The Marine Corps Marathon varies its route slightly each year. I’ve run this race three times — in 2008: 4:13:31, 2009: 4:04:05 and 2010: 3:40:43. I’m certainly looking forward to returning to this course and knocking some significant time off my 2010 course record. While I haven’t run this exact route, I have run most of these streets for my training runs, so I can imagine what to plan for in the race.
Start through mile 2.5: warming up with a hill
Runners line up along Route 110, which is actually part of the Army Ten-Miler course. The first mile until the Rosslyn area is going to be pretty congested, even if you’ve lined up correctly, so plan to run easy. Mile 1 will include some construction funkiness on parts of Wilson Blvd., so tread lightly. Once you’ve made your way through that mess, you’ll be hit with the race’s major hill through mile 2.5. After this initial mess of dodging and weaving, take time to relax. You’ve made it through the crappiest part of the race until mile 20.
Miles 2.5 through 5: crossing to Georgetown
Notice your legs starting to warm up through miles 3 and 4 as the crowd might start to thin out. If you’ve paced it right, you will be able to cruise down the slope at mile 3 and use your energy to propel yourself across the bridge to greet the crowds in Georgetown. Spectators here fill the sidewalks, and they’re actually pretty loud for such an early hour. Take this all in because you’ll need to remember the crowds later in the race. Around mile 5, you’ll head down the hill away from Georgetown and under the Whitehurst Freeway.
Miles 5 through 9: out and back on Beach Drive
After a funky series of turns, you’re on Rock Creek Parkway and almost to Beach Drive. This is my favorite part of the course because I run it during training, and I love seeing the fall trees. Some hearty spectators might show up along this part of the course, but they’ll need to walk to get to their cheering positions. Mostly, this is a flat-to-rolling stretch where you can make up some time you might have lost getting into a groove during the first few miles. Also, there’s a great out and back opportunity to size up the competition and wave at any of your runner friends at the turnaround.
Miles 9 through 12: along the water, monument viewing
This is the time to begin to take in the touristy parts of the race — the Kennedy Center (you’ll go under it), Lincoln Memorial and Jefferson Memorial are all along the course here. Plan on another cheering section near the Lincoln Memorial and expect to see people from the same crowd around mile 16.5. This section is remarkably flat, though it might be windy near the water.
Miles 12 through 15: Hains Point
Personally, I enjoy running Hains Point. I know some people who hate not having a crowd and hate the wind. To me, Hains Point is a known quantity because I run it every day. If you’ve never run to the tip, just remember that the course’s halfway point is just short of the big turn. And you’ll definitely be able to tell when you’re at the turn. If you’re bored out here, look across the water to see planes taking off. One year, I remember seeing a lone spectator around mile 14 who was playing a guitar all by himself. Loved that guy.
Miles 15 through 17: out on Independence
Again you’re running through scenic, typical D.C.-looking streets. If you have fans cheering for you, I recommend having them try to see you around the Lincoln Memorial and again shortly after mile 16. Or an easy place for multiple viewings is along the Mall between miles 17 and 19, where fans can walk across the Mall for two views. The 16-mile turnaround point is another nice chance to see your competition.
Miles 17 through 20: last of the District
Soak in the cheers from fans along the Mall, and check out the Capitol building. I like to use this as a marker to decide whether I want to really go all in for the rest of the race or take it easy. This, of course, is before the terrible bridge and Crystal City, which can be spirit-crushing. My most important tip for the entire race is to take the water at the 19-mile stop. You need all the help you can get to make your way across the 14th Street bridge.
Miles 20 through 22: 14th Street bridge
I can’t imagine anyone likes this part of the race. A runner’s likelihood of hitting the wall around mile 20 combined with the barren stretch of highway might make you feel like you’re running a completely different race. The race writeup on the Marine Corps site is laughable: “From Miles 20 to 21, runners will cross over the 14th Street Bridge and the scenic (ha) Potomac River as they head back into Virginia for the last 10K.” You can’t really see the river over the railing. Many people will slow down here for the first time. Don’t be one of them. Power on.
Miles 22 through 24: Crystal City
Mentally, I think I’m pretty good at convincing myself I can make it across the awful bridge. I’ve run this stretch at least 10 times in other races, and I know how desolate the bridge can be. But the Crystal City section, which, theoretically, with all the crowds and colors, should be a great confidence booster, is never where I want to be or what I want to hear. At this point, I would rather be alone with my thoughts. And to make matters worse, you have to make your legs stop running in a straight line TWICE for this stupid part of the course through a damn parking lot. The Crystal City crowds are trying hard, and I appreciate the support. I just want to power through the last few miles at this point.
Miles 24 thorough 26.2: desolation and a hill to the finish line
Here, as you exit Crystal City you feel as if you’ve been rounding the Pentagon for about 10 miles before you see a finish line. This year’s course is a little different from past years because there isn’t a weird loop onto the final stretch of highway. You take an access road to hop right back on Route 110 where you started, though at this point, you’ve probably forgotten when and how you even started. Look left for the finish line at the US Marine Corps War Memorial. There’s a lame hill to get to the finish, so if you’re even remotely close to your time goal, do not count on making up time at the very end. That hill is nasty.