They say that the California International Marathon is a flat, fast course. A perfect race if you’re looking to qualify for Boston or set a new PR. It’s true. CIM is flat…ish. And it is fast, but no matter how you cut it, running 26.2 miles is just plain HARD!
Yesterday’s CIM was my sixth marathon. Read on for all the tasty race report details. But if you don’t have the time or patience to sit through the novel of a race report that is to come. Let me just say it right here:
I rocked it.
No, no. I smoked it
No, no. I rocked it AND I smoked it.
I went for it. I did it.
NEW Personal Record (Previous Marathon PR was 3:36, set in October)
Avg Pace: 7:27/mile
Place: 76th woman
13th in my age division
I am lucky for two reasons: 1. The CIM is my hometown marathon. I didn’t have to deal with any of the annoying logistics of finding a hotel and coordinating transportation to the start line. And 2. My parents are awesome. They picked me up from the airport Friday night. My mom stocked the fridge with pre-race food. My dad shuttled me to the start line and they were both there to cheer me on during the race. I couldn’t have asked for a better support crew. Both made preparing for CIM much less stressful.
4:30 AM: The alarm beeps. I am awake. Did I even really fall asleep? I lie in bed for a minute and contemplate what’s ahead of me. Did I really think this was a good idea? The CIM starts at 7:00 AM and there is much to do to get ready. I start the coffee. I jump in the shower. I blow dry my hair and find my lucky earrings. I don’t know why these things are so important, but I wouldn’t feel right racing without a shower. I try not to go to the office with frumpy bed head – so why would I race that way?
5:00 AM: Everyone has their special pre-race breakfast. Mine is two cups of coffee, brown rice and a can of sardines. Yes, I said sardines. And yes, I did eat them at 5 AM. And no, I do not have a boyfriend. And yes, I sometimes suspect that the sardines are to blame. But obviously that will have to be covered in another post. So I eat the sardines. And say what you want, but they’ve worked well for me in the past.
At mile 7 I will regret eating sardines.
More on that later.
5:45 AM: Time to get dressed. It’s only 40 degrees outside, but I’ll race in a pair of RSS’s (ridiculously short shorts) a racing tank top, arm warmers, knit gloves and a hat to contain my hair. I smooth BodyGlide everywhere. Between my legs. On my feet. Under my arms. It’s all part of the ritual and I feel a bit of calm spread through me. I tuck GU packets into my arm warmers and the rest into the back pocket of my shirt. I’ll carry a hand-held water bottle that I plan to ditch around 15 miles and electrolyte tabs that I’ll take every hour.
Every few seconds my mind wanders back to the idea of running 26.2 miles – even after 5 marathons, the task always seems SO gigantic on race morning. During the months of training leading up to the marathon, the race becomes abstract – some distant goal. It becomes secondary to logging all the miles week after week. Then race morning arrives and I’m like “oh crap, I have to run a VERY long way today.” As if it were a surprise. As if I had forgotten what I’d been training for all this time.
6:00 AM: I stuff things into bags – one for the pre-race and one for my parents to have on hand at the finish line. I double check. I triple check. I strap on my stopwatch. I glance at Phil, my Garmin 405, and consider strapping him on my other wrist. But no, I made my decision days ago – no fancy GPS monitoring for me. It will just be me, my stopwatch and a homemade pace bracelet with my goal time (a time I doubted was possible – even on a great day).
6:15 AM: We drive to the start line – only a few miles away from the house. It’s very foggy. I pass my old high school parking lot which at this early hour is filled with cop cars – the staging area for race security no doubt. Across the street, aid stations are being erected slowly as volunteers seem reluctant to put down their Starbucks cups. Butterflies flutter in my stomach and I envy the them, their warm coats, their hot drinks.
6:35 AM: My parents give me one last hug. I grab my drop-bag and beeline to the Porta-Potties – the most essential of pre-race rituals. The line is mercifully fast. I strip out of my WalMart sweatpants and slather TigerBalm (kind of like BenGay or IcyHot) on my legs. It helps keep my legs limber – or at least give the illusion of it – on this cold morning.
6:53 AM: I down my first Espresso Love GU, throw my dropbag in the U-Haul and move to the start line. I’m looking for the 3:20 pace group, but can’t find the sign or the pace leader. It’s a crunch of very cold people and it’s very dark. It’s so confusing and my heartbeat is already starting to accelerate.
6:57 AM: Out of nowhere pops the 3:20 pace leader wielding a red sign. Ahead of him – his buddy with a similar sign that says 3:15.
You have no idea, just as I had no idea at the time, how much I will come to simultaneously hate and love that little red 3:15 sign. For now, it’s just a sign with a time – a time that seems crazy fast.
6:59 AM: Just remember to run perky, I tell myself. Perky. Perky! I ignore the other voice inside me head that is saying, “We shouldn’t be doing this!” It’s too late – and that particular voice inside my head is known for being lazy- and this certainly isn’t the time for lazy!
7:00 AM: Bang! We’re off – Kind of. There are 6000 runners and 700 relay teams. There is shuffling. There is some cheering. There is some bunching. I cross the timing mat and start my watch. Yayyyy! This thing is underway.
Mile 1: It’s a downhill and easy to fly off of the start line way too fast. I chill around the 3:20 pace leader and make small talk with other runners. It’s too crowded to do anything but hold back and be conservative.
Mile 2: Still downhill. I still try to stay slow. I run it in 7:29. I feel like I’m running cold – like my legs haven’t fully woken up yet. 24 miles seems like an awfully long way to go.
Mile 3- 4: The road rises and unfolds into a series rolling hills. I am still way too fast, but I can’t help but feel great! I feel GREAT! Fantastic. Stupendous! I move ahead of the 3:20 group and closer to that little red 3:15 sign. I take swigs from my hand-held water bottle every mile. It’s a good strategy. I don’t have to worry about moving through the aid stations. I don’t have to stress about choking down the liquid and dodging cups. I think about being relaxed. Stay conservative. Ha! So easy to say, so hard to do when it’s downhill, you feel fantastic and the crowd is surging around you.
Mile 5: I pass the 3:15 pacer. The road splits for construction and in the middle is my good friend Rachel and her parents. I yell for her and they go crazy. They wave a cardboard sign and yell “Heather!!! GO-ooo!!!” I am exuberant and full of hope.
I pass the first relay station around this time. My dad is there volunteering with the local Rotary club. I spy my dad first. He sees me and runs yelling something like “Gooo! You can do it!!”
I round the corner, there is my uncle, and few hundred meters beyond that is my mom and the now-famous marathon sign. I run by. She’s screaming. It passes by in a blur of faces. I am feeling light and buoyant, but still stiff.
Within a mile, the number of spectators dwindles to a trickle. My pace is great and I’m on target for my desired time. Then all of a sudden I hear, rather than see that the 3:15 sign is right behind me. A glance over my shoulder confirms my suspicions. I can hear their tight little group thundering. Soon, as if I’m standing still, they move ahead. I am crushed and just like that my race starts to crumble around the edges.
Mile 7 and 8: My legs feel tight and cold. The rolling hills – even in their gentle rolling quality are taking their toll – and I’m concerned that my legs are getting too tired too early on. The 3:15 pack is moving farther ahead. Worse, my stomach is voicing opinions. Apparently the coffe flavored GU I downed at mile 5 isn’t playing well with my breakfast. I burp. It tastes like sardines. I burp again. Sardines and coffee-flavored GU. Nasty. Nasty. Nasty.
Mile 9: I ‘ve burped for two miles and finally it seems like I’ve expelled the sardine flavored stomach ghosts. Hooray! In the meantime I’ve watched the 3:15 group move farther away and I’m convinced that I won’t catch up. I’m annoyed, but I give myself a stern lecture: I need to run MY race. I need to stop worrying about everything else and do what feels right. Right now I feel like I need to be conservative. I pop a few electrolyte tabs and try to concentrate on something positive. I listen to the people cheering. I smile at the people who say my name. I give thumbs up to the spectators as we wind our way through Old Town Fair Oaks.
Mile 10- 12: Time for a second GU – I pray to the gastrointestinal gods to forgo the sardine-flavored burps and please, stop with the hills. With all my trail running I shouldn’t even feel these gentle rollers. But no, they are taxing. The half marathon sign just can’t get here quick enough.
Mile 13-16: I pass the second relay check point and feed hungrily off the energy from the crowd. The music pumps me up, the crowd support lifts my sagging morale. Then I spot Rachel and her family for the second time – they yell and scream and make me feel so good. I am beginning to think that it doesn’t matter so much whether I get that 3:15 group or not. Instead I just concentrate on a runner in front of me – and soon enough my improved attitude and lack of sardine burps are paying off. My pace is improving. I am picking off runners, one by one, and soon that damn 3:15 sign is back in range.
Mile 17: I pull even with the 3:15 group. I am escatitc! I didn’t think this would happen. For the past 5 miles I have been eagerally awaiting my parents. They should be somewhere between mile 17-20 – an enternity in the marathon. My hand-held water bottle is now empty. My legs are aching. A strange twinge is fluttering around my left calf. I am tired and the water bottle, even empty seems to weigh me down. I realize there are only 9 miles between the finishline and me. I’m in the single digits! One mile away from my dreaded mile 18.
Mile 18 – 20: So many miles done. So many left to go. But I pass through Mile 18 relatively well. In the past Mile 18 has been my breaking point. Instead I am still scanning the crowd looking for my parents. I finally see them and I am so jazzed I can’t hardly stand it. I toss the water bottle to my dad, fill up on the sound of their cheers and feel determined to finish this thing. My smile is HUGE.
Mile 21: I’m ahead of the 3:15 group and then…I’m not. Am I off pace, or is he? No matter, I eat a GU and the pace leader moves ahead. Damn that little red sign! I am coming loose at the seams. My feet hurt. My legs are wimpering and screaming. And while 5 miles is something I can normally do in my sleep – except that now 5 miles feels like an impossible task.
Mile 22-23: I am no longer thinking clearly. I pass a coffee shop with people sitting inside. I want to go to them. i want to lie down in the grass in that person’s front lawn. I want someone to tell me it’s OK to stop. I feel like my entire body is just one raw muscle. There is nothing but pain and fatigue. I hate this. I hate running. I both hate and love the people cheering. And I especially hate that bobbing red sign with the 3:15 mocking me from a distance. As I pass mile 23, a spectator yells “Just three and a quarter to go! You’re almost there.” I want to stop and cry and yell, “I CAN’T!” Three and a quarter miles seems disgustingly, horribly long. Instead I trudge along and try to push the pain away. I have no idea if anything else entered my head.
Mile 24: I get the best advice from a spectator. He yells as I pass, “Relax your shoulders! Relax your breathing” I do both and feel better. I turn the corner and there is the 3:15 Pacer. He has paused at the street corner and he’s brandishing that little red sign around and waving us forward. I consider ignoring him and finishing the race at whatever pace seems “comfortable.” Then I think about the difference – a little more discomfort now, a little more pain now, certainly won’t be much more than I’m feeling already. how much worse can I actually feel. I’ve reached rock bottom. I somehow conclude that I will just stare at that little waving 3:15 sign. I will stare at it and will myself closer. Who knows. What have I got to lose.
Mile 24.5: It’s like 6 or so laps around the track. that’s all. I can totally do that.
Mile 25: I think the red sign is closer. Just four more laps. Ohgod, ohgod. I just want it to be done. Come here you little red flag!
Mile 25.5: It burns. Everything blurs. I have no thoughts. Just an image of the red flag and the pace leader’s hat. This is where I must deliver. In those final moments I feel like I might burst. That I might vomit or worse. My breath is loud, sharp staccato wheezing. Everything sounds like it’s in a tunnel. My legs turn. My arms pump. I give everything I have.
Mile 26: Someone yells, “You’re smiling at mile 26!! Look at you!! Go smiling girl.” The red sign is within my reach. Then somehow, I am past it. Then I turn the corner and I see my parents. I see their sign. Out of nowhere my legs find rocket juice. The pain is there, sharp and overwhelming, but at least I know it will end soon. The finish line is only 50 meters away. I sprint. I gasp. I cry. My whole body concentrates on one thing: Get across mat. Get across the finish line. There is nothing after. There are no thoughts. There is just the finish.
And then, suddenly, the task that seemed to last an eternity is over. I bend over. I gag. I gasp. I bawl. Someone wraps me in a space blanket and asks if I need help. I look at him. He repeats the question. I look at thim. I can’t seem to get anything out. He asks if I’d like him to walk with me. I stare back. Mute. He wraps an arm around me and walks me- he asks how I’ve done. What number marathon is this for me? I finally get out an answer and within a minute I feel like I can function at least minimally.
My accomplishment dawns on me: I have blown my previous marathon time out of the water by over 20 minutes. I set out to run a 3:15 – a pace that seemed so silly fast – and I did it.
As I type this now, a day after the marathon, I know that in reality very few people care if I ran a 3:14:54 or a 3:16 or even a 3:45. But I guess it isn’t so much about the time as it is about the race. Each marathon feels like an entire life wrapped up into 26 miles. It wasn’t so much about the time goal – although that is so freakin’ cool I still can’t believe it. Running this marathon was about overcoming adversity. It was about dealing with stress and drama (and sardine burps) without panicking, something that I often do in my non-running life. This marathon was about letting go of what was going on around me and trusting myself. Something I ought to do more in my everyday life.
And this marathon was not only about suffering. It was about celebrating. With drinks, french fries and a bacon burger.