This will be the first in a short series of posts about the Oakland Running Festival, and more specifically, Oakland’s Marathon, that I had the pleasure of racing over the weekend. Like any Erin RR, this will surely be lengthy, so hang in there.
If you want all the spoilers, a la executive summary, here goes: I didn’t PR. I didn’t hit my soft goal for the race, but I did, however, hit my lofty goal. Weird, eh? I had a total fuckin blast, or, as I guess Oakland says, a hella good time, from start to finish, and once I knew that the PR wasn’t happening–around mile 23ish–I felt no regret, anger, nothing negative. Zilch.
And, probably what matters most, I would 100% recommend the marathon. It was marathon #22 for me and easily one of the most enjoyable.
When I registered for Oakland on November 14, I was living sola in Chicago with A, since C had already moved out to SJ about a month prior, and I registered knowing that the course was challenging but that it was supposed to be awesome. The ORF is only five years old now, so there’s not a lot of history out there in cyberspace, but basically every review I encountered on marathonguide and on a few blogs(by ultra trail runners) that had 26.2 recaps just went on and on about how great the community support was, how it’s quickly becoming a real first-class event, how, in 2013, Competitor Group just recently named it the best marathon in the Pacific NW, just everything.
Similarly, pretty much everything I read also talked about the hills and the climbs and the relative challenge of the course, but hey, why not, ya know? Hills are our friends. Hills make us strong, they make all our leg muscles happy, and they keep us honest. And besides, I was moving to the Bay, where hills are plentiful. Again… why not.
I get the impression that Oakland, the city, also has this reputation for being pretty rough-around-the-edges, kinda “you live in Oakland?” … awkward pause … “oh,” and its crime rates for cities of its size rival Flint and St. Louis. In our neck of the woods of CA, there is seriously probably at least one marathon every weekend, so choosing Oakland was kinda… different, I guess you could say. Anyway, it seemed like the right thing to do, and just recently, a couple months ago, Runner’s World ran this great story about how much the Oakland Running Festival has contributed to the city, in terms of the monies it has raised for various community groups, how the race has helped the city’s image, and that sort of thing. I’m down with that and totally wanted in.
Backing up, by November 14, (I think) we had gotten the offer on our place in Chicago, but things can happen with real estate: deals can fall through, people can change their mind, whatever. When I registered for ORF, then, I was cautiously optimistic that I’d actually even be able to legit train for the race–assuming that A and I would move out to CA pretty quickly–and if not, then my training was going to be 100% in Chicago and while pushing A in the BOB on the lakefront during the winter…and probably just hoping for a sub-4. The universe worked itself out, though, and after we closed on 12/20, A and I one-wayed it over to CA on 12/21 and thus began our CA adventure, and my training officially began about a week after we moved out here.
Training for this cycle went well, not only in the sense of the typical things you ask yourself along the way, like about how healthy you’re feeling, if you’re finishing all your runs, if your motivation is still high, and things like that, but also in the sense that in the short and intense Pfitz 70/12 that is my
drug plan of choice, I got to run in some (prob about 10+) really cool places all over the Bay Area, and with some very cool and new and fuckin’ fast and inspiring friends, about whom I could easily write novels already. While I posted a 13.1 and an 8k during the throes of training, neither were PRs, as I wasn’t planning that they’d be, yet I felt strong and healthy going into Oakland, even without a hard-and-fast recent shorter distance PR that I could use as a fitness gauge. Come race day, I was shooting for a 3:18, going for a 1:40/38 split, and I felt like it was doable: tough, no doubt, on the not-necessarily-a-PR-friendly course, but I’d do what I could.
With marathons, or with any race, I suppose, you don’t know what you can or can’t do until and unless you try, and the taste of regret about wondering coulda/woulda/shoulda is far more displeasing than the satisfaction of knowing that you tried… even if you failed, even if seemingly everyone and their mother knows about your goals and they see you fail in the process. Experience has taught me as much.
Anyway, as many of my friends knew, the lofty goal for ORF, when I started to do some race intel, was to AG–shooting for 1st (again, why not)–and to finish within the top 10, and super lofty, top 5 women OA. I got the impression that many FAST ultra trail runners (of which there are BUCKETS’ worth in the Bay Area, naturally) run Oakland as a training run–which makes sense, given the distance and the topography–but an OA placement was pretty pie-in-the-sky. I was primarily focused on the PR–who doesn’t?–I really wanted to “finally” break 3:20 (this little project of mine that is less than a year old), and on a challenging course, no less, but more than anything, as race weekend approached, I was so looking forward to the awesome weekend with friends new and old that a good and strong and hopefully PR race,while still important, would be like the vegan icing on a cake that was already filled to the brim with rainbows and sprinkles (but not unicorns… vegan, remember)–very much like my NYC experience, actually.
My old college friend, Midhun, graciously set me up for marathon weekend, and it was amazing catching up with him over the course of 24 hours; without exaggeration, we spent more time together over the weekend than we have in our eight years post-grad together. Marathon eve sleep was about what I’d expect, and the 4am wake-up, what I’m accustomed to, was fine. After the typical marathon morning dance of tea, food, and just hanging out and waiting for the PRP fairy (and, in the process, listening to an awesome podcast from NMA radio about Engine 2–listen here), it was time to drive to Oakland and get the show on the road.
Midhun, ever the awesome host, drove me from Richmond, about a 15 minute drive, to Oakland race morning, and shortly thereafter, we met up with Chicago and BRC friend, Lynton and Rozanne, who had also lived in Chicago for a while before moving to the Bay Area about a year ago. Lynton and Rozanne were running the 5k together–Rozanne’s first race (!!)–and then about an hour or so later, Lynton was going to race 13.1 and chase a PR as part of his training for the IL Marathon in late April. We had about an hour and change before the mary began, so we just hung out, took some pictures, porta-pottied a thousand times, and just chilled. The weather was perfect, especially in my typical pre-marathon androgynous, 400 lb. linebacker attire (C’s pajama pants, a few short-sleeve tech shirts, and a dress shirt from about 11th grade), and before long, it was go time.
In the corral, I had the pleasure of meeting a fellow Wolfpack runner, Michelle, who was also racing, and I positioned myself a little behind the 3:20 pace group, led by RunningAddicts buddy Ko, whom I had run with at Stanford earlier in training, and a couple other guys. The marathon field was small enough that I knew starting behind those fellas, and actually closer to the 3:30 group, wasn’t going to have any sort of deleterious effects to my race early on. Fortunately, though, I learned my lesson about starting where you’re supposed to start–and on time, no less–from NYC.
Miles 1-5: Uptown, Piedmont, Temescal – guessin on the ‘hood names here… someone local correct me if I’m wrong
7:27, 32, 31, 24, 32
Oakland began (and ended) in Snow Park in the downtown area, which I think is called Uptown (holllaaa!), and aside from a few little rollers, it was pretty flat and fast. I was running with the 3:20 group from about .6 onward and just having fun. One of the pacers had a full-fledged camera and was selfie-ing it up and sprinting out ahead to take pics of the group running as a pack. There was only one other woman up with us, whose name I never caught, so she and I remarked how it was nice to have some estrogen camaraderie in the group. When I ran 16 miles of the course as a supported LR during training, we didn’t start in this area, so it was pretty cool just to soak it all in. I looked at my watch when it beeped and and quickly learned that I was going to be about, or at least, .1 off the official course mile markers, so my mile splits weren’t actually going to be indicative of my actual speed or pace. To be safe, I was wearing a backup lapwatch and an even-split 3:20 bracelet (yup, type A, owned and proud), so I could have a couple different ways of monitoring my progress. In retrospect, mile 1 was also the only time I looked at my mile split; every time I looked from here on, it was solely at my cumulative time, something that might have bit me later.
Also, I spent most of the first mile hikin’ up my shorts and hoping that no other runner behind me would get a free ticket to my ass show, since I was carrying ~8 or 9 gels, and the weight was making my drawers drop. Oh, my shorts… my shorts are typically my disdain of my running apparel, so much so that Mere hand-made a sign for me that she held around mile 24/25 at Chicago that alluded to my “sexy” shorts. Le sigh. My shorts are hands-down the ugliest piece of running attire I own, yet I’ve learned that I have a serious chafing prob with anything that’s not skin-ass tight and longish… hello, thunder thighs… and I need enough pockets to accommodate carrying around 7 gels (since I usually take one around every 4-5 miles, give or take)… and folks, shorts that meet these requirements are damn near impossible to come by. Ugly shorts it is. I tend to shudder when I see my running pics because surely, the first thing I notice are… those damn shorts. Vom.
Anyway, getting tangential already… about a mile in, all I could think of was how much I loved running, how much I loved the purity and liberation of putting one foot in front of the other repeatedly, and how truly free I felt to be running; it’s really strange for me to feel all kum-bah-ya this early in a marathon, but I was already just zen-ning it up and enjoying the ride, regardless of the time that was, or wasn’t, happening. I was running purely on feel and simply running happily. I remember wondering WTF was up with me already because, really? I had been running for like, 10 minutes before this mental nonsense already kicked in. This was surely going to be a ride.
Miles 6-10: Rockridge, Lake Temescal, Montclair–aka, climbing
7:22, 8, 08, 7:39, 36
Around mile 5, things started to get familiar–kinda–but I couldn’t figure out why. Eventually, I realized that we were in the section of Oakland where the supported LR originated, out of the See Jane Run store. I didn’t realize that we’d have a little out-and-back between miles 5 and 6, but it was short and sweet, and I loved seeing the other runners ahead of and behind me. Only the marathoners and marathon relayers were together for the first 17 miles, and I wasn’t paying attention or trying to figure out how many women were in front of me or anything like that. I was just running, I was just having fun and soaking up the energy and the crowds, and oh yeah, I saw and cat-called to the one and only Dean Karnazes, who was probably doing the marathon as a warm-up run for the day, before he went to run a cajillion miles post-brunch. Seeing him, an Oaktown resident, was really cool.
My one and only complaint about the race was that the first relay exchange zone that we ran through, that also served as an aid station, around the 10k mark, felt like chaos because of the narrow-ish street, aid station volunteers, and relayers milling about; it just seemed like people were all over this seemingly narrow piece of road, just la-dee-dah’ing it up, completely oblivious to the sea of humanity trying to run by. Fortunately, we got through it quickly and without harm. The subsequent relay exchange zones were on seemingly wider streets, with better marked lanes for relayers and marathoners, but this first one just felt like a clusterfuck.
Miles 6-11 was the section I was most worried about, due to the significant climbing over about six miles. On the LR course run, our first two miles were straight up into the hills, and they burned my quads, and I remember casually posting 9s, if not 9:30s, on them. Come race day and taper and endorphin and endocannibinoid magic, though, I felt like we simply glided up them and intelligently took them at effort, without much regard to the mile splits. The elevation chart is a bit deceptive because it looks like it’s a straight-up quad and soul crusher for six miles, but it’s not; there are some peaks and valleys, some undulations and some mega ones, but it’s not relentless. It’s fun; my legs (and your legs, too) will thank you for the change and the opportunity to engage some other muscles for a little bit.
At any rate, I felt really strong going up and over and maintained conversation with our pacers and the fellas in the group throughout this entire section. This was a really pretty part of the course, with some really gorgeous homes, lovely tree-lined streets, and just felt kinda “urban quaint,” if that makes any sense. I always write in my DM entries about the bizarre number of feral felines I see on my runs in SJ, and I had a good chuckle to myself in this stretch when I saw a wooden cat silhouette that was mounted on top of someone’s mailbox. I can’t escape them…
Miles 11-15: Mormon Temple and Fruitvale
8:01, 6:59, 7:24, 19, 15
Still in familiar territory at this point in the race, still having fun and being chatty, and almost out of the woods with the big climbs. Just as I remembered, once we ascended Monterey St. and Lincoln Way, the Mormon temple was on our left, and awaiting us was an ENORMOUS and drastic downhill and a BEAUTIFUL view of Oakland, if not also the greater East Bay. Running descents takes a lot of practice, just as running ascents, and I tried hard to take this at effort and not brake a ton, at the risk of destroying my quads. My watch says that I posted a sub-7 here, which is probably closer to a low-7, given the mileage marker/my watch discrepancy, and had I actually looked at this split, I would have probably been a bit more conservative in the subsequent miles.
As we made our way from the quaint part of Oakland to the more working-class areas, I was surprised with how much I remembered about my surroundings from the course run, and I was repeatedly humbled by the utter gracefulness and genuineness of the on-course volunteers and spectators–policewomen and men, EMTs, aid station volunteers (including a gaggle of Brownies and Junior Girl Scouts– so cute!), folks sitting on their patio furniture on their sidewalks and front lawns–cat-calling to all of us and thanking us for running their city. It was so sweet and just a total love fest between our solid 3:20 group and the folks on-course. A couple of our pacers said that a huge difference between trail and road running, and especially in the ultra world, is that in trails/ultras, you don’t hesitate to pour your gratitude out to the folks you see on course–volunteers, spectators, or otherwise. Publicly conveying an attitude of gratitude is so uplifting mid-race, and while I shouldn’t be didactic here and implore you to do it on the next race you run… fuck it. You should. Thank everyone you see on, and lining, your race course.
Anyway, by this point in the race, it was just me and the guys in our group, but I was still feeling totally fresh and relaxed. My goal for 13.1 was 1:40, and I came in just under that, probably by about 40/50 seconds. Things were going well, the weather was perfect, I felt relaxed, and suddenly, all that remained was a MLR 13.
Miles 16-20: more Fruitvale, Chinatown, Jack London Square, West Oakland
7:29, 37, 40, 30, 34
Still in familiar territory and still feeling fresh. Once we got into Fruitvale around mile 14, and onto International Blvd, as the name suggests, things got… international. Much like Chicago and the Brooklyn part of NYC, the feel, sights, and smells of each block quickly changed from Latin, to Vietnamese, to Chinese, and to an amalgamation of a whole bunch of different cultures. It was awesome. Around this section of the course LR was when we saw a bunch of prostitutes and got mouthfuls of ganja mid-run, but that wasn’t the case at all on race day. In fact, International was actually relatively quiet.
Around mile 16, the 3:20 group and I were just behind another full marathoner, a woman, running sola, who looked like a pro: she had the body of a pro, she had the dress of a pro, and she was just running by herself and seemingly pretty comfortably. The pacers knew her right away, a local ultra runner and marathoner who had WON several marathons in recent years, including Nike Women’s, and we’d quickly find ourselves inching our way closer to her before backing down. I later learned her name, Verity, and that she was uh… a professional athlete, like world-class, on several national and international teams in Australia (where she was from) before she had moved to the Bay Area.
Around mile 17, I saw Stone for the first time, and this gal graciously sherpa-ed over some oranges to me mid-race. I found myself beginning to press a little early–no doubt from the rush of seeing Erin–and Verity kept motioning for me to come up and run with her (several strides in front of the 3:20 group), to which I simply told her “not yet.” Ko began strategizing with me mid-run and told me to run in a line behind him and the other pacers, in an effort to conserve energy (think drafting, though it wasn’t windy that I can recall), and to not consider kicking at all until around mile 20.
By mile 17, or 17 and change, the half-marathoners merged with the full and relayers, which was around mile 4 for the HM, and soon enough, I heard a ‘yea, Wolfpack!’ and quickly saw/met fellow Wolfpacker Tung and just moments later, saw Lynton mid-race. Both were great pick-me-ups and got me super stoked to finish the final 9 strong.
Somewhere in this stretch, I think our group passed Verity, and I was still feeling really strong. I knew that picking up with around 15k to go wasn’t necessarily wise, especially considering what had happened in Chicago with 12k to go, but by this point, I was still on for a high 3:18/mid-3:19 finish, so nothing too out of the target range.
My memory is failing me a bit, but I think by around 20, maybe just shy of it, my watch had me just over 60 seconds ahead of pace, but I felt like I could finish the final 10k pretty strong. I was looking forward to running through the Ring of Fire and to seeing TSFM ambassador buddy Trish at the SF Road Runners’ Club water stop around mile 19 or 20, and I totally lucked out by actually GETTING my water from Trish, herself. Super fun 🙂 Things were good, I felt well, and we were getting pretty close.
Miles 21-26.2: West Oakland and Lake Merritt
7:43, 8:08, 13, 25, 36, 42, 03 for .36
Just a couple more miles in the seemingly more industrial sides of Oakland, in miles 21 and 22, and some solid, do-Chicago-proud side-5s later with some of the Oakland Raiders mega-fans (not sure what they’re called…?) under a highway bridge (I think), and we were ready to loop around beautiful Lake Merritt before the finish. The course LR had us go around the Lake for a bit, so it was mostly familiar territory again. Right around 22 was where my buffer zone dropped to only about 15 seconds, and the pacers were getting farther and farther out of my field of vision. The entire time I was with them, because I crossed the starting mats after they did, my buffer zone to a 3:20 flat was larger, so rationally, I knew that I was fine for a while. I just needed to cruise. Once I got to 22, and I figured that my margin was only about 15 seconds, I knew things were going to be tight from here on, and as much as I don’t want to say it, I just got tired.
Surely, as is to be expected, it was frustrating to begin to feel the fatigue set in so late in the game, but somewhat surprisingly to me at the time, the frustration really wasn’t all that bad. Once I realistically figured the sub-3:20:06 PR was off the table, it almost felt like a bit of a relief–though that might be a bit of a cop-out. I was (and am) confident in my fueling strategies, between the AccelGels around every 4 miles, according to a schedule I had written on my forearm in permanent marker that morning, and all the on-course food (bananas,oranges, and just a wee bit of Gatorade) from the volunteers and Stone, but I think my front half’s pacing should have been even more conservative than a 1:40.
Even though I felt fine and super strong through the hills, suffice it to say that being 60 seconds, +/-, under on the front half probably resulted in my ugly-ass three minute positive split. In the past year, I’ve managed to run 5 marathons with either ENORMOUS negative splits (6 minutes in Eugene, 4 minutes in NYC) or slight positive splits (Houston, Chicago, and now Oakland), and figuring out when to begin to kick on the back end of a marathon has and will probably continue to be a work in progress…as well as pacing on the front end.
Anyway, back to Oakland… In the throes of the race, I honestly don’t recall feeling super disappointed about the PR possibility going to the wayside because, for one, Stone and others on-course had said that I was among the top females–news to me because, remember, I was running in a sea of relayers and HMers, whose bibs were nearly identical to mine–and, because, really, it’s just running.
Hear me out here; PRs are fantastic, and it can be, and often is, the driving force for many people, myself included, to work our asses off day in and day out, but they’re not the end-all, be-all. There’s so much, SO MUCH, more to running than just my time on my watch, and earlier in my marathon career, I’d be saddened and pissed as all hell about not hitting what I thought was a doable goal. Now, it’s ok.
I was really happy with how I had run Oakland up to this point in the race, and really, I had just learned very late in the game that I had made a pacing mistake. It happens. And, as shitty as it is (or isn’t), that’s how we learn and that’s how we improve next time.
At any rate, Verity graciously caught up to me–graciously because I’m pretty sure she threw some encouraging remarks my way about how I was doing or how I looked or something–right as we were beginning to follow Lake Merritt, somewhere around 22-and-change or 23. By then, probably a 5k or so to go, it was just a matter of finishing.
Needing to slow down this late in the race quickly took me back to my first Boston, in 2009, which was a similar but slightly different story. There, I bonked so hard with fewer than 5k to go, most likely because I was severely under-fueled (‘severely’ as in, starting the race having only consumed around 300 calories several hours pre-race, and after fasting all night), and there, I honest-to-God felt like I was going to fall asleep standing up. It was heartbreaking at the time because it was my first Boston and I was on track to re-qualify there (on the 3:40 standard) and to have to lose it so late, and so hard, just… blew.
At Oakland, though, I rationally knew I wasn’t bonking so drastically; I’m pretty confident it was just slightly improper and aggressive pacing early on. Again, totally not the end of the world this time around. It’s just running, ya know? And besides–and again, probably most importantly–I was still having FUN, legit FUN, like smiling and yelling and chatting up the other super-fresh runners who were throwin’ down to finish their races super-strong. I still loved my Oaktown experience, and the training I had done to get here, and my first 22, 23ish miles.
I just screwed up a little; that’s all.
As my watch beeped for every mile, I didn’t even bother looking, mostly because I didn’t want my watch to demoralize me. Remember–still having fun, still loving life, still loving on running and marathoning. It became less about the time and more about the time, the experience, if you get what I’m sayin’.
Several other full marathoners (all guys), HM, and relayers passed me up in the final stretch but were SUPER supportive and barked lots of encouraging remarks my way. I knew I was getting close to seeing Stone near mile 26, and that lovely gal ran and cowbelled my ass in for a good 400m or so–super fun.
Shortly after Stone and I parted ways, another guy on the course said we had 800m to go, and that anyone can do anything for 800m–ah, the lies we tell ourselves!–and before I knew it, I was ascending the final .2 hill (steep and short, akin to the Iwo Jima monument at the finish line of the MCM in ’09). I quickly remembered that my GP here, who’s also a sports medicine guy, told me that he wanted me to send him a pic of me crossing the finish line, so I did my best to look bad-ass… fail… then BAM. Done.
Along the run, my watch beeped at a couple strange intervals, so I think I might have screwed it up because not only was the distance long (which happens, I know…even for this tangent whore), but my watch time (3:23:39) was slightly faster than the official time (3:23:48). No idea how the time discrepancy was faster, though the distance was longer, but no matter.
Immediately after I finished, one of the race officials said I was third female OA (what!!!!!) and draped a press-access-like lanyard around my neck. Verity was still in the finishers’ chute–she had finished in 3:22:13, with the first female, nowhere in sight, in 3:05:23–and V and I chatted, hugged, smooched… just a total runner love fest. She said that she was training for a 50 miler (!!), that she’s a 2:5x PR marathoner (!!!!!), and from what I knew from what my pacers had said, that she has won several marathons and races before (!!!!). I later learned that both Verity and #1 are sub-3 runners typically… NBD, right? To be beat by two sub-3 women, one of whom is a legit world-class athlete… man, sign me up for that again.
One of the other 3:20 pacers was also still in the finishers’ chute and immediately gave me a big, super-sweaty bear hug and congratulated me on the race and the OA placement, even though I didn’t realize the time or PR I was chasing. He, much like Verity, said some super sweet stuff to me about my abilities as a runner and my race time at Oakland, so I was super charged and just soakin’ in all their encouragement and belief–because that’s what it boils down to–in me and my abilities to fuckin’ shatter 3:20.
Eventually, I grabbed food and made my way over to Lynton, Erin, and Rozanne before moseying over to the massage area because–why not? Immediately post-race, my body actually felt pretty fine, and the LMT who took care of me–a fellow ginger, originally from NE OH as well (we stick together)–remarked that she was impressed with my ROM post-mary. Awesome. In fact, only my lady bits were sore as fuck–more lube next time, Erin–but in terms of the actual parts of my body I used to cover 26.2 through Oakland, I didn’t feel any worse for the wear.
And, before an hour or so of chillin in Snow Park with Lynton, Erin, Rozanne, and Midhun, we had the awards ceremony, wherein I won an enormous (almost as tall as my calf muscle)
beer stein trophy.
Playing with the trophy was also fun.
So, is the Oakland marathon tough? Yup. Is it worth it? Absolutely. Would I recommend it? Without hesitation.
Awesome morning, awesome day, and really, just a perfect way to begin a heavy year of marathons in the pacific NW.
If you expect a PR in every race, you’ll be sorely disappointed 99% of the time. I promise.
There are many other far greater, richer things that you can take away from a 26.2 jaunt and race weekend (or really, from the weeks’ and months’ worth of training leading up to race day)–and far greater things that you can share–with those dear to you than a time on your watch. Not hitting your goal time, lofty or realistic or somewhere in between, isn’t the end of the world because at the end of the day, you’ll take away so much more from your race day and training experience than the time next to your name for that race on your Athlinks profile.
Thank you so much for your support throughout our cross-country move to SJ, throughout my training and all my DM and bloggedy-blog nonsense, and for all the race day love. I am so incredibly floored and just ridiculously, stupidly humbled by the love that all y’all have outpoured to me.
Good thing there’s this huge-ass trophy to catch the overflow. 😉