"Sorry about the weather," the hotel employee said as I checked into the hotel on Friday, my leather jacket draped over my backpack. I was your typical happy Canadian who was escaping the beginnings of winter, where 16C with cloud cover might as well be a heat wave.
The California International Marathon has been on my radar for years and about 12 weeks ago, it became a backup marathon when I pulled my calf and started to look for a later marathon. It features rolling hills, a net downhill course and likens itself as the fastest course in the West. Not that I'd know, as I've never raced any marathons in the west or in December.
My teammate and training partner Julia had pegged the race as her goal marathon - I remember her telling me during a winter training run 11 months ago about this race in Sacramento. One of her friends, and fellow teammate, Naomi was also running it as her first marathon. So when I pulled the calf and started to look at options, CIM became the best choice. Running vacation with friends and enough time to ramp back up if I raced Scotiabank. So on Oct 1, I signed up under their guaranteed entry program.
I ended up racing Scotia in late October, my calf healing enough for me, and I decided to say, screw it, lets go for it. The race was a PB, 3:07:20. Looking back at the summer and year of training, I always felt that I had 3:05 fitness in me. Seven weeks ago as I started to ramp back up to CIM, I had no clue how I would treat that race. I was able to get my mileage back right up to peak form after a recovery week. Julia and I nailed our long runs, doing a 38k and about 35k four weeks out. My calf was getting better and about three weeks ago, I was finally able to pull off faster than 5k pace for the first time since late September. I was, crazy enough, still fit, aside from an upper left hamstring and groin soreness. More important, I was still training to run fast.
On Wednesday I did a quality workout where I was testing 4:05 and 3:55 pace. Some of the runners I was running with were gearing up for a 10k. I worried slightly that I was pushing it right before the final taper but I wanted to see what it felt to run fast. I concluded that I could push, but the next day I felt the pull of my hamstring, the soreness associated with running hard. I took it slow the last three days but still, it felt good to chase.
|Waiting for the bus in Sacramento race morning.|
Twenty minutes before meeting my coach a few days before the race, an email landed in my inbox from her with my prescribed pace. It called for a faster than Scotia, or a 4:25k for a 3:06:30 finish. We spoke over coffee and after assessing my fitness and condition, she threw in the first of many mild suggestions. "This is a good course to go for a fast time," she said. I told her I was so proud of the work i'd done this year but her point was well taken even if this was a no-pressure race. Later, a friend at BlackToe who had run CIM before also said the same thing - that CIM was a fast, but beware too fast a start and trust the pacers. I left convinced that I had three choices. Run a controlled marathon at 3:10 to 3:15. Think about running with Julia who in the end needed to run her own race. Or chase a personal best on that course. Chasing was, by Friday morning, a small and gentle voice.
Exiting the buses we only had around 40 minutes to do a washroom break, a group selfie and then we dropped off Naomi with her pace sign while Jules and I headed to the 3:10 sign. We stood there, hugged, pumped up for a morning of racing. I knew she was situating herself behind the 3:10. I looked at the 3:05 bunny, wondered what if.
|Me, Julia and Naomi.|
The sun was rising and I could feel the perfect chill against my shoulder. I was wearing my favourite singlet, tattered and worn in by age and races. I clapped my gloved hands more to pump myself up than warmth. Then it was time to race.
I headed out just behind the 3:10 pacer, knowing that while I am pretty good judge of pace, this was a new course for me and I didn't want to spend too much time looking at the watch so I settled with the group within reach. The course I found to be fairly fast, and with it, a fast front field. I kept on trying to tell myself to keep it easy, and leaned on this "easy, easy, easy" mantra in a lot of those early miles.
I've run a few hilly marathons, including Goodlife, Boston, NYC, MCM and the Flying Pig Marathon. If i were to choose between rolling marathons and a flat, I'd take the rolling as I find it helps give the variation that you can use too spread the load on your muscles. CIM has amazing downhill stretches that can give you faster splits, but is tempered by rolling uphills. It seemed for every downhill stretch that there was a corresponding upside as if you'd have to gain the time only to use up the buffer and effort the next bend or stretch. Looking down many of the flats, you could see the undulating landscape, the fluorescent dots of singlets showing the wave-like profile.
My race plan, if done properly, would actually not see me buffer time on these stretches. If anything, I was using the first half not to gain speed but to run a measured marathon. Instead of time, I was saving effort. Risky, as time is more tangible than effort. Time banked you can take to the finish but not effort.
The first five kilometers went by and I saw I was going slightly faster than planned, but it was all within the band I'd committed to. I clicked in a few faster miles after a measured start and soon passed the 3:10 pacer. I did not see them again.
1. 7:13 (4:31 km pace)
2. 7:05 (4:26)
3. 7:02 (4:24)
The day was absolutely perfect. During those early miles, you could see the big sky, and it was cool enough for us to see our breath as we worked our way through the course that had consistent and supportive crowds. Aside from a few turns, the course is largely straight. And yes those hills.
I noted early on that there was ample portapotties at the water stops, which were serving water and Nuun, which is an electrolyte that has no calories. I take Nuun often so at every water stop I took a sip of the and the electrolyte. Because we had no liquid calories, I was planning my usual 5 gels at about 5 mile increments.
I was running with a strong group of runners as we motored at around 3:07 pace. I think it's funny sometimes the people you start to focus on during a race. CIM has a fast field and I noticed a woman with ultra skinny muscular legs, a solid stride and, more importantly, pink neon compression socks. Before the 10k mark, I took a washroom break, knowing that once I exited there was a chance the 3:10 group would catch up to me and I'd have to start my work all over again. I couldn't see pink neon lady, but from the cheers I could hear that I was closer to 3:10 than anything else. I hit the 10k mark pretty much on target for a 3:09:30. If I were to give chase I had a lot of ground to make up.
4. 7:01 (4:23)
5. 7:01 (4:23)
6. 7:23 (4:47)
10k split: 44:51 - pace 7:14 - on target for 3:09:30
I tore out of the portajohn with pace, looking to make some distance. Something happened once I took my break. I felt like I was chasing something. I realized as my heart rate spiked back up that I was chasing time. I entered 10k wanting to do a 3:07, content to run with other racers. I exited wanting to race. It was almost as if I'd been warming up for 10k.
The next four miles I was starting to test the low 7:00s miles or 4:25s. They felt good and I was enjoying running the downhills smart and the uphills with "easy, easy, easy" effort but not without really slowing down too much. We had a strong hill to climb around mile 8 (followed by a nice downhill) and I was feeling really good. My cardio was strong, the weather was still cool and I had the benefit of strong field to run with. So I continued the effort with an eye to pick my own pace. Only that pace had me consistently passing people.
7. 6:55 (4:20)
8. 7:05 (4:25)
9. 7:04 (4:25)
10. 6:54 (4:19)
To hit a 3:07 to 3:10, I would need to maintain a 4:26 to 4:30 pace, which would have me hit the half in anywhere from 1:33 to 1:35. Coach told me that if I hit the half at 1:33, the same time I'd hit in, Scotia, then I'd have the chance to close the second half faster.
To close the gap on 3:06 after the pee break, I was running faster. It put me in the mode that the 4:25ks were no longer the norm but something closer to a 4:20 pace. Thing is, today, that felt just fine. Besides, I could see the girl with the neon socks on the horizon. She was my 3:07 marker, and I was chasing her down.
11. 6:47 (4:15)
12. 6:54 (4:19)
13. 6:57 (4:20)
21.1k split: 1:33:04 - pace 7:07 - on target for 3:06:27
There's one thing I know about marathon running and that is if I make a plan, I can find a way to hit it if I'm having a good day. Last marathon, I hit the 35k split to the second and today, I remembered coach telling me that if I hit the half at around 1:33, the same time I'd hit at scotia, then I shoud try to close the second half faster and secure my PB. She also mentioned something about going as fast as I could in the last 5k but I wasn't so sure about that.
In any case, I hit the half on target, and since I was already running 4:20s, I had no intention of slowing down. Besides neon girl was just ahead and she was looking like she was having a good day. Me too.
14. 6:51 (4:17)
15. 6:58 (4:21)
16. 6:19 (4:15) (1.5 miles, reset)
Somewhere in the next few miles, I finally caught up to her. She was looking scary strong but I came to a surprise moment as I drew alongside her. She wasn't going fast enough. She wasn't a pace bunny but a marker. I looked ahead at the hills knew that the next few miles would having more rolling hills before the course flattened out. My pace was favoring the 4:15 to 4:17 kilometers by then and I saw no need to slow down. Onward.
Now I must mention that earlier that morning, while stretching, I knew that the hamstring and groin soreness would likely come back to haunt me, so I slipped an Advil into my short pocket for emergency purposes. I didn't take anything that morning but when I hit the 13 mile mark I could feel the slight tightness. I was feeling strong so I took it in case it started to flare in the later kilometers.
The numbers started to scare me. I was clocking 6:48 and 6:51 miles, nowhere near the 7:15s needed for a 3:10. I knew I was safely in 3:07 or 3:06 territory. I can't remember now, but I do remember setting my second fastest ever 30k. This is what coach was talking about. This is what racing the second half meant. I was pushing, I was chasing nothing but pace at this point. There were no other runners to run with but runners were all around me. So I continued to do what I was doing well: focus on form, work up to the cardio level that felt comfortably hard but never settle.
17. 6:48 (4:15)
18. 6:50 (4:17)
"Run the mile you are in," was in an email coach sent a day earlier to Julia, Naomi and I. I usually think about kilometers but today I was glad to have miles. There were fewer of them and you had to work longer to get to the end of each one. "Run the mile you are in," I said to myself when I hit a 50 meter patch that was difficult or a water station where I missed the cup handoff. Run the mile I'm in, I thought as I desperately wanted the mile I was in to end. I was running well but it was by no means easy. Racing never is.
19. 6:51 (4:17)
20. 6:46 (4:14)
20 mile split: 2:20:43 - pace 7:03 - on target for 3:04:42 (47:39 or 4:17)
By the time I'd hit 20 miles, unknown to me at the time, I was already at a sub 3:05 pace. It was sometime there when I came alongside the 3:05 pace team. We were about to enter Sacramento proper and I had closed a strong split, somewhere around a 4:14, to come alongside them. He a had a strong group of runners around him and I knew they were people gunning for a BQ. I thought about how these guys are going strong going for Boston, but that they needed a real buffer if they truly wanted to beat the cutoff. It only took a minute or so, but I decided right there that my effort wasn't up to where I could be. I could close this fast. I could build a buffer on 3:05. I could just run faster. So I did.
|And here I am passing the 3:05 bunny|
21. 6:46 (4:14)
22. 6:42 (4:11)
23. 6:39 (4:09)
I wanted to reach the 23 mile mark if only to have 5k left. I started to look at my watch for real, looking at time elapsed, and time I would have left to run. I took a look at my reflection in some storefronts and was shocked to see good running form and something that resembled a strong runner. I started to negotiate every mile. I wanted to hit 2 miles to go. I could do 3.2k easy.
24. 6:43 (4:12)
The mile 24 marker came and I pressed on even more. The sun was out and it was heating but I didn't feel the wall coming. I had taken my five gels. I was tired but who isn't this late in the game. I wanted to close. I ran a 6:39 mile, paced at 4:09k, my fastest split so far. It was my 25th mile.
25. 6:38 (4:09)
|YES, I'm smiling. HUGE smile.|
Most bad marathons break up in the final 10k. That's why they call it the wall. The wall is unmercifully drawn out over the distance that I'll just call The Suck. Most runners will tell you it was all good until the 30k mark and then it went downhill. We can all prepare for The Suck. We train hard, we push out the distance so that the 35k mark feels like the new wall. I've done that. Regardless, I've become over the years a huge believer that you can go for it at a marathon, where an even or a negative split can get you a great performance.
I'd like to say that it's training and experience that brings you late into the game. It's all of that, plus race day strategy, plus your head and your heart, that come into play at the end of a marathon. It doesn't matter if you blow up at the 21 or 24 mile mark. If you blow up, you're going to lose seconds. And seconds can in the span of few miles be minutes. That's the beautiful, painfully simple thing of marathons. You propel yourself at a reasonably hard pace for a very long time. The second they you keep that pace, the very long time turns into "a very long time plus a few minutes." And that's where goal times go down the tubes.
By the time I hit the 25th mile, with 1.2 to go, I knew I could give up those seconds. Today I fought every impulse. I recruited every mantra I could throw at my head. I negotiated time, trying to bend it to my will (Come on Kenny, 10 more minutes of hurt isn't going to hurt that much). But I couldn't really slow. I knew how the course ended up a street, two left turns and the finish within view. So with that in mind, I pushed.
I chased the finish.
26. 6:52 (4:17)
Seeing the numbers 3:02:xx on the clock with less than 150 metres to go, I could not believe my eyes. I knew I had hit my 3:05 on a day I didn't know what time I was chasing. I judged the distance, knew the gun time had a few seconds on my chip time, and let out a cheer, my arms pumping a few times.
.5 (4:16 pace)
I looked down at my watch after I crossed the finish and saw the sub 3:03. I couldn't believe it. But I could. I let out a cheer. I continued down the chute. I was satisfied. Happy. Shocked. Proud. In disbelief. Absolutely believing.
Finish - 3:02:55 - pace 6:59 - last 10k in 42:12 or 4:13 pace
I ran the first half in 1:33:04 and the second half in 1:29:51. Let me repeat that for myself. I ran the second half at a sub 1:30, my second fastest half marathon. My jaw is still slacken from those stats.
I look back at this race and I recall what it means to seize the moment. I've been confronted this year with many times that I had to make decisions on the race course. I think of times I've arrived at the start line fearful of the race plan, full of doubt. But in every case, things were different. Different because in each race I was chasing something.
The runner (and racer) I am today is shaped by the experiences I've built up over the past year. It's come to focus the past month as I've been struggling to decide how I want to train for the next few seasons, even years. The realization is that while this year I had had multiple programs and coaches that have made the quality of running superior than I've ever done, the other factor is that week after week, I've been training with running partners who have given me something to chase, day after day. Mileage totals, an interval split to hit, nailing a tempo run or pacing races with PBs to chase down. I've been conditioned to find so much motivation by chasing by others, chasing with others that on race day, I know what it's like and it is not foreign and it is not scary.
Chasing is both a feeling and a motion. You chase. But you are chasing. You can chase a feeling, chase a time, chase a person, a goal, a measured course to the finish. I think there is plenty of skill in perfecting the art of the chase. A course like CIM demands tactics, but there is always room to improvise. The beauty of that chase for me in the road to Sacramento was that is was not perceptible to anyone but myself. My friends tracking me can only guess looking at the splits that something was happening. I was getting faster, but there is always a story behind the splits and the story here is that I decided one morning to run smart, race brave, close silently but strong and chasing nothing but your edge of ability and find the new limits.