Monday, December 5, 2016

Race Report: California International Marathon, December 4, 2016

I ran the California International Marathon yesterday, finishing in a time of 3:11:11.

This race has always been a bucket list item for me - I've heard great things about it, and I've never run a net downhill course before.  Nor have I raced in California.  So when I realized a few days after Chicago that a) I was entered in CIM (I entered it much earlier this year) and b) that several online friends from the RunnersWorld Online Forum were entered, attempting a marathon double sounded appealing.

But also risky, both in terms of burnout and potential injury.  For that reason,  this race was a "maybe" for me all the way until I hit the taper.  I knew that I was taking a risk by running a second marathon so close to Chicago, and so resolved to pull the plug if I ever felt burnt out, or if any injuries started flaring.  But neither happened, fortunately.  In fact, I ran some surprisingly good workouts in the shortened training cycle between the two - good enough to make me fantasize that maybe this could be a really good race for me.

Because the race was tentative for me, I booked my flight tickets on Southwest. Because Southwest has no change fees,  if I decided during this cycle that doing CIM was a very bad idea (instead of "not a great idea") then I could just reuse the tickets later.  Flying Southwest meant that I had to fly out of Baltimore's BWI airport, rather than one of the DC airports, but it was a worthy trade off.

The flight was uneventful, except for the strange stares I received when I wore my flu mask once again.  Whatever - better stares than illness.  Since Southwest lets you pick your own seats, I sat myself next to a thin guy in a Boston Marathon hat who was (as I surmised) going to Sacramento for the same reason I was).  My thought was that he would be more tolerant than others of a) my flu mask and b) my constant water drinking and associated bathroom use.  I was right on both counts.

When I landed at Sacramento, I headed directly to my hotel, and hit bed not too long after.  Since I had a very early wake-up time on Sunday, I decided it made sense just to stay on east coast time as best I could, hitting bed between 7 and 8 pm (10 and 11 pm) and waking between 3 and 4 am (6 and 7 am).


Saturday was a lot of resting, HBO watching, and Chipotle eating, plus a slightly longer than planned shake out run, and a slightly longer than planned walk to the expo.

By way of explanation, Sacramento's streets are laid in in a grid, with lettered streets running horizontally and numbered streets running vertically.  So addresses like "13th and K" are very very familiar to me.  At the same time, I'm used to Northwest DC (I lived in Dupont Circle for over a decade), where the numbers and letters increase as one heads north and west.  In Sacramento, it's the reverse, with the letters and numbers increasing as you head south and east.   This small detail left me directionally challenged, and every time I left my hotel, I headed in the wrong direction for several blocks before turning around.


Sunday morning dawned early but not early, per the east coast/west coast differential.  Per the race literature, the buses departed the convention center at 5:00 am for the start line.  However, it wasn't clear if that meant that ALL the buses left at 5:00 am, or if they started leaving at 5:00 am and departed in waves for some time afterwards.  

I had planned to meet my online friends (a step up from imaginary friends) Scott and Mark at the convention center at 4:55 am, but we revised to 4:45.  Which ended up being the right choice, as that's when the queues began to flower.    We boarded a bus a bit after 5 am, and arrived at the start area around 5:40 or so (if I recall).  With a 7:00 am start, this was plenty of time to chill in the bus (we were allowed to stay on board), listen to music, drink water, and eat more breakfast.

Around 6:10 am, I decided it was time to get to business, so I stepped off the bus for my first pass through the portapotties (which were amazingly plentiful - this race gets it right).   It was fairly chilly.

I had been planning to race in my sportsbra, but decided that the tank top was a better choice, so I changed in one of the portajohns in the dark.  (there were minimal  lines at the time).  I somehow managed to accomplish this without a) letting anything touch the floor, b) having anything fall into the void, or c) pulling a muscle.  I credit yoga.  Then I did some stretching, checked my bag, and did some more stretching.  Plus a few short jogs of 50 feet or so.  I don't like to warm-up for a marathon, other than stretching out my hips - why add any more distance to the 26.2?  But I do like to include a few short test jogs to make sure my shoes are tied just right, my gels aren't rubbing too much, etc.

This period was also punctuated by a meeting with my previously online friend Jim, a 61 year old running wunderkind.  It was good to chat with him and finally meet in person.

The start area was all self-seeding, no mandatory corrals, but it worked well here.  This is a race that caters to serious runners - the anti-Rock and Roll -  and my sense was that everyone lined up honestly based on what they intended to run - no first timers with delusions of grandeur.    Since I always like to start conservatively, this was a small race, and I had no real chance at a masters award here (so gun time didn't matter), I lined myself up with the 3:23 pace group.  My thought was that over 26 miles, I could just work my way through group after group - from 3:23 through 3:13 to hopefully 3:08 or faster.


The gun went off and we started.  I had felt pretty energetic the day before, but actually felt a bit off in the first few miles - very sluggish (and the first split ended up being very slow).  It was slightly concerning, but I've also felt that way at the beginning of some of my long runs, so I didn't worry about it too much.  Perhaps it was because of the long wait pre-race, perhaps it was just because.  Either way, I took my first gel a bit early, at the 3 mile mark, and perked up a bit after that.

This race is a rolling downhill course, and I can't help repeat what everyone told me before.  None of the hills are particularly challenging or hard - in fact, towards the middle of the course I found them to be a nice reprieve from the downhills.  But they did keep coming, and each one took back some of the time gained on the previous drop.  In retrospect, I also wonder if I was too cautious on the early downhills - I deliberately held back to save my legs for the second half, but I'm not sure that I accomplished that much by doing so.  My hunch is that I could have flowed down them a bit more (as long as I didn't push them) without additional damage to my quads.

My plan for the race was to stay conservative through around mile 12-13, where the biggest of the uphills ended, and then start opening up.  Carefully.  I still didn't feel great (not horrible, but not sharp), so I just kept slurping gels and drinking water (for those of you who care, i.e. Julia, the total was 9 gels plus three bottles of water).   Around mile 8 or 9, there was a big sign "Dianetics" and a few wide-eyed happy people handing out oranges.  I declined, fearful that I'd end up dropping out and marrying Tom Cruise.

[Of course, 20 years ago, if you had given me the choice between running a marathon and marrying Tom Cruise, I would have chosen door B.  Weird how preferences evolve over a lifetime.]

The second half of the race had a few negligible uphills and a lot of nice gentle downhills, and I tried to pick up the pace some, but my legs were dying.  The soreness had popped up a while ago - this was more of "losing air in the tires" feeling.  So more gels, more water, and careful metering of my effort to the finish line.    I also recalled conversations with several marathoning friends, where we agreed that one of the interesting things is that your legs can feel horrible and wobbly and shaky, but you can still actually be running decently.  I decided I was in that category.

Having seeded myself so far back, I was still passing people even as as I was fading, which helped a lot.  And every time I saw a large group pulling close, I hoped it was the 3:08 pace group.  It never was, though.

I made it through mile 20 without issue, and a few minutes later ran under a "wall" that towered over the course - amusing.  Not as funny as the guy in the Grim Reaper costume that used to hang out at mile 20 of the Marine Corps Marathon, but a nice touch nonetheless.

Then it was over the bridge that was the last "hill" and we were into Sacramento.  I could tell that I was maxing out my legs, but that's part of finishing a marathon.  And since I run watchless, and had no idea what my actual splits were, I was able to fully believe that I was on track for a major PR.

A few weeks back, I had paced a friend through the final miles of the Marine Corps Marathon, as other runners fell apart, cramped, and started to walk.  I encouraged them "relax and flow forward" - when you're tightening up and agonizing about the finish, trying to fight doesn't help - it just makes it worse.  So I coached myself onward, repeating "relax and flow forward, relax and flow forward."

It worked, to an extent.  I got what I could out of my legs, but it wasn't much.  I was running on my heels, in my own variant of the "mile 22 shuffle stride" - not fun, but it was what I had to work with, so I went with it.  At least I was moving forward.   My quads also shifted from painful to numb at this point - which was concerning but also convenient.  On the whole, a plus (marathoner logic).

Somewhere past mile 25, Jim passed me - on his way to a 3:10 (PR!) at the age of 61. (!!!!)  It was both massively inspiring and slightly depressing, as I realized that I probably wasn't running quite as fast as I had hoped.  (On the other hand, I apparently now have a 19 year window to set marathon PRs, so yay!).  But nothing to do except keep motoring with what I had - Jim encouraged me to come with him, but that just wasn't happening.

The course ends with two 90 degree turns - one onto 8th street, and the second into the finish chute.  I counted down the streets...11th, 10th, 9th, and turn on 8th.

This was the point where I was supposed to start kicking.  But just the opposite happened.

 Apparently the bargain I had struck with my legs was contingent on running in a straight line.  A turn was deviation from these terms, and so my legs pulled out of the deal.  They went into full rigor mortification, and I hobbled gamely, if lamely, across the finish line.

As I did, I noted the finish clock at 3:11.  Not what I had hoped to run, but I don't think I could have gotten much more out of my body today, and there is a great deal of satisfaction and pride in that.


Splits were:
Mile 1: 8:11
MIles 2-3: 14:47
Mile 4: 6:59
Mile 5: 7:06
Mile 6-7: 14:10
Mile 8: 7:14
Mile 9: 7:24
Mile 10: 7:09
Mile 11: 7:19
Mile 12: 7:16
Mile 13: 7:15
Mile 14: 7:05
Mile 15: 7:18
Mile 16: 7:14
Mile 17: 7:01
Mile 18: 7:11
Mile 19: 7:10
Mile 20: 7:17
Mile 21: 7:14
Mile 22: 7:20
Mile 23: 7:28
Mile 24: 7:24
Mile 25: 7:24
Mile 26: 7:31
last .21: 1:41 (8:14 pace - just nothing left)


The aftermath of the race was a lot of fun - I got to see Jim yet again, and congratulate him on his major PR. It was really cool to witness that (albeit, from behind...).  Scott and Mark also ran significant PRs, and Katie (the other member of our running group)  had a great race only a few months post-partum.   Katie, Scott, Mark and I (plus sig others and friends) went out for lunch after, where I had too much food and too many drinks, including the watermelon drink I had been anticipating since I made the reservation a few days prior.
Myself, Mark (Seattle Max), Scott (Brewing Runner), and Katie (KK Runner).
Not Pictured  Jim (Jim E 1955) and Robin (RLK117)
This was really good.


As for whether I'm happy I did this race, the answer is a resounding yes.  Though I had hopes based on my post-Chicago training that I might be able to PR at this race (and maybe even get close to 3:05), that was never the primary goal in running it.  I've always wanted to run CIM, and to do it and also meet Jim, Scott, Katie, Mark (and have forum-mate Robin cheering for me at various locations) was the primary purpose.  Mission accomplished, and a total success.

CIM was a great race, and I definitely recommend it to others - it's as good a place as any to take a shot at a PR.  And I'll probably run it again at some point, with a training cycle dedicated to it.

As for why I didn't run faster?   I can't think of anything I would have changed between the two races or on race day.  I tapered well, and I clearly paced it in a way that eked every last bit out of my body.  Perhaps I could have been less careful on the downhills.  On the other hand, perhaps I would have imploded worse at the end, had I not been cautious early on.

I did two things that some other marathoners find slightly odd - one was running this race with my watch blanked; the other was seeding myself fairly far behind the pace I was intending to run.  I don't think changing either of these things would have resulted in a faster race, though.  Chasing goal paces early on would probably worsened the late race fade, and seeing my splits in the last few miles (or even in the early miles) would have been demoralizing.   Running off of feel, I got everything out of myself that I could.

At the end of the day, I think that Chicago just 8 weeks prior caught up to me at CIM.   Some people recover very quickly - I tend to have lingering fatigue that can hide until least convenient, like race day.  I also think that the weird cycle of 3 weeks recovery, 2 weeks training, 3 weeks taper left me a bit short on endurance.  Which isn't to say that I wish we'd done things differently - had I tried to cram more training into that time frame at the expense of recovery, I would have just gotten injured or fried.

So, having tried the two marathons in one training cycle, I now know that it's not for me.  Live and learn, and I'm glad I tried it, rather than wondering.   If you don't experiment, you never reach your potential.   But, for ME, all indications are that it's far better for me to try to parlay post-marathon fitness into shorter distance races, and so that's what I'll do from now on.

Of course, it's not over yet.  Executing the two marathons in one training cycle is analogous to climbing a mountain in one sense - it's not a successful attempt until you've returned to base camp intact and alive.  Or in my case, until I've recovered successfully.  And based on the obscene gestures delivered by my legs yesterday, that's going to take a few weeks of nothing but pool-running, swimming, yoga, and eating.  There will be no January half-marathon for me, and no full marathon in the spring of 2017.  Just plenty of rest and recovery, followed by working on my 5K and 10K PRs.

Other notes:

  • Weather was perfect - started at 42, ended at 45, really no wind.
  • I had originally planned to stay in the Cal Expo area, a few miles from Sacramento, and rent a car.  However, I opted to relocate to a hotel in downtown Sacramento right by the finish line and the start shuttles - it was my first time in Sacramento, and I didn't want to make things too complicated.  However, if/when I do this race again, I'll definitely stay in the Cal Expo area (saving a good chunk of money) and rent a car - Sacramento is not a difficult place to drive around or park.
  • If you're on the east coast and you fly out west to run this race, just stay on east coast time. The sun sets around 5:00 pm local time, so it's easy to go to bed at 7 or 8 pm local time (10-11 pm east coast time). Which in turn makes the 5 am buses on Sunday easier, AND minimizes jet lag.
  • For a moment during the latter stages of the race, I thought I was hallucinating when I saw signs for US 50.  Only to realize that it was indeed true.  US 50 is also a major road that runs through DC (I sometimes run along it) and runs east to Ocean City Maryland. I spend a LOT of time on that road on the east coast, and so it was surreal to see it on the opposite side of the continent.
  • It was really good to see/meet/hang out with the RWOL 3:20 group.  
  • Had a slight asthma attack post race, which also happened after my Turkey Trot 5K.  Neither was very bad, but still concerning.  Since I'm on Advair, they shouldn't be happening at all.  After allergy season ended, we decided to bump down the strength of my Advair to the lowest possible, but I'm (sadly) thinking I need to bump it back up.  Annoying.
  • To DC natives worrying about the hills at CIM - seriously, they're like Rock Creek Park (and not the bad ones).  If you train in Rock Creek Park, you'll be fine.
  • Wanna know how you carry 5-6 gels on each side?  Here you go.  Apply bodyglide to sides, then safety pin gels to shorts.  Then fold gels over edge of shorts so they're tucked in between shorts and skin, where they sit securely until you need them.


  1. That's pretty impressive post-Chicago. Still faster than me on fresh legs! Also impressive? Nine gels! You're beating me by 5! Is that the normal number for you? I actually used Hanson's calorie calculator last race, and it recommended five gels, plus gatorade at every other station. I managed four, and probably not all the gatorade. I probably need to bump that up.

  2. I'm glad you had a time & enjoyed the race -- I know I am *definitely* not ready to run another marathon just 8 weeks later, but hey, you gave it a shot. Obviously CIM is like my favorite race ever, so I'm always happy to hear when it's made a good impression. :)