This past weekend I raced in the California International Marathon. It was my 9th, and most difficult marathon. There was no PR. There was no race against the clock or rally to keep pace. But there was glory and grit, vomit and victory. So while I wasn’t wicked fast, I think I have a very good story to tell. If you can’t wait that long I’ll tell you how I did now:
I finished in: 3:25:19
But I promise, you’ll want to keep reading. But first a warning: This is not a race report you should read if you’re thinking of running a marathon or if you’ll run your first marathon soon. This is not a race report for readers faint of heart or those who don’t care to read about gastro-intestinal disorders. If you’re brave enough, come with me, let me show you how deep this pain tank goes.
Going into the race:
I would give this marathon training cycle an A-. It wasn’t perfect, but I put in many good, honest workouts. My mileage hovered at around 65 miles/week. I ran consistent long runs on the weekend. I did tempo runs at 7:00 min/mile. I even did interval training on the treadmill (as if interval training weren’t bad enough by itself, try doing it on a treadmill!). Given my work schedule I would say that the training efforts were solid.
Despite the weeks of good training I was totally unsure what I would be capable of running come race day. I knew a PR attempt wasn’t in the cards. My training has been good, but I’m still not in top racing form. I struggled with that monster for a few weeks and finally found some peace – OK, so maybe a sub-3 hour race wasn’t going to happen but that didn’t mean I couldn’t go out and run like hell.
On the flight from Portland to Sacramento I put together some race goals.
Gold: Finish in 3:15 or less
Silver: Finish in 3:20 to 3:23
Bronze: Finish 3:25+
Again, significantly slower times than my ultimate sub 3-hour goal, but I felt that they were attainable, honest and challenging.
Day Before the Race: A series of unfortunate events.
Saturday started out great but went down hill. I drank coffee with my parents in their newly renovated kitchen. My dad gave me a tour of his model railroad. After showering and drinking more coffee, The Cyclist and I drove downtown to the Marathon Expo. I hadn’t eaten anything yet and it was already 1:30. We decided to get some more coffee, find lunch and then get my packet from the expo. We hit up Temple Coffee which was fantastic and asked for a lunch recommendation. The barista responded that anything even remotely healthy was closed on the weekend. We quickly formed Plan B. I’d go to the expo, meet up with some runner-blogger friends and then get some lunch.
We headed to the expo where I picked up my number and the world’s ugliest race t-shirt. The Cyclist and I cruised around the expo and kept our eyes peeled for a vendor selling my preferred electrolyte powder. I didn’t pack it and thought surely I’d be able to find some at the expo. There was none to be found. OK, now time for Plan C: We’d drive out to Folsom and hit up Bicycles Plus, the largest bike shop in the area – where we were sure they’d have my electrolyte powder. We could get that and get some nice healthy eats at the restaurant next door. Problem solved. We wrapped up at the expo and left.
It was 3:00 by the time we got to Folsom and I was cranky from lack of food. Mr. Cyclist went into immediate emergency mode. “Let’s get some food first, then we’ll get the powder, OK?” We walked into Karen’s Cafe and were greeted by a long, long line. We got to the front only to be told that the kitchen was closed. Mr. Cyclist steered me and my low-blood sugar toward the door and calmed my frazzled, starving nerves. “OK, let’s get the powder next door and then we’ll find something else, OK?” We went next door to the bike shop and rummaged through their supply of energy gels, powders and bars. They did not have the best electrolyte drink in the universe – First Endurance EFS mix in Fruit Punch flavor. I’ve been using this mix through out my training and swear by it. It keeps my energy levels up but doesn’t give me an upset stomach. It was clear I’d be racing without First Endurance so I settled for Accelerade as a substitute. After all, aren’t all electrolyte mixes more or less the same? It turns out that no, they are not all the same, and my choice would lead to terrible, terrible consequences in the race. More on that later.
Accelerade in hand, I also purchased and immediately ate a Larabar. It was now 3:30 and I had had only coffee all day. We asked for recommendations for a place to get non-greasy, healthy food. They suggested Dos Coyotes – a nicer version of Chipotle. This would later prove to also be a gigantic and terrible mistake. At the restaurant I ordered a chicken burrito bowl which I foolishly assumed would come with lettuce or something. Instead I received a bowl of cut up chicken with quacamole and some sad, chopped tomatoes. Dos Disappointment! I ate some of the chicken, picked at the rest and spent the rest of the meal staring out the window and worrying about the race. Who would have guessed that a bowl of salty chopped up chicken isn’t a proper pre-race meal. The Cyclist gave me sympathetic looks and squeezed my hand. Apparently I looked just as worried as I felt.
We returned to the house. The Cyclist continued the encouraging hand squeezes throughout the evening. I ate some applesauce and prepped my clothes for the race:
Everything was ready to go and so there was not much left to do but chill anxiously and experience the low-grade stress mixed with anticipation that comes the night before every big race. I went to sleep. Kind of.
Race Day –
3:55 AM: I am awake before the alarm clock beeps. My body hums in excitement. Whatever nervousness I was feeling the night before is gone. It is race day and I’m ready.
4:00 -5:00 AM: I hop out of bed, start the coffee machine, and jump in the shower. I shave my legs and go to the bathroom. Not only do I begin to suffer from a serious nervous stomach, which isn’t totally unexpected, but I also see that I’ve started my period. Awesome. I decide that now is not the time to freak out. It won’t, I decide, affect my performance at all.
5:00 AM: Breakfast time. I didn’t bring my regular meal of pre-race sardines as I’ve been having issues lately feeling too full on my long runs. This turns out to be yet another pre-race mistake. Instead I choke down some butternut squash and pumpkin seeds. I don’t feel full which is good. I drink some more water and coffee and put on my race gear.
5:45 AM: The Cyclist is up and drinking coffee. I whisper to him that I’ve started my period. “It’s OK, though,” I reassure him. “I’ve heard that a woman’s pain tolerance is the highest on the first day of her period.” I have no idea of this is actually true. The Cyclist replies, “Way to see the silver lining in that” and he gives me another encouraging hand squeeze.
6:00 AM: We are out the door. My dad drives me to the start line. We can’t get all the way to the start line this year. I am dropped off at about the 2 mile marker where a shuttle takes me and some other runners the rest of the way. The shuttle is quick I’m glad to see that I’ve got 45 minutes before go time. I immediately head for the porta-potty lines. The weather is awesome – not too cold, not windy, not raining. It’s great racing weather!
6:45 AM: I shed my sweatshirt, gloves and down my first GU and take a swig of Lemonade flavored Accelerade. Not bad… The pineapple GU pairs well with the Lemonade. I line up with the 3:20 pacer and feel joyous. My body feels great. I want to race. I’m ready. I find my friend Drew from Portland and that makes me feel even better.
7:00 AM: There is no more thinking about the race. Now it’s time to do it.
Mile 1: It is so easy to fly out at a 5k pace in this marathon. The race starts downhill, the weather is great and somehow the vibe of the runners is so much like a short race – maybe it’s the relay runners that add to the excitement? In anycase it’s near impossible to hold back in these beginning miles. The 3:20 pace group sets off. Soon though, I pass the 3:20 passer like he’s jogging. I try to stay far back from the 3:15 sign. I don’t want to go out too fast. First mile: 7:34
Mile 2 -4: It’s already hot and I peel down my arm warmers. I feel super duper fantastic. The pace feels easy. I take swigs from the hand-held water bottle every mile. I can’t drink from those little paper cups and the first aid stations are always so packed that I don’t want to bother. The hand-held bottle is a great solution for both of these issues. I don’t like the Accelerade flavor but figure it doesn’t really matter what it tastes like. In a few miles I will taste all the lemonade flavored Accelerade as it comes back up. Right now though I’m rocking at an awesome pace. 7:25, 7:20, 7: 12. Each mile is easier than the last
Mile 5: I spot my support crew and they go crazy, like I’m a rockstar or something.
Mile 6 – 8: I spot my super awesome friends, John, Rachel and their families. They are holding signs and screaming at me. They are the best fans ever. My pace remains super consistent 7:18, 7:15, 7:14, 7:20. The sun has come out and I’m starting to feel a little hot, but other than that my outlook is perky. I drink the Accelerade I take a GU. All is well.
Mile 8 – 14: The pace is still on target. I’m close behind the 3:15 group now and I’ve even eased up on my pace so as not to pass them 7:25, 7:21, 7:27, 7:32, 7:29, 7:29. Oh man, take a look at those splits! I not only feel like a rockstar, I am a rockstar.
Mile 15: I feel… suddenly, like something might be wrong. I have no appetite for GU, the Lemonade flavored Accelerade has left a sour, acidic paste in my mouth. Again, I just feel like something bad is happening but can’t figure out what exactly. As a habit, I don’t analyze anything that is going poorly during a race. Bad things, bad feelings, all that stuff is pushed aside. Instead I concentrate on the goals. Get to the next mile. Stay on pace. I do pretty much stay on pace even though very bad things are beginning to occur inside me. 7:48
Mile 16: The very bad things are now very, very bad. I suddenly puke in my mouth – it is acidic, lemony and completely nasty. My legs have suddenly been filled with an acidic achy feeling. Not like a cramp, but not fatigue either. I haven’t ever felt anything like it. It is suddenly in my right calf, my hip and my left quad. I have a side stitch too. And I’m vomiting in my mouth. Again. I panic. Why is this happening? What is happening? Please, please make it stop. I try to calm myself down. Just keep running. The next goal is to run until I see my support crew. Stay on pace. Instead I burp acidic grossness into my mouth. I take a swig of the Lemonade Accelerade and upchuck immediately.
Finally I see them, off to the left. I hear my mom cheering loudly. My brother is there too. I totally break down
Let’s take a closer look.
Yikes! So my race was definitely not going well at all. I still have 8 agonizing miles left and for once I’m not sure I am going to be able to make it. My body seems to have totally rebelled. I am broken and so far from the finish. Mile 17 goes by in 7:49.
Mile 18 – 20: I spend the 2 miles trying to figure out how to survive this. I am shuffling along. My motivation has totally changed from trying to keep a 7:20 pace to trying to keep myself pulled together enough to keep running. I also try to keep anything I have down. 8:07, 8:03, 8:40.
At Mile 20 I decide to switch tactics and pull to the side of the road and stick my fingers deep down my throat. I dry heave. I stick them down further. Be gone very bad things!! Not much comes up. I am racked with pain. This is by far the worst race I have ever done – and I still have six freakin’ miles left. I stick my fingers down again, one last time and then start walking. A spectator has been watching me and feebly claps and says “looking good! almost there.” I smile weakly and start to putter on. It’s no longer about keeping pace. It’s about getting to the finish line.
Mile 20 -23: I am a mess. I’ve watched the 3:15 pace leader disappear and the 3:20 pace leader has breezed by me. I have yet a new tactic. I re-set my clock and decide that I must run 10 minutes. Then I can take a 30 second barf break and then I must resume running. I do this for mile 20-23. I can easily say that these are the worst miles of my entire life. They stretch out into eternity and I am still unsure whether I will physically be able to finish. I have never hit the wall so bad. I have never experienced so many very bad things in one race.
Mile 23: I am tottering along and feeling depressed. Then I notice that the street is filled with other shattered runners. Some are walking, some have pulled to the curb to stretch, some are holding their side or grabbing at their hamstrings. I am broken, but still technically running. I take a small bit of solace in that. In my puke breaks I realize that walking is slightly more annoying than running and that running will certainly get me to the finish line quicker. I try to concentrate on that and will myself to take the next step.
Mile 24: Things are feeling slightly better. The puking has passed. My legs are screaming at me but I seem to have successfully compartmentalized the pain. I acknowledge they aren’t performing, but I just decide not to think about it. There are less than 10 laps between me and the finish and I’m going to do it. This is no longer about making my time goal, this is about finishing.
Mile 25: is pure hell
Mile 26: I’m almost done. I pass my crew one more time and raise a triumphant hand. I am going to do it!
Finish: I “run” to the finish line. I am completely empty. I see my brother first on the other side of the fence separating the finishers from the spectators. I stumble over and start to sob, “That was the worst race ever.” And it’s true. I spend the next 10 minutes walking around, trying to get my body back in order. I am exhausted.
Finish Time: 3:25:14
Thoughts: Let’s take a quick inventory of what went wrong in this race:
1. I ate a bowl of chicken as my main meal the day before the race
2. I drank an electrolyte mix I had never used in training
3. I ate a GU flavor I had not tried
4. I started my period the day of the race
5. I did not eat sardines for breakfast as I usually do
Clearly, some of the issues during the race were fuel related. I didn’t fill the tank and the fuel I chose was not well-suited for me. But there were other issues, too. I think I’ll need to tweak in my training and I’ll be assessing that in the next few weeks. If I’m serious about going sub-3 then these are issues I’m going to have to address.
Other thoughts: My two main emotions I felt after crossing the finish line was sadness and rage. I was sad that I didn’t meet my goal. I was also pissed off. I cannot believe I raced so poorly. I think of all the miles and the training I put into this race only to break down at the key moment of the race. It’s ridiculous and unacceptable. However, I also recognize that I learned a great deal from this marathon. I hit a very real, very painful wall and I kept going. I dug deep and tapped into some hidden bit of determination that I hadn’t known was there. It’s relatively easy to go into the pain tank when you’re close to a PR or almost to the finish. It’s quite another thing to keep slogging along for 10 miles with no hope of attaining any personal goal other than to finish.
My last thought is, hey, I totally blew up, I totally stuck my fingers down my throat and puked on the side of the road multiple times and still finished with a 7:50 min/mile pace. That’s still pretty damn fast.