Last Sunday, I ran my 31st marathon, the California International Marathon (CIM).
The thing, one thing among many, that keeps me coming back to this incredible beast of a distance is its unpredictability. The marathon is brutally, unforgivingly unpredictable. Anything can, does, and will happen over the course of 26.2 miles. You can have a picture-perfect training cycle and feel like your best, fittest self going into the race, and like *that*, something can go wrong, and it takes your everything not to stop on the side of the street and curl up in the fetal position, questioning your life’s choices, and just completely give up. Conversely, your training might not have gone so swimmingly, but somehow, inexplicably things come together on race day, and you fare far better than you anticipated. More often than not, though, it’s some combination therein. It can be palpably (though voluntarily) terrifying. Marathoning is an enormous gamble — in your physical health, your emotional health, in your comfort with prolonged discomfort or pain (physical, psychological, you name it), in your ability to make thousands of decisions as quickly as you can, continuously, without any chance for a re-do — and rolling the dice can be unnerving, to say the least. I’m selling this sport really well, right? You never know what’s going to happen in a marathon, and statistically, I feel like it’s more likely than not that something will go wrong. Naturally, the flip side is that you also will never know what could be if you don’t show up — mentally, physically, whatever — and play the marathon as it unfolds. The gamble can be jarring to say the least, but damn, it is exhilarating. You can only think so much. After a while, you just have to do.
As I talked about in my pre-race post, during CIM training and going into CIM weekend, life had given me an ample helping of WTF sandwich. I try not to complain because it’s all relative, but all the “life stuff” I got served this quarter blew and undoubtedly seeped into training. Two-three weeks before CIM, at Clarksburg, I spent nearly all of my cool-down miles bantering to Lisa about whether doing CIM was smart, given how shitty I had felt in that race — a half marathon! And I was going to be so audacious to try to race double that in less than a month (and faster)?! A week or so after that, I was in my GI’s office, yet again, planning my liver MRI and yet another round of bloodwork, trying to figure out the bizarre liver stuff that had cropped up during my annual physical a few weeks earlier. Just two weeks pre-CIM, he was throwing around diagnoses like autoimmune hepatitis — my liver basically attacking itself (ugh, cool) which would account for that godforsaken fatigue — but quickly assuring me that I should go run my heart out at the marathon, that it wouldn’t exacerbate anything. The hiccup here, of course, was the risk of having GI issues on race day, which was basically like playing Russian roulette, what with me not taking my colitis medicine and all on the suspicion that it was causing all these liver maladies. Don’t *not* run the marathon for fear that it will further hurt your liver, but obviously don’t run it if your GI is shot that morning, which, cruelly, you won’t know until race morning and you’re in the thick of it. Fantastic.
I internally debated the merits of sharing all this information in my November training update/pre-CIM entry because I don’t want pity or anything like that, nor did I want to have this great “out” or “excuse” if I ended up running CIM and it went terribly. Sure, I ran like hell, but let me tell you about my liver! You’ll never believe it! Some things you can control in marathoning and on race day, yet there’s a lot that you can’t. Regardless, you can own your race and your experience, however it all transpires; I think it comes down to a difference in agency/empowerment or victimhood. It’s a choice. Eventually, I concluded that marathon training doesn’t happen in a vacuum — for pros or us amateurs — and all this stuff indubitably would play a part on race day, just as it had for the preceding months of training. It’s part of the story: might as well tell it.
Connie (of recent Santa Rosa Marathon fame) graciously drove us north from Alameda early on Saturday, assuring that we’d have plenty of time to go through the typical marathon expo motions. She, as well as many of her Arete teammates, would be running the CIM relay, and she had a fair bit of logistical maneuvering to do for Sunday’s race. We didn’t spend much time at the expo, and aside from chatting with a few friends we encountered, it was pretty uneventful. Running into and briefly chatting with Mario Fraioli and Stephanie Bruce outside the expo was awesome, too. It had been a few weeks since Steph placed 10th at NYC (and about a month and change since I was with her at the Women Who Fly retreat thing), so I really wanted to tell her congrats in person.
Our efforts to check-in early to our hotel weren’t welcomed, and with dinner time not too far off in the distance, Connie and I killed time by going to every marathoner’s pre-race destination: Costco! It was close to our hotel and easy, so why not? Never before have I eaten Costco pizza (de-cheesed, natch) and a smoothie and then casually walked around the zoo that is Costco on a Saturday afternoon before a marathon, but hey, first time for everything. Before too long, we settled into our hotel and hung for a bit before dinner, with some of Connie’s relay-mates coming over to pick-up stuff for their event. We eventually made our way over to Mikuni for dinner, where we’d be meeting the darling Chicago-turned-Berkeley Meredith. The pre-marathon dinner with friends routine is one of my favorite parts of marathon weekend, and this time around didn’t disappoint.
Connie and I returned to our hotel and shortly after, Meg joined in as well, as she’d be on Connie’s Arete relay Sunday morning. CIM Marathon Eve with those two was just like it was for SRM a few months back, with Connie reverting into her “team braider” role for us. I think we all were snoozing before 10, and suddenly, it was marathon morning.
For waking up at 3am, I felt rested enough and began the song-and-dance routine of marathon morning: eating, drinking, getting dressed, bathroom bathroom bathroom, all the while feeling really calm and confident that it was going to be a great day to race a marathon. Texts from friends on the other side of the country started coming in by 4am (gotta love time zone differences), which was a nice little boost of encouragement before we left to catch the shuttles from downtown Sacramento to schlep us out to Folsom. I haven’t done a marathon course like this in a while — maybe since the last time I ran Boston — so it was slightly intimidating to ride the bus for a good 30+ minutes in the dark and try not to think that I was willingly — enthusiastically, even — going to try to run this distance back. Again, after a while, doing > thinking. Connie and I met up with Chaitanya, with whom I’ve shared a lot of miles this year, for the bus ride, and the three of us bantering all morning made those final couple pre-race hours enjoyable. I mean, there’s nothing like talking with friends while you’re waiting to use outdoor toilet facilities, hoping to take one last dump, before you go run for a few hours; that’s some quality bonding time if there ever were some.
Connie realized in the porta-potty line that she had left the ankle bracelet for the relay on the bus (and one errant glove), so we three scurried back to the bus to grab everything. At CIM, the buses allow runners to hang out on them until right before the race, which was nice since they were toasty and the outside temps were still a little crispy, probably hovering in the 40s. By this point, Connie had averted two potential bus-related crises before 6:30 a.m. — the other being an emergency pee that she mitigated by McGyver-style surreptitiously wizzing into an extra bag she had (impressive as hell, right?). Somewhere in the days before the race, I had made up my mind that the race and the whole weekend experience was going to be fantastic — regardless of whatever time I posted — and I think it made for a pretty nerve-free morning. A little five minute warm-up with Connie later, more peeing (though not in a bag, ha), as well as dumping our stuff at gear check, and scurrying over into the corrals, and the race was soon underway. I felt ready and calm, intrigued to see what all the fuss was about with this race. This past summer, a friend told me that people go to CIM and post times they have no business posting — like the course is magical or something — so I was really curious to see this firsthand.
Interestingly, for a race of this size, the corrals were completely self-seeded; there were some pace signs on the outside of the starting area, but that was all. It seemed to be a non-issue though because even with the somewhat free-for-all start, it didn’t feel too crowded from the get-go (and I started about ~30 seconds after the gun). Before we got going, I saw my Impala friend Robin on the other side of the starting area, so across the way, we shared one last long-distance fist-bump and good luck. We had similar goals, so I figured we’d run into each other eventually. I noticed the ground was wet — suggesting recent rain, I guess — but fortunately, nothing felt particularly slick or otherwise precarious. Lisa gave me pace prescriptions for the race and urged me to be especially conservative over the first two miles, when we were still in Folsom and descending some pretty good-sized hills, so I tried to do my best to follow her instructions, taking in the environment and absorbing the experience of running CIM for the first time.
An aside that I’ll probably revisit: CIM is known for being “the fastest course in the west” and a “net downhill” because a) a large percentage of runners race there to specifically chase an OTQ, PR, and/or BQ (and are successful) and b) while it’s a rolling hills course, over the entirety of the course, it’s more downhill than up. That said, many runners fall into the trap of thinking that these characteristics — “the fastest course in the west” and “net downhill” — invariably mean that the CIM topography lends the race to being flat and/or “easy,” and they show up on race day somewhat shell-shocked about the flurry of rolling hills all.course.long. While I was anticipating the rollers for most of the course, I was still nonetheless surprised by their frequency; I felt like we were near-constantly ascending or descending. It’s not that the hills were brutal or long — not at all — but they were definitely plentiful. I felt like we were never running on flat (or flat-ish) land for more than a half-mile or mile at a time. If you come to CIM thinking you’re going to get Chicago topography, you’ll be quite surprised in a not-good way.
Because CIM is so revered, tons of people — out-of-towners and locals alike — come to run it or spectate. It’s part of what makes the experience so awesome — from either the spectator or runner side — because you see so many people you know. (In fact, I hesitated to register for the race this year after having such a great time with my eldest cheering at mile 21 in ‘16). During the race, within the first five miles, I ran into and ran with Anil and Sarbajeet for about a mile and Stephanie H., one of the Hoka employees who helped put on the Women Who Fly weekend in October, in addition to seeing Lisa (on the bike) and Wolfpack teammates Ida and Caroline on the sidelines cheering. The camaraderie rocked. I was trying really hard to stay within pace prescriptions early but was still running a little hot, yet at the same time, I felt like I was moving so slowly. In fact, at some point, when I felt like I might be about to have GI issues, I thought oh what the hell, I’ll go to the bathroom real quick, and it’ll put my time to where I should be right now. I didn’t (false alarm on the GI front, phew), but what the hell. Running (and racing marathons) is so bizarre sometimes.
I don’t know enough about all the towns we ran through between Folsom and Sacramento to say anything noteworthy, but I do recall that wherever we ran through at mile 10 was like running through history; the little town square area made me feel like we were running through a movie set or something because it seemed so anachronous. Where the heck were we!? I ran into Lisa and my Wolfpack teammates again around halfway and came in around 1:39 and change, still feeling like I was running a little hot but doing much better about hitting paces than earlier in the race. I remember feeling pretty well overall but was really surprised at the rollers’ frequency. I felt like I was running fairly evenly though, and all things considered, I felt solid. The weather couldn’t have been more perfect (probably high 40s/low 50s with very little/no wind and just a little sun), too. It was a great day to race a marathon, I kept telling myself. As I was running, just taking everything in, I remember thinking that everything seemed to be moving so fast. I felt like we had just started, and then suddenly we were at mile 9, and now, we were halfway done. How?
The post-half miles — from about 14-20 — are often the armpit miles for me; they’re often fairly uneventful and really just a means to an end. I unexpectedly ran into Chris around 13 or 14 (who had been beset with GI issues before the 10k mark, ugh, on his way to try to break 3) and then Connie and Meg around 16, at one of the relay exchanges, which was all a great pick-me-up. I remember feeling irrationally angry when I felt the first hint of wind around 14, right after seeing Chris, and around 16, I began to have that internal dialogue of we have 10 more miles of this; it’s gonna go really great or really poorly, and it’s entirely up to me. Honestly, by 16 I was still surprised at the rollers — I thought they were over at 13?! — and began thinking this is beginning to feel hard.
Another aside: while yes, marathons necessitate an enormous amount of physical fitness, the mental game is so incredibly important. I can’t emphasize that enough; that shit’s downright critical. In terms of my pace by this point of the race, I was right where I should have been. The race wasn’t starting to slip away from me; in fact, it was totally within reach, right smack in the middle of Lisa’s prediction. Admittedly, I’m going to sound like a lunatic for a second, but I had to make an honest effort to switch my mental bantering from why does this feel so hard? My fucking liver!! Damn you! (all of which is problematic in its own rite, which I’ll explain) to So many people believe in me (followed by basically naming any person who has ever offered me encouragement in my life; told you, I sound like a lunatic). Believe in yourself. Get out of your head. Run. Feel it out. Keep the effort. Don’t self-sabotage. Get to, not have to. Throughout the course of the weekend, I tried hard not to think about all this liver, MRI, “9 mm lesion” crap that has basically been my November because thinking about it — and especially during a goal race — wasn’t going to change anything or positively affect my race. FFS, beginning to feel tired at freaking mile 16 of a marathon is to be expected! Quickly assigning blame to my organ that had apparently been messed up for the better part of who knows how long was/is stupid. With marathons — or any races, or with anything in life, really — you do the best you can on the day. Show up. Work hard — unapologetically, even. Do the best you can with what you have at your disposal. It’s not rocket science or Hallmark-worthy. Going into the weekend, even with all this liver nonsense in the background, I felt like I was in as-good-or-better shape as I was going into SF, and there, I felt like I was in PR shape. For CIM, I completely trusted and believed in Lisa and her training methodology, and now it was on me to execute. At mile 16, it was time to actualize my conviction and trust. I started telling myself that the marathon is all about managing expectations, challenges, feelings, perceived pain and exertion, and this great thing called reality, and that I am nothing if not a good manager of stuff. (Whatever it takes, guys. It feels dumb to say it all now, but in the heat of the moment at mile 16, it was like I discovered the meaning of life).
Once I got through that mile 16 mental zoo, I decided to smile — and smile hard — every time the negative self-talk manifested, surely making me appear totally normal for the last 10 miles. Between 16-18, Erica — a blog reader from the peninsula whom I met in the SF starting corral (hi!) — ran over to me and chatted for a minute, which was such a cool experience in and of itself. (She went on to post a 3:16 or thereabouts and a beautiful negative split. Congrats again, gal!). I think I saw Lisa and my teammates again around mile 20, still feeling pretty good, and began to feebly do the mental math about what I thought my estimated finish time would be. It seemed like a PR was within reach, but (this is embarrassing) I didn’t remember exactly what my PR was, so I tried not to think too much about it. As we passed by mile 21, I cheesed hard as we passed the same spot where A and I stood for hours cheering at CIM ‘16 and began telling myself things like 5 more miles; that’s like 1 ½ school commute runs with the kids. One round-trip, plus a little bit more. Again: whatever it takes.
And then, I began running with a pizza.
Probably around 21.5 or thereabouts, I saw Tiffany on the sidelines, dressed as a pizza, holding a sign that said “runners don’t shit your pants!” or something along those lines. I’ve known Tiffany since PEM ‘16, cheered for her at last year’s CIM (where she had a fantastic race), and remembered that she had posted on Instagram on Saturday that she’d be willing to run with anyone at CIM if they needed it. I locked eyes with her, yelled “Tiffany! Pizza! Let’s go!” and literally without hesitation, she dropped her shit sign and came right along. I told her that as long as I held sub-8s for 22-on, that I’d be in PR territory (trusting in my mental math, which is completely inadvisable) and that I welcomed her camaraderie, distractions, and storytelling. It was a blast to run with her, in no small part because she was dressed like a slice of pepperoni pizza, making the spectators just go batshit. She’s local to Sac, knows a million people, and knows the course well, so along the way, she gave me little previews of “oh, a camera’s gonna be here! Smile!” and “the hand-cyclists at this bridge are great! Use their energy!” and the like. It was awesome. I can’t tell you how many people screamed for “first pizza!” over the last 8k of the course. Physically, I was still feeling pretty well but didn’t want to lose a possible PR by the skin of my teeth; mentally, I think I was beginning to lose focus a little — overstimulation or something — and I wanted to listen to someone besides the voices in my head for a change. She did and said everything perfectly, and I can’t thank her enough for hanging with me.
Around 22, we entered into East Sac, near a college campus (I think?), and the streets began descending from the 50s down to single digits as we approached downtown. Crowds began to pick up from 22-onward, with populations swelling the closer we got to downtown, and sometime after 25, I noticed Impala friend Robin running just ahead of me with her boyfriend. Tiffany and I passed her at the very end of the race, and in the final stretches of the race, Tiffany pointed out the Capitol building — the finish line — and kept remarking about how close we were getting. My pace had slipped a tiny bit somewhere, and Tiffany kept me honest and focused on the task at hand, reminding me that I “do this shit in [your] sleep all the time!” As Tiffany and I approached what had to be the final 1200m or so of the race, I passed a huge group of people I knew — first all my Wolfpack teammates, with Lisa standing out in the street yelling how proud she was of me (I’m tearing up just writing that, dear god), and immediately after seeing them, I saw Meg, Melissa (the most excellent RD of she.is.beautiful), and a huge swarm of other Arete women right around mile 26 or so. I screamed to Meg, “C’mon Meg! Let’s go!” and like Tiffany, she literally dropped whatever was in her hands and came with me, staying a few steps ahead of me and to my left. Meg and Tiffany know each other — the running community is so small — and within what seemed like literal seconds, Tiffany dropped off (telling me I had two quick left turns and I’d be done), then Meg (with one final left turn ahead of me, about 20 meters remaining), and then suddenly, I was staring down the women’s finisher chute of the marathon, hauling around a 6:40 pace because the clock time read 3:19:3x, making me think I was really close to a PR (based on what I could kinda sorta remember). Immediately after I finished, I remember being pissed at myself for a second — you shouldn’t be able to run 6:40s at the end of a marathon! Push harder, earlier! — but then thinking that maybe, just maybe, I might have PRed. I had no idea.
The marathon is so emotional — watch any marathon, particularly in real life, and you’ll know what I’m saying here — and after saying hi to folks I knew in the finish line area (Mary from Arete, Connie, and some others) — I turned around to face the finish, hoping to see Robin come in, knowing she’d likely be just a few seconds behind me. I didn’t see her finish — she had come in during those few moments when I was talking to the other ladies — but when I turned around and spotted Robin, I noticed that she was leaning on the side of the fence, kinda sorta, looking like she was just catching her breath: a totally normal pose post-marathon. I walked over to her to offer her congratulatory remarks and helped her steady herself, making us look like we were awkwardly hugging (while “leaving room for Jesus,” as my youth pastor would have said). Just moments later, as we were kinda-sorta-not really embracing, Robin muttered “I’m going down,” and she blacked out, her whole body going limp and quickly falling to the floor. Her hands were on my shoulders before, so when she fell, fortunately — god, I am so happy about this and tear up when I think about what could have happened — I caught her and prevented any part of her from hitting the pavement. I’m so, so grateful that I was there for my friend because it could have been really bad. I screamed and got medics over right away, and luckily, she came to pretty fast. It was scary, so I am glad that she was ok then and days later, is fine. We joked that I was Amy to her Shalane. 🙂 (PS: Robin PR’ed!)
After getting Robin into medical and finding her boyfriend and apprising him of what happened, I made my way over to the Capitol steps, where I’d be meeting up with the rest of Wolfpack. I finally removed my shoes, thinking during the race that my feet felt kinda sore, and was greeted with two super juicy (and bloody), gnarly-looking blisters, one on each foot (but in the same place); effing shoe updates. :/ I got to see Anil again and his family, hear about his race and got the low-down about that of Sarbajeet and Chaitanya (all solid postings and a hefty PR for Chai!). When I returned to my team, everyone was telling me my unofficial time was 3:19:10, and I still had no idea if that was a PR, only that it was probably really close. Finally, a good 45 minutes after I finished my race, after everything calmed down, it occurred to me to look up my TCM ‘16 time, and I realized that — remarkably, incredibly, unbelievably, luckily, pick your adverb here — I PRed at CIM by 3 seconds.
It was hard not to laugh — are you for fucking real?!?! After the hell that was this quarter, the relentless self-doubt, the stress of everything, the the the … !!?!? — so I remain in shock and am just floored. I mean, honestly. What in the world?!?!
Hearing how the rest of my team did was awesome. We had people post huge PRs, post debut marathons, have solid race executions, everything. It was a great morning for so many people, and I’m so happy that I got to be a part of it. That I managed to PR — and not even know it until after the fact — is so bizarre to me; then again, this quarter and training cycle was nothing if not bizarre, so maybe the final bit to this story makes more sense than I realize. It’s the universe, man.
At delicious lunch afterward with Meredith and Connie at Selland’s, I tried to wrap my head around pulling out a 3 second PR, and I couldn’t. I still can’t. Three seconds in a marathon isn’t much, but at the same time, a PR is a PR is a PR. Honestly, simply being able to show up and race on December 3 — especially when, given the events of mid-September to mid-November, I was fairly certain that running an autumn marathon (let alone racing it well) wasn’t in the cards — was a gift in and of itself. Standing on a starting line always is, and I’m always grateful for it. I’ll eventually wrap my head around this all in time, but for now, I am just so stinkin’ happy (if not also slightly bemused).
Thanks a ton for your love and support. It means the world.
31st marathon, 18th BQ, 3 second PR, won’t be the last time I run this course
True to form, this RR is already verbose as hell, but before I close, I wanted to give a couple more bits of insight into this race. We’ll force brevity and do this bullet-style.
- While it’s not huge like, say, Chicago or NYC, CIM is definitely a lot bigger than many marathons, and even with the relay component, I imagine that most runners race the full; it felt that way on the course, anyway. I think it’ll be a matter of time before the race implements crowd control measures like seeded/wave starts because while it didn’t seem problematic this year, I still noticed a healthy number of people who started much too far in front, resulting in necessary weaving and dodging in the early miles. That’s a pretty straightforward fix, I think.
- Similarly, I think it’s interesting (albeit weird) that so many races are now transitioning to using nuun on course instead of Gatorade; I know TSFM uses nuun now, too. Generally speaking, I don’t have a problem with nuun — I don’t casually drink it in my day-to-day life, but during races, if that’s the only option, I’ll use it — but wow. The nuun on-course at CIM was positively unpalatable. Every time I took nuun on course, I choked down (or more likely spat out) nearly all of it. It was gross.
- Moreover, the aid stations were plentiful — probably about every 2 miles or so — and well-coordinated and stocked with water, nuun, Clif/Gu products, and even real food periodically. The volunteers — even the kids — did a bang-up job.
- In addition, though I’ve talked in earnest already about the topography, I’ll say it again here for good measure: train for CIM, and approach your pacing strategy, as you would a hilly marathon. Sure, it’s a net downhill, but that doesn’t obviate the mathematical fact that in order to have a “net downhill,” you’ve first gotta have some uphill, ya know? We’re not talking Monument Peak hills or anything like that, but training on hills and preparing your body to be constantly changing gears, pretty much the entire race, while running fast, will behoove you. It’s probably just a few hundred feet of gain over 26.2 miles — which isn’t much — but you’ve gotta also factor in how you’ll feel running your redline pace for 26.2 miles and how any ascent or descent blips in the roads may knock you off your focus. Plan for it, and you’ll be fine.
- The busing situation from downtown Sac to Folsom ran like clockwork. They seem to have the logistics locked down.
- In terms of premiums, I was genuinely surprised with all the premiums we got for this race — a zip-up, a big medal, CIM-branded socks, and a CIM-branded spibelt type thing. That was pretty cool. Maybe it was due to the 35th anniversary of the race, but it was really generous.
- This is what feels like the “local marathon” for northern California, so it’s a big deal for people here. (Yes, we have the SF Marathon, which I obviously love, but a lot of people shy from the full there because of the challenging elevation. I get it. More people opt for one of the halfs instead). CIM is on the PA Grand Prix series; it was the Marathon Championships for USATF (and will be next year as well); and it’s like people save up their marathon energy reserves each year for CIM, banking on the course and probably-good-weather for a solid race day. Even if you don’t run it, if you’re local (or local-ish), come out and cheer. Oh, that reminds me…
- The spectators are great. They’re not in huge swarms, 10 deep, lining the entire course as is the case with NYC, Boston, or Chicago, but you’re also running through what seems like a country road/a series of country roads that intersect a bunch of small towns before you get to Sac. The scenery isn’t anything spectacular, but it’s pleasant. You’re running through people’s neighborhoods, in front of their churches on a Sunday morning, and past their places of business; shoot, at one point, it seemed like an entire family (kiddos included) was lining the street outside their house just to hand out tissues. The spectators are what makes this good-sized marathon have a homey, small-marathon feel. The spectators were mighty, enthusiastic, and genuine, and after being on that side of things last year, it was cool to experience it on this side.
- Give it a go at least once. I’m already registered for ‘18, so I’ll see you there.