The morning was young as I left our hotel room to head to the start of the Santa Rosa Marathon.
5:20 a.m. Dark and blurry. Then again, that was probably my contacts. Who doesn’t think to replace a pair of well past their two-week lifespan lenses before their key race of the year?
I had dedicated so much brain power to preparing for the Santa Rosa Marathon, my head didn’t have space for much more. I sacrificed a year of racing for fun, signing up for only five races for the first eight months of 2015. (One quick look at my race calendar will show you how atypical that is.) The races were all carefully selected to test my fitness in the early months of the year, allow me to build endurance, see how my speed is coming along and, finally, give me a long-enough empty block to focus on the marathon.
For nearly three months, I didn’t even ride my bike!
All that, just so I could BQ.
For my age group [the forever 21] a Boston qualifying time is 3:40. But that doesn’t guarantee a race bib. A BQ time allows you to apply for registration — and that happens on a rolling basis. Fastest runners apply first. The process, of course, is only fair. But it also means that 3:40 wouldn’t cut it. For the 2015 race, the cut-off time for qualifiers who actually got in was 1:02 minutes. Ran 3:39:00? Sorry, you’re out.
To have a fairly good chance of making it, I wanted to run 3:37 or faster. But really, my goal was to cross the finish at 3:35, or earlier.
This all might sound fine and dandy, no big deal — until you take into consideration that my fastest marathon time to date had been 4:22… in 2006! I ran the LA Marathon a few years ago hoping to break four hours, but ended up doing even worse than that, 4:25. And last year, I ran the Big Sur International Marathon with my husband, also known as The One Who Bonked at Mile 17. I decided to stick with him and we finished in 4:46; our slowest (but most fun — for me, anyway) marathon to date.
So, you see, my goal to BQ would, in fact, require me to PR by 45 minutes. Or run an hour and 10 minutes faster than my most recent marathon.
(If anyone is curious about this marathon training cycle – I plan to do a detailed numbers breakdown in a separate post.)
I picked the Santa Rosa Marathon for several reasons:
1. It was late enough in 2015 to give me a lot of time to prepare, but still early enough to fall into the 2016 qualifying period.
2. It is a flat, fast course; one of the top 25 races feeding runners into Boston.
3. It is fairly small and fairly local to me. The logistics would be easy.
Namely: a two-hour drive to Santa Rosa the day before the race, stop at DeLoach Vineyards for packet pickup, and stay at the hotel that’s closest to the start (we went with the Hyatt Vineyard Creek, a bit pricey but a 10-minute walk from the start and finish, and right on the course itself).
Once you’ve run several dozen (ahem, 102) races, you pretty much know what to expect from an expo. This one, though, at the beautiful grounds of the event sponsor, DeLoach Vineyards, was quite different. We parked near the vineyard entrance, for example, and rather than walk the quarter mile to the expo itself, were taken there in a six-seater golf cart driven by a friendly gentleman who made us laugh at least three times during the three-minute ride. And on the way back, a local race participant drove the cart at the astonishing speed of 1 mph (or slower?), as the electric vehicle’s battery died. Yup, we had a good laugh about it.
Packet pickup was a breeze – I have become quite an efficient in-and-out expoer, aiming to spend as little time on my feet as possible, but still check out all the vendors — because you never know what you might find! At this one, though, we couldn’t resist spending some time wandering around the adjacent Theater of Nature, a cute little garden with small patches of all kinds of fruits, vegetables and flowers. [We may or may not have tried a tomato, a peach, a celery stick and a little piece of cauliflower, which was probably against the rules.]
Other than that, we spent probably 15 minutes picking up my bib, race jacket (in lieu of race t-shirt, great swag!) and bottle of specially-made DeLoach Runner’s Red, and tasting three kinds of wine and some non-alcoholic beer. Success!
I want to share here the plan my coach sent me for this race — if anything, because he ended up being 100% right about everything (as usual), and because this is advice that anyone running a marathon could use.
– Good dinner the night before finishing by 7:00-7:30 pm, maybe have a little more carbohydrate than usual. My pre-race dinner of choice — vegetarian sushi rolls with extra rice — fits this perfectly.
– A small breakfast 1.5-2 hours before the start. In my case, this is coffee, a Honey Stinger Waffle and a few bites of Smooth Caffeinator Picky Bar.
– Take a gel every 50 minutes or so, a total of about 4.5. [I had four.]
– Get consistent sips of water to help your stomach use the calories; aim for at least 20 oz per hour of running.
– In the beginning, hold back! The goal race pace (in my case, 8:15 min/ mile, plus-minus 10 seconds) should feel easy, perhaps a bit too easy, for the first 10 miles.
– The second eight miles will feel OK, but will start to get more difficult. Concentrate. Stay on top of fueling/ water intake.
– The last eight miles, build the effort – concentrate on holding on to that pace as best as you can. I quote this verbatim. Notice, he said not “hold the pace,” but “hold on to the pace.” Yup, that would be difficult.
– Be patient as you raise the effort. Don’t go hard at mile 20 and then slow down into the finish.
– Be really aware of fueling, continue taking in calories to schedule — or else things could go south quickly.
With that plan, I stepped into the start/ finish area at Julliard Park and lined up for a porta-potty.
The starting gun went off at 6 a.m. It was still dark and everyone around me was fidgeting with that pre-race excitement we all know too well: shaking off their hands and arms, stretching IT bands, jumping in place.
I was in Wave 2 and crossed the mats at 2:25. Time to do work!
The first miles felt absolutely effortless. The foot pain that had been nagging me for the last couple of weeks had miraculously disappeared. My legs felt fresh and springy – they wanted to run faster! I forced myself to hold back, as instructed. My pace for the first three miles was in the low 8s, but it felt like I was running in the 9s.
Mile 1: 8:09
Mile 2: 8:09
Mile 3: 8:08
After the first few miles on city streets, we headed out onto the path along the Santa Rosa Creek, where we stayed for nearly four miles. Miles 1 to 10 were all at an imperceptible incline – a total loss of 100 feet or so over 10 miles – which I’m sure contributed to the feelings of ease and strength I (and possibly everyone else around me) was experiencing.
Mile 4: 8:19
Mile 5: 8:09
Mile 6: 8:10
Mile 7: 8:07
Mile 8: 8:10
Mile 9: 8:17
Mile 10: 8:05
Still feeling good at this point, we had run out into the “country,” surrounded by vineyards and enjoyable views. Mile 10 was also where we entered DeLoach Vineyard – the course goes through the vineyard and the barrel room. I looked at my Garmin and, for the first time, did exactly what Coach D had told me not to do: had an “Oh Sh%t” moment.
I don’t really remember what time I had in my watch at that point, but my brain decided that I have been running too slow.
You see, one of the problems with long-distance races, especially those that have lots of turning this way and that, is that almost every runner on the course who is using a GPS watch will see an inconsistency between their watch distance and the mile markers.
In my case, the difference was now about .15 miles. By the end of the race, it would be .26. This is normal. The Santa Rosa Marathon is a certified course – this means that it is exactly 26.2 miles, however that is measured using the most efficient tangent for each turn. Was I running each turn most efficiently? No. You can’t do that when you are running with a crowd. So the distance you run grows imperceptibly with each mile. Almost every half marathon I’ve run has been at least 13.2 miles long. All marathons have been at least 26.4.
The only downside to all this – besides running an extra quarter of a mile (hello! that is a lot after 26.2! ) – is that the paces on my GPS are not to-the-milisecond accurate. I am running a little bit slower than the pace my GPS watch is giving me.
Is that enough to merit an Oh Sh&t! moment? Of course not. But under the circumstances – running a marathon, trying to BQ, oh the pressure! – I dare you not have at least one…
And so there was my next mile, powered Oh Sh&t:
Mile 11: 7:55
I kind of came back to my senses after that. When my GPS beeped a 7:55 split, I knew all too well that this isn’t a pace I can sustain for another 16 miles. Plus, I was expecting fatigue to show up. So I backed off the pace a bit for the next few miles:
Mile 12: 8:13
Mile 13: 8:13
Halfway point at 1:47. Coach D had told me to get there at 1:48-ish. I was ahead! See? Oh Sh&t moment completely unfounded. In fact, was I running too fast? Should I be having another Oh Sh&t moment because of that?
I was seriously thinking these things.
Mile 14: 8:28 (lots of rollers here, whoever said this course was flat?)
Mile 15: 8:11
Mile 16: 8:17
As predicted, this is about where I started working harder to maintain the pace. I don’t know if the small climbs at mile 14 did it, or the miles were piling up, but I was looking at my watch every now and then and wishing this would be over, soon.
Mile 17: 8:11
Mile 18: 8:04
Mile 19: 8:15
Mile 20: 8:11
Still feeling fairly OK. I was eating a gel every 50 minutes, as instructed, and kept my pace in check: I may not have hit a wall yet, but going too fast too soon would likely ensure that I hit one in the next few miles. So put on my best Terminator face (and sunglasses), and tried to run strong.
Mile 21: 8:21
Mile 22: 8:28
Mile 23: 8:32
Oops. What is happening? Why are my legs so heavy?
In fact, why am I doing this?
I’m slowing down and my legs won’t go any faster. I hate this. Stupid marathons. Whoever came up with the idea of a 26.2-mile race? This sucks. Yeah, no way I can finish in 3:35. Whatever. I don’t care. I seriously don’t. Everything sucks.
Oh look! My kid and husband are volunteering at an aid station! Awwwww! I love them. And they have a can of coke for me! I LOVE COKE! Oh wait, it exploded all over me. Whatever. I LOVE COKE! Mmmmm, tastes so good. (Burp.) This should help. Sugar! Caffeine! I LOVE CAFFEINE!
[tweetthis]Seriously, the highs and lows of the last three miles of a marathon… you have to live it to know it.[/tweetthis]
Mile 24: 8:24
Mile 25: 8:32 (the coke did help a little, but what can I tell you, mile 25 was hard)
Mile 26: 8:29
And final push: .2 at 8:06.
I swear I felt like I was sprinting those last .2 miles. I crossed at 3:39-something on the clock, and 3:37:28 on my GPS.
My official time: 3:37:24.
Avg pace: 8:17
Overall place: 428 / 1441
Gender place: 103 / 607
AG place: 19 / 94
The high of running a Boston-qualifying marathon lasted for a few minutes, followed by leg cramps, tiredness and relief. It’s over!
Now, I wait to see if it was actually good enough to get me there.