Tuesday, December 8, 2009
Simply put, my goal was to break 2:50. While I envision trying to take 10 minutes off per year for the next few years (which is pretty out there), I felt like my fitness had grown so much over the last 7 months that it was worth putting myself out there. Even with some minor setbacks at each race, I had been putting together some well-run races at the Angel Island 50k (4:25, 5th place), Badwater (31:33:13, 16th place), Firetrails 50 (7:25, 5th place) and the Javelina 100 (20:31, 8th place). More importantly, I was putting myself in better position in these races to challenge for top spots going into 2010 with my established endurance base. CIM has become my go-to end of the year race over the past 3 years with the opportunity to run a terrific, faster marathon course that helps to propel me into an off-season filled with grinding, base-building runs and hours of cross-training. With 2:50 representing close to the upper limit for the wide marathoning ability range of top competitors and winners of many 100k/100 mile events, I knew it was important to try to set a good leg speed standard for 2010.
It was about 30 degrees at the start, but it surprisingly felt alright to me; it must’ve been those cold San Francisco nights recently. It remained in the 30s throughout the race, which caused me to keep my $1.99 CVS gloves on as well my arm warmers. While the cold weather was ever present, it never seemed to get so uncomfortable that it detracted from my running out there.
Even with a 3:00:32 PR, I knew I wasn’t taking too big of a risk to go for a 2:50:00. My tempo runs and speedwork was progressing well and put me almost exactly on target. While I didn’t have the breadth of runs that one usually has in a marathon-specific training cycle, I had 4 or 5 specific workouts in the last month that were spot on target. Perhaps the biggest variable was weather, which you can’t control and you just learn to live with. I didn’t fret the potential wind prior to the race, leaning on my year of intense long distance ultra races where weather varied from freezing cold and rain to scorching heat and wind. I find focusing on things outside of my control tend to distract me from my goals and make me less likely to focus on taking of the things I could control.
While not a pure 100% downhill course (as if one could ever expect that at any race), most of the uphill sections of the rollers are preceeded by downhills. Uphills and downhills tend to favor me relatively speaking due to my experience on the uneven trails. I tended to take a relatively aggressive approach to downhills while . Even with the heavy wind taking off seconds on various uphills, I found that my experience on steep trails allowed me to get lower and drive through the hills allowed me to gain on those around me during these sections. While taking an aggressive approach, it was worth it to me considering my relative strength on those 1st half miles.
While spending quite a bit of time pacing with another running friend, Larry and a couple of his friends, we moved along briskly at a 6:20-6:22 minute/mile average while chatting it up on and off. One of the spectators at mile 5 who caught me joking with another runner yelled jokingly, “No talking. You should be running.” I jokingly said to the runners around me, “Like that’s going to cost me the 1-2 seconds I miss my goal by in the end.” Beyond that, there wasn’t much that was eventful till mile 7. Yes, there were ups. Yes, there were downs. In the end, though, the only surprise was that the gap between my pace on the downhills and my pace on the uphills was 30-40 seconds per mile rather than the 20 seconds per mile that I originally intended.
The really strong headwinds came between miles 7-9 and another one after the half way mark for a few miles. I believe that I usually don't feel headwinds much since I tend to run lower to the ground with shorter strides, but this one was very noticeable. Runners formed small packs to try to blunt the impact of the wind. The problem with these packs was that even with wind slowing things on these hills by as much as 30+ seconds per mile, they eventually slowed even more. At that point 7-8 miles into the race, I said goodbye to this pack running; this was going to be my race to do it or not. They were beginning to run a much different race which didn’t play into my relative strengths as a runner. With runners occupying the right side of the road (or the “west side” next to building and trees) to try avoiding the wind, I moved towards the middle by myself to keep chugging along.
I hit the 10 mile mark in under 1:04, smiling as I passed my wife Wilma while she snapped a picture. I eventually hit the halfway mark in 1:23:33, which was 1:27 under my goal pace. I felt good, in spite of beginning to feel a mild heaviness in my legs. What worried me most at this time was that I was hitting a pleateau as far as hitting my per mile paces. A good indicator of my running prowess in the later stages of a marathon is often the point at which I start to pleateau. If I can get to mile 19 or 20 before using some of that “time in the bank”, then it’s usually a good sign that I can take it all the way. Still, I was planning on going big for that 2:50:00 and was willing to let it all the anxiety and inhibition go at that point, replacing it with a laser-like focus and a one-track mind. It was still “my race to lose”.
With the upcoming headwinds for the next few miles, the cushion under my goal pace dwindled to 1:00 at the 18 mile mark. I was beginning to lose time at a 10 second/mile clip. More importantly, I was losing time at a clip that had potential disaster written all over it. My mind was wandering, with thoughts of what a disaster could look like. 2:55? 2:58? 3:00? I kept trying to do the math in my head, trying to use whole minute paces to conjure up just how bad I could fall. The only thing I could do to keep myself on target was try focusing on the rest of the course yet to come. It was time to pick up the intensity, crank up Metallica’s “No Leaf Clover”, and get to work.
I remember a running friend of mine, Ron, reminding myself and others that the mostly pancake flat final 10k was a good place to let it loose. Passing under the inflatable wall overhang on the course, I continued to remind myself of that in my head. It felt like it couldn’t just be “my race to lose”. I still had to assert myself with the attitude that this was “my race to win”. Like the song “No Leaf Clover”, I imagined myself as a “freight train coming”. It took another ¼ mile to get started up, taking 3 tries to grab a GU packet from the volunteers lining the GU station around mile 20.5. Once I got GU down the hatch sans water, the surge was on.
As I pressed the gas pedal, the per mile pace fluctuated between the high 6:20s and the 6:40s. At the 22 mile mark, I was still even with a 6:30 pace and a 2:50:26 marathon. I continued to lose some ground against the pace goal over the last few miles, but was pleased that as I consistently pushed and was still able to hit mostly 6:45 min/mile on the Garmin while passing a few more runners. The flat, smooth run winding westbound through the residential areas of downtown Sacramento had a pleasant feel to it, with the tree releasing their leaves onto the pavement below and the spectators, U.S. National Guard officers and Police Officers ushering us towards the finish with smiles and hand claps.
To keep my intensity and pacing up, I would intermittently yell “Come On!” to myself out loud. I’m not sure if I scared any of the spectators, but it seemed most of them just kept cheering knowing that I was just trying to push until the end. I tend to keep most of the motivation internal, not wanting to expend too much energy to get myself going. In this case, I was close enough to the finish to let loose a little bit.
I dipped to 7:15-7:25 min./mile after the 25 mile mark due to spasms in my left calf which I first began to feel around mile 23. My right hamstring was also twinging and at this point I didn’t want to jeopardize the huge race I was having irrespective of the 2:50:XX. It was going to be a huge personal best marathon. To keep my mind off of things, I started considering what I was going to do at the finish line. At this point, it was a given that I would probably come in around 2:51 to 2:52 for the race, which was a huge accomplishment. Letting that fact sink in, a wide grin began to show on my face for all to see. I was at the end and I was enjoying it at this unspectacular, but steady pace. Even some rather serious war protesters on one of the final blocks, who seemed somewhat misplaced among the cheering crowd, couldn’t get me down.
Normally, I’m so intent of just getting it over with that after a quick point to the sky, I just stick my head down and drive towards the finish without looking at the crowd too much. It can sometimes lead to awkward faces on finishing photos. This time, though, I was pretty proud of the race I had run under the weather conditions (heck, under any conditions). Rounding the final 2 turns before the finishing chute, the huge grin stayed plastered on my face. I made a quick point with both index fingers upwards while looking towards the sky, always aware that it’s the One who makes it possible for me to run period.
As I barreled down the finishing chute, I soaked in the cheers and claps from behind the barricade. With only about 5-10 feet before the first mat, I stopped. In a continuous motion, I crossed my arms to mug for the photographer. Right after I started, with my weight now shifted completely back, my right hamstring suddenly seized up. That ended my attempt at hot-dogging quickly. I quickly hobbled across the mat and fell over just past it to finish just under 2:52. After the medical volunteer tried to help me up, both hamstrings seized up due to a lack of electrolytes over the final 10k. I was on the ground rolling over with a cinched look on my face and a as I tried to stop it. They ended up bringing over a wheelchair to take me to the medical tent.
Being taken to the med tent in a wheelchair wasn’t exactly the ending I envisioned. On the way over to the tent, they stopped to allow one of the volunteers to slip the finisher’s medal around my neck. I smiled over at my wife behind the barricade partly because I was really pleased with the race, but now dealing with the implications of my hot-dogging. Oh man! What a way to end my race.
After exiting the tent, I stopped to take pictures with wife as well as my friend, William Kasiyre and his family. William is a native Ugandan who is the president of World Harvest Mission, the charity I work with to build the water wells in Uganda. He and his wife Olivia graciously allowed my wife and I to stay with them at their house less than 10 miles from the starting line in Folsom. It was great to see them at the finish area outside the Capitol building and thank them in person for their contribution to my successful race effort.
When I started at Marathon #1, I ran a 3:47:XX. I had fun, but I was also young and undisciplined both as a runner and as a person. As much as I eventually wanted to qualify for the Boston Marathon, I never had the training or discipline to do it. I also never had the open resources we have today with the rapid expansion of information on the Internet. It wasn’t until, ironically, that I decided to give myself a mental break from marathons by delving into ultramarathons 4 years ago that I began to develop the discipline which ultimately made the difference in developing myself as a knowledgeable, disciplined and more passionate runner than I ever was before.
If I made a mistake in a marathon, I suffered for ½ hour to an hour. If I made a mistake in a 50-100 miler, I could suffer for hours on end. Even as I made errors over the first year or two of the “ultramarathon experiment”, it forced me to take responsibility. It made me a better person because it forced me to dig deeper and really ask the question of “how badly do you want it?”, which in turn made me a better long distance runner. By plugging away, the gates finally opened and this past 7 months has yielded a complete break though at all distances at a variety of courses, and hopefully a whole slew of new break throughs in 2010.
Now, I am training and attacking the dream of seeing just how low my marathon PR can get by doing the antithesis of every major training program out there: by going longer and longer. Sometimes, I train well enough to finish, but more often than not, I want to train to finish well. I still commit myself to some of the basics of marathon training such as the long run, the tempo run, and the track work. However, by mixing in the types of never-ending, undulating ultramarathon trail and road runs that most programs avoid, I hope to prove that the physical and mental endurance/perserverance required to sustain oneself for that long can translate into major success/improvement at the marathon level. The marathon is my 10k, the 50 miler is my half-marathon, and the 100 miler is my marathon. I work from the top down and from the bottom up. I don’t know how low this marathon PR can go, but I plan to take it all the way. For now, I’m content to take my guaranteed entry into New York City and get myself ready to go after a sub-seeded entry to the Bay to Breakers. I’m also content to begin the process of gorging myself for the next 3 days and savoring a job well done before moving on to the next adventure which will be getting ready for Western States 2010! Even as I move on, I salute God, my family and all of you my friends who support me in all ways no matter what time I get. You free me from the burden of failure so that I can find success on and off the course.
Here are my key splits, based on the race’s mile markers:
124th place overall out of 7500 runners (registered)
1:23:33 1st half, 1:28:26 2nd half