A couple weekends ago in late April, I revisited the 5k distance for the first time since the Brisbane Reach for a Star 5k. Just like RFAS, the Stow Lake Stampede was a 5k on the springtime PA circuit — basically meaning that it was a team-scored race, so it was rich with Wolfpack camaraderie — and as an added bonus, the race was in SF, in Golden Gate Park. I rarely venture up to SF to visit, let alone to race, and fortunately, after the morning’s race and warm-up/cool-down miles, I’d get to spend some long overdue QT with Erin and Foxy, neither of whom I had seen since Erin’s wedding two+ years ago. A little bit of running with some friend time all but promised that it’d be a good morning.
I decided to forgo a formal LR that week in the interest of trying to be “fresh” for race day, which seemed to be the right move. A hilly but relaxed 8 miler around my ‘hood/through ARP on Saturday was enough to satisfy the pre-race itch without leaving me feeling taxed, and come Sunday, I felt ready to roll. Plus, Saturday was Earth Day; you can’t not run around and appreciate our world on Earth Day.
Pre-race, a handful of teammates and I ran the course as a warm-up and tried to notice what we could about the course: any slight “hills,” where the turns and tangents were, any tricky footing, basically anything that could seem insurmountable when you’re trying to run hard and fast. The SLS course was (IMO) arguably a million times better than RFAS in that a) there were no parking lots; b) SL and GGP in general are both really pretty places to run; and c) there weren’t any crazy turns or out-and-backs. It didn’t seem as pancake-pancake flat as RFAS, but it also seemed flat enough. Combine the course advantages with some beautiful and great-for-racing weather, and the whole team camaraderie environment, and any nerves I had were quickly replaced by loads of buzzing excitement.
I can’t say a whole lot about the actual race and scenery, not anything like I could for something longer, anyway, but the Impalas, the USATF PA team who organized the race, did a top-notch job with all the race details. Running the course as a warm-up was a smart move for all the obvious reasons, and I think it also helped make the race seem to go by faster because I knew exactly what to expect and where to expect it: where the cones were, where I should be cutting tangents, where the road might have been a little narrow, all those little details that you don’t want to be surprised by when you’re going hot and heavy. The course was simple: we ran up to the lake, we ran around it, and we ran back to the start/finish line. It couldn’t have been more straightforward; I’m pretty sure the mile markers couldn’t have been huger (seriously, they were on big-ass construction signs that you could probably see from space); and like RFAS, it was a fairly no-thrills environment but one that was incredibly conducive to fast times. It was awesome.
Immediately after the start, I noticed Impala friend Robin (fresh off an impressive Boston in unforgiving conditions) spectating, as well as a few of my teammates, all eagerly hooting and hollering. Just like at RFAS, my teammates Claire, Sam, and I ran together for a lot of the race more or less in a pack, and dear lord — I can’t say enough about how driving compelling motivating awesome it is to race in such close proximity with teammates. We came through the first mile within paces of each other — Claire, me, Sam — and basically stayed this way for the duration of the race. Being with my teammates, combined with that whole notion of starting at yes thing that I talked about before, led me to feel like I was running footloose and fancy free, not at all anxious about the all-but-promised redline that I’d surely soon be riding. Being with my team, matching their paces, instead made me feel, or reminded me, that I had every reason to be running how I was, where I was, and that the best thing I could do in that race, in those moments, was to get outside my own head and just fucking run.
Let me tell you: it was liberating.
One of the last things Wolfpack leader, coach extraordinaire, and amazing human being Lisa told us before we began was to relax in the first mile and have fun; in the second mile to hold steady before we made a move; and in the third mile, to PUSH and pass evvvvvvveryone. While I can’t say that I followed her plan as prescribed, I will say that I never felt stronger or more comfortable in a 5k in my life. Claire, Sam, and I were close to each other through the first mile; we got a little spaced out in the second; and by the time we were in the third mile, I saw another (male) teammate ahead of me whose presence helped me close as hard as I could and finish with whatever I had left.
While I wasn’t clock-watching during the race, I’d try to catch my splits when my watch beeped, but I didn’t really have much of an idea about what my total time would be. Imagine my surprise, then, when at the finish line, I learned I posted 19:40 — a 15 second 5k PR from RFAS about a month earlier. (!!!!!!!) I finished the race floored — like beyond belief, did my body actually just do that? floored — but like any endurance athlete, my first thought of “wow that was kinda tough” was quickly replaced by “but I know I can do better.” Gauntlet thrown, self. Apparently, we’ve got some work to do.
Post-race, my teammates Melissa, Gregg, and I ran around GGP for a bit, and then I met up with Erin and Foxy for brunch where I basically left feeling hoarse from running my mouth for an hour+ straight and with a sore face from smiling so much and so hard. Again: it was a good morning.
If you’re local, and especially if you’re on a PA team, I’d definitely encourage you to register for Stow Lake. It’s inexpensive; the course is fast and certified; the post-race finish area had a ton of food (including ice cream, which I somehow missed — blasphemy, I know); and I think I have yet to find someone who doesn’t love running in SF or in GGP. I’m looking forward to this one again next year.
Stow Lake Stampede was my only race in April, a bit of a break after racing nearly every weekend in March, and it was a great way to ease into SF Marathon training. The next time I’ll be circling Stow Lake will be during the back half of the marathon course, so in the next few months, I’ll have to hone my Jedi mind tricks to pull from my strength I felt during the 5k. Can’t wait!
Even knowing with near certainty that I wouldn’t be racing PEM, I left home somewhat begrudgingly (momguilt is very real) around mid-day on Saturday to make it up to Sac in time for the last couple hours of the expo, where I was supposed to volunteer as part of my ambassador obligations. The expo, held on the first floor of an Embassy Suites, was low-key, and had I not been working, I would have been in and out in about five minutes. Instead, I hung out for two hours and chatted up my RunningAddicts pacer buddies, the folks who’d be pacing anywhere from a sub-1:30 half or low-3 full all the way to 5 hours+ (since the course had a 7 hour time limit). I hadn’t seen many of these folks since I was pregnant, or even before, so it was a lot of fun to catch up and talk running and family.
Once I got to my hotel about 20 miles away, the family and I Skyped for a while, and then the rest of the night was fairly quiet. I eventually pulled the trigger and registered for a fall marathon before I went to bed, since the prices were going to increase the next day, and it took me a long time to make a decision about whether I wanted to run another marathon this year or if I should instead do some shorter and faster distances post SF in late July. I began to have this weird existential conversation with myself about why I run marathons – no really, why do I run marathons? Why do I keep doing this?– and I eventually figured that, among other things, my sheer enjoyment of the structure that marathon training necessitates is why I keep coming back for more. Week after week, I can usually see some hints or outright signs of progress, especially as I’m doing this all postpartum, even if things don’t necessarily come to fruition on race day. Plus, I figured I’d miss running long in the summer and fall if I didn’t have a marathon on tap. It’s so funny; here I was, the night before a marathon, having some ambivalent feelings about covering the distance in the morning, but by golly, you better believe I committed myself to another one of these come November. So fickle.
Race morning was standard fare: not great sleep (FFS!), the usual bathroom song-and-dance, awakening pretty early to pump as much as I comfortably could, eat, but then also pack up and schlep all my shit out to my car because I most likely wouldn’t make it back to my hotel before the “late” check-out of 12 p.m. I was probably the only fool who managed to pay for parking in Sacramento on Sunday, and after I liberally applied sunscreen and vaseline, I met up with Chris and the other PEM ambassadors and his running/fitness group, 9run6, for some photo opps. Like with the RA pacers, I hadn’t seen many of the PEM ambassadors in over a year, so it was awesome to catch-up with them (and meet the folks I didn’t know IRL prior to this ambassador experience).
Chris had mentioned to me that he would be pacing his friend, Alexia, to her first marathon finish, and would be aiming for 8s for the entirety of the run. I said I was in for that – thinking that I run 8s on nearly all of my training runs, and usually with a stroller – and so I looked forward to what would really be a long-ass training run. In fact, even while standing in the corrals in my Wolfpack singlet and with a bib on my chest – things I typically don’t wear on any ol’ training run – I felt literally no pangs of nerves or anxiety. Really? Nothing? I’ve run 26 of these before, and I always have at least something fluttering in my belly ahead of time; that I didn’t this time around was a little unsettling, to be honest. I wondered if the distance had somehow suddenly lost its magic to me or if I had somehow gotten bored with it. I tried to put these sentiments out of my head – I had 26.2 miles to help get a woman to run 8s! – but I wondered for a long while WTF was going on.
Originally, race day forecast was something unnerving like 92/63, but it eventually tapered down to high-80s and high 50s. I have this theory, though, that the sun in CA is warmer than the sun in the midwest, so even a temperature like high-50s, which doesn’t sound all that warm, feels pretty hot. Race day confirmed this for me because even milling about in the corral felt warm in my shorts and singlet. I recalled thinking how happy I was that I let myself off the hook for this race, how freeing it was standing at the starting line knowing that I wouldn’t be going for a PR or any sort of accolade, and how for once, with the ever-rising hot temps as a backdrop, I wouldn’t go out fast and slowly wither as I attempted to still bring my A-game on a hot day. There would be no A-game; there would be no PR-chasing; the next 3 hours and change (god willing) would be more about chatting it up with friends, pacing, and just enjoying the fact that I could, was able, to run for a handful of hours. Racing is exhilarating, but sometimes just running is as equally wonderful.
The full/full relay and half racers started out together for the first few miles but then split off fairly early. We wove through an industrial corridor-like area in West Sac before hooking up to a trail akin to SJ’s Guadalupe River Trail. The temps felt surprisingly comfortable, given the wind that we had, and we wound our way south along the trail before veering off into some country-like residential neighborhoods (that felt a lot like Santa Rosa) before reconnecting to the trail and heading north and into a hefty headwind. We had a good group of us all running together, and we even helped each other out on aid stations; if one of us missed a water/sports drink, germs be damned, someone else shared theirs. At one point we were even running in a single-file line (drafting!). I took a rare mid-race pit stop around mile 6, but all things considered, I felt comfortable and at ease, just plugging along, taking in the surroundings, dumping water on my neck and head at every AS, and enjoying the ride.
We hit the half at a 3:26 pace (about a 1:43:28 by my stopwatch, since my Garmin was measuring us at least .1 long), and we were consistently hitting each mile about :75 faster than planned. Chris and I often checked-in with Alexia, who was looking and feeling strong, and everyone in our little unofficial pace group looked great, so things seemed to be coming along fairly smoothly. After the half, we wound our way back through that early industrial corridor, through the downtown area, and hooked up to the other side of another bike path for about miles 18-home. Around mile 14, as we were in the industrial corridor, I was beginning to have a nasty internal monologue about how happy I was to not be racing today and how I was beginning to feel tired and that I should just cash it in and let the group go – all sorts of negative shit, for no other reason than I knew I still had a sizable bit of running left in temperatures that’d only continue to rise – so I tried my best to simply turn my head off and just stay with the pack.
If you haven’t already had the joy of experiencing this, please allow me to tell you: it’s hard as fuck to turn off your head. It’s especially hard when you feel like you might be the only person in the group feeling that way and thus, have to keep it all bottled up to yourself.
We were getting a little dispersed by this point, no longer running side-by-side, but we were all within a second or two of each other and still looked like a noticeably cohesive group. At one point, I asked Alexia how she was doing because she was looking great and strong, and I said that it’s ok to not feel great periodically during a marathon – it’ll pass – and to just run the mile that you’re in. Things will probably change. Retrospectively, I’m sure I needed to hear that probably more than she did.
During the armpit middle miles (14-17 of a marathon, kinda no-man’s land in my book), that existential “crisis” I had been experiencing over the course of the weekend began to resurface. Even though my fitness was obviously better than I thought it’d be, my aggressive nutrition and fueling was going smoothly, and realistically, I didn’t feel bad at all, the sheer amount of mental shit made me momentarily believe that I was done. I began to think of all the ways I could get out of really racing my other marathons this year (SF and Two Cities), reasons why I shouldn’t continue to train for marathons for the rest of the year, reasons why deep down, I probably don’t even really like marathons like I think I do; honestly, if I could paint a picture of what my mind looked like, I’d give you the nastiest piece-of-shit-garbage-landfill that I could. I know it’s normal to go to some dark places during marathons, and don’t get me wrong, I do, but the amount of negative bullshit bantering that I had during PEM was second to none. I’m chalking it up to the lack of concerted training that I did since Modesto and thus, a break away from the mental aspect and callusing of training, but shit. I’m not going to lie; that was tough. That diatribe was mine and mine alone, and a week later, all I can do is laugh at it/me and shake my head in disbelief. I’m glad I was surrounded by a small group of friends whose footsteps helped center me and get me out of Mental Purgatory? Hell? because eventually, I came out of it and re-focused on the race at hand. When I excitedly told Alexia at mile 17 that “we’re in single digits now,” again, I was probably telling myself that more than I was telling her.
After we got off the bike path in Sac, we begun our final bit of the marathon through some rather lovely neighborhoods in Midtown Sac (I think). We kept ticking off the miles, and by now, it was only Chris, Alexia, and me running together or at least in each other’s 1-to-5-second vicinity. Chris and I had mentioned to each other that we were beginning to feel a bit worn – him especially, since he was fresh off Boston – and how impressed we were that Alexia was kicking so much ass. I began taking the aid stations a little more gingerly once we hit the 20s because I wanted to make sure that I was actually ingesting all the fluids that I could, and the fact that a spectator yelled to me, “You don’t even look like you’re sweating!” was a tad alarming. Around 20, Alexia kicked into a higher gear but still remained within my eyesight – maybe about a minute or two ahead – and at 21, the only real “hill” on the course (which wasn’t much), I pulled ahead of Chris because I didn’t want to lose Alexia. This was also around the same point where the 3:28 pacer caught up to me, and then Alexia, so I figured she and I would probably finish pretty close to 3:29/3:30, if things continued to play out as they currently were.
For the remaining miles, I still took the AS gingerly, grabbing oranges whenever I saw them (by the end of the race, I had probably eaten an entire orange or two on the run), as well as taking sponges and stuffing them down my shirt, and while I was finally over the mental meltdown from the earlier miles, I was actually pretty happy to be just chugging along in the 20s with a smile on my face, the cloudless-day-and-rising-temps-be-damned. It was a perfect day to be playing outside, but it was a shitty day to race a marathon. All things considered, though, I was running way better than I had at any hot-weather-marathon I had run.
Between miles 20-23, Alexia remained in my view, and she looked fantastic. I was so happy for her – imagine running your first marathon on a hot day and pretty assuredly snagging a BQ on your first go of the distance – and around mile 23, RA pacer buddy Amy, who had paced the half, was on the sidelines and yelled at me, saying how good I looked, which, during a marathon and no less at mile 23, is basically like saying that the world is made of love and peace and rainbows and sprinkles. Hearing that I “looked good” made me SO. HAPPY.
Shortly after I saw Amy, I had caught up to Alexia, around 23.5ish, and I gushed to her about how great she looked, how close we were to finishing, and how happy I was for her. By now, as we were inching our way closer and closer to the Capitol Mall finish area, the streets were beginning to descend in both letters (Z to A) and numbers, which only guaranteed that we were getting closer to home. We saw another pacer buddy Albert around 25, whose animated hoots and hollers gave us another spring in our step. I periodically ran ahead of Alexia, while also running my mouth, encouraging, “You’ve got this! Finish strong!” and dammit if I didn’t fucking tear up when I told her that as soon as she got home tonight, she needed to go book her hotel for Boston ’17. I mean, c’mon. How often do you ever get to say that during a marathon as the marathon is unfolding before your very eyes to a runner whom you’ve run nearly the entirety of the race alongside? That’s some special shit right there. At about 26.1 (or thereabouts – again, my Garmin measured us long, which is rare for me in 26.2), she picked it up and finished a few seconds ahead of me, and suddenly, there I was, too, bounding over the finish line of my 27th marathon at eight months postpartum, with a time that I couldn’t have just casually gone out and run four years ago. 3:30 and change, fifth female, first in my age group, about 31st overall, and my 15th BQ, all while helping a woman who went from being a perfect stranger to a new friend in the course of 3 ½ hours finish her first marathon and fucking qualify for the Boston Marathon in the process.
I waited a few minutes in the finisher’s chute to see Chris finish, and shortly after, he, Alexia, and I shared some great congratulatory remarks and hugs and took more fun photos (while inhaling the copious amounts of post-race fresh fruit – thank you, volunteers) to commemorate the special occasion. I felt great, physically – very much like I had just run long, since that’s exactly what I did – but man, was I happy to finally get out of the sun and seek shade. I didn’t stick around long because I wanted to get home to my family, but I was so happy – thrilled – for how things went.
I feel like I say this all the live-long day, but man. Marathons are such unpredictable beasts in the first place, and sometimes, it seems that statistically speaking, you have a greater likelihood of things to go wrong than you have things to go right. I dealt with a very tough stretch of mental trash and felt pretty sub-par coming into this race, yet I was able to turn it around and transform the experience into something positive, something way better than if I had just decided to run this (or race it) on my own. Sure, I could have raced harder and physically suffered substantially more than I did, so maybe I took the easy way out, but I decided before I even began that the race really wasn’t going to be about me. So many people think that running is a solitary endeavor, and to that I enthusiastically call bullshit. Look at any marathon (or hell, even a track race), and I can guarantee you that there are camaraderie dynamics at place that may not seem obvious but are there. Runners help each other out, even implicitly, and it’s the community that makes this sport as soul-enriching as it is. I couldn’t help but laugh at myself on the two-hour+ drive home because it wasn’t even 24-hours prior that I was debating the merits of really training for SF and Two Cities for the remainder of the year and hell, even my worth as a runner and the whole meaning of it all, yet here I was, a handful of hours later, giddy on endocannibinoids and fucking stoked to go run another 26.2 and put in the training effort to show up prepared. Running is so weird sometimes.
There were things that I should have done differently for this race – for one, taken the front half a touch slower, perhaps, to account for the warming weather – but overall, I’m really happy with how PEM went. It could have been horrible, and for that stretch of mental garbage miles, I thought for sure it would be, but it wasn’t. It was far from it. I had a good time, far better than I was anticipating having, and I’m glad I at least gave myself the sheer opportunity to have a good time, if that makes any sense.
And yes, I’d recommend this race, particularly if you’re local or local-ish. Sure, the weather could make for a hot day, but it’s California. More likely than not, it will be warm. The course is favorable to fast times, and the race is organized by a community group (Rotary International), is a non-profit, and benefits some great charities. My only real miff was a lack of a gear check this year, but I bet it’ll be added in subsequent years. Full marathoners got a nice tech t, a blinged-out medal about the size of an oversized coaster, and a bottle of craft beer from Yolo County Brewing (I don’t drink, but man, I am acquiring quite the collection of adult beverages from races since moving here) plus a post-race beer garden ticket. What was most impressive was that you couldn’t tell it was an inaugural race, in my opinion. That in and of itself is a hard feat to pull off. It’s one thing to “not be able to tell” it’s an inaugural race for a 5k or a 10k, but for a marathon, that’s pretty cool.
I’ve got a solid 3.5 hours’ worth of memories from this little inaugural race, and for that, I am so pleased and really couldn’t be happier. Congrats to this year’s PEM finishers, and thank you for the opportunity to be an ambassador for the race over the past year.