This picture — the disbelief, the digging, the holding back puke or tears (or both), the enormity of the weight being lifted off your chest as you realize that HOLY SHIT I JUST DID IT — this is what it’s all about. You can’t not smile. You can’t not love it.
In late August, I took advantage of an opportunity to return to the Santa Rosa Marathon in (surprise) Santa Rosa, CA, for a second year, to pace. The last time I did it, in 2014, I co-paced the 3:35 group; this time around, I would be pacing the 3:33 group solo. I didn’t pace in ‘15 because I was a couple weeks postpartum, and last year, I had to bail because of that whole colitis nonsense. Just like in 2014, this year, many runners from all over, and in particular, CA, flocked to the SRM because its flat course is quite conducive to nice and shiny PRs and BQs, and logistically, it’s one of the last marathons in the US before Boston registration opens in mid-September. In other words, if you’re itching for a fast time, SRM is a (relatively) safe gamble. The race has had a trying history the past few years (course issues last year, timing issues another, and an earthquake the year I last ran it), but it seems to be a race that, I guess like a good wine, improves with time. Naturally, oenophiles also like the wine-heavy presence in the race, too, what with it being in the thick of northern CA’s wine country and all; the marathon is known, among other things, for taking runners literally through and alongside wineries, and at one point in the race, you actually run through a barrel house at mile 10 at DeLoach (and have an opportunity to hit a Chardonnay aid station). It’s a really enjoyable course and race experience.
Among many other friends, my pals Meg and Connie had targeted this race for some great goals, and while being totally fired up about your own race is awesome, I’d argue that being excited for someone else’s race and training is about as good as it gets. I knew the work that they both had put into their training — while juggling career, family, and life obligations — and I was so excited to see how they’d tear it up on course. I also felt weirdly nostalgic and fairly introspective going into the race as well — the introspection apparently balancing the rahrahrah for my friends — because I had realized a few weeks earlier that SRM was going to be my 30th marathon in the decade that I’ve been doing this stuff. What’s more is that the universe conspired (and logistics worked out) so that my 30th marathon would become essentially a way for me to give back to the running community — at a highly anticipated race and at a pace that is a highly sought-after goal for many people (since 3:35 is the BQ for women ages 18-34). The 3:33/8:07 minute per mile pace that I’d be leading was a pace that for years, I never would have thought I could have (comfortably) handled; hell, my PR was minutes slower than that for years. Suffice it to say that pacing at SRM was a bit of a mental something or other. I can’t quite put my finger on it without sounding completely granola and wanting to hold your hand while singing kumbahyah or something, but it was cool as hell. I was so glad to be there, so excited for my friends racing, and just so ecstatic to help people run strong races.
Saturday: expo, hot as balls, Japanese
Connie, Meg, and I ventured up to SR for the expo in the mid-afternoon, when the temperatures capped out around 105 or so. But it’s a dry heat! Right, sure, but when you open your oven after you’ve been baking cookies, it still feels really effing hot and you feel like you’re looking death in the eyes, right? Same thing. It was toasty, what I call “mouth of Satan hot” (hat tip to fellow Dante lovers out there). DeLoach is one of the major sponsors of the marathon, so as in 2014, the expo was on the winery grounds. Meg, Connie, and I were in and out relatively quickly and still managed to see some of our other friends (Anil, Gene, Vicky) who’d be racing or pacing Sunday morning. We chatted with Beth, the pace group coordinator, and learned about contingency plans for race day, since it was slated to be another triple-digit day. Rumors were circulating that the marathon start time would get moved from 6:30 to 6 or even 5:30, but they were unfounded. We’d later learn that the course would provide additional aid stations and would throw in misting stations and kiddie pools filled with water, ice, and sponges on the course. If nothing else, Connie, Meg, and I kept reminding ourselves that with our 6:30 start and our respective time goals, we should more-than-comfortably finish the race before things got blazing, 100+ degree hot. It might be in the 70s or so — and my experience has shown me that 70s and 80s in California feel significantly hotter than the same temperatures in the Midwest — but it wouldn’t feel that horrible, and realistically, we three shouldn’t be in it for that long.
The women (and Gene) and I opted for a most excellent dinner at Haku Sushi in downtown Santa Rosa, and even with the hot as balls temps outside, piping hot tofu and veg udon, washed down with some Easy Lover sushi, was great for a marathon eve meal. The ladies and I soon retired to our hotel in Rohnert Park; Connie braided Meg’s hair and my hair (why not); and I think I was asleep — though not sleeping well — by about 9:30. (Pro tip: if you’re going to race SRM, book your accommodations really early because things tend to fill up. Expect to pay a lot of money for pretty standard rooms; that’s typical Sonoma County/wine country).
An early race start meant an earlier wakeup (about 3:30), but sharing that nonsense with friends always makes it seem less strange than it really is. I mean, honestly, when else in your life are you going to set an alarm for (essentially) the middle of the night so you can wake up, eat oatmeal, drink black tea, and hopefully will yourself to have a bowel movement and if you’re lucky, go back to bed? If you’re shaking your head, you know; it’s totally bizarre. We left the hotel shortly after 5 and comfortably arrived to downtown SR around 5:30, before much of the pre- and post-race stuff was set-up in the new start/finish location (Old Courthouse Square, instead of Julliard Park; the Square is a better and more spacious staging option, IMHO). Meg, Connie, and I each did that pre-marathon dance all morning long where you basically oscillate between needing to pee (nerves), thinking you have to poop more (nerves), forgetting stuff in the car that you were going to use pre-race (a Gatorade bottle full of water), and trying to find that weird, elusive balance between not thinking about this Great Big Thing that you’re going to do with your body for the next 3 hours and change, plus or minus, and not not thinking about this Great Big Thing that you’re going to do with your body for the next 3 hours and change, plus or minus. Care, but not a lot; don’t care, but give yourself permission to give a damn. Lean in; dissociate. Over. And over. And over.
Right around 5:50, as we were getting ready to go run a 5 minute easy warm-up, I learned from Beth that I had a co-pacer for the day, Simon. Surely, somewhere in the cosmos the angels were trumpeting on high! I was simply elated. Though I knew I was physically capable of running an evenly-paced 3:33 marathon, a marathon is a long way to go by yourself — and especially when people are relying on you in some capacity. Sometimes people forget that pacers are humans, too, and that we — like anyone else — can have a bad day or a rough race. Though by race morning I wasn’t hugely nervous about pacing, I was still slightly anxious that something would pop up and make my race go awry — stomach issues, long portapotty lines, fueling mishaps, the world ending, anything. Learning literally moments before I was about to go warm-up that I had a partner in crime was such an enormous relief. Moments after Simon and I met, he joined in our warm-up, and immediately, our bantering put my nerves at ease. Our kids were about the same age; we had stuff in common; he had also done this before (and had more experience than me, both in racing and in pacing); so I quickly gleaned in our approximate 6 minute warm-up that we’d have a good time for 3 hours and 33 minutes.
Without much fanfare, aside from some mild confusion about the starting corrals, we began the race. Since 2016’s snafu with runners going off-course early on, SR rightfully made some great changes to the earliest parts of the race. In addition to moving the start time from dark 6 o’clock to lighter 6:30, the first 5k of the course was completely different from how I remembered it in ‘14. Back then, it seemed like we spent a ton of time in SR’s quaint little downtown area, making a thousand turns; in 2017, we spent hardly any time at all downtown, and every intersection was marked to hell with cones, barricades, and a vocal volunteer (or three) who let us all know that we were heading in the correct direction.
We picked up the Santa Rosa River Trail (SRRT) by about mile 3 and just like in 2014, stayed on it for a long time before getting over to DeLoach and the Sonoma County back roads. The SRRT is pretty similar to SJ’s GRT, though smaller and narrower, and it’s the same path that IM SR used for its marathon just a month earlier. The first 10 miles of SRM were pretty flat, if not a little net downhill, and our group comfortably cruised right along, with me silently reveling in gratitude for all the shade that we had for the first part of the race.
Before we hit DeLoach and the county roads, we had to do a quick out and back on a crushed limestone-esque trail that went perpendicular to the SR trail — presumably to make up for the mileage that was cut off from the new downtown portion of the course earlier — and it allowed me to quickly see my buddy Sarbajeet on the other side of the trail, ahead of me and pretty close to the 3:08 pacer. Unfortunately, I couldn’t see where Anil, Connie, or Meg were.
We exited the SRRT around mile 8 before picking up back county roads from 8-20. Simon and I were hitting the paces pretty well, and we noticed that we had about a .04-.1 discrepancy between our GPS watches and the mile markers pretty early on. Between the two of us, we were wearing four watches (2 GPS, 2 stopwatches) and a pace bracelet, so our contingency plans had contingency plans. Because the SRRT was pretty narrow, we rarely ran right next to each other — usually, I was a couple paces ahead of him — but between our matching shirts, him holding the 3:33 sign, and our group of runners behind me, but in front of him, we seemed to have a pretty good-sized group parading between us for a long time. I’d periodically look back to ensure that I wasn’t getting too far ahead of him (and our sign), but I was never more than about 30-50 seconds under our pacing goals at each mile marker (and usually, about .5-.1 longer in distance). When I thought our gap between us was too wide, I ran the roads as they appeared, taking things easy on any inclines and then allowing my stride to open on any declines. I could always hear him, and anytime I turned my head, I could always see him, so I wasn’t sweating it too much that we weren’t in lock-step together for the entire 26.2. Understandably, some people prefer to pace by themselves, and while I initially felt a bit guilty or like a shitty pacer for not being exactly next to him for a lot of the race, we were doing what we were supposed to be doing. (In retrospect, in 2014, I ended up being “the caboose” of our 2 person pacing team, and it’s mentally really taxing to be there. This time around, I guess I just didn’t want to put myself — or my runners — in that position).
Even if you’re not a oenophile, it is still pretty neat to run through DeLoach and through the barrel room. The signs are always fun, and hell, you can hit a Chardonnay station right after you get out of the barrel room if you want! I must have eluded photographers this time around because I don’t have any pictures from that part, unfortunately.
While the course is very flat overall, there were some pretty good rolling hills on the county roads between miles 11-18, some which I didn’t remember from ‘14. We fortunately still had a bunch of shade over us at that point, and we came through the half in about a 1:46:x, right where we wanted and needed to be.
By halfway, or halfway and change, our group was still running really strong, people were in good moods, and honestly, it was just nice to be out for a long (long) Sunday run. I often thought of my friends racing and hoped that they were having good and enjoyable runs, too. I felt gutted when I saw Anil at the mile 14 or 15 AS, but he was all smiles, so I figured things were okay, relatively speaking. He had had fantastic training and racing in the lead-up to SR and had come prepared to fight for a new PR and a solid BQ, but it wasn’t his day. I’ve been there before and can relate, and man, it sucks. The marathon can be such a heartbreaker.
Somewhere in the 18 or so mark, we exited the rolling county roads and made our way back to the SRRT by way of some flat and seemingly arterial roads. Along the way, I caught up with a woman who had been hanging in our group since the very beginning, “Denver,” who had run with Simon in ‘15, PRed, and was really hoping to PR again this year. I really enjoyed chatting with her and laughed when she apologized profusely for hanging on my hip, since we had so much open road that she could have been running on instead. Girl, that’s why pacers are there! Simon was still about 20 or so seconds back from me, and I told Denver to just keep cruising along, and that by mile 20, we’d pick up the river trail and be on that all the way in to the finish line. Despite her smiley demeanor, I knew she was all business and was determined to finish the final 8 as strong and as well as she had run her first 18, and she went on ahead of me by 19 or so. Soon after, I ran into my Wolfpack teammate Barrie, and we hypothesized about how our other teammate, Sarah, was doing in the full (spoiler: she won!). We all just kept cruising, and fortunately the temperatures remained pretty comfortable for those no-man’s-land miles between 18-20.
At the 20 mile/10k to go mark, we hopped back onto the SRRT, and we also began to run into the crowds of half marathoners who had started their race at 7:30, an hour after we did. I remember this being problematic in ‘14, but this time around, it didn’t seem to be that big a deal. Runners and walkers were all being courteous to each other, and a simple “good morning” or “on your left” or “runners coming through” from me, on behalf of everyone around me, seemed to pretty easily warn slower-moving runners and walkers to yield for the upcoming foot traffic. As you return to downtown on the SRRT, the very slight downhills you ran on going out can feel completely monstrous coming back, and I warned my racers of that early in our run together. Realistically, when you’re racing a marathon, anything inconsequential can feel earth-shattering in that final 10k, so I tried to do what I could for my racers around me by opening up the trail a bit to accommodate for passing traffic. I figured that while I couldn’t run the race for them, the least I could do was run my mouth. (Fun story: one guy was incredulous that I could have so much energy to so frequently and so vociferously shout at all the other participants to get them to yield. Again: that’s what pacers are for!).
I didn’t start to really feel the heat of the sun until about mile 24 or 25, but I imagine if I were racing, I’d feel the effects much earlier on, like Anil or so many others did. Throughout the entire course, the aid stations really orchestrated their efforts well, with tons of adults and children giving out water, Gatorade, gels, bananas, and oranges. I didn’t recall seeing any kiddie pools or misting stations anywhere, but I could have missed them. By the very end of the race, my GPS was off by about .11, but even with the discrepancy, I knew that I/others around me would definitely finish in 3:33, if not a low 3:32. I began to hold up a bit, waiting for Simon to close the gap between us, and somewhere around mile 25 or so, I came up on Meg, who was in a great mood despite not hitting her A goal for the day.
Meg, Simon, and I exited the SRRT together right at mile 26, and with a couple left turns back into downtown and Old Courthouse Square, and after some holding up on our part so Simon and I wouldn’t finish too egregiously under 3:33, Simon and I both noticed Denver still ahead of us, obviously busting her ass to get in under 3:33 and to beat what she had posted in ‘15. With about .05 to go, Simon and I both yelled at her with our everything — go! Go! You’re so close! Finish the thing! You can do it! — any embarrassing or empowering bit of encouragement you have ever heard parents scream at their young children — replete with fist pumping, flailing arms, the whole bit. It was awesome. You’d think we were yelling for our own progeny.
Moments later, Simon and I finished the race together in 3:32:26 — a little fast for our prescribed 3:33, sure, but just like The Price is Right, under is better than over. Seconds after us, Meg finished as well, netting herself a solid race, her B goal, her first marathon postpartum, and a pretty and shiny BQ.
As I got through the finisher’s chute area, Denver — Megan — found me and in near tears, thanked me endlessly. I was so happy for her and so proud of her! She said something along the lines of her performance being wholly attributable to me, and I quickly threw social norms to the wayside to furiously interrupt her and remind her that nope, actually, her legs did the work; she was the one who did the heavy lifting; she was the badass. I was and am so thrilled for her though and for the many other people who notched great performances in conditions that became pretty challenging. A PR and a BQ — hell, even trying — on a warm August day is something to be really, really proud of. #kudos
After chatting with Megan, I inhaled a couple freezing cold pieces of watermelon, chugged water like it was my last opportunity on earth to do so, and eventually reconnected with Meg and Connie. On course, I was taken aback around mile 26.1 because I saw Connie and her husband and son all on the sidelines cheering, and while I wasn’t totally surprised to see Connie there — figuring she would have been finished for a while by the time we brought in our pace group — seeing her family was a big surprise. It wasn’t until Connie and her family, Meg, and Gene and I connected that I learned the amazing news that not only did Connie net a gigantic PR (14 minutes), she finished second woman overall to my teammate, Sarah, and SHE BROKE 3 HOURS (and her family was there to see her do it). Talk about inspiration.
2017’s iteration of SRM was excellent. The new/modified course went off without a hitch, and while the weather was certainly not picture perfect, it’s also literally the only thing you can’t control on race day. (See also: an August marathon in inland California. It’s a gamble). The aid stations were plentiful, about every two miles, and the congestion that I remember from running into the slower half marathon runners and walkers at mile 20 wasn’t as intense this time around like it was in 2014. The race kept many of its premiums: gigantic medals, a nice zip-up (this year, made out of wicking material with Peanuts characters adorning the backside), and a bottle of Runner’s Red wine for every marathoner. Even the pace groups were modified in the past few years to better align with Boston standards and the likelihood of securing a Boston spot; in ‘14, this spot was 3:35, and the race had since dropped it down to 3:33. Starting and finishing in the square instead of at the park seemed to make things flow really easily, too, and at least for my group of friends, we didn’t have any problems getting to the downtown area an hour ahead of the start time and securing really convenient (and free) parking. This was the 9th year of the SRM, and I honestly think that it’ll just keep improving.
I couldn’t be happier for my friends, for strangers I helped pace to personal victories, and to the countless other participants who decided to give themselves a chance to chase down big goals. I would have never imagined that I’d run 30 marathons in ten years of doing this stuff, and being able to pace for this milestone, and at a pace that a) I never thought I’d be able to do comfortably ten years ago and b) one that means so much to so many people (particularly women my age), was like the best icing ever on the best cake ever. If I wanted marathon #30 to be memorable, I nailed it.
Sincerest and heartfelt congrats to all of Sunday’s racers. You all are rockstars in my book.