Liz and I trained for one marathon this year – California International Marathon, in Sacramento on December 6, 2009. I’ve been working for a couple years toward a sub-three-hour marathon, and this was the year I hoped to achieve that goal. We picked CIM because it is reputed to be fast and because it was Liz’s first marathon in 1988! We’ve both been going to Max King’s Tuesday Performance Group, and I hired Max to coach me… and he did a superb job of preparing me to meet my goals. Max did such a good job, in fact, that I’d raised the bar a bit on my goals – I wanted to run a 2:55 and hoped to place in the top three in my age group. Getting a podium position depends on who shows up, of course, and there are plenty of guys my age capable of beating me. A podium would be a matter of luck even if I ran my best.
I run by feel and heart rate, but I also like to have a pace in mind to keep me focused. The plan was to stay comfortable for the first half (heart rate of 135 should be perfect), and Max thought that I’d probably be running a 6:30 pace for that comfortable first half – if all went well. The plan then called for me to pick up the effort for the second half, with another increase in effort at 20 miles. It matched exactly how I’d run in Chicago last year except that my comfortable starting pace was 7:00 last year.
It seems my marathon reports are more about the weather than anything else. It’s true again for this one. I checked a number of forecasts, NWS, weather.com, local news, etc., and they all agreed it would be cool or maybe even cold. And most of them agreed it would be sunny with little wind.
Liz and I arrived in Sacramento on Friday evening and checked into our hotel near the finish. We immediately sensed trouble when we walked into our room – the walls and windows were vibrating with the bass line of the very loud music coming from the party in the hotel’s banquet facility near or room. We quickly called the desk and asked to be moved to a better room, and were disappointed to hear that we were out of luck. We made a couple more complaint calls to the front desk before the walls finally stopped throbbing at 11:00 pm.
We cruised through the expo Saturday morning and (uncharacteristically) made a few purchases. The Clif booth was handing out samples of Margarita Shot Bloks, and they caught our eye because of the “3X Sodium” sign attached to the samples. They turned out to be tasty, too. While we were checking out the salty Bloks, we noticed Shot Roks, a recovery product we’d not seen before. Those were tasty, too! We ended up buying some Bloks and Roks. We also visited the Runners Wrap booth where we each spent $5 for a Tyvek shell and $1.50 for a pair of gloves. We planned to take lots of clothing to the start to give us lots of choices, and disposable warmth just increased the odds we’d have the right clothing for the entire race.
After the expo we went for a short run to wake up our legs. An easy jog warmed me up nicely and a set of 4 strides left me feeling powerful and energized. With our new-found vigor we took the light rail out to the Sacramento Natural Foods Co-op. Liz had done the research and found a delightful store readily accessible from the train. We had lunch there and stocked up on groceries to get us through the weekend. My stomach often rebels during races, and I’ve learned that I often do better if I snack on yogurt, bread, bananas and other simple fare throughout the afternoon before a marathon. Back at the room we converted one garbage can into an ice bucket to keep our perishables cold. We were almost ready to settle in for the duration with our snacks and a couple books. The remaining problem was that Liz had already finished the book she brought. Liz made one more outing to a bookstore and returned with something to read and we were ready to relax. My sister, Nancy, and her husband, Rich, were also in town for the marathon and invited us out to dinner. We explained that we were done with the outside world for the evening and declined the invitation. We organized our gear. CIM was serving Ultima and water at the aid stations. Ultima has very little carbohydrate, and Liz and I don’t do well with gels, so we decided we’d have to figure out something else to do. Actually, Liz had figured it out – I was thinking I’d get by on Ultima until Max asked me about four times about my backup plan for nutrition. It finally sank in that I’d better have a plan, so I joined with Liz in figuring it out. Liz and I have had pretty good luck with Gatorade Endurance formula. It was served at Chicago last year and we had trained with it before that. It got us through the miserable heat of Chicago last year and generally doesn’t upset my stomach, so we decided to try to carry our own supplies of that product. We bought a couple Amphipod bottle belts at FootZone. The 12-oz bottles are flattened and curved, and they ride very innocuously in the small of the back. We filled the bottles with triple-strength Gatorade and planned to sip a bit of the stuff and have a water chaser at some of the aid stations.
We set the alarms (I always take two alarm clocks, doesn’t everyone?) for 3:45 and curled up with our books. Around 7:00 p.m. we heard music again, but much quieter this time. Even with the music, Liz drifted off around 8:00. It seemed the previous night’s noise might actually have been useful – we were tired enough to fall asleep early. I dozed a bit, too, but we both snapped awake when the party abruptly changed between 9:00 and 9:30. It was loud again, and sleep was no longer a possibility. I knew it was pointless, but hoped I’d feel better after making another call to complain to the front desk. It didn’t help, of course, and I was just agitated. As it had the night before, the noise stopped at 11:00 and we were able to get to sleep.
3:45 came too soon, and we stumbled out of bed and pulled on the clothes we thought we were likely to start with. The hotel had fruit, coffee and bottled water in the lobby starting at 4:00, so we went downstairs to partake. The bananas we’d found Saturday were far too green, so it was nice to find ripe bananas when we arrived in the lobby. We each picked up a couple bananas and a small cup of coffee before heading back up to our room.
We finished getting ready and were back in the lobby a few minutes before the bus was scheduled to arrive (at 5:00) to take us to the start. Some folks were waiting for the bus out on the sidewalk, but we joined Nancy and Rich in the warm comfort of the lobby. There was a lot of energy in the air as everybody was pretty keyed-up and a little anxious. We had a nice visit with Nancy and Rich, and met some of the other guests as we waited. The entire time we were waiting, buses had been moving in a stop-and-go fashion past the front door. The brochure had said our bus would pick us up between 5:00 and 5:15. A little after 5:15, Liz and I looked at each other, nodded, and decided it might be a good idea to walk a few blocks down the road to the official headquarters hotel where we were certain we’d be able to catch a bus. Nancy and Rich had more confidence in the system and chose to stay at our hotel. We learned later that the bus never came, and everybody from our hotel ended up making the same walk to the headquarters hotel.
Liz and I arrived down the street just in time to miss a wave of buses that had just filled. Buses streamed past us for a couple minutes – just long enough to make us nervous – before another set pulled to the curb and opened their doors. We hopped in, found seats that were not on the wheel (I made the mistake of sitting on the wheel bump on the bus in Boston – there is little leg room and it becomes uncomfortable very quickly). The bus was warm, we were happy and calm and certain we’d make it to the start in time. Now we could go back to being nervous about the race.
The bus ride was long. Surely we weren’t going to run all that distance back to the finish! Surely the buses took some circuitous route! Along the way we saw lots of frost, so it was pretty obviously below freezing. The sky was just getting a little color as we stepped off the bus. There was little wind and not cloud in the sky. The sunny and calm forecasts appeared to be right. It was brisk out, but not too bad, and I was sure it would be pretty comfortable once the sun came up. I decided I’d wear shorts instead of tights. Liz thought it more prudent to stick with tights – thinking she could tolerate a little overheating late in the race better than freezing early on.
The lines at the porta-potties were short enough still, so we made that stop and headed to the gear drop. We made our final clothing choices and checked the rest. The crowd was thick at the gear drop and I lost sight of Liz. I gave up looking for her after a few minutes and went off to warm up and secure a spot near the start line. CIM uses clock time for its results, and I was hoping to get a podium position in my age group. I didn’t want to lose a position by being polite and taking a big start delay. It was surprisingly open near the start line. There were, in fact, several fast-looking guys doing short strides back and forth across the road next to the yellow tape that marked the line where we should line up. I still needed to do strides so I joined them. After a couple minutes the crowd finally started pressing in and I took a place just a row back from the tape. Only then did I notice that some people had gone around the start area and were doing strides in the wide open spaces beyond. It was too late by then, but I felt a little silly for not having noticed earlier.
As the start time drew nearer, the number of people in front of me grew rapidly. People were squeezing in all around and some were appearing on the other side of the tape. I joined the crowd slipping under the tape and was about 5 rows back when officials dropped the tape. I heard a count-down and thought it was for the wheelchair racers, but noticed a lot of excitement in the crowd. I decided to be ready to go if it happened to be our countdown. Sure enough, runners started when the countdown got to zero. There had been very little fanfare for the wheelchair start 30 seconds earlier – I hadn’t heard or seen a thing. We were off, though, and it took only a few seconds for the crowd to spread out enough to run comfortably.
The plan was to start comfortably, and hold a 6:30 pace – if that was comfortable. My pace in the first mile is often faster than I want it to be. Liz had reminded me that my Garmin could show me pace in the current lap – and we both have our Garmins automatically clock a lap with each mile – so I could keep an eye on my pace during each mile. The problem was, of course, that it was too dark to see what the Garmin was telling me! I couldn’t see heart rate or pace. The Garmin’s light wasn’t enough for my aging eyes, either, so I ran the first mile by feel. I did better than I usually do, but was still too fast. Volunteers called out the elapsed time and the pace at most miles, and I heard 6:17 as I passed the first mile marker. I backed off and passed the second mile just as 13:00 was called out. Perfect! I don’t remember much about those miles – I was so focused on how I felt and staying upright, that I hardly noticed what was going on around me. After the second mile I started to notice more, but my universe was still pretty contained. I was very, very comfortable, and felt I’d picked the perfect amount of clothing. Pace was perfect. Heart rate was perfect. I felt great! Around 3 miles I grabbed my first water and slipped on ice that had formed where water had spilled. I felt a short, mild pain in my left quad as I jerked to keep my balance. And I wondered how bad that ice spot would get as more water spilled.
My leg felt OK, and I hadn’t fallen, but it reminded me to be careful! At about this time I noticed a bank of low clouds in the direction we were headed. “Oh, well,” I thought, “maybe there’s some fog that’s a little slow to burn off.” A couple minutes later, though, I noticed leaves swirling around a little too vigorously and felt an unpleasant gust of wind. “Well, that was odd”, I thought. It didn’t take long before the sun had been obscured and we were being buffeted by winds that were stronger than expected. Meanwhile, I continued passing mile markers at perfect 6:30 intervals. I still felt great.
I’m amazed how little I remember about things along the course! After the race Liz, Nancy and Rich were all talking about this thing and that thing they’d seen… and I just remembered pavement and stripes. I know I was looking around. I guess I was just a bit disconnected early on. I remember uphills and downhills and turns and potholes and intersections and a couple places with horses skittering about near the road, but I don’t remember where they were or how they related to each other. I was trying to see water stops far enough in advance to get a swig of Gatorade and put my bottle away before taking a cup of water. I was doing well, sipping a little Gatorade every few water stops and having a bit of water a little more often.
One thing I did notice, though, was that the wind was getting stronger, the sun was definitely gone, and I was getting colder. Mile 9 was 6:38 (from my Garmin – I don’t remember my splits) and my left quad was starting to hurt where I’d felt that little stab when I’d slipped. After a couple more miles I noticed both quads felt a like somebody had unzipped them, stuffed a brick in with the muscles and zipped them back up. My legs were getting heavy and hard to turn over, and I think it was because they were cold. The good news was that I no longer worried I’d hurt myself when I slipped. I was just cold.
My race plan would have me pick it up after passing the halfway point. I was only slightly off pace, (1:25:46 at the half) but was feeling poorly enough to know I was going to have a long day. I increased the effort, but it was more than offset by our turn straight into the wind. Mile 14 was 6:41 and mile 15 was 7:03 – straight into the wind. My legs started feeling better, though, and I think it’s because the increased effort warmed them up a little. Uphills felt better than down.
My hands got colder, too, and clumsy. I was having trouble getting my Gatorade bottle out, opened, closed and back in its holder. To get the bottle out I was twisting the belt around so I’d have the bottle in front of me where I could see it. In one of the twists I managed to tear one side of my bib, and I noticed my number flopping about and dangling from an attachment at only one corner. I didn’t want to risk being disqualified by losing my number – CIM made it clear my number had to be visible at ALL times and that I could be disqualified it was not visible. I tucked most of the number into the waistband of my pants – the bib was visible, though my number was not. I knew I’d be hard to find in the race photos, but I also suspected this wasn’t going to be a race where I’d want to see how I looked.
My nervousness about losing the last corner of the bib caused me to be more cautious about twisting the belt when getting my Gatorade bottle. That and my clumsy, cold hands made it harder to get my bottle, and that ended up causing me to miss my sips of Gatorade at several water stops. I was carrying two gels, and thought I should probably take one of them at 17 miles, but my fingers were so cold by then that I didn’t think I could open the gel packet. My head was cold, too, and I think it made me stupid. I pretty much neglected my nutrition in the last 9 miles.
I was able to hold pace in the 6:40s through mile 21, but it consumed all my attention to do so. I don’t remember much from that section. I do remember, though, that people were starting to stream past me. I wasn’t able to do arithmetic very well, but I knew I could still finish under 3:00 if I could keep my pace at or below 6:52. My Garmin tells me that mile 22 took 7:00, but my feeble brain did the arithmetic wrong at the time and I thought I was running much slower. I thought I was going to miss 3:00, and had the first little glimmer of “so what, I don’t care.” I recognized the need to get some positive thinking going, so I focused on other goals. If I couldn’t beat 3:00, I could at least get a new personal best (previous best was 3:08:22 last year in Chicago). And maybe I could hang on for one of my other odd goals – 1.5 times the world record would require something under 3:06, and a couple minutes faster than that would put me within an hour of the world record. Having some (apparently) achievable goals in my head helped me get my motivation back. About then a group of 10 or so guys came by. I thought they were probably the leading edge of the 3:00 pace group and I decided to do whatever I could to stay with them. I surged to catch up and found an extra bonus of being out of the wind. Any lapse in concentration, though, and I’d find myself a few meters off the back of the group. I think they pulled me along for a few miles. My universe had shrunk to watching a few sets of shoes just ahead of me. I didn’t notice much of anything beyond those shoes.
With a few miles left, the group split. Five or so guys pulled away, and the rest of the group suddenly let down. I tried to stay with the faster guys, but simply didn’t have the speed I needed. I found myself running alone for the last mile or so, and tried not to let down. I felt like I was dropping to 9:00 pace, but my Garmin says mile 25 was 7:05 and mile 26 was 7:20. That’s a lot better than I thought I was doing.
I was finally starting to feel warm. I still had on my hat, gloves and the Tyvek shell. I removed my hat and stuffed it in a pocket, and started trying to remove the Tyvek. I found my hands just wouldn’t help out. The shell was too long and bit baggy, but Liz and I had discovered that we could solve both problems by tying together the front “tails” of the shell (in a loose knot over my stomach, in the style of pin-up girls from the 50s). The shell had simple snaps to keep it closed and they popped open with ease. But I couldn’t get the knot untied. So I gave up and kept the shell on – though I suspect it acted as a parachute at the worst possible time.
At long last I saw the sign for mile 26 and the subsequent turn into the finish area. I’ve always had some kind of kick left, but my Garmin says I didn’t speed up a bit in the final tenths. When I made the final turn and could see the finish and the clock, I was so happy. It was a huge relief to be able to stop. 2:57:27 gun time. 2:57:22 chip time. A new personal best by exactly 11 minutes. It instantly switched from a bad day to a great day! I had persevered through the dark moments of self-doubt that fill the final miles of a marathon, and I had not let down. I was very happy.
I picked up my medal and a space blanket, had my chip clipped and even stopped for a posed photo – with my torn number out and dangling awkwardly. There was a food area with hot pancakes, but I didn’t want any. The Clif booth was handing out Shot Roks so I took a couple of those and a cookie from the booth next door. Finally I grabbed a half a bagel and headed to the gear check. Gear bags were being spread out in a wonderfully organized grid that made them easy to find, but bags had not yet all been unpacked, and it took the nice volunteer a while to find my bag in a pile. My hands (and head) were still pretty clunky, so I fumbled with the bag for a long time before I gave up and tore it open. I had a recovery drink and dry warm clothes I wanted to get!
After I was dressed and refreshed from the contents of my bag, I wandered back to the finish to look for my brother-in-law, Rich. He hoped to beat 3:30, and the clock showed 3:35, so I suspected he’d finished and I didn’t bother looking for him. I found a spot where I could watch the women’s finish, and started looking for Liz and my sister, Nancy. I had trouble staying focused, and realized it would be easy for me to miss either or both of them. There was an ever-increasing wave of finishers crossing the line. Suddenly, though, I saw my lovely wife! With a big smile and beautiful, strong strides she crossed the line at 3:58:26 (gun time – her chip time turned out to be 3:56:43). I knew her goal was to beat 4:00, and my eyes filled with tears of joy! I made my way to the fence where I hoped to get her attention. Still smiling and looking good, she picked up her space blanket and medal and had her chip clipped. I caught her attention and she came to the fence for a congratulatory kiss. She stopped for a photo then we headed to the food area. Lines were huge for food, so she opted just to go to gear check and get out of the crowd. She spotted where results were posted, though, and took me over to discover I had taken 2nd in my age group.
It was a short, three block walk back to our hotel. Next to the hotel is a delightful coffee house, and Liz further made my day by mentioning that she had carried $20 in the race and we could stop for coffee! Hot coffee has never tasted better. Back at the hotel we got a call from Nancy – she had finished in 3:46:05 and Rich had run 3:27:12. Everybody qualified for Boston 2011 (2010 has already sold out), and we all feel inclined to go.
After getting cleaned up we went to the awards ceremony. It was fun to get my plaque, but the highlight of the ceremony for me came when Keith Wood came forward to collect his award for winning the men’s 80+ age group with a time of 4:14:05! He got a well-deserved standing ovation!
We finished the day with Nancy and Rich joining us for a nice dinner. The hotel was blissfully quiet and we drifted off to sleep early and slept soundly. It had been a long but satisfying day.