They call it Hospital Hill for a reason. At mile 10 of the Marine Corps Historic Half Marathon it rears up against the sky. With proper training, you won’t need the hospital that sits at the top, but it’s always good to have a plan b. Marine Corps drill sergeants yelling at you to run up it and conquer the pain help too. This is the Marine Corps historic half and only the tough survive.
They call it Hospital Hill for a reason
Fredericksburg Virginia is no stranger to history. Home to James Madison, the first battle of Fredericksburg in the civil war, Stonewall Jackson’s arm, the second battle of Fredericksburg, and even briefly George Washington, it makes for a scenic backdrop to a half marathon. Even better is the support from the town and especially the amazing Marines who give their time to run this event.
The historic half was started after the massive success of the Marine Corps marathon that takes in the sights of Washington D.C. and combines it with the military tradition of the Marines.
The race begins in a strip mall parking lot between a Walmart and Cracker Barrel. This is actually very convenient. If you’ve never used a Cracker Barrel restroom before running a half marathon, I contend that you haven’t lived. Also this Cracker Barrel sold presidential Pez dispensers like Warren G Harding, the fourth funniest president!
The start line features incredibly well organized corrals, lots of American flags, and an especially emotional national anthem. Appropriately for the setting, the race is kicked off with an announcement by the official town crier and his bell, and then kicked off with a shot from a musket. It’s exactly how half marathons would have been started 150 years ago if people weren’t busy running from pestilence rather than for fun.
Snapping runners back to present days though are the stretch of chain stores for the first mile. The first mile also passes under an enormous American flag suspended from two fire truck ladders. Around here is also where I spot the Marine who runs the race every year in a full bomb disposal suit, weighing 85 pounds. Weight is not the category one normally associates with a Personal Record.
The first few miles bring doubt to my mind, doubt about my hill training. At first the course falls mostly downhill from the surrounding strip malls toward the historic downtown. Somewhere as the stores fade to houses a series of undulating hills rears up and tires my legs. Having seen the elevation chart in which mile 10 to 11 shows a curve steeper than the learning curve of a Lund family game of Monopoly, these hills don’t even register a blip. This is worrying.
Downtown is lovely, even nicer than what we had explored the previous night. Drinks around town and an excellent low-key but high protein and carb dinner at Foode showed us the charms of the old town.
The run takes us back through this area and along the river. The old brick townhouses and shops bring an air of history to the race. Running along the river and the Civil War cemetery are beautiful in that way that only colonial towns of the East Coast can be.
Around halfway through, photos of killed in action Marines are lined up along the course for what feels like miles. At the end, countless flags are held by volunteers supporting the Wear Blue charity that supports veterans of all branches along with remembrance for fallen soldiers. This is incredibly moving until I spot a runner ahead peel off and kneel in front of one of the photos. Then I lose it. I’m not alone. It stands out as one of the most emotionally powerful moments I’ve experienced while running, even finishing my first marathon.
What goes down must eventually go back up
What goes down must eventually go back up and at mile 10, a series of motivational signs warn me of the impending Hospital Hill. The hill itself isn’t terribly long, but it is steep and offers no leveling off respite. Luckily I’ve stored enough energy to push it and decide to attack the hill as hard as I can. Uniformed Marine Drill Sergeants wait at the bottom offering “encouragement” to keep going. One sees the grit of determination on my face and I just get a knowing look. I think in that solitary moment, we have built a bond that bridges eons. Then I hurdle past. I reach the summit a bit short of breath, but none the worse for the wear. These hills have nothing on training in Wanaque!
Support along the entire course is outstanding. There is hardly a moment that transpires without shouts of encouragement and cheering. It’s actually quite hard not to push too hard early on due to all the support. It feels like all of Fredericksburg and maybe even Virginia is here. The military theme and historic nature of the town bring runners from all around. I see marathon and half marathon shirts from Pittsburgh, Miami, Seattle, and even Paris. Around town cheering us on are spectators in college logos from Michigan, Minnesota, and even Iowa. It truly feels as if the entire country is out to cheer. The volunteer stations for water and food are all packed with not only uniformed Marine volunteers, but civilians as well.
A surprise hill waits after Hospital Hill around mile 11.5. It’s not nearly as bad, but a bit unexpected and there is not much time to recover. Fueled by my new favorite food, sports beans that were handed out by volunteers, I mount an attack against this hill as well and reach the summit. I may be slightly delirious but I think I see a miniature pony waiting in the middle of the course at the top. Then I see a great dane that is even bigger than the pony. The remaining half mile is fairly flat, and I push to the finish line where I’ve caught my breath, but still imagine that a man in colonial period dress greets me. I finish in almost exactly the same time as every other race this spring, 1:50:55. You can’t say I’m not consistent.
The support offered throughout the race and after is enormous
There is a specific type of overwhelming humility that comes from being congratulated profusely by active service Marines. I’ve run 13.1 miles and they make sacrifices daily. It’s not exactly fair. Still, the support offered throughout the race and after is enormous.
The medal is by far the largest I’ve received to date. The swag is pretty good too and I can pretty much make a meal from it. We are even treated to a free beer from Goose Island or Michelob. I go for the Goose as hops are a mini slice of heaven after a race.
Fredericksburg surprises me in several ways. Beyond the great support the town brought out and the history, I discover it’s a pretty good food and beer town. There are several breweries like Blue & Grey, and Spencer Davis, and a bunch of good craft beer bars that highlight local brews. Capital Ale house has a huge menu and the bar is literally iced, keeping your beer cool. Sedona Tap House has an enormous menu as well with a section for locals, and a great outdoor patio.
The race is so great I immediately decide I’m going to run the Marine Corps full in 2017. I’ve heard it’s very tough, but it seems like a good way to see the sights of DC. It’s also a great reminder of the sacrifices made by members and families of our military and a good way to support them.
I have now completed my spring tour of 5 races, Sleepy Hollow Half, Hot Chocolate 15k, Rutgers, NJ Half Marathon, and Marine Corps Historic Half. With the weather heating up, the race schedule ramps down. I now have nothing on the schedule until the Chicago Marathon in October. It’s time to enjoy a week off and then get training for the marathon!