Mission Accomplished: I ran the Marine Corps Marathon on my birthday

Large group of runners with the red Marine Corps Marathon circular arch and a cloudy, gray sky.
Here’s a photo I took before I crossed the start line of the Marine Corps Marathon on Sunday, Oct. 27. (Vanessa Junkin photo)

One of the signs set up along the Marine Corps Marathon course read something like, “Yesterday’s weather was perfect,” with a frowny face.

I faced the same terrible weather conditions as every other runner at the Marine Corps Marathon, but I finished. I had various issues starting early on in the race, which I ran for my birthday on Sunday, Oct. 27, but I fought through them.

I was far from meeting my goal of sub-4:45. But I did get to finish a marathon on my birthday, and for that, I am thankful.

Around Mile 12 on the course was the wear blue Mile, organized by wear blue: run to remember. This part of the course was lined with posters, each including a fallen service member’s photo, the date he or she was killed in action and the age at his or her death. As I looked at and read these posters, I sadly thought of how many of these people did not make it to their 29th birthday — the one I was celebrating.

I kept this in mind during the rest of the race. I really struggled, but I’m alive. I was celebrating a birthday. And I did choose to do this for fun.

Vanessa Junkin standing next to a map of the Marine Corps Marathon course and pointing to her birthday, which is above the schedule, on a display/sign.
Here I am gesturing to my birthday on this display at the expo.

Meanwhile, it is the Marine Corps Marathon. I am definitely not brave enough to put my life on the line for our country and go to battle. Marines must do their job and fight for our country no matter the weather or circumstances.

There were numerous Marines volunteering along the course. I noticed that at least twice I heard a Marine on the course say “Easy day.” Unless I’m mistaken in what I heard, I’m assuming it was an easy day compared to what they normally go through. In talking with other runners and reading comments on social media, I think it was a tough day for many of us civilians.

And then there were plenty of people with physical struggles who were still taking on the challenge. I saw a man running with two prosthetic running blades (someone commented on social media that they thought he was running the inaugural 50K). I saw two, I believe, blind runners with guides. Groups from Ainsley’s Angels were out on the course.

The Expo

Vanessa Junkin posing with Marine Corps mascot
Here I am with one of the Marine Corps Marathon mascots.

My weekend trip started with a visit to the race expo, held at the Gaylord National Resort and Conference Center at National Harbor. My boyfriend, Mike, and I got there around 5 p.m. Saturday. Since the expo closed at 6 p.m., it really didn’t seem very crowded. I easily got my bib and shirt and walked around without buying anything.

I did get some photos, making sure to get one with a sign showing the date of the race — my birthday — and with one of the Marine Corps Marathon mascots.

We then made our way to our Airbnb in Arlington and had dinner at Pizzeria Paradiso in Georgetown and dessert at Insomnia Cookies.

Race Morning

I woke up on my birthday and I wasn’t really in a running mood. Obviously, I was going to run anyway, but the rain, which I could already hear, probably had something to do with it. I was also worried about thunderstorms, and whether lightning would mean a cancellation of the race or worse — I know an ultrarunner was recently struck by lightning and killed at a race. Although Sunday’s conditions were the worst I’d faced for a marathon, there was thankfully no lightning.

I should have just walked to the start line, but I couldn’t tell exactly how long it would take with my maps app, so I decided to take a Lyft to see if I could at least get closer and spend less time in the rain. I would not recommend this. I put into the app that I was going to the Pentagon North parking lot and added a note that I was going to the Marine Corps Marathon Runners Village. The driver ended up getting turned around because of road closures. I got out on a highway upon seeing a group of runners down a hill, but I heard an authoritative voice tell me to get back in the car (later I noticed there was a fence at the end of the hill, so I’m glad I could get back in the car).

I later got dropped off by the Air Force Memorial and ended up getting soaked as I walked to the start area. I didn’t turn on my watch right away, and I still tracked just over 1.5 miles before I made it to the start (I think I turned it off while in the security line).

I usually don’t check a bag at races, but I figured it might be nice to have the rain jacket I wore for my walk afterward (little did I know that it would be sunny at the finish!) and some fresh clothes and shoes. After I did that, I got in a porta-potty line and was there for the start of the race.

There were still plenty of people in the starting corrals — on a highway, Route 110 — and I found a spot to start.

Runners walk on the highway ahead of the Marine Corps Marathon, with a cloudy sky overhead.
The start of the Marine Corps Marathon is on a highway! (Vanessa Junkin photo)

The Early Miles

Although the race was set to start at 7:55 a.m., and I assume it started on time although I wasn’t there for the start, I didn’t start running until 8:15 a.m. because of the large number of participants.

My first mile was close to my goal pace, but that didn’t last for long. The steepest hills were in the beginning, so I strategically walked up much of these early hills because I figured I didn’t want to waste all my energy in the beginning. Even despite the walking, these early miles really were not slow compared to my later miles in the race.

Vanessa Junkin poses with a "Must Do. Can Do. Will Do." backdrop at the race expo.
I had this photo taken at the expo.

There were also some nice downhills in the early miles.

Early on, I noticed some slight but odd pains in each leg. In my right leg, it was closer to my butt, and in my right leg, it was kind of behind the knee. I’d noticed a little pain a couple runs ago, but I felt like it was too early for me to have any sort of pain at the marathon. This was also mentally frustrating.

I’d made a pace band for the race with a goal of 4:44:30 and for 26.8 miles. This would have been a 10:38 pace, and I did not have a single mile at or below that pace. I had seen posts from people who’d run the course before and ended up with well over 26.2 miles, and I’d heard that because of the amount of people, it’s harder to run the tangents — the shortest possible route and the way the course is measured — at this race.

I hoped to make up the time from walking those early hills, but I was consistently about five or so minutes above where I should have been. That number grew, and I ended up trashing the pace band around Mile 11, because I wanted to run without a time goal at that point.

After a little more than four miles in Arlington, we crossed a bridge into Washington, D.C. Once in D.C., I got some Vaseline from a volunteer and put some under my sports bra band (there is no evidence now that it helped, but it felt like it did) and on my inner thigh (people have few boundaries when it comes to running).

Vanessa Junkin stands by the Olympic torch.
I got a photo with the Olympic torch at the expo. (We weren’t allowed to touch it.)

We then went up an out-and-back stretch on Rock Creek and Potomac Parkway that lasted more than three miles. At some point, as I was headed out on the out-and-back, it started pouring. There were some cheers from the runners — I guess it was just like a “What are we going to do?”/”This is crazy” kind of thing. I let one out, too — why not? People also let out screams when we went through tunnels.

I kept feeling like I had to cough throughout the run. I’d taken my inhaler twice before I started, but around Mile 8-ish, I took another puff of it. The problem may have lessened, but still continued, and I took it again, maybe around Mile 17. (I wouldn’t recommend taking it that often, as you aren’t supposed to, but that is not something I do regularly, and I don’t use it every day.)

I wore a shirt that had a birthday cake running design on the front, and on the back, it said “Today is my birthday!” People wished me a happy birthday throughout the race. It always brought a smile to my face, and I thanked each person. Sometimes, one person would say it and another nearby runner would chime in.

Some people asked me if that day actually was my birthday (it was). There were runners who said things like it was a great present or that I chose to do this on my birthday.

The back of the Marine Corps Marathon shirt, which reads "Courage is endurance for one moment more," the back of the shirt Vanessa wore for the race, which says "Today is my birthday!" and her race bib.
Here’s the back of the race shirt (which has my birthday on it!), the back of the shirt I wore for the race and my bib. (Vanessa Junkin photo)

I met a couple other people who were also celebrating their birthday on Sunday — one of whom I fist pumped early on — and another who I heard from later on in the race. I met other runners whose birthdays were near mine, too. Particularly since I was having such a hard time, the birthday wishes made the experience a lot better.

One runner said this would be a birthday I’d never forget – and that he would also never forget my birthday.

The Middle

I absolutely loved the yard signs that were set up in the area of East Potomac Park. Some of them were geared toward specific people, one of them was the sign I mentioned earlier about the weather and some of them were just random facts.

I didn’t take any photos or take any notes during the race, but among the random facts I remembered were that the person who created the Frisbee was actually cremated and turned into a Frisbee, that giraffes can’t cough and that former President George W. Bush was a cheerleader.

Vanessa Junkin poses with the Marine who gave her a finisher medal.
Here I am with the Marine who gave me my finisher medal.

Unfortunately, I can’t remember all of the signs, but I actually laughed at one or two of them. I smiled at many of them.

I saw a couple people cleaning up the signs and I made sure to let them know that I loved them. The signs seemed to go on for a long time.

The wear blue Mile was also around this point of the course. There was a photographer at the end, but I didn’t smile for the photo because it wasn’t meant to be a happy part of the course.

At the end of the wear blue Mile were plenty of people with American flags.

I finished the first half of the race in 2:32:44, according to the results, but I really was not confident about keeping that pace up for the second half of the race.

I took my first of two porta-potty stops just after the halfway point. Somewhere around this area, the course was flooded. People were heading to the nearby sidewalk that wasn’t covered in water, but I wanted to stay on course, so I just ran through the water. My feet were already wet.

I don’t know exactly where it started becoming a problem, definitely for at least the last 10 miles or so and probably earlier, but my feet became extremely pruney/wrinkled from my wet socks and shoes, despite the fact that I’d put Body Glide on my feet before the race. This created uncomfortable creases in the skin on the soles of my feet.

Upon finishing the race, I thought I had the worst blisters ever, but once my feet were able to dry and rest, and they returned to their normal look, it seemed that this folded skin on the soles of my feet was causing more of a problem than any blisters. I do have a blister on the bottom of one toe and a large blister that looks to be under a callus on the heel of my other foot.

I’ve run in the rain many times, including a 10-mile run last weekend, and I was glad we were going to have some rain with temperatures predicted to be in the 60s — too warm for me for a marathon. But I learned that running 26.2 miles with wet feet — plus heavier clothes and shoes — is a different kind of challenge.

Vanessa Junkin poses in front of the U.S. Marine Corps War Memorial.
Here I am at the U.S. Marine Corps War Memorial after finishing the Marine Corps Marathon.

After East Potomac Park, we ran up and back on Independence Avenue, and I saw numerous spectators more than once. We then traveled around the National Mall and saw the Washington Monument, museums and the U.S. Capitol. Although I was having a tough time, I did try to appreciate the unique opportunity to run this course.

Around Mile 17 — and I remember the mile because I had about nine miles to go — I talked to a runner and I mentioned I was having a tough day. She said she hadn’t trained and left her fuel belt at home. That sounded terrible, but hearing that she hadn’t trained actually made me feel a little bad, because I had trained and we were at the same place!

The sun also came out around this point, and this felt like a huge letdown. We’d already had torrential rain, and now it was going to be hot and sunny?

The “regular” marathon pain in my legs also came on around Mile 18 or so, maybe even before.

I don’t remember where every spectator with a fun and creative sign was, but there were a lot of great ones and definitely made a tough day happier. It was fun to see things relating to the Washington Nationals, since the World Series was happening at the same time. Someone had a sign with the Nats’ phrase “Finish The Fight,” which works for a marathon, too. Earlier on in the course, there was a woman wearing last year’s colorful shirt with all the runners on it and a sign that read something like “At least you didn’t get this shirt.”

Vanessa Junkin poses in front of the U.S. Marine Corps War Memorial.
Here I am in my race shirt with my medal at the U.S. Marine Corps War Memorial. (Michael Piorunski photo)

At one point on in the course, I saw a man with a sign that said the marathon was $180 and we had $48.50 left. There were also some chafing signs: “Chafing the Dream” and “Make America Chafe Again.”

The Last Miles

I felt like I walked more stretches than I ever have before in a marathon in the last several miles of this race. I walked a decent amount at Freedom’s Run last year, but I felt really strong — there were just a lot of hills. I was able to speed up at the end of that race. This was different — I felt worn down.

At certain points on Sunday, starting after I’d run about two hours (which had included some walking), I’d tried to do intervals — run for four minutes and walk for a minute, or walk at each mile marker — but I wasn’t doing anything consistently. I didn’t want to look at my watch the whole time. In the last 10K, I just kept walking, and tons of people around me were walking, which made me want to walk.

Every tiny incline, probably barely perceivable as a hill even to a flatlander like me, felt like a huge uphill — and I heard someone else mention something like this as well. I walked the uphills (which were really barely uphill) and then would run when there was a slight downhill or whenever I could.

Close-up of the front of the Marine Corps Marathon medal.
Here’s a close-up of the front of my medal (which has my birthday on it!). (Vanessa Junkin photo)

The bridge to get back to Arlington was not fun. I heard someone nearby say it felt like the longest stretch of the course. Because it was a bridge, there were not spectators. It was also getting hot, and I sipped some water from my hand out of the water coolers (there were no cups because it was on a bridge).

I walked a lot on this bridge, and this was where I really began walking in large stretches. My pace for most of the last 10K was a 14-something pace.

We made it into Crystal City, and I’d heard there would be Fireball shots. I’m not much of a shot person, but I figured it wouldn’t make me feel worse and it would be something fun and different to do. I got a small sip of beer from a volunteer and then later made it to the Fireball station and took the shot. There were also people handing out candy, which I would normally enjoy, but after taking an Oreo during the Rock ‘n’ Roll Virginia Beach Half Marathon, I decided I didn’t really want a solid food. I did fuel with four of my usual Untapped maple syrup packets during the race.

I’d been stopping at every aid station for water, and I also started drinking Gatorade Endurance at the aid stations once we made it back into Arlington. I knew it was getting hot — it was not miserable heat for me, but it was certainly noticeable — and I felt like I needed the electrolytes. At one point I was drinking some, and some spilled and I noticed the terrible chafing that I had around my sports bra line. Now, despite my liberal use of Body Glide before the race, it looks like I was attacked with the amount of chafing I have. Thankfully, I did not chafe on my inner thighs, which is the worst for me while running.

As the race went on, I walked a decent amount and ran when I felt like I could. I tried to keep running toward the end, but before I made it to the Mile 26 marker, I had to stop and walk again. By that point, my watch had probably already hit 26.2 as I didn’t run the tangents perfectly — there were thousands of runners and lots of turns.

Close-up of the back of the Marine Corps Marathon medal
Mission accomplished! Here’s the back of the medal. (Vanessa Junkin photo)

I mentioned something to the runner next to me about how I was trying to run the end and just felt like I had to walk. She asked if I wanted to run the end with her, and I said yes. This was a huge boost. We ran the rest of the way together — even up the last hill — and crossed the finish line. Before the finish line, I gave high fives to numerous Marines.

With a time of 5:34:45, my eleventh marathon was my slowest one. Of course I was a little disappointed that I had a difficult run and wasn’t even close to my goal time, but I was more happy that I crossed the finish line on an extremely tough day.

During the last few miles of the course, I saw a runner with the name of Cpl. Joshua Harmon on a wear blue bib pinned to her back. After seeing her several times, I decided to reach out while we were somewhere around Mile 25. Unfortunately, she didn’t hear me, because she was wearing headphones.

However, I wrote a story about wear blue: run to remember for RunWashington, and I interviewed Harmon’s widow. I was going to mention something to this runner. I also learned while writing that story that the service members honored at each wear blue Mile are specific to that race: loved ones have requested that these men and women be honored there.

The Finish

It was great to have finally crossed the finish line after being on my feet for so long. I received my medal from a Marine and got a photo with him. I’d seen others say this is something you have to do on social media (this race has a great Facebook group — the Marine Corps Marathon & 10K Club), and it seemed like it would be a nice memory to have. I also got a photo at the U.S. Marine Corps War Memorial.

Medal hanging next to the U.S. Marine Corps War Memorial.
Here’s a photo of the medal and the U.S. Marine Corps War Memorial.

I then started the slow uphill walk with plenty of other runners and got water and food. I also had to make it to the UPS trucks to get my bag, and it felt like I was walking forever. I looked it up after the race, and it looked like it may not have been as far as it seemed, but it certainly felt long after running the marathon. After I got my bag, I sat down on the ground behind the UPS truck and changed into the OOFOS that were in my bag. Mike met me there, and after I sat for a little and he brought me an iced coffee, we walked (slowly) back to the Airbnb.

Now that the race is over, I can say that it really was a great experience, and it will make for an extremely memorable birthday.

Closer photo of Vanessa Junkin posing in front of the U.S. Marine Corps War Memorial.
Here’s one more photo of me with my medal. (Michael Piorunski photo)


Splits on my watch (not rounded up to nearest second):
Mile 1: 10:56
Mile 2: 11:45
Mile 3: 11:46
Mile 4: 10:44
Mile 5: 12:22
Mile 6: 10:55
Mile 7: 11:23
Mile 8: 11:18
Mile 9: 11:39
Mile 10: 11:03
Mile 11: 11:52
Mile 12: 11:14
Mile 13: 11:58
Mile 14: 14:47 (includes bathroom stop)
Mile 15: 11:30
Mile 16: 12:33
Mile 17: 12:44
Mile 18: 12:26
Mile 19: 12:23
Mile 20: 16:25 (includes bathroom stop)
Mile 21: 15:04
Mile 22: 14:12
Mile 23: 13:02
Mile 24: 14:13
Mile 25: 14:02
Mile 26: 14:17
Last part (watch had .69): 8:05 (11:39 pace)
Total: 5:34:50 / 26.69 miles / 12:33 pace

Course Splits/Results – split paces are cumulative:
5K: 36:09 (11:39 pace)
10K: 1:09:28 (11:12 pace)
Half Marathon: 2:32:44 (11:44 pace)
30K: 3:44:29 (12:04 pace)
40K: 5:17:19 (12:44 pace)
Finish: 5:34:45 (12:46 pace)

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6 thoughts on “Mission Accomplished: I ran the Marine Corps Marathon on my birthday

  1. Congrats! I ran through the flood water too. When I saw people moving to the sidewalk, I thought they must have closed the road, but I ran through it happily because finally there was no one in front of me. My feet were full of winkles at the end and I thought they were blisters but later they were OK once dried.

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