A Little Help From My Friends: California International Marathon Race Report

Leave some medals for the rest of us!

The California International Marathon is a traditional west coast launching pad for runners vying for a spot in the Boston Marathon. Many folks, myself included, have taken advantage of the fast, net downhill course which wends its way from Folsom to the Capitol in Sacramento to punch their Patriots Day ticket.

My last training run in the bank, I threw my kit together and headed to Sacramento. Hit the expo and later met up with dailymile friends Caleb M. and Chris S. for an early pre-race dinner at Pyramid Alehouse topped off with one of their tasty, seasonal Snow Cap Ales. Good times catching up and talking about race strategy and expectations. Using good natured one-upsmanship to motivate one another they had both trained hard in a quest to turn in a time in the low 2:30s. With the new rolling registration for Boston in mind my goal was something in the 3:19 to 3:14 range which would put me in one of the early registration pools.

Race day dawned cool and calm with no hint of the winds that had been buffeting the state all week. Perfect race day weather. After milling about in the warmth of a hotel lobby, I piled onto a bus with lots of other excited runners and had a pleasant conversation with my seatmate all the way up to the starting area in Folsom. Dawdled on the bus a bit to soak up every last bit of warmth before heading out into the familiar swirl of the potty/sweats bag truck/start line maelstrom. I love the start of a big race like this—the cheers rising up from the runners as taper-tamped, pent-up energy is released; the arcs of discarded clothing flying through the air; and the arrhythmic beat of thousands of feet slapping the asphalt. Before me 26.2 miles of car-free streets devoid of meandering pedestrians and overzealous yapping dogs. The time had come to make a substantial withdrawl from my mileage bank and run a smart race.

Now, the first rule of marathon running is you don’t talk about marathon running. The second rule is don’t go out too fast which is difficult at CIM. The course trends downhill and starts off with a long, discipline-busting downhill. Soon, however, you have a chance to reconnect with your pace plan as you encounter the first of many of the race’s rolling hills. Another one of my early pacing problems involved missing the first couple of mileage markers. Not only did I not see the signs for miles 1 and 2, but I also did not hear the familiar chimes of multiple Garmins announcing the split. I’m certain I ran my first mile faster than my first split of 21:31 would indicate.

The miles clicking by I noticed I was passing a lot of runners, and my splits (6:50, 7:04, 7:04 for Miles 4 through 6) indicated I was setting myself up for a late stage, cramp-plagued meltdown. For me being out in front of the 3:10 pace group at mile 5 is a boneheaded move. Just then I noticed two fast looking fellows (don’t judge, you’ve thought the same thing, too) who were keeping up a pace I thought I could manage. I tucked in behind them and let them pull me down the course using their tremendous pace discipline to help me maintain metronomic splits ranging between 7:00 to 7:16 from miles 7 through 21. With my wee pace group set, I focused on my nutrition plan sucking on GU Chomps, taking water at almost every aid station (twice opting for the electrolyte drink to stave off those leg cramps), and two gels in the later miles after the half marathon mark.

As the race wore on I couldn’t believe I was still keeping up with my mini pace group. Each time they surged ahead a little I easily closed the gap and stayed with them. And, as the distance remaining dropped to single digits, the 3:10 pace group still hadn’t passed by. It was beginning to believe it might be a special day. I had hoped to stay with my group through the finish so I could thank them for helping me, but at mile 20 the duo took off leaving me to bring it home on my own. I flew up the last uphill on the bridge near mile 22 and headed onto the tree-lined streets of Sacramento enjoying the energy of the surprisingly large amount of clapping, waving, boisterous spectators.

By now I was feeling a bit of discomfort in my hips and feet reflected in the slight upward trend of my splits, which while higher remained remarkably consistent—7:22, 7:20, 7:20, and 7:21 for Miles 22-25—but I sped forward picking off a few more runners as we headed to the Capitol. Rounding the final turn I kicked past one last runner and bounded across the finish line. Stopped my watch and looked down to see 3:08:10, smashing my previous PR by a full ten minutes and giving me plenty of cushion for the new Boston qualifying requirements. I was stunned; I had never before run a marathon without running multiple miles at over an 8 minute per mile pace, and now I had finished one keeping the pace under 7:21 throughout. Elated, I ran over to greet the fabulous Layla B., volunteering for medal duty. She gave me a great, ”You’re finished already?!” along with a big hug.

And with that my race day was finished, and training for my next challenge had begun.


Bay To Breakers 2010

After almost two decades of living in San Francisco, I decided finally to take part in one of its signature outdoor events–the annual running of the Bay To Breakers. Billed as the largest continuously held footrace in the world, the 99th edition was marked by the usual mix of elite and casual runners, outlandishly costumed runners and centipede groups, along with way too many runners who decided to run in the altogether.

I lined up in Corral B and spent the wait for the starting gun alternately tossing and trying to avoid being hit by tortilla shells. I’m not sure how the tortilla-tossing tradition started, but leave it to San Francisco to pioneer the use of biodegradable frisbees. With over 60,000 registered participants I expected a long wait before crossing the start line. I was, however, pleasantly surprised to find our group moved swiftly across the line and onto the course. That’s where a major drawback of the size of the field became apparent as the first mile of the route was jammed with runners (and too many walkers). I knew the route would become easier to navigate as the field started to slow down on the Hayes Street Hill, but I didn’t want to lose too much time before that point of the race. So, I quickly moved to the left edge of the street and occasionally jumped onto the sidewalk where it was clear of spectators. Pre-hill splits of 7:35 and 7:34 vindicated my dodging and weaving strategy.

Although I had never before tackled the infamous Hayes Street Hill, all of the hill running I’ve done here in the City paid off, as I quickly motored up the race’s steepest terrain. The rest of the course is forgiving after that point–relatively flat for two miles as you enter Golden Gate Park followed by a gentle two mile downhill run to the finish. Exiting the park and turning onto the Great Highway I was flanked to my right by the eponymous Breakers while ahead of me lay the finish line. A bit of a finishing kick and I crossed in 54:32. Certainly not fast enough to compete with the elites and seeded runners, but enough to place me at number 612. A PR for me at the 12K distance which isn’t saying a lot since this was my first 12K race. But now I’ve got mark to beat for next year.

And while on the course I took some time to shoot some video which I whipped into a short video below.

The Road Ahead: Indecision 2010

You've got to start somewhere

flickr photo by: marcus_jb1973

With 2009 lurching to its conclusion it’s time for me to look ahead to next year to determine which events to sign up for. I already have two races firmly scheduled–the Chevron Houston Marathon in mid-January, and the Kaiser Permanente Half on February 5th. Beyond that, however, my plans are still in a state of flux.

For example, I’d love to run the Oakland Marathon in late March in order to show some support for the folks organizing that East Bay race, but it’s too close to the Napa Valley Marathon at the beginning of March. Since last year’s NVM was marked by a wet, rainy course along with the longest stretch I’ve ever walked during a race, I feel like I’ve got a little unfinished business in the Wine Country. Perhaps Oakland moves to the half marathon group, or I could run as part of a relay team–an idea which has been floated by other dailymilers. But as of today, I’ve signed up for neither race.

October offers three marathons I’d love to do, but two of them fall on the same day, and one occurs a scant week before the others. My in-laws would love to see me come out to Minnesota to run in the Twin Cities Marathon on October 3rd. Meanwhile the Portland Marathon and Chicago Marathon are both running the next week on 10/10/10. Two marathons a week apart are still too much for me at this point in my running career, so I’ll probably put Twin Cities on the back burner. But how to decide between Portland and Chicago? I have a lot of friends planning on running Portland this year, and I’d love to hang out with them for a weekend of running in the The City of Roses. On the other hand, the idea of taking part in a big city race like Chicago’s with its enthusiastic spectator support is appealing. Of course, the New York City Marathon would satisfy my big city race desire, but I’d have to endure the fickle lottery in order to take part.

Then, of course, there’s my hometown San Francisco Marathon. I’ve run it twice now, and along with the been-there-done-that quality which dampens my enthusiasm for that race, there’s the appalling lack of spectator support which has me thinking about running one of the half marathon segments instead of the full race.

So there you have it. As I sit on the eve of 2010, I have the broad strokes of a 2010 race plan sketched out, but the fine details have yet to be added (and the entry fees have yet to be sent in). And to really complicate matters, I haven’t even thought about adding in a trail race or relay event to mix things up a bit. Perhaps after the champagne corks pop tonight and I’ve had a day or two to recover I’ll have a clearer head and my 2010 racing calendar will come into clearer focus. Whether it does or not, I look forward to seeing you all out there in the new year.

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Wicked Awesome

And we're off

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

Teachable Moments

Getting schooled

flickr photo by origamidon

Last night’s training run was a disaster. Since any substantive discussion of what happened veers too closely into TMI territory, I’m only going to say a 20+ mile training run got cut short. It was too bad as my running itself felt great. I had warmed up nicely, my mechanics were good, and the biggest hills I’d face were already behind me. But what befell me was one of the myriad problems we spend so much time training to avoid knowing we may yet encounter it on race day. My whole week of running, in fact, has been one long teachable moment reinforcing both the importance of training as well as the value of listening to the training advice of others.

I use training runs not just to accumulate mileage, but also to practice for race day. I have experimented with fueling and fluid strategies to find out what works best for me. I’ve developed a routine of what I like to wear and carry with me, worked on how I want to approach different terrain, and, as race day approaches, I re-acquaint myself with how my watch works so using it properly comes automatically to me even as I trudge along at mile 23. Unfortunately one thing you can’t practice is taking a cup of water out of a volunteer’s hand while running through an aid station. A trivial detail to be sure, but I’ve heard many stories of folks sustaining injuries while slipping and sliding through water stops, and that’s not where I want my race day to end.

Training is also where you’re going to encounter situations you might not have considered and encourages you to take steps to deal with them. For example, I long resisted carrying a cel phone since I wanted to leave distractions like that behind as I ran. Now I carry a phone on runs of any distance after seeing a fellow have a nasty bicycle accident. It was a vivid reminder that something like this could happen at any time to anyone, and a phone call might be the best and only way to summon help even during a race.

Training allows us to take all of the lessons we’ve learned on those long runs and deal with problems we may encounter out there on the race course. It’s not a guarantee nothing bad will befall us, but it provides the confidence to overcome adversity. Raining on raceday? Draw strength from that 16 mile training run you did in that storm. Starting to feel a bit of muscle soreness in that left calf? Call to mind those long training runs where the mantra “Running is about pain management” took your mind off of things until the soreness subsided.

Racing conditions are seldom perfect, but that’s why we train so hard. That’s why we pull ourselves out of a warm bed before the sun has risen; why we run for hours after a long work day; why we put up with black toenails and blisters. It’s so we can deal with the challenges running throws at us head on and make it to the finish line.

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Just A Little Further

Might have to increase my shoe budget

Taking a look at my dailymile training log I discovered I put in 198 miles in October. Lots of miles to be sure, but why didn’t I put in just two more? If I would have turned a six-miler into a seven mile stretch and an eight into a nine-miler, then I’d be looking at 200 miles–a nice round number. I guess I’ll have to work a little bit harder in November.

September and October’s mileage also indicates I’ve gone all-in with my new marathon training strategy. Up until now I’ve relied on a marathon training schedule which had me running a moderate amount of mileage mid-week, followed by low mileage Saturdays, and long mileage Sundays. I still believe it’s a great training schedule, and I may follow it again in the future, but in the weeks following the San Francisco Marathon I was looking to shake up my routine. For one thing, I no longer wanted to follow a rigid schedule leading up to my next marathon. And secondly, I wanted to train in a way that would help me come to think running long distances was completely natural. I still follow the Monday-Wednesday; Saturday-Sunday framework of my former training schedule, but I don’t have a set distance to run on any of those days. Instead, I’ve taken to running longer distances on each of those days which adds up to more mileage overall each week. So, whereas Monday through Wednesday used to follow a 6, 8, and 6 mile rhythm, now I might run a 10, 10, 12 set or 12, 12, 8.

More importantly, I’m trying this new regimen while being mindful of injuries. I do have a little hip soreness which acts as a natural throttle to keep my pace slow at the beginning of any run, but it passes as soon as I’m warmed up and doesn’t return until I start my next run.

So far I believe this mileage build-up is working for me. My pace may have slowed a bit, but I am so far routinely able to run longer distances and feel fresh and recovered shortly after finishing. I’ve got one fantastic 20-miler under my belt this training cycle, and I’ll get one more in before December’s California International Marathon in December. Check out my race report after that run to find out whether I bonked hard at mile 17 or if I’m still happy with this long distance training philosophy.

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2009 San Francisco Marathon Race Report

I'm the guy in the white hat.
I'm the guy wearing a white hat.

Photo by Brant Ward of The Chronicle

This past weekend’s San Francisco Marathon capped off my first year as a marathon runner. Starting off at last year’s SFM and continuing through Napa Valley and Seattle’s Rock ‘n’ Roll event I found myself once again standing in a starting corral early on a Sunday morning eagerly waiting to run through the streets of San Francisco.

In pre-sunrise darkness with the necklace of lights hanging from the Bay Bridge reflecting off of the waters of the bay to my right I shuffled my way to the starting line after the elites and first wave runners took to the course. Moments later I was off, sort off. Just as we runners started to jog slowly through the starting line, many of us had to stop short to funnel through some sort of advertising arch positioned in the middle of the street. I don’t know what the ad was for, but I sure hope it’s not a course feature next year. Once I was through the obstacle course though, the pace picked up, and I drifted over to the extreme right hand edge of the street (and occasionally up onto the sidewalk) where there was more room to run without having to weave through knots of runners. The first part of the course is a pancake flat shot through the tourist kitsch of Fisherman’s Wharf whose visual pollution is balanced by the soul-satisfying aroma of freshly baked sourdough bread wafting from the Boudin Sourdough Bakery. Passing the Mile 1 marker I glanced at my watch to check my pace and was happy I was only a few seconds over my goal.

Here I’d like to take a moment to talk about setting a marathon goal pace. In a previous post I wrote about what I took away listening to John Bingham talking about how race day conditions affect the pace you set for yourself. With his words about effort dictating pace not the other way around in mind, I had chosen to run at a pace I’d been able to maintain on some of my previous long runs. A pace which would yield a satisfying PR. And the race day conditions were cooperating as well: cool temps with overcast skies and a light breeze. Mentally and physically I felt good, and when I checked my watch and saw my first split, I sped up just a tick keeping in mind the pacing discipline to not go out too fast. My plan, however, had what would soon become an obvious flaw.

I was trying to maintain a 7:47 minute per mile pace which would yield a finish time of 3 hours and 24 minutes. An odd finish time to be sure, but dictated as I said before by a pace I’ve maintained on longer training runs. The problem is, there’s no 3:24 pace group, and no one was handing out bracelets with 7:47 splits at the expo either. So, I had decided to keep track of my pace as if I were scoring a round of golf. When I hit the split marker on my watch I noted the time and either added or subtracted the seconds I was above or below my pace time. For example, after Mile 1 I was plus 4, and after Mile 2 I was minus 9 which put me 5 seconds under my goal pace. As I cruised along Crissy Field with the fog-shrouded Golden Gate Bridge in the distance my plan was on track. On the bridge however, with drivers honking encouragement and a fog horn booming away at my feet, I noticed a distinct lack of mile markers. If I was going to continue to use my golf scoring method of keeping track of my pace, I was going to have to quickly add up some pretty weird numbers in my head. Under the best conditions, I’m a bit math challenged, and now, trying to ingest GUs at the right time, while hydrating properly, keeping proper running form, all while enjoying the view and having a good time turned out to be more than the abacus in my head could handle. I kept dutifully recording splits, but I had no way of knowing if I was on my goal pace or not.

With math no longer a concern I was free to focus on enjoying the race, which is easy to do in a place like San Francisco. As if running on the deck of the Golden Gate Bridge isn’t enough of a treat, Mile 10’s long downhill hugs the edge of a cliff overlooking some of the city’s finest beaches and the mighty Pacific Ocean. At about mile 12.5 our half marathon friends bid us adieu and we full marathoners began a six mile loop through Golden Gate Park. I am fortunate to run this part of the course almost every week as I train, so I felt very comfortable on my tour past the Bison Paddock, the grey fog misting through the cypress trees, and the old folks getting their early morning groove on to pulsing techno. And thank goodness for the local Hash House Harriers balancing out all that Cytomax and water with the doses of cleansing ale they had on offer. I didn’t partake myself, but just seeing them there on the course made me chuckle as I passed.

Out of the park and a straight shot down Upper and Lower Haight where I high-fived Kelly, one of the co-founders of the dailymile website, who was cheering on runners. I was still feeling good at Mile 21 which barely brushes through San Francisco’s vibrant Mission District. Hopefully the race organizers can be convinced to change the marathon route slightly so next year we runners can experience more of this historic San Francisco neighborhood and less of the industrial blight which greets us around Miles 23 through 25. By the time I reached Dogpatch and the eastern edge of the course, I had definitely slowed down, and my mind was telling me to wrap it up and start walking. My body took a quick inventory, however, and over-ruled my mind. There was no obvious stiffness or cramping going on in my legs, my tummy felt fine, breathing was alright, I was still running upright, and I could see the Bay Bridge which marks Mile 26 in the near distance. In a few minutes I knew I’d be in the chute cruising the final point 2. I rounded AT & T Park and headed up the Embarcaderro clocking a respectable 8:08 for the last full mile. Not enough to make up for straying from my goal time for so many miles, but enough to get me across the finish line in 3:30:24–my second fastest marathon finish and a full five minutes faster than last year’s San Francisco Marathon.

I collected my finishers medal, which is designed to double as a coaster (brilliant I think), accepted heart-felt congratulations and a banana from my family, and headed home to clean up and enjoy the Pancakes of Honor I had earned. Next up is Houston in January, but I’ll be back to run San Francisco again.

Click here for more photos from the hometown fishwrap.