On December 3, I ran the 35th California International Marathon. As luck would have it, my original time goals got thrown out when I sprained my ankle a week before the race. But, CIM ended up giving me so much more than I expected.
Three days before CIM, I started a fundraiser for Girls on the Run and “sold” each mile in exchange for donations. I always run the last race miles for family and friends, but this time, thanks to the generosity of my amazing friends, I had a mile dedicated to a person the entire way — from the start line in Folsom to my last steps across the finish.
So, be warned: this race recap is long and not quite the mile-by-mile breakdown you might expect of a typical course review.
Goals and training
My stretch goal for CIM had been to finish in 3:30 or less. Goal “B” was to break 3:35, which would still be at least a two-minute PR. And I wanted to qualify for the Boston Marathon again, which meant running 3:40 or less to get a five-minute or longer cushion.
This marathon training cycle was only 10 weeks long, but I felt physically and mentally ready to get after my goals. I was coming off a solid triathlon season, with a 1:43 half marathon at Ironman 70.3 Santa Cruz in early September, and a 45-minute 10K at Santa Cruz Triathlon two weeks later. I was feeling fit and excited to run my first marathon since Ironman Vineman on July 30, 2016.
Training was going great, I did all my tempo workouts and long runs as instructed. My coach had me run three 19+ milers this time, on three consecutive weeks: 19.2, 20, and 19.5 miles, all with a 45-minute easy warmup and the rest at 7:55-8:20 pace. I thought he was nuts for making me do these, but they actually felt really good – almost *easy* – and I had an opportunity to practice nutrition and get my gut used to taking in gels a little bit more frequently (my nutrition goal for CIM was to be able to take in at least five gels this time, to meet the demands of higher energy burn).
Side note: You might be thinking, aren’t long runs supposed to be easy? The answer is yes, and no. When the purpose of a long run is to develop endurance, which is the case with those who start a marathon training cycle from a fairly low base, then yes – long and slow. But if you are coming off of many 15-hour training weeks and the ability to race a half marathon hard at the back end of a five-hour race, the endurance is already there. So my long runs were meant to push my body and get it used to holding marathon pace, and with each of them I felt more confident that I would be able to do it.
On Thanksgiving Day, I ran my last hard workout, 6.2 miles at tempo pace. I didn’t race a Turkey Trot on purpose; I didn’t want the temptation to go too hard, given how fatigued my body felt at that point. In fact, even that 46-minute 10K on rolling hills left me pretty wiped out; in retrospect, I should probably have toned it down a bit.
A few easy short recovery runs followed, and the Saturday a week before CIM, I headed out on my last sort-of long run: an hour and 40 minutes of running, the first 6 miles at super easy pace, 5 miles at 8:00 min/mile, and whatever was left, very easy again. Except a minute and 21 seconds into it exactly (it is all conveniently on Strava now!), I slipped on some foliage, my left ankle bent at a weird angle, and off I skidded on the sidewalk. It hurt so much that I had to sit there for a couple of minutes before I limped back home.
Obviously, the timing of the sprain was terrible. But on the bright side, all the work was done: I now had a week until CIM to rest it and see if it would recover enough for me to still run. The ankle was swollen and bruised by the next morning, but I was able to put weight on it and even hop up and down a little, with not much pain. The week that followed was mostly rest, trainer rides, and some short and very easy runs. Each day, the swelling went down a bit more and the blue turned yellow (a good sign). With three days go go, I ran for one hour and the next day, just two days pre-race, was a 70-minute run at an easy pace with some pickups.
My ankle felt strong enough and I knew I would finish the marathon, but I needed to revise my time goal. I was still hoping to run under 3:40 for a BQ, and even 3:35-ish for a PR. Most importantly, I now had 26.2 miles to run for my generous friends and for Girls on the Run.
CIM starts in the middle of a road in the middle of nowhere. OK, that’s not really true. It starts in Folsom, California. That’s a very pretty area! Except at 6 a.m. on December 3, it was all dark, so I could make very little of my surroundings, other than the start line on my left and a long, long line of porta potties on the right. It was cold, but not freezing. (Bring warm clothes to throw away if you’re running this race, though.) I spent the next hour waiting in line for a porta potty, then waiting in line for coffee and water, and then waiting in line for a porta potty again. With just 10 minutes to go, I headed toward the start.
CIM is a fairly large marathon, but does not feel crowded. I crossed the mats only a minute or so after the start gun and was able to settle into my pace without any need to zig-zag around others.
Mile 1 was for my friend Tiffany and her aunt Eileen, who was recently diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer. Tiffany loves running downhill, and that mile – all of it going down – was just perfect. I took long, deep breaths of fresh air and thought about her aunt and the long road she has ahead of her. Compared to that, the 26.2 miles I had to run? Nothing. A blessing to me and my legs to be able to do this.
At Mile 2, we hit a few climbs and I thought of Sheri. This was her mile. Sheri has three little kids and works full time as a kindergarten teacher. So what was I going to do, complain about having to run uphill for bits at a time? Can you imagine how hard it is to run a family of five and a full-time job that requires the daily care of 20+ kids? Perspective is what it’s all about!
Mile 3 started on a delicious downhill and my lovely friend Patti would have loved it. Patti picked mile 3 for her three kids. They’re all grown up, though, and Patti will soon turn the big 6-0, a faster and stronger runner than ever. I thought how I want to be Patti when I “grow up” and I also thought that Patti should really try and go for a BQ. Well, I thought it, so it’s got to happen, right?
Mile 4 was Kathy’s mile. Kathy is a breast cancer survivor and I thought how I hate the word “survivor” — more like conqueror is what she is, and anyone and everyone who has beaten this nasty disease. As I hit the mile marker, I took my first Honey Stinger gel.
By now, it was obvious the 3:30 goal was really, definitely and for sure out the window, but I was on pace to hit a BQ time, so on I went.
Mile 5 actually ended up my fastest split in the entire marathon, a 7:58. There was a lot of downhill in that mile, and I thought of Maria and her three kids. They’re all so young (one of them still in diapers) and Maria is now training for a marathon and a 50K in early 2018. I thought of how all the training must feel like an uphill battle with kids that little, but Maria is so strong and making it feel like a nice and smooth downhill run.
Then Mile 6 came and the biggest smile appeared on my face because this was Liz’s mile, and anyone who’s ever met Liz knows she is the most positive person in the world. Liz is always smiling and always loving the run. Earlier this year, she ran a 100K and one of the people I met at the aid station where I volunteered for a few hours told me he’d been going from aid station to aid station all day and whenever Liz would come in, she’d have the most positive attitude and biggest smile on her face. Yup. That’s Liz! Mile 6 had some solid downhills, too, and I ran 7:59.
Mile 7 started with a little climb (gah!), but I quickly distracted myself thinking of Thuy and the story she told me once about her son, a high school swimmer, and how he and his friends carboload with pasta before each swim meet. So I asked her, “Oh, what distance does he swim?” (Thinking, if he’s carboloading, he’s probably a distance swimmer, like 800 or 1,500 meters?) Nope. He swims the 100 and it takes him 50-something seconds. I laughed out loud at the memory and what do you know, hill over.
Mile 8 has some good uphills, too. Geez, for “the fastest marathon of the West” this race sure has a lot of hills?! I had to nail them, though, because this was Marjorie’s mile – and so I thought of unicorns and nail polish (this makes absolutely no sense to anyone but three to five people in the world, I know). At the end of the mile, I took my second Honey Stinger gel.
Mile 9, more uphill! But I thought of Judy, and how tough she is – earlier this year she smashed her half-marathon PR and ran a sub-2 hour race, just because I told her she could. I actually thought she’d run something like 2:02 – 2:04, but told her it is well within her ability to go sub-2, and there you go. So, I put mind over matter and carried on.
Mile 10 was for Cindie and even though it started with another climb, there was a good downhill there too and I thought Cindie would appreciate it. She ran a half marathon this year on exactly three weeks of training. If she can do that, I can handle a few little hills, right? An 8:09 mile for Cindie.
Mile 11 was for my 9-year-old son — he asked for it and how could I say no? The hills eased up somewhat in this mile and I thought of the big sweaty hug I would give him at the finish, and how lucky he is to have me as a mom. Ha. (Just kidding. The kid gets on my nerves sometimes – ahem… – but I’m lucky to be his mom!)
Mile 12. Kathy’s mile again, but this time for her dad because December is one of his three birthday months (don’t ask). I thought of Kathy’s dad, and some thoughts snuck in of my dad, too, but I know she wouldn’t mind. At the end of that mile, I had another gel (geez, Kathy, nearly half of my “eating” miles were yours?)
Mile 13 – almost the half-way point! – was Marie’s mile. Marie recently ran an hour-plus marathon PR in New York and I thought of how strong she is, a mom of two little kids, working full time and training hard and consistently for so many months. If anyone deserves a marathon PR, it’s Marie. (I was hoping I’d get one too, of course… Pace was still solid.)
Mile 14 was my husband’s mile, and I thought of the two marathons he’s run with me, even though he hates running, just so we can spend more time together, doing what I love to do. I’m so grateful for having his support all these years. I know it isn’t easy, especially when you have young kids, and I thought of all the spouses out there on the course, cheering for their husbands or wives, and I thought how they’re so amazing to do this for us.
Then came Mile 15 – another one of Maria’s miles – and the hills seemed to ease up so I picked up the pace. And I thought, see? Whatever bumps we hit on our road, easier times always await us ahead. Just got to be patient and make the best of them.
Somewhere here, mind you, the 3:37 pace group caught up with me and I did a bit of a double-take because, I’m no math genius, but I can do basic pace calculations and knew that I should have been at least two, if not three minutes ahead of a 3:37 finish at that point. I asked two women running with the group if they were going a bit fast and they confirmed. So I picked up the pace a little bit, to try and get ahead to more empty space. (It was a big group! If you don’t like feeling crowded when you run, these pace groups are probably not for you…)
For Mile 16, Liz had requested “a fleeting thought” – but how can that happen? No way. I believe this is around where we get the last climb of this hilly course, too, but there’s a lot of downhill in the mile, so I knocked out an 8:04 for Liz, and I ate my fourth gel for the day. I spent the whole mile picturing Liz running the Boston Marathon next year, and if I’m right (which I almost always am!), she will be knocking out 8:04-ish miles all along this course, and Mile 16 is where her favorite part will start because it’s the hardest. (Boy, can daydreaming about the Boston Marathon make the time go by quickly?)
Mile 17 was Darlene’s mile. Darlene was out there on the course running her first marathon, in honor of a friend who is battling breast cancer. I hoped she was running with strong legs and a full heart. She had been nervous before the race, but I knew she’d knock it out the park. And I was right, as I later found out she not only finished, but beat her goal as well. That was a fast mile for me, too, at 8:05 and I was still feeling strong.
Mile 18 was Marjorie’s mile again, and for some time, I thought how weird it is that it doesn’t really feel much harder than mile 8 (her “first” mile). I was feeling good, my left leg (ankle) was doing fine, and I also had that persistent thought in my head that Marjorie’s running has been so consistent lately, she really should give it a go at the marathon distance. Just saying…
Mile 19 was a big one, Lisa and Joey’s mile. Joey is currently kicking leukemia’s ass and 2019 will be the last year of his treatments. So I see it as no coincidence at all that on this mile, a spectator shouted at us, “That’s it guys, no more hills from now on.” An 8:09 mile for Joey.
For Mile 20, I had a plan. This was Nadine’s mile, and she’s from Germany, so when things got rough as they often tend to at around this time in a marathon, I was just going to picture her telling me in German to stop joking around and keep running. (Except it wasn’t going to be the word “joking.”)
What do you know, though, there was no need for the German language. I was feeling strong and smooth and even wondered if I had been too conservative until now? Nadine is just about to start another marathon training cycle in her quest to BQ again, and I thought this was all a sign of how things will go for her this time around: smooth and wunderbar!
Mile 21 was Sheri’s mile and I thought about her running schedule for the next few weeks. We were done with the hills in the race, but I was thinking of all these hills and hill repeats I’ll have Sheri do all winter. She’ll love them… eventually! Ha.
Miles 22 through 24 are always my family miles, so my thoughts went back to my husband and my son and I wondered what they had for breakfast. We stayed at the Embassy Suites Sacramento, which has free breakfast, including made-to-order omelettes that are sooo good. You have to try them. And then I thought my daydreaming was turning into full on hallucinating, because I swear I heard my husband’s voice call out my son’s name. I looked around, just in case they really were there and what do you know – I see my husband and he’s yelling, our kid is right behind. So I did what no marathoner in pursuit of a BQ time should ever do: I stopped, turned and jogged back a couple of yards. I found him, and gave him a big sweaty hug and a kiss; and he gave me a coke and said, “Go now, go!” All that made Mile 22 the slowest yet, 8:22, but who cares? It was the best!
I managed to pick up the pace a bit for an 8:11 Mile 23, but somewhere between that and Mile 24 my legs said, We’ve had it, can we slow down now? My mom’s mile… figures, she’s always telling me to slow down! My left calf and hamstring got so tight, I realized I was running with a bit of a limp. I was also hungry, and wished that I had brought six gels, not five (I’d taken my last one at mile 20). Luckily, they had Clif Shot gels somewhere between Miles 23 and 24, and I grabbed one. Boy, does that thing feel thick and uber-sweet. I’m not a fan, but beggars can’t be choosers, so I squeezed whatever I could in my mouth and downed it with a cup of water.
Mile 25 was coming, and I’d need the energy. This mile was for Dave, my friend Jen’s dad: a lifelong runner and multiple-time marathoner, with a PR of 3:28:17 at the Oakland Marathon back in 1981. Dave passed away in November and his memorial service was on December 3 — the day of the marathon. So you will understand how he was on my mind the entire race, not just during his mile. In fact, he literally was on my back, as I had printed his photo and pinned it to the back of my shirt:
By Mile 7, though, my sweat tore through the paper and I felt the photo flapping around, so I took it and put it in my skirt pocket. A couple of miles later, I ran by two guys and one of them said, “All you need is wings on those pins on your back, and you’ll fly.” Yes, I thought, they would be angel wings!
Back in Mile 25, I gritted my teeth and hung on to an 8:20-ish pace. I wanted so, so badly to walk and my brain was just about to convince my legs that some walking would be OK – I knew now that I’d make my BQ time with a good margin. Just then, though, I woman caught up to me and said, “Let’s do this girl, we’re almost there. You and me. Let’s work together to get to the finish.” She told me her name, which I promptly forgot, but it started with an A. The angel that Dave sent to get me through, I knew it. Mile 25 was 8:17. We talked briefly, she was going to BQ by a lot, and so was I. She asked me if I was going to PR and I said, I think so – but who knows?
Mile 26, the last mile, is always for my dad. He only lived to see one of my marathon medals (my first, in 2003), and he was so proud. I gave into the fatigue and my cramping left leg and slowed down a bit. Then I came around the last turn of the race, saw the finish and, this was a first for me, two different sides for men and women. Women took the left side of the road and men, the right. I veered left and willed my legs to do one final push towards the mats. I saw my family again and wondered how they made it so quickly from mile 22 to 26.2? Doh, they drove.
Just as I crossed, I saw the “Lady with an A” again, she had finished maybe 20-30 seconds ahead of me and was still bent over catching her breath. I stopped to congratulate her and thank her for her support, and she asked, “So who is Dave?” So I told her about Jen’s dad, and then I told her about everyone else who “came” with me on this marathon and showed her my “tattooed” left forearm. This was probably my favorite part of the marathon, and not just because I was already done!
Here is my extremely tired attempt of a smile at the finish:
Then I reunited with my family, downed two bottles of water and we headed to post-race destination one: the BQ bell. Well, that was a good 40-minute wait, actually – they don’t joke when they say CIM has the largest portion of runners who qualify for the Boston Marathon! The line for the bell went all around a mostly shady area and I kind of froze my ass off while waiting, but all worth it.
I got a special Boston Creme “Boston Bound” cupcake, too (except I didn’t get to eat it because I put it down at some point and forgot to pick it back up. Marathon brain is no joke…):
This was marathon #8 for me and, with a nine-minute margin, I hope a shoe-in for the Boston Marathon. I have no intention on running a marathon in 2018, so Boston 2019 will be lucky number 9. Can’t wait!
Official time: 3:36:05
(First half 1:47:32 — Second half 1:48:33. My coach predicted exactly a one-minute positive split for me. Either he is that good at anticipating how I perform, or I’m that good at doing exactly as I’m told… or both!)