Do I look happy? Yes, yes I do. This is me, seconds after crossing the finish line at the California International Marathon (CIM) 2011. Responsible for that grin on my face is the fact that I just earned a 4 1/2 minute PR, and my second qualification for the Boston marathon (2012 & 2013).
Can’t see my silly grin (emphasis on “silly”) ? Here you go. I’m a dork.
That was the best/worst 3 hours 46 minutes and 19 seconds of my life, thus part of me can’t wait to do it again, while the other is hoping to get her legs crushed by a runaway garbage truck so she can live out the rest of her days, sitting on her butt while eating bon bons and watching cable television.
I’m not ready to hang up the sneakers just yet. In fact, I’m already plotting my training strategy for Boston 2012, since training for that begins (for me) January 1. Still, there were many moments during my race when I thought, “This shizzle is hard. It would be easier to just stop right now.”
Where was I and how did I get there?
… 24 HOURS EARLIER
It was Saturday, and I was keeping a close eye on the weather reports, as marathoners will do in the final days leading up to their race when the hay is in the barn, as they say, and we’re in the final throes of Taper Madness. We are antsy for lack of running, and need something to obsess on. So we check and re-check the weather forecasts. We talk about it, we analyze it on forums, we dwell, we conjecture and we lament, fret and project. We find several contingency outfits suitable for all possible weather, and then go back and check the weather some more.
Making things worse (better?? depends on whether you are trying to feed or quell the beast), my sailing friend Dorsey gave me two (phenomenal) links allowing me to drill down to some crazy weather minutiae, so really and truly not much was left to surprise (I’d post those links but then she and I would lose our competitive edge, right? heh heh).
WOS (weather obsession syndrome) is especially in play for a December race in California, when the weather patterns can be brutal or mild on any given year. CIM starts at Folsom Dam and ends at the steps of the State Capitol in downtown Sacramento. The race is located off Interstate 80 and on the approach to the mountains, which makes it susceptible to the colder temperatures, if chilly is the hand the weather gods are playing that day.
Note: I know even as I write this my friends in chillier parts of the country – and the world (hello Europe!) – are rolling their eyes at this Californian and her talk of “cold weather”.
The weather issue this year was: wind. Yucky, ucky, sucky wind. The kind of wind that collapses buildings and knocks down trees and stuff.
And just to be cruel, the wind was in full force the day before the race when I went on what was supposed to be a little loosen-upper jog.
Weirdly, despite the (super annoying) wind, the temperature was quite warm (and lovely). Seventy-five degrees in December is unseasonably warm, even for California. But I wasn’t complaining (well, yes I was but it was about the wind, not the temps).
I blame Taper Madness for this next episode, which was a bit ragey. There is a section of this trail that cuts through a golf course. They put up a chain-link fence to protect runners, cyclists, walkers, roller bladers, etc. from wayward golf balls. It doesn’t work. The balls fit between the holes.
For the second time, I was nearly clobbered by a golf ball. It came whizzing into the cage, having defied the odds by sneaking through one of the chain loops, and came close enough to me that my hair got fluffed.
Ragey episode done.
Having finished my last training run, it was time to shower, dress and pack the car.
To the untrained eye, this would seem like lot of stuff to be bringing for one night. But for me, a Classic Overpacker, this was packing light, and I was actually quite proud of how well I showed restraint.
Off to Sacramento we go.
Being the awesome hydrator that I am, I was having to tinkle constantly during the entire week prior to the race. Translation: Drive 1 1/2 hours to Sacramento without stopping? ha. So we stopped for a pee break at a CVS Pharmacy.
I texted this photo to my friend Emily, who said that I would ruin my intestines (read: get blow out diarrhea) if I ate that. I pointed out these were pre-race carbs, not for during the race.
Then I sent this photo of the boyfriend to prove that we were on a road trip while eating our candy (hard Lifesavers for me and sour chewy things for him).
Which brings me to my next point. Note where the boyfriend is sitting? For the record, my training program specifies the following for pre-race week:
- Avoid having major deadlines at work or other energy-draining undertakings [CHECK]
- Wash our hands frequently to lower your risk of catching a cold [CHECK]
- Get plenty of sleep early in the week [CHECK]
- Minimize the amount of time you spend at the prerace expo [CHECK]
- Save sightseeing for after the marathon [CHECK]
- Spend a few minutes each day in a quiet spot visualizing a successful race [CHECK]
- Let others do the driving [um … ]
It was warm enough to wear shorts to the Expo, but the boyfriend didn’t think very highly of my outfit – shorts, sweatshirt that was too short in the waist and arms after shrinking in the dryer, a drab reusable-faded-red-bag-come-purse … and the pièce de résistance … dorky compression socks. (since you asked, what I think is people who want to be given compression socks for Christmas shouldn’t throw stones. Just sayin’).
I ended up wearing that sweatshirt at the start of the race and tossing it in the early miles for the clothing collection. I feel good about the donation, but running with a metal zipper against bare skin in 34-degree weather = #FAIL.
The expo was fine, as expo’s can be. I bought a water bottle for the boyfriend to hand me on the race course, and a new kind of energy bar (Bonk Breaker), but nothing else tickled my fancy. However, this was a good find: Running tutus for my friend Debbi who is doing Disneyworld’s Princess 13.1 as her first Half Marathon. (Go Debbi!)
So from the expo, we met folks from our running club for dinner. There was a surprisingly long list of club members running this race and one person had kindly reserved a table for all of us at a place called Buca di Beppo Italian Restaurant, which specializes in family-style dining … and portions that surely represent the cause of our society’s ever-growing largeness. Let me just say, the placed was jammed. JAMMED. Throngs of people were waiting to eat (and eat, and eat).
The food was fine, though not what I would normally eat before a race (of any length). Or the hour that I would eat it before a race (of any length). My usual go-to is simple carbs, like a bowl of rice. Or a potato. And maybe a small piece of grilled chicken. Certainly I’d go light on the veggies, if at all, and certainly I would avoid that nortious high-roughage food group: salad. And I’d be done eating it by 6pm.
What we got was a “small” (read: enormous) bowl of salad to share and a “small” (large) pizza (that came late because they forgot to make it). It was at least 7:30 by the time we ate, which for me translates to food in my digestive track right up to my 7am gun time.
If you understand runners’ GI issues, particularly with how “those” issues relate to endurance events like, say, a 26.2-mile MARATHON, this (what/when I ate) is not ideal.
I went to the bathroom a couple of times while waiting for my food – clearly I had done an excellent job of topping off my fluids over the past week – and took some photos of the photos that were hung all over the restaurant. This restaurant’s theme? You tell me:
Next on the exciting rolleroaster that was pre-race day: our hotel. Located adjacent to the Arden Mall (this seems to be a big sales point in the Sacramento hotel literature and on yelp), our hotel was fine, if not spacious and clean. But was it quiet? No, it was not.
The problem was our neighbors – a gaggle of girls around … 20yrs old? oy.
From the minute we dropped our bags, their door was opening, and closing, and being knocked upon, and talked through and opened and closed and opened again. These sounds were peppered with intermittent girl squeals, and random thumping.
Considering we are both light sleepers, and we had a 4am wakeup, trouble lurked.
I did the neighborly thing and caught one of them as she was leaving (for the 100th time)(wearing a towel …) and asked if they could keep it down because we had an early morning, and that opening and closing the door was making a lot of noise. At first she looked at me like I was nuts, and then softened and said “sure.” OK, that went well, right? In hindsight, I think what she heard me say was, “blah blah blah blah blah” to which she mentally replied, “whatever.”
Well, guess how long that quietude lasted? Not. I finally wound down and fell asleep around 11, but was awakened every … I don’t know … every so often.
By 1:45am we couldn’t take it any more. It was the congregating in the hall that finally tipped us both over the edge. What possessed them to hang out and yak in the hall is beyond me. So we called security. I don’t know why we didn’t think of it earlier, I guess because we didn’t fully wake up. But security handled it and the crowd dispersed.
But not before cutting deeply into what was already going to be a short night’s sleep per pre-race night. The buzzer goes off in what felt like a blink, and we were up. I was grumpy (see :46 of the video at the bottom).
I pound 32-ounces of water and a cup of coffee, and I (stupidly) ate this entire bar. It – a Bonk Breaker – was way too rich for my needs and I made the rookie error of eating something for the first time on race morning.
The boyfriend swears by Bonk Breakers, but he’s a triathlete and I think they are better for a super very long bike ride than for a just very long race where you are jiggling up and down and messing with your innards. Plus, let’s be real, I was still content from my hearty meal of just a few hours earlier. And I had worked diligently for the three previous carbo-loading days – my glycogen stores were pretty well topped off at this point.
Strike # 2 against pre-race intestinal happiness.
We called for a late check out and decided to leave our bags and return to the hotel for a shower before going home the next day. #FAIL This would later prove to be a bad decision (that has been dealt with in our race post-mortem on teachable moments). The hotel was just too far away from the race to think it would be convenient to return there for a quick shower.
I had paid for a bus ticket, but opted to go in comfort by having the boyfriend drive me to the race start and drop me off. I wasn’t the only one with this (apparently fabulous) idea. There was a HUGE traffic jam on the one-lane road leading to the start. There is very little information published about the drop-off. In fact, we never found any but simply followed a map. I think they do this to discourage us from being driven vs. taking the bus, but what that resulted in was a giant cluster-fushizzle and a total log jam. We were only moving at -1MPH, but I was white-knuckling the dashboard like were going 160.
Cars were not moving.
Minutes were ticking by.
My bowels were talking to me.
I popped another Immodium just to be sure.
I get dropped off with (literally) minutes to spare, and so I dash into the first porta potty I come to – which is also the porta potty farthest away from the start line.
Once inside there, I can hear the announcer rallying the runners. And I am sitting there (atop a massive pile of toilet seat covers). And I am debating my options, and I decide that it’s either take care of business now, and risk starting the race a bit late. Or alternately risk having to stop at a port potty after I cross the starting line chip-mat (with the timer ticking away).
No brainer. Thanks to chip timing it doesn’t matter when I cross the start line. Best take care of business now. (TMI? Then you shouldn’t be reading a runner’s blog because bathroom business is part and parcel with this lifestyle :))
Next I hear the National Anthem and I’m bummed because I LOVE that pre-race ritual. But a girl’s gotta do what a girl’s gotta do, which is to go when a girl’s gotta go.
The gun goes off just as I’m getting out of there and I head to the start. I am in back of literally 10,000 runners, but I flex my assertive-muscle, cutting through the masses and gaining a little bit of ground. The problem at this point is that it’s a very thick crowd (see the video at the bottom if you don’t believe me) and the slower runners, of course, are in the back. This makes for a slow start, and a lot of dodging and over-taking – which can be exhausting.
But I decide, hey, it’s OK if I start off slow, because it simply means I won’t be burning myself out. And I will get that energy savings returned to me later in the race.
For the weather record: The conditions were excellent after those few nail-biting days of extreme wind conditions leading into the race. The wind died down in time and became a non-isssue. And while the race started off in the low 30s, thanks to adrenaline I didn’t even notice the cold and was plenty warm in shorts, tri-jersey (tank), arm warmers and gloves. It warmed up nicely and it was pretty much a wind-less morning, even at mile 15 where there can be a pretty strong head wind.
After dodging slower runners for about 5-6 miles, things thinned out, as they always do. And I was carrying my throwaway bottle so I didn’t need to stop at any of the early water stops. So it was all good.
I made one mistake with my throwaway Gatorade bottle – also hashed out in the post-mortem. I should have gotten the kind with the squeezey-squirty top, but it didn’t occur to me because I never drink out of the bottle (I just pour it in my hand bottle)(another teachable moment). I had to come to a full stop in order to drink the Gatorade due to the sloshing of the wide-mouth bottle. I drank the 10 ounces of (orange) Gatorade over three separate stops, which frankly was worth missing the first 6 miles of water stops, which are so crowded I might have been forced to stop anyway given the crowd I had started out with.
Another change in the morning that I didn’t really plan for – starting off with carbs/calories (Gatorade). I had a sort of backlog of calories that tripped up my race-day nutrition plan. The Bonk Breaker made it so I didn’t need my pre-race Gu.
The original nutrition plan:
- Dinner (potato and a small piece of chicken): 5pm
- Breakfast (clif bar)
- Gu at start
- Gu at 5 miles and 10 miles (every 45 minutes)
- Gatorade at 15 miles and 20 miles
- Water and Ultima (like Nuun tablets) intermittently along the course (last fluid 20m)
What actually happened:
- Massive dinner (bottomless salad and pizza) 7:30+pm
- Breakfast (rich and heavy Bonk Breaker)
- No pre-race Gu
- Gatorade miles 0-6
- Gu at 7 (60 minutes) and 14
- A few sips of Gatorade at 20
- Water and Ultima intermittently along the course (last fluid: 20 miles)
When I found the boyfriend at 15.5 (and I do mean I found him … I was waving wildly at him while he was looking up the road for me), he was all ready to hand me my bottle, but I was giving him the cut-off sign, indicating I didn’t want anything. He chased me into the road, offering me choices of bottles, just trying to make sure I got what I needed. Such a good support person! (1:29 of the video at the bottom)
What I needed was to throw up, which he couldn’t help me with. Between the jostling and sweet calories, marathoning, for me, is sort of a constant of wanting to puke. And that last Gu wasn’t sitting all that well. I was frankly just too full of fluid and calories. I had done a really, really good job of hydrating and carbo loading and needed far less on the course itself.
Also, my program has us “teaching” our bodies to run on very few calories, and this technique was working. Another Teachable Moment that I pocketed for my Boston race.
At the same time, I tried to indicate to the boyfriend how right on pace I was. I had just passed through the half marathon (13.1) mark and I was seconds (10) off of my goal time for that split. That was really something. He was too wrapped up in Gatorade duty to hear what I said, but I also knew that my friends were watching me via the Athlete Tracker and I was hoping they were aware of how close to pace I was keeping things. Because I sure was! Races don’t always turn out this way so this was very encouraging.
And I was able to monitor how close I was to staying on pace using this pace band from mymarathonpace.com that was customized for my pace and goal time on the CIM course.
I had the thing, now crinkled and sweat stained, stashed in my bra and I would whip it out and scrutinize what time I was supposed to hit mile by mile.
I was actually right on pace for the entire race (once I caught up after my late start), but alas that calculation was a bit off because I was running according to my Garmin, which was about 1/10th-mile ahead the course mile markers … and that translates to about a minute (which ultimatley is how far off of my goal time I was).
Still, I was close enough to goal pace to feel like the outcome of an approxiately, ballpark, give or take a minute 3:45 time was becoming a foregone conclusion. Anything in that range was fine by me because it would be a huge PR and another Boston qualifier.
Along those lines – the foregone conclusions.
I did a lot of self talk along the way. A lot. And I credit this (in addition to my Pfitz 18/55 training program) for getting me to the end. Here’s how:
You know how when you see somebody throw up, it can make you barf? Well, when you get to mile 16 of a marathon, the number of people falling apart becomes pronounced. It’s hard to keep from getting psyched out by their problems. For me it’s infectious, and I have to ward off “catching” their issues.
And it only gets worse as you get to 18 miles, 20 miles, 22 miles, 25.5 miles. It’s like a war zone with people puking their guts out on the side of the road, while others lie down in a contorted pretzel, desperately trying to remove the cramp from their legs or feet. You see people running along and then come to a dead stop, seized by a full body cramp. I saw a dude at 22 miles, splayed out on the pavement, done. It’s not uncommon at mile 20 to see folks who had been zipping along in the earlier miles, suddenly walking along like zombies from Night of the Living Dead.
Remember when I said, eh, I can start out behind the slower runners, and it will come back to me like good karma? That is exactly what happened for me. But not for these contorted, barfing, walking, splayed out victims littering the side of the course from 16 miles on. They had set out too fast, lactate had built up in their bodies faster than they can expel it, and their limbs were rebelling by seizing up like a statue. (you can see the Walking Dead at 2:31 of the video at the bottom)
Despite what people think, this is not dehydration, or bonking (from not eating enough calories). It’s more likely that they started out at a pace they couldn’t sustain for 26.2 miles.
As the say, it’s a 20 mile warm up for a 6.2 mile race. They also say, if you hit the wall there’s no reversing it: You can’t uncook a goose.
This is also why I say it’s a race of restraint. You must race intelligently, not eagerly.
When I see these people doubled up, curled up, puking, splayed out and contorted into strange stretching positions, I tell myself one of several mantras:
- I earned the pace I am running
- This pace is me
- I feel good
- I feel the blood flowing through my legs
- It is my right as an obnoxious American to run this pace
- I trained at this pace
- I am right on target for goal time
- I feel good
- I feel great
- I feel strong
- I look strong
I visualize myself:
- Writing a Facebook post updating friends and family about my accomplishment (this time it was “I PR’d by 5 minutes!” which btw, I nearly did)
- Calling my mom and telling her, “I did it! I am so happy!”
- Crossing the finish line and how I will look (strong)
- Crossing the finish line and how I will feel (proud & happy)
Strangely, for me, the mental exercise and feeling how I am overcoming obstacles as I run along, while others are succumbing to them, is very empowering.
This is quite possibly my favorite part of a marathon.
Speaking of pace. I consulted my handy-dandy wrist band, which I initially kept in my bra but eventually ended up running with it. I would find a downhill, sunny spot where I could read it reasonably well and see what my mile-point time should be. Every single time I hit a mile marker, I was within seconds of my goal time – and my pace was in the ballpark of 8:35 each time. I was a few seconds over that (8:37mm pace) which added up to that extra 1+ minutes over my 3:45 goal time. Here is what CIM has me at:
Age group: 51/375
5.9M split: 50:24
1st 13.1 split: 1:53:03 (2nd 13.1 split: 1:53:16)
20M split: 2:52:42
Gun time: 3:48:14
Chip time: 3:46:19
Here is my Garmin link, showing a blow by blow of what I did on Sunday. Remember when looking at this, that course is accurate but the Garmin is always shows a bit over the course distance.
I felt really strong as I pushed toward, and then past The Wall (20 miles). And I had just had someone on the course (a woman running near me) actually tell me how good I looked while running. People, that made my day :D.
So I made sure my posture was up, held back some tears, thanked my dad for making me jump off that boulder into the pond back when I was 13 (I always do this at this point during a race), and ran strong up to meet the boyfriend at mile 19.4.
He asked how I feel, I said great (truth) and he said I looked great (truth) and I kept pushing.
Looking at my watch during that last 10K, I really had thought I was picking up my pace, but in hindsight that didn’t really happen. You can see it in my pace averages. In fact, I ran almost even half marathon splits – they were just 16 seconds apart with the second half being a hair slower (a slightly positive split).
I think what was happening is that I would feel good and be running at 8:10 and less, and then distractions would come in and bump me off so I wasn’t being consistent. The water tables (and there were too many at the end of the race) were just crazy with people.
The end of a race is also a weakness of mine that I need to work on. I could have run faster, or at least held my faster pace through to the end. But I let myself get psyched out, and let go. Next time.
One of my club mates passed me in that last mile and a half. He was originally going for a much faster time than I was, but had some foot problems so having trouble getting to the finish. We were within feet of each other for that last half mile. I heard them call his name at around the time they called mine – him going through his chute, and me going through mine. There are separate chutes for girls and boys, which is a nice touch that a lot of people LOVE, but I feel pretty indifferent about it.
Truth: I kind of want to know what goes on over on their side. Is there some secret man ritual that I should know about?
My friend of a million years, Charlotte, greeted me at the end along with the boyfriend. She is such a good friend to have come out (3 hour drive!) and supported me.
My mom and stepfather unfortunately didn’t make it this year, but they tried. And they would have if they could have. But health issues prevailed. My childhood friend also ran the race, and finished with something like a 15 minute PR. She felt pretty crummy afterward so we didn’t take a picture, but I’m pretty sure she’ll do another one. Marathons are like childbirth – you never want to do it again immediately after the fact, but the pain fades with time. And the next thing you know, you’ve signed up for another one. (hello overpopulation!)
Our last adventure, and also a #FAIL, was the trip back to the hotel for a shower, and then onto food. There are at least five highways that criss cross through Sacramento, and we traveled all of them in search of our exit. The iPhone Mapquest app simply could not make sense of it, and neither could we. By the time we got to the hotel, we had to zip out of there (leaving my travel bedding behind by accident 😦 ) without a shower. By the time we got to food, it was 3:15 – more than four hours after I had finished running.
I had a burger, fries and a beer at the Pyramid Ale House, and came “this” close to feeling bad about that unhealthy food choice. And then I looked around and saw table after table doing the same. sigh. I was among my kind.
Truth: I love being a marathoner.