As we waited at a stop light in the pre-drawn darkness during our drive to the the start of the California International Marathon on Sunday, Cara noted that the rain was barely hitting the windshield, while the rear window was getting pummeled. True enough, the southern wind was strong enough that even the angled front windshield was protected by the car's roof. Grim. I was going to not only get out of the car, but do my longest road run ever in this? It barely seemed plausible.
But while the rain was steady and the wind was strong, the rain wasn't as strong as I'd feared. I remember living in Austin Texas when the skies would open with truly torrential downpours, where it seemed as if the drops had merged into a contiguous mass of falling water, where the force of the impact was enough to make walking, let along running, difficult. Rain like this in a bike race is miserable: cold, wet, in constant fear of losing traction or having a rider ahead do the same. Running the only concern is being cold, and with temperatures in the mid-50F range, it would be the warmest start in the 30-year history of the race.
I got out of the car early, as traffic was backed up to the drop-off point, and ran in the darkness down the highway shoulder. True enough the rain wasn't so bad.
I reached the lined-up shuttle buses which would take me the two miles to the start and was quickly directed to an open door. It quickly filled, and we were off. After a bit of confusion over where to drop us off, we were deposited by the huge line of porta-potties 20 minutes before race start. Perfect.
After a surprisingly long wait for the porta-potties (only 3 people ahead of me) I ran to a crowd huddled under the shelter of a nearby gas station. There I removed my rain coat and sweat shirt, stuffed them into my gear bag, and went about putting on my disposable "garbage bag" parka I'd saved from New Zealand. This was a bit more challenging than I'd expected, since the strong wind inflated the parka and I had to guide it over my head and make sure my head went into the correct hole. But eventually got it on then put on my excellent SF2G cycling cap.
But before I could bring the parka hood over the cap an impressive gust of wind blew into the station. The hat flew off my head, flying into the darkness beyond the gas pumps. I ran around the pumps but people were packed shoulder-to-shoulder. I wasn't going to find it. It was 10 minutes to race starts and I needed to get a spot in line. Fortunately we'd gotten a head-band-elastic-tube-thingy which could cover my head. I'd intended to put it in my gear bag but now I'd use it instead of the cap to protect my head from the direct impact of the rain.
Despite it being so late and having to drop my gear bag off at one of the trucks which would carry it to the finish, finding a spot in line wasn't a problem. People were delaying moving out of shelter as long as possible. My goal was to find the the 3:10 or 3:15 pacer groups. My original target was 3:15 with 3:10 being an outside possibility, but the weather had taken the pressure off from this. Still, I didn't know how much of an effect the weather would have, so I decided to stick to plan. I'd start with the 3:10 group and if the pace was too high, I'd drift back to the 3:15 group.
With two minutes to go I decided to remove the rain parka. Most other runners had done so but a few clung to their rain gear. It was simply too warm for that and racing with a parachute on wasn't my idea of how to get a good time. So off it came: I was going to get wet soon enough so slightly sooner wouldn't make much difference. Other runners were tossing theirs on the road, but I feared the wind would carry them away, so I held onto mine initially in my hand.
I was just to the left of the pace group leaders when the start was called, precisely on time. But then my plans unraveled immediately: the 3:15 pace group was up the road, the 3:10 group presumibly further still. The pace group leaders carried red signs on wooden sticks announcing their intended pace. I checked after the race and the 3:10, 3:15, and 3:20 pace groups (those that I checked) did a superb job, despite the conditions. But it felt at the start as if they'd headed out too quickly. I resolved that I would run at my own pace, based on perceived exertion, and if I recaught a pace group I'd latch on, but as long as I didn't see them I could conclude I wasn't starting too fast. Running too slowly wasn't a concern: I knew from training runs I could fairly easily run my target pace, so as long as I felt as if I was "running" I'd be close to pace.
One thing I'd wanted from the pace group was drafting opportunity with the wind. But with the huge number of runners in the race, drafting was in plentiful supply. There were two sections where it was important, each in the first half of the race. A few times I had to accelerate slightly more than I wanted to close gaps, but only twice, and I felt the advantage justified it. Most of the time I just tried to keep leeward of a big guy.
The early miles ticked off pleasantly. The weather really wasn't a problem: I was having fun. I felt like it was a nice training run. Occasionally the wind would pick up and trees would bend, twice detaching small branches which would land in the road (nobody was hit), but I was warm and the road wasn't flooded except near the curb so all was fine.
Aid stations were plentiful: I was super-impressed by the volunteers out in this weather without the warmth advantage of continuous running. Early stations came every few miles, so I decided to get water at every one. Instead of drinking in full stride, I'd walk for a few steps to drink the water, then toss the cup and continue running. I didn't seem to lose any distance this way.
At 5 km my Garmin auto-lapped and I looked at the time: 23:25. I tried to do some quick math and it was clear I was close to pace. In fact post-race analysis shows I was running kilometers at around 4:35 (slightly faster since I'd started my Garmin before crossing the start line). This was a 3:13 marathon pace, pretty much target.
The mileage markers came at regular intervals, and while I enjoyed the run, I couldn't help but being slightly intimidated when I hit the 10 km point and realized I still had 20 freakin' miles still to go. I suppressed these thoughts and decided to focus on 10 km chunks. My nutrition plan was to consume a gel every 10 km, and I had two stuffed under my arm sleeves ready to go. I knew we'd get a gel feed at 13 miles (close to 20 km), then another at 20 miles and a final at 23. I planned to take the feedzone gel at 20 km and consume mine at 10 and 30 km.
A nice thing about reaching 10 km is this was approximately where the relay team checkpoint was, and there was a timing mat to get our splits. I knew Cara would be checking the live results and she'd know things were going well for me.
In addition to my compression sleeves on my arms I also had compression calf sleeves. Other than that it was the basic: New Balance Minimus Road shoes, unfashionably long running shorts, and a "technical T" from a Coastal Trail Runs event I'd done. This all worked fine.
The next 10 km passed smoothly enough and it was time for gel 2. My gels were "strawberry banana" flavor which had seemed like a good idea when I'd bought them at the expo the day before, but the first one had been pretty foul so I was looking forward to a something different at the hand-up. But after grabbing the gel (hand-ups are so much less exciting in running races than bike races) I was amused to see it was the same flavor. No biggie: I sucked it down anyway.
20 km means only one km to the half-way point, and another timing mat. It felt really good to be half-way: psychologically I'd climbed a hill and it was all downhill from here.
As we moved toward Sacramento the population density increased and the morning grew later so despite the fairly spectacular weather there were an increasing number of spectators on the roadside. One woman shouted "I've been at this corner for 30 straight years!" I wondered how often she shouted that to make sure everyone heard her, but I very much appreciated the support. It's goofy but having spectators shout encouragement is a wonderful thing, and I was grateful for their loyalty to the race.
I looked forward to 30 km because that would mark the distance of most of the longer trail races I've done. The only race I've done over 30 km was Skyline to the Sea three years ago where I did the marathon, but walked the final five miles in the zombie-like death march due to leg fatigue. Skyline to the sea is exceptionally hilly and Sacramento is very much not, so I hoped with my increased focus on running this year I'd be able to run the full distance. So far so good.
30 km is 18.6 miles so I watched the mileage tick by: 14, then 15, then 16. 16 meant 0.2 miles to 16.2, and 16.2 meant 10 miles to the finish. Since that is the length of my standard lunch run I tried to comfort myself that this was familiar ground. But I am normally much fresher starting my lunch runs, and in any case they don't seem particularly short, so this hardly felt like "almost there", but more like "just starting" (and already a bit tired). But I zoned it out.
It's amazing how quickly things can change running. I was running along fine and all of a sudden my left leg started to hurt. I slowed, trying to relax to suppress the pain. I've felt pain on training runs and usually if I focus on relaxing I can make the pain go away. This wasn't working so well, so I stopped briefly to pull up the calf sleeve on that leg, which had dropped down somewhat. This would increase the pressure on the muscles closer to the knee, which I hoped would massage the pain away. This might have helped a bit. I wondered if the crown of the road was a factor, since my left foot was forced to land above the right. I tried different spots in the lane to see if this would help.
Mile 18 and I heard the familar sound of "Eye of the Tiger" blasting from a speaker up ahead. Over Thanksgiving break I'd run the Philadelphia Art Museum steps for the second time, the steps made famous by Rocky's training during Rocky and Rocky II, so Rocky had recently been on my mind, and I felt energized by the sound. If Rocky could stagger out onto the ring for the 15th round and deliver ferocious body blows, I could overcome a bit of leg pain.
Indeed the pain subsided a bit and I continued on, reaching mile 19. Mile 20 would mark 10 km to go, so that was my goal. And I reached it: mile 20.
It was here it once again came to the fore that 26.2 miles is truly a very long way to run, especially on hard tarmac. I'd only run this far a few times before (Skyline to the Sea and then my 22-mile "long run" three weeks ago), and yet I still had to race a 10-k. I kept ticking off the miles, but I never felt like I was getting close. I was perpetually surfing the wave of "just starting" a run to the finish, that run getting shorter, but still long.
Soon after, my right leg started to hurt. This was a bit of a relief, because at least I was symmetric again. But it would cost me time. People started to pass me, something I don't like to see late in a race.
We reached the landmark of the end-game of CIM: the bridge on J-Street. It's a short lump, barely noticable when fresh, but I could feel the muscles complain both on the upside but more on the downside. It was a nice view of the American River below, which was fairly full under the now light rain.
Soon after the bridge we were greeted with a sign welcoming us to East Sacramento. 57th Street marked the start of the final count-down which would take us to the finish at 8th. 49+ blocks still seemed a long way to run in my hobbled state, but I tried to ignore the pain I felt with every step: instead of running slower, keep my speed and run smoother. But Sacramento blocks are short, and the blocks passed quickly.
21 miles had come and gone, then 22, then 23. As I was looking for mile 24 a woman called cheerfully from the side of the road "only three miles to go!" I knew it was less: it couldn't be more than 2.5. The difference seemed substantial to me, and I commented to the runner next to me "don't lie to me like that!" I was reminded of a sticker I'd seen in the expo: "26.2... because 26.3 is just crazy!" That's how I felt. I wasn't going to feel close until one to go.
I hit 24... the streets were getting more crowded and it was clear we were close to downtown. I was in a bit of a haze, though, not noticing that the 3:25 pace group had passed me. Had I noticed, I'm not sure how I would have reacted.
Someone did call from the side of the road, however, "around 3:25!" I wasn't happy to hear this as I'd obviously hoped to be faster.
Mile 25. Now there was just 2km to go. I could do 2km. For the first time since mile 16, I felt I could do this. I could deal with the pain.
Suddenly I heard from the side of the road an enthusiastic "Go Dan!" Cara was there, waving a sign she'd made at the expo where they'd arranged supplies. This made me happy: it was special she was here cheering me. A woman next to her shouted "Go Dan!" as well. Very nice.
It was the last block before the left leading to the final left to the finish. I cut the corner, coming close to an already-finished rider who'd burst into the road without looking. I shouted "hey!" as I avoided here, running to the finishing stretch, then sprinting as I could to the finish. The clock was ready over 3:25 -- close to 3:26. I'd missed qualifying for Boston. The cut-off was 3:25.
I was handed some chocolate milk, which I declined, then a shiny medal and a spaceb blanket, both of which I gratefully accepted. I continued on through the chute... photos were being taken of finishers with their medals, but there was a line, I was too fatigued to wait.
I'd expected to feel a sense of victory over finishing my first marathon. After all, my main goal was to finish without walking, and I'd done that. If I'd slowed at the end, it was still in the "run" category and not in the "stagger" category. Yet coming so close to Boston qualifying and failing... it might have bothered me more if I could have identified something I'd done wrong, but I'd run my best race and simply fallen short. If anything I had just needed more fitness, and if I stick with it, that would come.
The "no rematch" thoughts soon gave way to "which marathon will I do to qualify?" thoughts. The pain of those last 9 miles was intense. But that quickly faded.
However, after crossing the line the warmth of running quicky faded as well. I felt chilled, then began to shiver. Luckily I found Cara not long after and she had dry clothes and shoes for me, and helped me get out of my wet stuff. I was then able to fetch my gear bag where the volunteers had nicely laid it out with thousands of others.
Cara Coburn photo