Sunday, January 3, 2016

RACE REPORT: California International Marathon 2015

After failing to re-qualify for Boston at Boston in April, I was looking for a chance at redemption.  It was going to be hard.  The cutoff for this year’s registration ended up being -2:28, which meant that I needed a 3:32:32, if things stayed the same next year.  Not only would that be a BQ, which has eluded me in all but one of my marathon attempts, but it would be a big PR, too.  It was a daunting task.  My marathon cycle wasn’t ideal, with less mileage than I had wanted, some very low mileage weeks, and not much attention paid to quality sessions (tempo runs & speedwork).   I did stay injury-free, though, which is a plus.  Overall, I didn’t think the cards were stacked in my favor, though.  Travel had hampered training a bit too much, and the sessions lacked quality.  I even skipped a 20 miler for the first time ever, I my 5 training cycles, and I only got 2 in.  I do think I have some accumulated endurance, though, and 10 miles was getting easy to do, as long as the pace was controlled.

A little of my marathoning history: 

1.       In my first one at Houston, I was pretty strict about getting in the specified mileage and specified speedwork, in my adapted (low mileage) SmartCoach Runner’s World training plan.  I did some racing during the cycle, and I wondered if I was burned out a bit by the time I got to the race.  I started way behind my corral, due to a last-minute bathroom break, and I made a rookie mistake of trying to make up that lost time in the first half.

2.       In my second at Albany, I started fading in the last part, and the last mile was long.  I did get 3rd in my age group, which was awesome, but no BQ.

3.       In my third in Philadelphia, I tried pushing the pace a bit, and I ended up losing the pace group at mile 14, and I struggled in the rest.

4.       In my fourth at St. George, I avoided racing during the training cycle, to stay fresh.  I had a week of plantar fasciitis, so I didn’t have high expectations about the race.  Another benefit was that I slept well the night before the race, for the first time, since I kind of treated it like any other night.  No fretting, because no expectations.  I think that helped, because I started slow and went by feel.  The downhill course helped, but I think the easy start was also a big factor.  I could tell at mile 18 that I was still strong, and I think I finished the last mile in 7:00 pace.

5.       In my fifth at Boston, just getting to run it at all was an honor.  If I could re-qualify, that would be a great plus.  For me, it’s usually “the colder, the better”, but this was too cold even for me, with rain, temps in the 40s, headwind, and a sports bra. 


The week before the race, I was giving training in Wisconsin, and I was standing all day, which didn’t help a whole lot.  I did like that for once, I didn’t have to stress over getting workouts in during travel.  I had a good excuse not to!  I ate a bit more liberally that week, too, with lots of sandwiches and bar food.  I got home from Wisconsin in the evening, and the next morning, waking at 4am, I was headed out to California.  


I like going West for races, since you gain time, and early morning races and wakeups feel like late morning races and wakeups.  The flight is rough, though.  My back was sore from the seat.  It was good that I got in 2 days before the race, so that I had a chance to recover from the flight.  The day that we arrived, we hit the expo.  My pacer for the 3:35 was the renowned ultra-marathoner Tim Tweitmeyer, who happened to be one of the panelists in the Pace Team Expo Speaker Session that day.  I got to meet him and get my bib autographed.  The expo itself was medium-sized.  I loved the shirt – quality, great color, great design.  People are right in the reviews – this race is extremely organized.  We got groceries, afterwards, since we’d stick around in California for a week after the race.

 (He tried Stinky Socks and Skunk-flavored Bam-boozled Jelly Belly Beans)

(drove through Sun Valley wine country)

The next day, we decided to go to the Jelly Belly Factory.  It’s kind of funny that my dad wanted to go there, because I had visited the Jelly Belly Warehouse in Wisconsin earlier that year, and those two sites are the only Jelly Belly tour sites in the US.  Unlike the Warehouse tour, this tour was a walking tour, instead of a tram tour.  It was a bit more walking than I would’ve liked, but I did carbo-load a bit with jelly beans.  After that, we stopped by Total Wine to get some local beers for later.

I had two decent nights of sleep in Sacramento.  I woke up part way through the night and ate some more bread, to top off a huge bowl of spaghetti and vegetables.  The next morning, at 3:15 or so, I had my usual hot shower, had a bunch of decaf to get things moving, geared up, and headed out.  It was a 0.5 mi walk to the bus pickup.  I loved that they had bus pickups throughout the city, and that you got to stay on the bus until race time.  That’s the first time I’ve seen that, although St. George and Boston are the only other point-to-point courses that I’ve done.  There were buses coming in to sweep us all off to the start.  The bus ride was like 45 minutes long.  Good music was streaming, some people were chatting, some were quiet.  It was a good ride, and I stayed on for a while, even after we arrived, to take advantage of the warmth.  It had started raining a bit on our way there.

There were a zillion porta potties, too, and I went twice.  The rain had stopped when I got off the bus the first time.  After I used the restroom, I went back on the bus, to do final preparations with gear.  The second time I went to the restrooms, I finished up only 15 minutes before the race, though, and even those zillion porta potties had fairly long lines… a bit too close for comfort.  It started sprinkling again.  Gear drop was quick and convenient, located right before the start area.  The field was 13K people, but the start felt pretty compact, which was great – less walking.  Fortunately, even 15 minutes before the race, I was able to get to my pacer’s sign with ease.  Quite different from my Houston fiasco.  

I met an older guy named Matt at the starting line.  He was going with the 3:35 pace group, too, and this would be his first marathon.  After a great rendition of the national anthem, we were off.  The 3:35 pacers swung to the left, but I could still see them, and it was good to have them in front of me but within view, so that I could keep pace without having to stress about keeping track of where they were.  The first mile was downhill, with a steep uphill.   I saw Matt periodically, and at one point, he said something, but I couldn’t quite hear it all.  I saw the pacer’s sign pop up in the cluster ahead, periodically, so I was keeping pace.  Over the next few miles, I ‘d check the splits, and I was surprised to see that we were going faster than pace.  The pacer had mentioned that the intent was even effort, to adjust for the terrain, which is the best strategy.  With a few faster miles under the belt, though, I was wondering if we were going too fast, so I decided to trust my own intuition and not worry too much if I didn’t keep up all the way.  I’d rather start conservatively and finish strong, anyway, and if I couldn’t keep up with them now, I’d surely bonk later, if I tried to over-extend myself now.  

At around the 10K mark, the sign popped up again, but I was close enough to read the last digit now, and I came to the stark realization that I had been chasing the 3:30 pace sign for the past 4 miles!  Matt must’ve said that we had passed Tim and the 3:35 pack, in the last comment he made before I lost him.  No wonder the splits were so fast!  Well, 3:30 wasn’t completely outside of the realm of possibility, but that’s super risky, going out that much faster than my PR pace.  I continued with them for a bit longer, since the pace till felt ok, and I was still recovering from the mental shock of the realization.  I eventually decided that it was time to start undoing the damage, though… well, maybe part-“decided”, part-“was forced”.  I started feeling the effort, and the hills were becoming more and more bothersome.  My pace slowed.  

At the 9 mile mark, the second 3:35 pacer came by.  She and Tim had had a strategy where Tim would stick with 3:35 on the dot, and hold the sign, while she would likely start to pick up the pace a bit from the half marathon mark, so that those who felt comfortable could push the pace a bit and build up some cushion against the probable additional BQ cutoff.  That was such a brilliant thing for the pace team to consider.  CIM really does care about helping us BQ, and like I mentioned, they are extremely organized and experienced.  That mini-pack was going strong, though, and I only saw them for a little while before they flew into the distance.  For the next couple of miles, I kept watching my splits, and I kept wondering if Tim was coming up right behind me.  The hills kept coming, and my slower pace continued on. 

Pretty much right at the half, Tim suddenly appeared to my right, with his sign.  I was glad that I finally got confirmation that I was back on track, pace-wise.  At the same time, it meant that I couldn’t afford to lose any more time.  I stuck right with them for a bit, just ahead of them.  Kept pushing on – gotta stay strong, and it would be a bit embarrassing to be caught by them so early, after declaring my intentions of going with them.  Although even if I did, following the 3:30 pacer for 10K by accident would’ve been a good story in my marathoning chronicles. 

My strategy for this race had been to go with 3:35 until the 18 to 20 mile mark, and from there, if I felt good, I’d start pushing it.  That was in the ideal world.  This would prevent over-exertion (if I could manage to stick with 3:35 for the first 18, that is, which was no guarantee based on past attempts), while still giving me a shot at making up some time for the extra BQ cutoff.  I figured that 2 minutes for a 3:33 could be possible, if I could make up 20s per mile.  I can run fast, so 20s was doable, but I am weaker on endurance, so surviving the first 20 would’ve been the tricky part. 

I kept going through the middle miles, and I was staying ahead of the 3:35 pace group, and I could tell from my splits that I was re-gaining some time.  Things still weren’t certain, especially at first, since fatigue could come suddenly, like it had in Philly at the 14 mile mark.  Had to survive the middle miles, which the CIM specifically marked off on the course, which was kind of fun… they physically manifested different parts of the course.  I survived it, and as I went on, I was feeling better and more confident.  At the 21 mile mark, they had an actual wall on the course, with a big busted up gap in it for you to run through.  That was really satisfying to run through, although if you physically had bonked by that point already, it would’ve been tough. 

Unlike most races, the CIM went with Nuun, a low-cal electrolyte drink.  I use a high-carb race fueling strategy, so I wished it was a different fluid.  They did supplement with 4 Gu stations, though, and I brought 2 of my own.  I ended up taking 1 gel every 3 miles, and that worked well.  I kept wondering if I’d bonk, but I managed to stay ahead of glycogen depletion.

During the Pace Team talk at the expo, Tim had mentioned a funny thing about the course.  In the last long four miles, as you passed through the city of Sacramento, you’d start at 57th street and work your way down to 7th street, and at that point in the race, those numbers would go down painfully slowly.  To make matters worse, while counting down, sometimes, random streets with non-number names would get thrown in there, delaying the continuation of the countdown.  I actually kind of liked seeing the numbers go down, because it meant that I was getting closer and closer to the end.  Depending on how one’s race is going, 4 miles can feel like an eternity, or like the final push.  Fortunately for me, things were going well.   My legs were becoming a bit harder to control and a bit less coordinated, but they were still producing enough power and speed.  Just had to keep it up.  The pace was still manageable, and as I got closer to the finish, I was more able to afford pushing it a bit.  

At last, the end was near, and we made the final two left turns, and the finish was there.  I found a bit more in me to inject some extra speed at the end, both to pass another girl who was coming into the finishing straightaway at the same time, and to bank whatever extra second or two I could towards my BQ.  I already knew that I had BQed, but I wanted to give it as much help as it could.  I saw that the clock was 3:33:something, so I got a BQ and a bit of a PR.  The CIM has another special/cool feature, where they have a BQ bell that you get to ring if you make it.  Finishing with a huge BQ cushion was a huge stretch, but during the race, my that-would-be-great goal was to BQ so that I could at least ring the bell and at least demonstrate that the previous BQ wasn’t a one-time, course-driven achievement.   

It felt so good to finish.  Finally done, and with the BQ!  I saw my dad, who was really excited.  He had seen me at the 26 mile mark and had screamed that I had gotten into Boston.  I knew that with the cushion, I probably didn’t do enough to actually race, but I was psyched to qualify again.  He saw me after I got my medal and heat sheet, and he told me that the texts showed a 3:32:13 time… then, I remembered that I had been looking at gun time, not chip time.  3:32XX – even better!!!  It’s a 2:47 cushion, vs. this year’s 2:29 cutoff.  We’ll have to see how competitive registration is next year.  Interest has grown since 2013, with more people than ever being determined to make it into the race and support it, so we’ll have to see how the efforts have translated into times, and how the numbers would stack up as more years go by.

3:32:13, 8:06 average.  Splits> 8:11, 16:09 for 2 (8:05), 7:53, 8:01, 7:54, 7:49, 8:06, 8:16, 8:10, 8:20, 8:31, 16:32 for 2 (8:16), 8:14, 8:03, 8:00, 8:23, 8:06, 8:17, 8:06, 8:00, 8:04, 7:57, 7:58, 7:35, 1:27 for 0.2.

After the race, I got a special shirt that I had seen online and at the expo.  This is the first race where I recall seeing merchandice post-race.  That’s brilliant, because people especially want to celebrate achievements, and they can get more money and move more merchandise.  The special shirt had a Bostn-style list of the cities that the point-to-point race went through, with Boston being the last city listed, since that was my final goal destination.  Clever shirt.  I put on the shirt and ran the bell!  It was a magical moment.  We got some beer, some Whole Foods soup and naan, and watched runners finish.  The blind runners and their guides were incredible to watch.  They were all super-speedy, courageous, and admirable.  It’s always special to watch people as they gut through their last mile.  The marathon magnifies all aspects of the human experience.  Each person has a different story, a different journey, both in the race and in life.  

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