The race that almost wasn’t: California International Marathon

This was a race that almost wasn’t — it was going to be my Boston qualifier for the upcoming Boston 2 Big Sur Challenge, but we all know how that story ends.  In that sense, I had lost a big reason to run it, and I don’t do marathons willy nilly — when I enter a race, I *race*, so that means one thing:  “pain” (as “Clubber Lang” said). But I did have two other reasons to run it, one being my running club needing me to score some Pacific USATF Grand Prix points, and the other being The Big Question.

What’s The Big Question?  Whether age and too much multisport meant that I would never break 3:00 again.  It dawned on me all of a sudden that I hadn’t gone sub 3:00 since 2003, odd for a guy who thinks of himself as a sub 3:00 marathoner.  🙂  Sure, that’s partly because the one marathon I run every year is Big Sur, which is not a particularly fast course, and sure, with all this Ironman stuff it’s not like I’m focused on a fast straight marathon time, but at some point you have to stop living off of past glory and call a spade a spade.

I publicly downplayed any expectations I had for this going in, saying all I needed was a BQ, which at my advanced age means a 3:30 (it’s still a goal of mine to run faster than that in an Ironman), but secretly I thought that maybe — just maybe — I had a sub 3:00 in me.  Not that I had had the kind of training program that gave me any right to expect one:  basically, I had a 3:56 “long run” at Kona (aka, my Ironman marathon), a bunch of recovery from that race, then 3 weeks after that my only other long run on the Huddart-Wunderlich loop.  This ~20-mile run, what my tri team calls “the Ultimate Run,” is mostly trails in the Santa Cruz Mountains and climbs and descends about 2500 ft.  When I’ve been in good marathon shape in the past, I would typically run it in around 2:35-2:40; this time I had to add some distance due to some trail closures, so my 2:43 told me my fitness was better than expected and right in the range of when I’ve run sub 3:00 ‘thons in the past.  Other than that, I had no reason for optimism — my weekly mileage rarely added up to the marathon distance, so this one was going to be run on guts and muscle memory.

CIM is another of those point-to-point courses, so that means a predawn 26.2-mile ride out to Folsom from downtown Sacramento.  The day was unusually cold — I believe it was 26F at the start, and believe me, it felt that cold as I waited in the portapotty line before heading back to a warm bus (CIM keeps the buses around at the start — nice touch).  The race had pace groups, including a 3:00 one led by elite ultrarunner Kevin Sawchuk, so I figured I’d at least have some company in my quest.

Off we went, and I settled into a relaxed but quick pace; I used my Garmin to display average lap pace so that I could run as evenly as possible, trying to stay around 6:50 per mile.  I was a little slow in the beginning, but still right there with the 3:00 group, which was larger than I had imagined it would be — there must have been 40 or 50 runners in the pack.  This turned out to be trouble at the aid stations, as 40 guys all going for water or sports drink at the same time tend to get in one another’s way.  I figure I lost 1 or 2 seconds each time since I didn’t want to risk missing my fluid intake, and after mile 6 or so, the 3:00 group had gapped me a little — they were just 5 seconds ahead, but I didn’t want to go to the well to hitch myself back on.  The mile splits were mostly in the 6:40s; I believe I was averaging just above 6:45 through the half, which I hit in 1:29 and change.  So far, so good.

I took a little stock.  I didn’t feel bad at all or under pressure, but on the other hand I didn’t feel great either.  Mostly my legs were complaining about the pounding — that’s what lack of mileage will do to you, I guess.  The other issue was that we were now facing quite a cold headwind, and I no longer found running 5 seconds behind the big pace group to my liking — I needed to get out of the wind, and what better way to do that than to tuck myself into the peloton?  The good news was that I didn’t have to surge to catch them; I just came up on them naturally at around the 14-mile mark.  The bad news was that that’s because they were slowing — I saw my lap pace reading in the 6:55-7:00 range, which is not sub 3:00 pace (sub 3 requires an average pace of 6:52), but we did have a time cushion thanks to some quicker early miles.  I figured I would sit in for a few miles and stay out of the wind; this had the added benefit of not having to think too hard for awhile — just focus on the guys in front of you and don’t let a gap develop.

I stayed with this through mile 20, which we hit in about 2:17, and I heard Kevin say that he had been sick the week before so he wasn’t feeling great, but we had a 25-second cushion, and if anyone felt great, they should run on ahead.  I didn’t feel great, but I took that as my cue to lift my pace, and I started running around 6:45s and went ahead of the group.  I could hear a couple of guys sitting on my wheel, so to speak, but at that point it didn’t bother me.  The headwind had diminished somewhat, and from 20 on you’re just running on a combination of fitness and guts anyway.  Mile 23 was the turning point; only about 5K from the finish, and whatever math I could do in my head told me that it was going to be very, very close.  I was hurting pretty badly at this point, and more worrisome than that were the constant twitches I was getting in my calves and hamstrings; if not for the compression sleeves I was wearing on my calves, I’m pretty sure they would have cramped sooner.  I was in a hurry to finish, but also mindful that I couldn’t press too hard — one cramp and my sub 3:00 would be done.

At mile 24, I did some quick math:  I was at 2:44:25 or so, which meant I needed to run slightly better than 7:00 pace for the last 2.2 miles in order to get under 3:00.  Seeing as mile 24 had been 7:01 — my slowest mile of the day thus far — the odds were good but not great.  Those negative thoughts started creeping in.  “Oh no, cramps again.”  “So what if you’re a few seconds over 3:00 — it’s just a number.”  I had to banish those thoughts quickly.  I told myself “You didn’t do all this pushing with pace group at sub 3:00 pace not to seal the deal.  You’ve done harder stuff than this — you’ve done two Ironmans this year, for chrissakes!  Suck it up!”  Some tri-geeks I know call it HTFU — Harden the F*** Up.  Whatever.  Legs-a-twitchin’ I soldiered through an interminable mile 25 in 7:03, so now it was really time to push.

The last mile hits the downtown and capitol area — all I remember is a younger guy going past me and trying to stay with him, passing some other guys that were roadkill, and seeing a big line of tall palm trees on my left.  We made a sharp left, which means you’re almost done, and then there were signs pointing to the left for women and then a separate men’s final 100m a little beyond where the women turned in.  I made the sprint and looked ahead at the finish clock:  2:59:51, 2, 3…sprint…5, 6…sprint..8, 9.  I saw the clock hit 3:00:00 just before I went under it, and sure enough, the finishing photo shows 3:00:01.  SO CLOSE!

But luckily the story has a happy ending — that was *gun* time.  It turns out it took me 7 seconds to cross the start line, so my chip time was 2:59:54.  SUB 3:00, BABY!!!

I can’t tell you how cool it felt…mainly because I was in pain and freezing my ass off.  🙂  My friend Greg was the other end of the finishers’ area waiting for me, and he patiently led my hobbling butt to the car about a half mile away.

The less-fun part was driving home to the Bay Area, repacking, and getting on an 11-hour overnight flight to Munich.  Not something I recommend…

Anyone interested in the course, splits, heart-rate data and even my average cadence every mile can click here.

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