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.


Recovery Shopping

Checking that shopping cart

Four weeks out from my next marathon, and how do I spend my recovery night? Ordering that new pair of Kinvaras. Hoping they’ve got a BQ in them.

How Far How Fast?

There are two questions I often get when folks find out I’ve run marathons. The first is, “How far is a marathon?” And the second, “How long does it take you to run it?” While I’ll never be mistaken for an elite runner, I’ve run a race or two at a fairly good clip managing to pound out times between 3:35 and 3:18. By way of comparison the Houston Marathon Committee, which is hosting the 2012 Olympic Marathon Trials, sent out an email with the following facts attached.

Houston is the first city to host both men’s and women’s races at the same Olympic Trials Marathon.
Below are the top 5 fastest men’s and women’s qualifying times as of Feb. 12, 2011:

1. 2:08:41 Ryan Hall (CA) 2010 Boston Marathon 
2. 2:09:15 Meb Keflezighi (CA) 2009 New York City Marathon 
3. 2:10:00 Dathan Ritzenhein (OR) 2009 London Marathon 
4. 2:10:36 Brett Gotcher (AZ) 2010 Houston Marathon 
5. 2:11:06 Jason Hartmann (OR) 2010 Chicago Marathon 

1. 2:26:20 Desiree Davila (MI) 2010 Chicago Marathon
2. 2:26:22 Magdalena Lewy Boulet (CA) 2010 Fortis Marathon Rotterdam
3. 2:28:40 Shalane Flanagan (OR) 2010 New York City Marathon 
4. 2:29:35 Stephanie Rothstein (AZ) 2011 Houston Marathon
5. 2:30:53 Tera Moody (CO) 2010 Chicago Marathon

Chevron Houston Marathon 2010 Race Report

Crossing the starting line (photo by Nick de la Torre / Houston Chronicle)

I’m still not convinced everything is bigger in Texas, but the Chevron Houston Marathon with its exceptionally well-organized 5k, half marathon, and full marathon events certainly is. I won’t soon forget the thousands of helpful volunteers, the flat, looping course, and the many articles of Texas flag-themed running clothes I saw. But staying with my sister and her family had to be the highlight of the whole trip.

My sister was a fantastic host during my stay in Houston. Not only did she open up her house to me so I’d have a comfortable, familiar place to stay while visiting Houston, she also drove me all over creation. On Friday, after my last four-mile tune-up run, she took me downtown to the George R. Brown Convention Center so I could pick up my race packet. We wandered around the expo picking up cowbells (so she could cheer me on), mini Chevron cars (for the nieces), but not a signed photo of the Houston Rockets cheerleaders, which I insisted my brother-in-law would have appreciated. We also looked for a pair of shoes for her in case, you know, she might want to kick her half marathon training up a notch. My goody bag full, we headed back to her house where I spent the next day and a half watching playoff football, horsing around with my little nieces, and trying not to think too much about the upcoming race.

Getting ready to go.

When my alarm went off Sunday morning, though, I jumped out of bed and was ready. I threw on my running attire, grabbed my sweats bag, and bundled myself into my sister’s truck for the drive back into town to the convention center. By the time I got there the huge space was packed with folks stretching, dropping off their sweats bags, or attending either the Protestant or Catholic church services. Soon the time came to head back out into the pre-sunrise chill to line up in the starting corral. I always love these pre-race moments where the excited voice of the race announcer echoes off the surrounding buildings, the sun is starting to color the sky, and dozens of runners quietly run by doing their warm-ups. I found the 3:20 pace group, cheered as the wheelchair group started off, listened to a too-high rendition of our National Anthem, and waited for the boom of the cannon which sent us on our way.

I was floored by the crowd support this event generates. Immediately after crossing the starting line, folks lined the course to cheer us runners on, and the signs, music, and even belly dancing would accompany us along almost every block of the course. I don’t think I’ve heard the phrases, “Keep it up!” and “You look great!” so many times in one day. I loved the bagpipe player around mile 11 (after all among other things I am Scottish), the non-traditional blue jumpsuit-clad Elvis impersonator, and the trio of girls who got me to smile when they broke out their impromptu version of Lady Gaga’s Paparazzi. I even got sprinkled with holy water.

Last month’s race in Sacramento is notable for its rolling downhill course. This race by comparison is flat, flat, flat. We had to tough it out over a couple of highway over and underpasses, but, unless you want to work on your speed, there is no need to do any hillwork when preparing for this race.

What I should have worked on prior to this race was my counting skills as I’ll discuss shortly.

After qualifying for Boston last month, I wanted to run a qualifying time again in Houston to show myself I could repeat my performance on a course which lacked Sacramento’s downhill profile. Of course, I told myself, if the going got tough I could always slow down and relax knowing I’d already punched my ticket to Boston. So, after the initial mile with all its jostling and jockeying for space, I went out a little faster than I normally do. In running circles this is a big no-no, but I feel I’m eventually going to have to learn how to go out fast and maintain that pace. Certainly I can use my training runs to test myself, and there may be a little more treadmill work in my future to help me learn to stay at the same pace over distance. But there’s nothing like race day conditions to really work on this.

What I didn’t count on though, despite all the time, training, and planning that goes into getting ready for a race is how much little intangibles come into play. Early on, I could already tell I just didn’t have “it” and this race was going to be a little difficult to run. Even after a few miles, when I normally feel I’ve warmed up, I still felt tired and I was having trouble breathing properly. Yet I persisted with my strategy of staying slightly ahead of the 3:20 pace group which I hoped to happily tuck into and join if they eventually reeled me in. My splits for the first 11 miles were pretty good, but begin a slow, inexorable upward trend at about the halfway point.

And, as I mentioned earlier, it didn’t help I had apparently lost the ability to count.

It’s important to have a good hydration and nutrition plan to get you through a race, and through much trial and error I’ve determined I need four GUs (Lemon Lime if you’re interested) to get through 26.2 miles. At the start of the race I hit the interval timer on my stop watch, and every forty minutes thereafter I downed a pouch of GU. I got through packets one and two just fine, but missed taking number three on time. To make matters worse, when I dug through the pockets of my shorts I only came across one packet which made me wonder, “Did I already have the third GU?”

As we turned to enter Memorial Park, I was starting to slow down more, and even though I made it through the dreaded mile 20 wall, I felt my energy flagging. When the 3:20s caught me right at mile 22, I tried to match their pace for a few strides before I pulled up and started to walk for a bit. My legs had stiffened, and while it just seemed too difficult to maintain a quick pace, overall I felt pretty good physically. At that moment, however, I felt drained of energy and would have killed for an orange slice, or, say, a GU, which unbeknownst to me was nestled deep in the bottom of one of my pockets. Walking along catching my breath I told myself I already had my Boston qualifier, and I could slow down and enjoy the end of this marathon. As I walked forward, however, a lot of folks called out encouragement, and quickly I started running the last few miles to the finish.

One last little jolt of energy when I passed my sister before mile 23 and then the shock of mile 26.

Almost there.

I had crossed the start line shortly after the gun went off, and, as I passed the clock at mile 26 it read 3:19:56. It looked like I could still run a qualifying time! I don’t know where the energy came from, but I picked up my pace and lengthened my stride and made it to the finish line as fast as I could. I crossed and moments later stopped my watch and looked down: 3:21:01. My watch time was unofficial, but I had obviously either run or missed a qualifying time by mere seconds. I didn’t care though, and I was pretty giddy as I headed into the convention center to stretch, down some water and ice cream (!), and pickup my swag. When I met up with my beaming, proud sister, she had the good news. The marathon web site listed my time at 3:20:55; not a PR, but definitely a bit of an ego boost!

I might not have given all I had out there on the race course, but I think the picture below shows I gave a lot.

Believe me, it's not as bad as it looks

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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

2009 Nike Women’s Marathon

Big sports weekend what with the MLB playoffs heating up, lots of great college bowl games, and a full slate of NFL action. But all of that pales in comparison to the big event which took place right here in San Francisco. I’m talking about the 2009 running of the Nike Women’s Marathon. 20,000 half and full marathoners took to the streets of our fair city to tackle a course which offered breathtaking views of the Golden Gate Bridge, a loop through lovely Golden Gate Park, and an out and back along Ocean Beach. The course also featured  a fair amount of the hills San Francisco is know for.

Although there were a couple of gents sprinkled into the field here and there, I wasn’t participating in the race. Instead the honey and I along with a group of our close friends were cheering on another friend of ours participating in her first marathon. So to her and all the other folks who made the NWM such a special event, congratulations, and I hope to see you out there next year.

Runners passing through Golden Gate Park
Runners passing through Golden Gate Park
These gals are fast!
These gals are fast!
Full and half marathoners meet at an aid station in the park.
Full and half marathoners meet at an aid station in the park.
Almost there!
Almost there!
Finish line is in sight, but still can't see the firefighters.
Finish line is in sight, but still can't see the firefighters.