photo by Paul Kitagaki, Jr. of the Sacramento Bee
It’s been a week now since I ran the California International Marathon in Sacramento, California, and enough time has passed for me to both recover and attempt to get my thoughts together. First off I should say this marathon was one of the most enjoyable experiences I have had since I took up running. By the time I found myself in the starting area with thousands of fellow runners I had already gone through a terrific, injury-free training cycle and a relaxed taper period which allowed my body to recover before race day. The race itself was marked by fantastic organization from the warm buses which whisked us up to the start area outside of Folsom Dam to the occasionally top-hatted folks at the mile markers calling out splits. And, since the event wends its way through many neighborhoods in the Sacramento area, the crowd support and cheering, despite the low temperatures, was full-throated and enthusiastic.
I arrived in Sacramento late Saturday and spent just enough time at the expo to pick up my number, tech shirt and goody bag. I’m not of a fan of the three-part pick-up routine the CIM folks put us runners through, but I did like the peace of mind afforded by the chip-verifying procedure. At the expo I met up with Kathy, Elizabeth, Kelly, and Ben and chatted with them a bit about our dinner plans before heading back to the hotel for a short rest. Later we all drove out to the local Buca di Beppo’s where we feasted on heaping helpings of spaghetti and meatballs and lasagne washed down with a couple of glasses of a serviceable Zinfandel. Then back to the hotel to say our good-byes and good lucks and up to the room to lay out my running garb and get my sweats bag ready. Two alarms and a wakeup call set followed by a fitful night’s sleep, and suddenly my first 4 am alarm rang. I took my time getting ready and made my way down to the lobby which was filling up with other sleepy runners waiting for the buses.
Sitting in the darkened bus rumbling up the freeway toward the starting line, I had time to reflect on the task at hand. In a way I was chasing a goal I never knew I wanted to achieve–a Boston-qualifying finish. I hadn’t trained with that goal explicitly in mind, and, when asked what my goal time for this race was, I mentioned a 3:20 to 3:25 range. At the fast end I’d be Boston bound, and at the other end I’d snag a PR which I felt confident I could achieve at this race. CIM is a net downhill course which drops about 320 feet by the time runners reach the finish on the grounds of the State Capitol. But while the course may trend downhill, you still have to run the darn thing! It’s no secret, however, this is a fast race many people use to qualify for Boston, and the last few weeks of training runs led me to believe I might have just enough speed in my legs to squeak under the 3:20 threshold I’d need to qualify. However, standing and shivering in the 28 degree weather, I still didn’t want to commit to running with the 3:20 pace group, and I instead lined up near where the 3:30 group was standing. But as the mass of runners moved closer to the Start Line following the wheelchair racers start, I found myself also inching forward, and then I was off without being in the midst of any particular group.
The course starts on a nice downhill slope, and, as quickly as I could, I moved to the right to be out of the crush of racers in a zone where I could fall into a comfortable pace. Ever aware of the sensible advice to not go out too fast at the beginning of a race, I used the first two miles to literally warm up and then improbably found myself near the 3:20 pace group. As I matched their cadence I felt they weren’t pushing me outside of my comfort zone and the pace felt similar to what I could hold during my training runs. Right then I figured I’d stay with them for as long as I could, and when they began to pull ahead later on the course I’d drift back and try for my 3:25 goal.
Of course, racing is more than enduring the physical challenge of pounding out 26.2 miles, so to get through the mental portion of the race I played out two scenarios. First, I divided the race into 4 10k segments with an additional two miles tacked on. As the race went on I found breaking it down into smaller portions made things easier as I now had a set of smaller achievable goals to hit throughout the marathon. The second mental scenario I used was to visualize one of my training routes and overlay its sights onto the course at hand. I’m not familiar with the streets of Sacramento or its suburbs, but I’ve run some of my training runs so many times, I could probably do them blindfolded. So whenever my mind wandered during any one of the six mile portions of distance I’d think about where I would be on one of training runs, and I’d quickly relax knowing I could easily get to the end of any six mile split.
Around mile 10 I got a nice lift when I saw Kelly, Ben, and Elizabeth cheering us runners on, and I got another boost when I hit the halfway point at 1:39:32. I was still feeling strong and running with a lot of confidence, and if I could keep up this pace, I would qualify for Boston.
However, I would still be content if I had to drift back and try to just pick up a PR. But as the miles ticked by I suddenly found the biggest motivation to keep up the pace springing from something I had never counted on using. At some point, and I don’t know when or how it happened, I found myself ahead of the 3:20 runners. And mile after mile during the second half of the race I’d see spectators looking behind me while they cheered on the 3:20 group. I was afraid to look back to see how close or far away they were, but as I got closer and closer to the finish I was more and more determined to not let them pass me. At each water stop I could see the great volunteers scrambling as they got ready to accommodate the big group of 3:20 runners, and their wide-eyed enthusiasm spurred me to keep up the pace. Through mile 20, up and over the bridge spanning the American River, and into the neighborhoods nearing the finish I found I had a lot of race left in me.
Just before mile 26 I finally looked down at my watch. I don’t remember exactly what time it read, but I knew I had plenty of time to reach the finish line. At that point I let myself believe I was going to run a BQ time, and I got a little choked up and emotional for just a moment. Rounding the final turn with the finish line in sight I actually slowed down just a bit to let the runner in front of me have his race photo taken without me in it. Then I crossed at 3:18:10 (chip time), had a medal handed to me, and put on a smile which I think lasted for about three days.
Average pace-07:35 6 mile-45:01 13 mile-1:39:32 20 mile-02:35:15 Finish-03:18:10