Last weekend, we had the California International Marathon (and a rocking Bruce Springsteen show at Oakland). For the most part, previous years at this marathon were run in good to excellent conditions. Yes, some years had been bitterly cold with temps below freezing at the start, but nothing compared to this year. Everybody was worried about the forecasted pineapple express storm and a lot of questions at the expo centered around the weather, the rain, the wind and how much it would slow everybody down. One of the pacers had estimated the wind could require an effort of 30 seconds faster per mile. That meant if you were going to run a 3:15 marathon at about a pace of 7:30 per mile, with the forecasted headwinds, you would need to run at about a 7:00 pace effort to maintain the actual 7:30 pace. The question I received from most runners at the expo was whether they should adjust their expectations and run with a slower pace group. My answer depended. For someone running their first marathon, it might be wise to run at a slightly slower pace and not blow up trying to maintain a nearly maximum effort in difficult conditions. For those who already had some marathon experience and had spent months training for a 3:10 finish, then I encouraged them to stick with the plan. Few races are run in ideal conditions. And we still had no idea what the conditions would be like on Sunday and if the wind would be that much of a limiting factor. The optimist in me still held out hope we’d wake up to blue skies with a gentle tailwind. Why go into a race lowering your expectations and giving yourself an excuse not to perform your best? Instead, approach it with a “can do” attitude and give 100 percent. What a disappointment it would be to have trained to qualify for Boston, run the marathon with reduced expectations and miss qualifying, only to cross the finish line with a little left and knowing you could have gone faster and could have qualified.
But at 3 AM, when the wind and rain hitting our bedroom window woke me up on Sunday morning, I started to have my own doubts. This was not going to be easy. At 4:45 AM, I pulled myself out of bed and in about 15 minutes was out the door and walking over to Kayden Kelly’s house where Robin Soares was picking some of us up and driving us to the start line. I walked into Kayden’s kitchen and had to smile. Here it was pouring outside, literally filling buckets. There would be no chance of dehydrating and Kayden was filling up the biggest CamelPak I’d every seen with fluids as though we were about to embark on an unassisted 50 mile trail run in the middle of summer. Like me, maybe Kayden was still holding onto the hope of blue skies. Soon enough Robin rolled up with the minivan and we piled in and headed down to the start. We made a quick stop at Starbucks, but as we pulled in thinking they would be open at 5:30 AM, the store was dark. Then we noticed a couple of flashlights moving around inside and we realized, of course, the power was out. But the power wasn’t out as lights were on in the parking lot and other stores. Not sure what was going on but we may have surprised a couple of coffee thieves.
Robin was going to drop us off at Beale’s Point. But when she drove us to a dark parking lot and pointed to an even darker path and said the start is about 1/2 mile jog down that path, we asked if there were any other options. “Any chance of driving us right to the start?” So with the rain coming down a little harder and the wind howling, she drove us to the drop off at the start line and let us take shelter in the van until about 6:20 AM. With the wind and rain beating against the van, it was hard to find the motivation to open that door and make our way to the start. She kept the van warm and radio on long enough to drain the battery so when it was time for her to leave, her battery was drained. What a giver she is. Luckily the car next to her gave her a jump so Robin could make her own start at the second leg of the relay 6 miles away.
With only about 30 minutes to the start, normally the start line would be packed, but not this year in the rain. Most of the runners were huddled together trying to stay dry under the roofs of the gas stations. I know some people locked themselves in the porta potties until right before the start. As a pacer, we had a tent near the start line that we could stay protected from the wind and rain until about 15 minutes before the start. Then we lined up to gather and prepare our groups.
I usually start off a little slow and work into the pace intentionally. My first mile will usually fall around 7:40 to 7:45 instead of 7:15 right out the gate. But with a big headwind the first mile and not knowing what conditions would be like along the rest of the course, I told everyone I was going to stick with 7:15 right from the start. The second half can be faster than the first but with headwinds I couldn’t assume that. As I was waiting for the sound of the starting gun, I was shivering uncontrollably and already drenched to the bone. The starting gun sounded, I turned to the group and gave a half convincing “Thumbs up!”. There was no starting banner due to the winds and there would be no timing clocks along the course. When I realized we had already crossed the start line, I started my watch and could tell my Clif Bar pace tattoo was not going to last. Of all the times to try one of the Clif Bar Pace stick on tattoos, I had picked the wrong time. In only 20 minutes, the rain was already washing the ink and the splits away. The fading tattoo would prove to be a problem after mile 13.
That first mile was a little treacherous with all the debris of runners dropping garbage bags and other clothing. I’m hoping that next year the marathon encourages runners to use the drop bags instead of just discarding clothes and garbage bags on the road at the starting line. I think the rationalization runners make is the clothes are given to charity but what a mess at every marathon. It’s bad enough that there’s nearly a 26 mile trail of water cups and gels after a marathon. If it’s cold at the start, we need to put our clothes in a drop bag or hand them to a family/friend at the start. I think we can be more civilized than just dropping old clothes on the road that requires volunteers to come and pick them up and donate them. Trail races have less runners but nonetheless you never see that type of waste and garbage strung along a trail marathon course.
Right away in the first mile, the wind hit us head on. But miles 2 through 6 weren’t so bad as the wind blew more from the side. It was just wet. Miles 6 through 10 were probably the toughest with a good headwind and driving rain. Troy Soares flew past the group during this section as he was running the second leg of a 4-person relay. Around this time I also passed a guy in a mask and snorkel. He may have also been wearing a wetsuit but I can’t be sure. That was a fitting image for the day. I had a group of probably 40 runners up through the halfway point and we hit the halfway point exactly at 1:35. Nicole and Dylan waited under their umbrellas and we exchanged high-fives as we passed the halfway point. By this time my Clif Bar pace tattoo had started to wash away and the splits were nearly impossible to read. For the most part, I know we need to run about a 7:11 according to my Garmin to finish just under 3:10 at CIM. If I paced off the Garmin and ran consistent 7:15 splits (what should be a 3:10 finish time), I’d actually finish around 3:11. So I always remind the group at the start, don’t trust your Garmin because your Garmin is going to tell you are going faster than you really are. If you trust your Garmin and run at a pace which Garmin reports at 7:15, you are not going to finish in 3:10. Your Garmin is going to tell you are on pace for a 3:10 finish time, but when you see the finish line, it’s really going to say 3:11 or more because the course is measured as if you ran every corner perfectly and always in a straight line. You need to account for a slight margin of error, or understand that you are going to run more like 26.4 or so, if relying solely on a Garmin.
Miles 14 to 20 were pretty consistent but I seemed to slow ever so slightly on a few miles. I hit mile 20 and still had a good size group pushing to the finish. However, when I reached the stop of the bridge just before the mile 22 marker, I looked back and the group had suddenly disintegrated to just a few. And it was around mile 22 where I realized I needed to make up about 45 seconds. So where normally the last few miles I can put it on cruise control and nearly coast into the finish, this year I couldn’t let up for a second. I even had to slightly increase the pace without dropping the few runners hanging with me. I passed Jim and Barb Carlson working the Sutter aid station in a downpour just after mile 24 but had no time to stop and chat. At mile 25, my pace sign slipped from my hands. Criminy! I had to turn around and pick it up. Bending down I thought for sure my right quad was going to tear. My poor right quad had been complaining the entire second half and was not happy to have to stop, turn around, bend down then sprint back up. As I was shouting encouragement that last mile to the handful of runners left in the pack, I was also directing those positive thoughts to my right quad. “The finish is just around that corner! C’mon buddy just hang in there with me!”
Crossing the finish at 3:09:49, I’m not sure if I could have gone much faster those last few miles. It felt so good to put an end to this one and, although the conditions were difficult, it wasn’t that bad. (At least we didn’t have to battle mud like the North Face 50-mile racers the day before!) And on the way home, the skies cleared to usher in a nice, quiet and dry afternoon. This is a year that we’ll talk about.
Here’s my Garmin data: http://connect.garmin.com/activity/248757292