I know that Washington, DC isn’t part of a state. For some reason though, it felt odd to me to do a race in all 50 states without including it, so I guess I should technically say that my goal is to do at least a half marathon in all 50 states plus Washington, DC. Either way though, I decided that March of 2014 would be a good time to cross DC off of my list by doing the Rock n Roll DC Half Marathon (which was called the Rock n Roll USA Half at the time but now that the name change is official, I’ll refer to it by its new name).
Something else that I know is that Rock n Roll DC is by no means the biggest or most popular race in Washington, DC. That honor would go to the Marine Corps Marathon, which is a race that’s on a lot of runners’ bucket lists, including mine. I still have plans to go back and do the MCM at some point, but the Rock n Roll Half happened to fit into my schedule a little bit better and I definitely wasn’t disappointed by it. This is a fun race that gives runners the ability to see a lot of the museums, monuments and government buildings that they grew up reading about in their history books, and being a history geek, I was pretty much in heaven throughout the entire trip.
Getting there / Where to Stay
For obvious reasons, there are a ton of flights into and out of Washington, DC from pretty much every major city around the globe. There are three major airports in or around the city, all of which have a constant stream of incoming and outgoing flights, so even if you don’t live close enough to drive, you’ll still have plenty of options for getting there. As far as which airport is the best one to fly into, it really depends on where you’re staying and whether or not you’re planning on renting a car (which I’d advise against, but more on that later). Here’s an overview of the three though:
At least for the time being, if you’re not planning on renting a car, your best bet will probably be to find a flight into this airport since it has easy access to the subway and it’s the closest airport to downtown Washington, DC. On the other hand, if you’re planning on renting a car and driving, you might want to consider one of the other airports since the highways leading into and out of Reagan tend to get pretty congested.
This airport is a bit further away from downtown DC than Reagan but there are access roads near the highways that make it pretty easy to get to by car. There’s no subway access to Dulles yet, but there’s a project currently underway to expand the Silver Line to Dulles by 2018 so it won’t be long before it’s almost as convenient as Reagan when it comes to public transportation.
Reagan and Dulles are both on the Virginia side of the city, and BWI is on the Maryland side. BWI is a little closer to Baltimore than it is to Washington, DC so it’s probably the least convenient of the three airports if you’re planning on driving, but it does have a MARC station where passengers can easily grab a train to Union Station in the middle of downtown DC.
I rented a car for my trip, but I ended up wishing that I hadn’t. There are a number of public transportation options, and parking in downtown Washington, DC is ridiculously expensive (assuming you can find parking at all). My rental car didn’t leave the hotel parking garage from the time I got there until the last day because I found that the subway was a faster and cheaper option to get to anywhere that I needed to go around the city (including the race expo, start line, and finish line). For the one or two times when I wanted to go eat at an out of the way restaurant that wasn’t easily accessible by public transportation, there were plenty of cabs available.
Hotels in downtown Washington, DC are pretty pricey. They’re definitely closer to most of the attractions, but like I mentioned earlier, the subways are so convenient that as long as you stay at a hotel that’s close to any of the subway lines, you shouldn’t have any problem getting around the city. I stayed at the Crystal Gateway Marriott in Pentagon City, saved several hundred dollars on my hotel room vs a room in downtown DC over the course of my stay, and it never took me more than 20 minutes or so to get downtown whenever I wanted to go.
Race Expo and Organization
This is a Rock n Roll Marathon race so the expo is pretty standard… but in 2014, it was a lot smaller than most of the other Rock n Roll Marathon Expos I’ve been to. The process of picking up a race number was still the same (sign a waiver, stand in line based on your race number, get your bib, t-shirt, and goodie bag and then head out through the merchandise area) but there were only a few rows of vendors which isn’t a lot for a Rock n Roll expo. I know that as of 2015 the expo location has been moved from the DC Armory to the Walter E Washington Convention Center, which is a bigger venue, so the expo may be bigger and have more vendors in the future.
The overall organization of the race was pretty good too. Both the half and full marathon courses start near the Smithsonian with a nice view of the Washington Monument from the start line.
The start line is organized into a number of corrals and there are plenty of snacks, water and porta-potties available along with a couple medical tents just in case. Gear check is pretty easy to get to at both the start and finish lines as well.
The start line, finish line, and race expo are all easy to get to by subway. Since the course is point-to-point, if you do want to drive, you’ll have to either park at the finish line and take the subway to the start line or park at the start line and take the subway back after the race (so one way or another, you’re most likely going have to take the subway, which is why it’s easier to just find a hotel that has easy access and take the subway directly from there instead of driving).
I have one suggestion for after the race: the finish line is at Anacostia Park, and right outside of the park, there’s a subway station where you can get on the orange line, which is the train that most of the runners will be taking when they’re ready to head back towards downtown. Unless you happen to be an elite runner, chances are that by the time you finish the race, the line to get into this station will be about a block long as a number of runners will be trying to leave at the same time. The funny thing though is that if you walk about two blocks Northeast on Minnesota Avenue, there’s another entrance for the same subway line that’s virtually empty where you’ll be able to walk right down to the platform and hop onto the next train without waiting. I’m not sure how nobody else noticed this, but trust me – no matter how sore your legs might be after the race, you’ll be a lot happier if you walk a little further down than you will be if you have to stand in line for an hour just to get onto the subway platform.
The course is a point-to-point course that starts near the Smithsonian and heads west down Constitution Avenue past a number of monuments. Within the first few miles of the course, runners will see the Washington Monument, Vietnam Veterans Memorial and Lincoln Memorial. The course then heads over the Potomac River and does a small loop around the entrance to Arlington Cemetery before heading back across the river and then northwest down Potomac Parkway.
For the next few miles the course follows the river and then it branches off and follows Rock Creek for a couple more miles, passing by some nice wooded areas and a number of foreign embassies. It eventually heads through the Howard University campus and then down Capitol Street (you never actually run past the Capitol Building but there’s about a 2 mile stretch where it’s easily visible). The last few miles of the course go through a few residential areas and then head into Anacostia Park where the finish line is near the soccer fields.
As far as hills go, the first six miles of the course are relatively flat, but then right at mile 6 there’s a massive hill that’s only a half mile long but the incline is about an 8-10% grade. A lot of runners walk this part of the course. After that hill though, the majority of the second half of the course is downhill. There are a couple small hills between mile 7 and 8 and another one at mile 12 but none of them are as challenging as the one at mile 6, so other than the one big hill, I would say that overall the course is about medium difficulty.
There’s really not a lot of crowd support in this race. There’s a pretty decent sized group of spectators at the start and finish lines and there are a few spots along the course with small groups of people cheering for the runners, but the lack of spectators is actually not a very big deal in this case. The course is laid out in a way that isn’t always easy for spectators to find places to line up, but it allows runners to see a lot of the monuments and other historical and government sites that the city is known for…. which is why most people visit Washington, DC in the first place. So I wouldn’t necessarily say that the lack of crowd support is a bad thing in this case.
If you’ve done any of the Rock n Roll Marathon series races, you’ll be pretty familiar with what the medals look like. The one for Washington, DC is no different – it has highlights of various things that the city is known for (the White House, the Potomac River, the Washington Monument, cherry trees, etc…) along with the race name on both the medal and the neck band and the medal itself is nice and solid. Rock n Roll Marathon medals tend to change from year to year but I thought that this particular one was really nicely designed.
Things to do in Washington, DC
I’ve mentioned this a couple times, but public transportation is the key for getting around DC. The subways will take you pretty much anywhere and there’s a lot of stuff to check out. If you’re only planning on being in town for a couple days to do the race and you still want to squeeze in some sightseeing, these would be some of my recommendations:
The Washington Monument, Lincoln Memorial, Reflecting Pool, Jefferson Memorial, Martin Luther King Jr Memorial, Vietnam Memorial, and Korean War Veterans Memorial are all within a few miles of each other. It will take a few hours to really see all of them but it’s definitely worth it.
Arlington National Cemetery
Regardless of whether any of your loved ones have served in the military, if you visit Arlington, you won’t be able to leave without feeling both touched and proud of our troops. You can take a self guided tour of the cemetery if you want, but there’s also a guided bus tour that takes about an hour and stops at some of the most historical sites (Arlington House, the JFK Eternal Flame, Tomb of the Unknown Soldier). Visitors are free to hop on and off of the buses at any stop and it’s well worth the money to learn about some of the history behind the cemetery.
Watching the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is particularly touching.
There are 17 Smithsonian museums in Washington, DC, so seeing them all in one trip along with everything else might be a bit difficult. Your best bet is to pick a couple of them that look particularly interesting and focus on those (unless you’re planning a week long trip, in which case you can set aside a few days to try and see everything). Some of my favorites were the National Museum of American History, the National Museum of Natural History and the National Air and Space Museum but the rest looked amazing too. My only real regret was not having more time to see them all.
If you want to see a lot of Washington, DC in a short period of time, a bus tour is the way to go. For about fifty bucks you can buy a ticket that gives you hop on / hop off access to the double-decker buses that loop around the city and stop in front of most of the most popular sightseeing spots and come complete with tour guides who explain the history behind all of the various buildings and statues, answer questions, and sometimes even point out things that you might have missed had you just been walking around on your own.
One quick side note to this is that the White House is not accessible by the bus tours because Pennsylvania Avenue is closed to traffic. The buses typically drop people off a couple blocks from the White House so you can take a walk over to check it out from there if you’re interested in seeing it.
Washington, DC is an amazing city and the Rock n Roll DC Marathon or Half Marathon are great races to do if you’re a runner and you want a chance to enjoy a lot of the scenery around DC. The course is slightly challenging but not so bad that a beginner couldn’t do it (just be careful of the huge hill at mile 6). The race is also organized really well and has a great looking medal. If you’ve never been to our Nation’s Capital or even if you have but are just looking for an opportunity to run there, I would definitely suggest taking a look at this race.