The passage of time has a funny, although probably a bit expected, way of changing our perspectives and perceptions about just about everything. That’s something of a ridiculous topic statement (I should know better) and a verifiably shitty way to begin a race recap of my twenty-fifth marathon, the 2014 Santa Rosa Marathon in Santa Rosa, CA, but as I’ve been thinking about my experience at SRM, that’s kinda what I keep coming back to–this notion of changing perspectives, a change that, for me, has only come with the passage of time, and one that I wouldn’t have necessarily expected to experience in the context of marathoning, at least this early in my marathoning “tenure.”
I’ve belabored this point by now, but as you know, when my family and I moved from Chicago to the Bay Area back in December (12/21, if anyone is counting), it was a big deal for a ton of reasons obvious and not-so-much, and in the two months that C and I were geographically separated, I spent many of my pre-move nights researching and subsequently registering for races and run clubs out in these parts (read: coping mechanism). I didn’t know when the move would eventually transpire, but dammit if I didn’t have a rip-roarin’ race calendar and run community at the ready.
Sometime late last year, probably in the November-December range, Austin, a friend whom I had met from RYBQ over the weekend of the failed ’12 NYCM (thanks, Superstorm Sandy) had told me about the Santa Rosa Marathon and all the things that made the race stand out–wine country, running by vineyard after vineyard, literally running through a barrel room, getting a bottle of wine as a race amenity, (are you sensing a theme here), a super fast and flat course–and once a hasty search revealed that SR would be just a couple hours north of our future home in the south bay, I told Austin I was in for yet another rundezvous, west coast style, with him (our fourth? fifth? I’m beginning to lose count). He pointed out to me how cool the weekend would be because aside from the typical goodness that comes with marathon weekend, SRM would also mark his tenth marathon and my twenty-fifth, nice round numbers that are good for celebratory/achievement milestones. Again: more good stuff, more good reasons to sign up for another marathon, even though this one would be just four weeks after The San Francisco Marathon in late July, and what would amount to being my fourth 26.2 of 2014 since late March. No matter. Take my money, I was in.
2014 has been an excellent and quite full year of training and racing, and I’ve done a decent enough (though not perfect) job of staying healthy and not burning out or getting bored. The shatter-the-fuck-outta-that-3:20 plan has been alive and kickin’, and post-Newport, where I managed to idiotically dehydrate myself and damn near fall over TWICE during the marathon from cramping, my plan had been to treat TSFM, a decidedly tough race (hello, 1k+ feet of climbing) as a strong training run and really try to go for the gold again at SRM in late August.
But then… life happened, and in the universe always makes sense department, yet again, the universe came a-knockin’, and I am damn happy that I was there and sufficiently attentive to answer. Linh, the fella responsible for coordinating the tons and tons of pacer groups for so many races in and throughout the Bay Area where RA [RunningAddicts] assists, put out a call to see if anyone was available/interested/willing/healthy to pace a 3:35 marathon group at SRM. Pacing a 3:35 group, a group that no doubt would be full of tons and tons of 18-34 year-old women who’d specifically be running SRM in the hopes of qualifying for Boston, instantly intrigued me, and regardless of what this would mean for my own racing this summer–suddenly, not that long after Newport in late May, I’d be convincing myself that I was trained and sufficiently strong to race the difficult TSFM in late July, even though the course obviously wasn’t favorable to PRs or fast performances–I told Linh I was in and ready and willing to pace SRM, in what would be my first full marathon pacing gig… and one that came mere months after my “debut” pacing gigs at two different halfs in April and May.
Enter the whoa.
Fortunately, Ko, another RA fella, and a super fast one at that (hello, sub-3), who had coincidentally been one of the 3:20 pacers I had run with for most of the Oakland Marathon, also said that he’d be in for the 3:35 party, and awesome. We were a team.
I’m already over 700 words into this recap and have said nothing of the race, but I’ve gotta take (another) detour here for a second to give you an idea of the enormity and excitement and OMG IS THIS FOR REAL going through my mind in the time between committing to pacing SRM and actually pacing SRM. Everything that I said earlier, about the passage of time and how it changes our perspectives and perceptions about stuff? This is where that comes into play.
Running performances can be and often are this sorta individual thing, and clearly, everything is relative–my fast can be your slow, that sort of thing–but I think it’s helpful to compare performances and training against ourselves, against where we were X number of days, weeks, months, years ago to where we are now to figure out what has changed and hopefully, how we’ve gotten stronger, faster, healthier, and that sort of thing over time. I’m not going to self-aggrandize here–because clearly, there are many, many runners hella faster and stronger than me–but hear me out for a second. If you would have told me in 2012, just two years ago, that I’d be pacing 3:35–pacing, implying that 3:35 would be nice and comfortable and a race time I could clock without issue–I would have called your bluff. From 2008 until 2012, my PR squarely sat at 3:37 from Austin ’08 (another hilly course), until I chipped it down to 3:34 (April ’12, nearly one year exactly postpartum), then down to :31 (Houston ’13), and a high and then low :20 (Eugene, Chicago ’13), with several other subsequent races in the low :20s on tough courses since Chicago. So–yea. Big changes in a relatively short amount of time in my abbreviated running career, with the most substantial changes in the past 18 months or so.
As you can imagine and hopefully glean from my ever-rambling ruminations about this race already, actually pacing a marathon for fun a) kinda blew my mind because I never imagined being a runner strong enough/healthy enough/crazy enough (eh, debatable) to say “sure! I’ll run 26.2 for fun and to help others!”, and b) and at a time/pace that would have been totally unattainable for me just two years ago … yeah. Suffice it to say that I had several moments in the weeks and days preceding SRM where, no kidding, I’d look at the pacer bio page and yup, my name and picture was still there, so I guess this really was happening. Whoa, nelly.
Time, you are a funny, funny thing.
Saturday: expo, dinner, typical race eve stuff
After fetching Austin at SFO and continuing our trek northward, with a stop at a reasonably good Denny’s and a beautiful Safeway (love me some grocery stores), we got into Santa Rosa and went straight to the DeLoach Winery, the site of the outdoor expo, and site of the barrel room that we’d also be running through around mile 10 of the marathon. The expo was unlike any other that I’ve attended (outdoors! winery! wine tastings!), and we got our things quickly and easily (shout-out here to Beth, the pacer coordinator who had already fetched all the pacers’ stuff. She made the pacers’ lives fantastic over race weekend).
It was super sunny and pretty warm at mid-day, but Austin and I wanted to do a little shake-out after sitting on our bums for so long in the car, so that’s what we did… by running back and forth, back and forth, down a side street off the main country-ish road where DeLoach was situated, for a good 2 .5-ish miles before heading back to the expo to volunteer, all stinky and sweaty, at the pacer tent with Ko and company for a few hours. Austin, who was going after big goals at SRM, was a champ and hung out with the pacer gang for a few hours and also found several other runners who shared similar goals for the day. Really, it was actually a rather enjoyable way to pass a few hours until dinner time, and it made me even more stoked to be pacing the next day. Race weekend just brings with it this damn near palpable energy, and I’d say the same is true, if not more so, when you’re sitting at a pacer booth and folks just want to talk all running, all the time. swoon
Eventually, Austin and I met Ko over at the hotel we three would be sharing for the night (Sandman–good value, pool, one-night minimum… recommended) to check-in and then head over to a friend of Ko’s, Heather’s, friend’s parents’ (whew) timeshare for dinner. It was awesome and just lovely: probably close to 10 runners and their significant others, small kids running around, and so.much.food. A few hours later, we returned to the hotel and were off to bed in the hopes of getting at least a little shut-eye before the race’s 6 a.m. start on Sunday.
Sunday: race day, and oh yea, the biggest earthquake the Bay Area has seen since 1989
A 6am race start meant a 3am wakeup, and shortly after I awoke, as I was standing in front of our bathroom sink, trying to not be as loud as a herd of elephants–apparently, my natural tendency, according to my husband–I noticed that even though I was staring squarely at the sink, it seemed like it was moving to the left… then the right… then the left again. This obviously puzzled me, and as I tried to make sense of it, I came to the following conclusions: a) I was really, really dizzy, which would be peculiar but… okay, whatever, it’s 3 a.m.; b) I was unfathomably tired and kinda hallucinating, which would, again, be peculiar, but… whatever; or c) I was drunk as a skunk, even though I hadn’t consumed any alcohol for the preceding weeks/months, and this really couldn’t be an option, but… what the hell??! Why was the sink moving??
Earthquake, silly. You’re not in the midwest anymore.
Suffice it to say that it was really, really weird and kinda unsettling to be in a building and to feel it swaying back and forth, over and over, when you know that buildings generally aren’t supposed to move. At any rate, the 6.0 magnitude earthquake was a helluva way to begin marathon morning and, fortunately, SR didn’t have the extent of damage that Napa had, so the marathon was still on.
My twitter: east coast: long run/triathlon/race pre-start banter. West coast: holyshitEARTHQUAKE!!!!! #timezones
— Erin (@ErinAMG) August 24, 2014
Post-quake, and post-typical song and dance routine of marathon morning (aka how many times can you make yourself go to the bathroom??), Ko, Austin, and I drove over to the marathon’s staging area, and things moved quickly, as they often do on marathon morning. I briefly got to see Anil and Chris, both who’d go on to rock some solid marathon performances, before splitting from Austin and heading over to the corrals, where I got to answer a deluge of questions from VERY EXCITED and VERY NERVOUS runners. Protip: don’t ask someone else what your pacing strategy should be literally minutes, nay seconds (!), before the race begins.
the actual race
This is a good segue to direct you to my review of the race on BibRave, in the event that you’re interested in a more executive-level overview of it. However, unlike my other marathon RRs, I won’t go into the mile-by-mile recap of the race because it wasn’t a super strategic race for me, simply because I was pacing and needed to run as evenly as possible. To hit a 3:35:00, Ko and I needed to average 8:12s, so that’s what we were aiming for. As anyone who has run a road race can attest, oftentimes our GPS devices don’t align perfectly with the official, on-course markers, so we accounted for that and tried to average slightly under 8:12s (and planned for ~26.3/.4 miles, given that hardly anyone can run tangents as perfectly as they’re measured). The aforementioned was essentially the extent of any race strategy we had. Between the two of us, we were wearing at least three different watches, so we were prepared for a technological meltdown if one were to occur.
When I think about the course, I mentally categorize it into four parts:
-downtown (miles 1-3ish)
-the Santa Rosa Creek Trail, which is kinda like a bike trail and reminds me a bit of the GRT here in SJ or like the most eastern side of the LFT in Chicago [like the path between North Ave and Belmont] (miles 4-8.5ish)
-ruralish country roads (miles 9ish-20)
-the Santa Rosa Creek Trail again, the same path as before (miles 20-25.5) + a quick trip back to downtown (miles 25.5-26.2)
The first three miles had what seemed like a thousand turns, so we were initially off pace just a little bit between all the turning and the usual crowding that’s pretty typical at the beginning of a 26.2. The race is capped around 1,000+ runners, and fortunately, folks doing 13.1 or the 5k didn’t start until significantly later than the full runners. All that aside, the first few miles through downtown, while super cute and quaint (local and quirky storefronts, cobblestone streets, white Christmas lights in the downtown area’s trees), things felt a bit tight and a bit messy. From the get-go, we had a small town’s worth of runners in our group–which totally rocked–but it made for some unexpected challenges as we were getting into a rhythm early on and trying to do whatever it took to ensure that nobody was running a step farther than the prescribed 26.2 miles. In the interest of trying to make myself useful, I called out the turns in advance, whenever I could see them from afar, so folks could make their way over to the appropriate side and run the tangent as tightly as possible. We obviously can’t run anyone else’s miles, but the least we can do is try to help others run no more than they need to, ya know?
Once we got onto the trail, it took us a few more miles until things seemed to begin to space out nicely. The trail itself is nice–basically like running on pavement but with the aesthetic benefit of seeing some beautiful trees, some nice houses, and some vineyards or farmland periodically–but spatially, it was a tad narrow (again, think of the width of the GRT or the LFT). Fortunately, at least initially, there were very few other runners or cyclists running against the horde of marathoner traffic. We soon got in our groove, our runners seemed happy and relaxed, and again, we had a small town’s worth of runners behind or near us. It was awesome.
Our group quickly discovered that we’d all have to be rather strategic when it came time to navigate the fluid stations simply because there weren’t a ton of volunteers working at them and because the actual stations were pretty short (maybe 1 or 2 tables). Several times throughout the race, I grabbed whatever I could (literally) get my hands on, water or gatorade, and after I drank, I offered the rest to anyone in my group who wanted more or who didn’t get any in the first place, and other runners in our group started to do the same… germs be damned. It was really kinda cool, almost like a little unofficial team thing we had going, like we were all looking out for each other. The fluid stations’ difficulty would be a recurring thing for the rest of the race, and so I again tried to make myself useful to my group by warning them ahead of time when a station was approaching so folks could figure out what they were going to do–stay at their current pace, drop back, pick it up for a few strides to get ahead of the group, whatever.
There were just a handful of little hiccup undulations–ups and downs, mostly just going under bridges–on the trail, and we had comfortably locked down our pace early on with anywhere from 35-50 seconds to spare. It was relieving to get off the path and onto the country roads, where we were no longer canopied by any trees or restricted to a skinny stretch of pavement, and luckily, the weather was cooperating and stayed comfortable, if barely a bit humid. Northern California in August can be scorching, but it seemed like the weather gods were throwing us one that morning. Our group was still thick, but things were going well, and the miles just clicked along. Running through the barrel room at DeLoach around mile 10 or 10.5, the same place as the expo the day before, was fun, and aside from some more little hiccup hills between miles 11-13 (and a snake on the road–first time I’ve had that in a marathon), things were moving right along fairly uneventfully.
I finally got a chance to talk with Miriam, one of my Ragnar SoCal teammates from earlier this year (and also a fellow TSFM ’14 and ZOOMA Napa ’14 ambassador pal) who was running with us for an attempt to BQ and PR, and she, just like many others in our group, looked really fresh at the halfway mark. At that point, I was still feeling fine, and luckily, the random ITB tightness that had manifested just 9 days earlier wasn’t resurfacing.
However, around miles 12/13, I was beginning to feel a tad tired–no doubt related to taking off a few days more than I usually would, in an attempt to go into SRM as fresh as possible and with minimal ITB tightness–so I figured I’d have to be hypervigilant about nailing my nutrition for the second half of the race. Until that point in the course, my nutrition for the most part had been fine, but the cluster that was the fluid stations had made it more challenging than usual to ensure that I was taking in adequate amounts of electrolytes and water. After a few miles of thinking about things some more, I decided that having a mid-marathon shit stop would probably make me feel better and help me shake some fatigue–couldn’t tell ya the logic on that one, sorry–and strangely enough, it seemed to help. There ya go; when in doubt, poop. I guess.
The rest of the race was pretty quiet. Some fluid stops had oranges and bananas, so I took those whenever I could, and eventually, we got back onto the bike trail around mile 20. Our group had thinned out some and had predictably become pretty quiet, so we encouraged them and urged them to focus on the mile they’re in, to relax, that type of thing, stuff that I often tell myself when I am beginning to encounter fatigue/boredom late in a race. The narrow path became even more narrow the closer we got to the finish simply because we began to pick off large groups of half marathoners (in the 2:30+ range, I think), something I wasn’t anticipating. Fortunately, folks yielded to the faster-moving marathoners, and I didn’t get the impression that anyone in our group felt like they had gotten trapped behind a slower-moving half marathoner.
With less than 10k to go, our group was still on pace and about 30-50 seconds faster than we needed to be, and things were moving along quite nicely. We encountered the same little hiccup hills on the trail that we did going out–though of course, they seemed much more dramatic–and I quickly realized when I went to take my last gel somewhere around miles 22/24 that, fuck, I had dropped it somewhere much earlier in the course. I was beginning to feel tired and dropped a few paces back from Ko but still kept him well within eyesight (and therefore, maintaining the 3:35:00 pace). I cursed myself for not noticing earlier in the course that I had dropped it and hoped that it wouldn’t promise an imminent smacking into the wall.
Getting off the bikepath and circling back to downtown and the start/finish line was glorious. It was becoming more clear to me that I had botched my nutrition a bit on the course, between the kinda chaotic fluid stations and missing my last gel, because suddenly, my head was beginning to feel super heavy, like I was carrying the weight of the world in my ponytail, much like the feeling I had in the final stretch of Houston ’13. I yelled to Ko so he’d hear how close I was to him, and sure enough, before I knew it, we finished together, side by side, and under pace: 3:34:38.
Immediately after we finished, I wanted to drink every ounce of water I could find and pretty much stood in front of a finish line fluid station for a good five minutes, asking for refill after refill, because I was so.effin.thirsty. Water has never tasted so delicious. Shortly after getting out of the finish chute, I found Austin and Anil, who both rocked some certifiably badass PRs, as well as Chris, who also rocked a really solid race. We bonded over our on-course experiences, and just like at TSFM, when I was so stinkin’ happy for so many of my lady friends, apparently SRM was all about the boys because my heart was just sing-songy for my bevy of boys and their fantastic race day performances.
As if my heart wasn’t so full already for my friends’ performances, several runners approached me after the race, as I was clumsily trying to put on flip-flops and begin to make myself look (and smell) human again, to thank me for helping them achieve their race day goals. I can remember at least four or five individuals, men and women, young and Masters, tell me that they paced off Ko and me for all or much of the race and attributed their PR, BQ, or strong race performance to us and our pacing. One woman in particular was on the verge of tears when she told me that she had both PRed and BQed with us–which naturally, put me on the verge of tears–and seriously? heart explosion. Serious, serious, serious case of run love.
Eventually, Austin, Ko, and I headed back to the hotel before going home to the south bay, where Austin would stay with my family and me for the night before returning to Portland, and just like that, another marathon was over, another rundezvous with Austin had concluded, and somehow, together with Ko, I had paced a group of runners to a 3:35 marathon finish, a time that took me years and years to be able to realize and one that was about as fast as I ever thought I’d be able to run.
Like I said in my shitty intro, it’s kinda funny how time has a way of changing our perspective about things. I never thought I’d be a sufficiently strong runner to be able to run, let alone pace, a 3:35 marathon, and really, the thought never occurred to me much before moving here. I so very much enjoyed the experience of pacing SRM, a course that is something like the 5th or the 6th in the nation in terms of the number of BQs it produces, and seriously, it was an honor. That sounds kinda cheap, but I mean it sincerely. It’s a huge fuckin’ honor to help other runners achieve whatever unicorn they’re pursuing, be it a BQ, a PR, finishing vertically not horizontally… whatever. We all have our own unicorns; what bonds us is our relentless pursuit of them.
I think I’m coming to learn through my recent pacing experiences that not every race has to be about me and that sometimes, the best ones, the ones that are the most gratifying, satisfying, or the ones that are simply good for the soul and that remind me why I got into marathoning (or running) in the first place are the races where it’s not about my finish time but about someone else’s and about the steps we take, collectively, metaphorically, and literally, together with those other runners that are the most meaningful. So many people have helped me get to where I am currently, and where I am going, in my running, so to be able to pay it back, and to the backdrop of my 25th marathon… yeah. That penultimate Sunday in August was a good morning.
Thanks for all your support, and many congratulations to this year’s Santa Rosa Marathon finishers!
and one more thing… I (obvs) really enjoy giving back through my running, and my next opportunity will be when I run the Nike Women’s San Francisco Half Marathon as a fundraising participant for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. It’s not too late to donate to my campaign (already 75% of the way there!), and I’d be honored to have your support.