my shirt and shoes, only to find that my feet were completely destroyed. My gait must have been really different, because I had blood blisters on the insides of both my big toes. That’s never happened before. 4 other toes were messed up too. I was glad I had sandals to wear home.
After attempting to take some pictures I gave up on trying to loosen my legs and texted Rob that I was coming home. The traffic was awful and it took me almost 2 hours to get back. But during my drive I had alot of time to think through the experience. I went from feeling really frustrated about how it all played out to really proud for pushing through such a challenging race. I finally got to run a marathon again, which is what I’ve wanted for so long. There will be plenty more races; today just wasn’t my day for a PR.
Interestingly, after I posted on IG that my watch measured 26.8 miles someone commented that many runners were saying the course was measuring 1/2 mile long. I have no idea if that’s true, but if it is that would really make a different in my time. Even for my best mile that would add on 4 minutes 15 seconds. For my worst mile it would add on over 5 minutes. That would have taken this race from being my slowest time to one of my middle times.
I did think it was weird that my watch could be so off on a straight out and back course. But looking at the map, some of the lines showed me running on the canal. So who knows. There’s nothing I can do about it now, but it’s just something I am going to have in the back of my mind about this race.
When I received the preliminary race results, I saw that I was 1st in my age group! Now remember, the was a super small race. I think there were like 35 women and 10 in my AG. It looks like I was the 9th female. So I was excited to see that, although it would have been nice to find that out at the race to give myself a little boost when I was feeling down about how the race went.
I think for me what made this race challenging was the terrain, the weather, the lack of a real race atmosphere, and the drive. While the weather certainly could have been worse, it was warm for a marathon and I was running in the sun. For most of the race it was probably in the upper 60s and when I finished it was in the 70s. I have also learned that driving over an hour before a marathon is not ideal. I felt like my body was all creaky and my hips were probably extra tight from sitting in the car.
As I’m getting ready to post this (10 days after the race) there are STILL no official results. So these are the preliminary results and I’ll update this when the official ones are posted.
If you are reading this and considering running this race, it’s not all bad, I promise! I would recommend running with friends or at least having some people you know there to spectate. And if possible, train on some trails. I think this would make a pretty decent half if you can handle the terrain, but two out and backs is alot for a full. If you’re prepared for the challenges of this race, I think it could be a fun experience.
How do you usually choose your goal race?
Have you ever done a marathon without much crowd support?
Now it’s time for the Runners’ Roundup! Link up your running and fitness posts below! Join myself, Coach Debbie Runs, Confessions of a Mother Runner, Runs with Pugs , and Laura Norris Running to post your favorite running tips, experiences, race and training recaps, workouts, gear, and coaching ideas.