Preface: Sometimes after significant life events I like to write a lengthy post remembering the experience. I do this mainly to get my memories written down before they fade away. I write these posts for myself, but I share them so that those who are interested in the subject area can read about my experience. This is one of those posts. I’m sure what follows contains quite a few typos, and for that I apologize.
Prior to December 2, 2012, there were exactly two times in my life where I found myself starting a physical challenge and thinking, “This is just plain stupid. What am I doing here?”
The first was in the summer of 2004 at the start of my lone ascent up Mount Whitney. It was 4:00 a.m., dark, and cold, and I was starting what would be a 22 mile round trip hike to the 14,497 ft. summit of the mountain.
The second was in the spring of 2005 when I found myself starting a backpacking trip to the bottom of the Grand Canyon in a snowstorm.
I survived both instances, successfully making it to the top/bottom and back again, and both were memorable and incredibly challenging experiences.
December 2, 2012 was number three.
I had been looking forward to running the California International Marathon for some time. Completing a marathon has been a dream of mine for many years, but that dream has always been derailed by some sort of nagging injury. I’d spent the last several months training for this one, and was fortunate to make it through training with no major problems.
In the days leading up to December 2, it became clear that ugly weather was coming. Very ugly. Meteorologists predicted a major storm would come into Sacramento in the early morning hours of Sunday, pound the region with rain, and then move on by noon. And this rain was going to accompanied with winds of up to 30 mph. All told, the series of storms that hit Sacramento throughout the weekend left a total of 4.74″ of rain- one quarter of Sacramento’s annual average. The majority of that rain fell on Sunday.
As I struggled to sleep on Saturday night, I heard the wind howling outside. I knew the weather was going to be brutal. I’d been training to break 3:30, but I let that goal go on Friday when it appeared poor conditions were imminent. I woke up at 4:15 a.m., determined to allow myself plenty of time to get dressed, eat breakfast, and get myself ready to run. I’ve learned that it takes me about an hour of being awake before the thought of exercise is even remotely appealing, so I wanted to be sure to be done with that hour before leaving the house.
At my parents’ house on race morning. Ready to go!
After quite a bit of waffling about proper gear for the conditions, I ended up leaving my tights, gloves, and beanie at home and going with my Speedo Jammer swimsuit (I’ve come to really enjoy running in these, they are basically bike shorts without the padded butt), an Under Armour compression sleeveless top, and a Champion long sleeve black technical shirt. Despite the wind and rain, the temperature was supposed to stay in the high 50s, so I knew I could leave the cold gear at home. My main priority was wearing the least absorbent clothing I had. I also wore my regular shoes (Altra Provisions), my Zensah calf sleeves, my Native sunglasses with clear lenses to keep the rain out of my eyes, and two Pro-Tec IT band compression straps.
Once I was dressed and fed I drove over to my parents’ house. My dad was running the half marathon that morning, and my mom was driving us to the start line.
When I got in the car, it was raining.
When I got out of the car at my parents’ house ten minutes later, it was raining substantially harder.
We drove over to the starting line near the intersection of Auburn Folsom Road and Folsom Crossing, and by that point it was raining buckets. The fierce wind and angled rain was ridiculous. We sat in the car for a few minutes, watching runners in ponchos and trash bags make their way to the starting line.
Finally, at around 6:35, we couldn’t delay any longer. We got out of the car, and stepped into the elements. The first thing I said to my dad was the bit from the start of this post about this being number three. I wondered what I was doing out there.
This wasn’t just rain. It was a flat-out downpour.
As I waited in line to use the restroom my thoughts oscillated from disbelief at the craziness of the task ahead to confidence. ‘I know the weather is crazy, but once things get started, it’s just running,’ I thought.
I found my place among the thousands of runners at the starting line, and waited those final moments. It was an amazing sight. Thousands of people- an incredible mass of humanity- stuffing a normally busy street to capacity, all with various types of gear meant to ward off the rain. The energy was tremendous.
The gun went off right at 7:00, and to my surprise things got moving pretty quickly. I was probably over the starting line in about a minute and a half. I knew the first mile would be very crowded, so I just got myself into a slow, comfortable pace and tried to relax. Ahead of me I could see thousands of runners. It was incredible.
My plan was to run for four minutes, and then take a thirty-second walk break throughout the first half of the race. I knew this would be tough during the first mile, so I planned to start that in mile two. During that first mile I found myself incredibly excited to finally be running in a marathon. The last week had dragged by. Some stomach issues brought on by a pain reliever I’d been prescribed had made the last few days somewhat unpleasant. I had spent months training, faithfully lacing up my shoes at least four times be week for runs of various lengths and paces. And now, it was finally here.
Despite the conditions, I wanted to enjoy myself. I wasn’t worried about a time goal. I just wanted to relax and take it all in.
After the first downhill mile I got into my walk break rhythm. Early walk breaks seem ridiculous. I obviously am not tired yet, and I never feel like I need the break. However, the author of the plan I’ve been following (Jeff Galloway) insists that the early breaks are the most valuable. Starting at about a mile and half into the race, I took those thirty-second breaks every four minutes. I take these breaks on every long run I do, and I really can’t say enough about how helpful they are. I believe they help mentally just as much as they do physically. Rather than thinking, “I’ve got 19 miles to go,” I can think, “Two minutes and thirty seconds until the next walk break.” That’s not quite as daunting.
At the two-mile mark I was at 17:00, well above the pace I would have needed to hit 3:30. That was fine with me. I had no intention of picking up the pace and paying for it later. The next several miles ticked by without much incident. I’ve discovered on my training runs that once I get locked in to a pace it’s tough for me to run much faster, even if that pace is relatively slow (for me). I ran in the neighborhood of 8:30 miles, and felt pretty good.
After five miles we turned from Oak Avenue on to Fair Oaks Blvd., and what had been a crosswind turned in to the headwind. The ran was still coming down just as intensely. My shoes were soaked and heavy, and my long-sleeved shirt was retaining water. I hadn’t eaten much for breakfast on account of some lingering stomach issues, so by about mile six I was ready for my first energy gel pouch.
After a few miles on Fair Oaks we entered Fair Oaks Village, a well known place in town with an old town feel. Bands played on the covered patios of restaurants, and cheering people lined the streets. I was amazed throughout the day at the number of people that came out to support the runners. Given the conditions it was astonishing.
Christie waiting to cheer me on at just past the halfway point. I’m not entirely sure what she was thinking right here, but it was probably something along the lines of, “My husband is nuts.”
From the beginning of Fair Oaks Village thorough the next couple of miles there were some rolling hills. I was careful to take it easy, and felt like I was able to get through them without too much trouble. On the last hill I felt some soreness in my quadriceps on each leg, the first noticeable leg pain of the day. Up to that point I felt I was holding up pretty well. I felt a bit undernourished,- despite taking PowerAde at every aid station- but my hips and knees felt ok. Probably the most persistent pain I felt all day was in my left foot. Three weeks ago at church I was helping to break down some tables, and a round plastic table slid off of its rack and onto my foot. It hurt, but not badly, but it was enough to cause me some discomfort during the first mile or so of every run I’ve done since then.
On all of my other runs the pain had gone away, but to my dismay it never really left on this day.
Right after passing Christie, about 13.5 miles in at the corner of Fair Oaks Blvd. and Manzanita Ave.
With the hills coming to a close I was nearing the halfway point. I knew Christie would be meeting me there, and I was anxious to give her my now entirely soaked long-sleeved shirt. I found her at about mile 13.5, gave her the shirt, and kept going. My half marathon split had been around 1:53, well over my initial goal pace, but easily under 4:00 pace.
I expected that giving her the shirt would give me a surge of energy- without the added weight I thought I would feel stronger and would be able to pick up the pace a little bit.
I was wrong.
I was really wrong.
I turned from Fair Oaks Blvd. onto Manzanita Ave. and instantly realized I had underestimated how cold it was. Running south made the wind almost a pure headwind, and it did not feel good on my bare arms. In addition to that, my feelings of undernourishment starting growing rapidly.
It was remarkable to me how quickly I went from feel good to feeling really bad. When I passed Christie I felt strong and was in good spirits. By mile 16 I was hurting big time. I was uncomfortable, I was hungry, and the starts and stops were starting to be more and more uncomfortable. By about mile 18 I decided to decrease the frequency of my walk breaks, but increase their length. For the duration of the race I went around 7-10 minutes between breaks, but then walked for a full minute.
These miles in the late teens were the toughest of the race. I was too far from the finish to start thinking about it, and the thought of running 8+ more miles was not a happy one. I was wishing I’d eaten more during the race, and was having to tell myself that quitting wasn’t an option. I’d worked too hard to get to this point, and I wanted it too badly.
I found that the experience of running this race differed significantly from the 20-mile Clarksburg race I’d run a few weeks ago, and not just in that the conditions at Clarksburg were perfect. At that race I really felt strong. I started at a fast pace and improved upon it as the race went on. During the marathon I mostly felt ok, but I never felt like it was going to be a day where I could run a fast time. Some of that was probably in my head. I was worried about trying to push it and then running out of gas. But for whatever reason – no doubt the weather had something to do with it – I never felt like I could get into a good grove during the marathon.
I had loaded up on energy gel at the half way point, and I took two of them in the forty five minutes that followed. These eventually helped me feel quite a bit better, and by mile 20 I was running stronger. The rain had relented somewhat, and I passed through the point of the race known as “the wall” without too much trouble.
The trees that lined the streets blocked most of the wind, and I started counting down the miles. I knew my pace had been slow, but I also knew that I still had plenty of time to make it in under four hours. During the last six miles of the race my Achilles tendons both started hurting. The extra weight I was carrying in my shoes was putting extra strain on them, and they didn’t like that very much. I had to be careful each time I started and stopped running to avoid putting too much strain on them. I was also starting to cramp a little bit on my lower quadriceps on both legs. Fortunately, that didn’t ever get too bad.
At around mile 22 I passed the final uphill portion of the course, the J Street Bridge (as luck would have it, I reached the base right at a planned walk break), after the bridge, the cross street was 56th street.
The finish line was near 8th Street.
My dad, a CIM veteran, has told me about how brutal it is to count down those city blocks. I was prepared for the worst, but it ended up not being too bad. I tried not to look at the street signs too often. I was more interested in the mile marker signs anyways. During those final miles I was surprised at how congested the course was. It wasn’t uncomfortable, and I had plenty of room, but there were a lot of people around. I saw the 3:55 pace group creep up on me, and I was happy to see them simply because they were confirmation that I would easily make it in under four hours.
I passed mile 24, took my final walk break, and focused on the finish. I was pleasantly surprised at how quickly the city blocks passed by. 24…..23…..22….the end was so close! I found that in both this race and the 20-mile Clarksburg run I did a few weeks ago that the feeling of being in that final mile or two is kind of funny. On the one hand, it’s incredibly exciting to be almost done. On the other hand, but that point in the race I have sort of resigned myself to the idea that I will be running forever, so the thought of stopping doesn’t even seem real.
Upon passing mile 25 it hit me that I really was going to finish. This had been a dream for so long. Running has been a part of my life for so many years, but it has in many ways been so cruel to me. I’ve wanted to run, and I’ve wanted to run long, but injuries caused by my weak arches and subsequent bad knees had always held me back. Steps forward it my life as a runner have always been met by huge steps backward. But now, here I was: soaking wet and way behind my goal time, but ready to finish.
The rain had completely stopped by this point, and there was even some blue sky overhead. The street was lined with people cheering and shouting encouragement. I picked up the pace just a little bit as the blocks continued to creep by. 12….11….10….9…..and finally I passed the 26-mile marker and it was time to turn on to 8th Street. From there it was one more quick left into the final straight away towards the famous CIM finish line at the base of the capital.
I crossed the finish line at 3:55:45 (by my watch) and I could hardly believe it. For so long I’d been stuck believing that completing a marathon just wasn’t in the cards for me. It was something I wanted so badly, but years of injuries had resigned me to believing I just didn’t have the body for it.
But I made it.
It had been windy, rainy, cold, and painful, but I made it.
As I made my way into the finishers chute there were two sets of medals, one for relay participants and one for individual finishers. The person handing out the medals saw I was wearing a yellow relay number (I’d had to register for the relay because individual registrations were sold out before I signed up), and offered me a relay medal.
“So I just ran the whole thing, I promise,” I said. “So would it be possible for me to get a real medal?”
Not the most tactful way I could have presented that request.
But the volunteers were gracious and were happy to accommodate my request. I got an individual finisher’s medal. For some reason my time still isn’t listed on the race website, but I’m looking in to figuring that out.
I walked through the finishing area towards the back where I would meet Christie and my dad, and as I walked the emotions of the moment caught up to me a little bit. I teared up as I thought about what this meant to me, and everything I’d gone through to get to this point. I exited the finish area, found my dad and Christie, and enjoyed sharing the moment with them.
My first marathon would have been memorable under any circumstances, but the craziness of the weather only made it more so. Even as I sit here typing this less than 24 hours after starting, it seems crazy to me that so many of us were out there running a marathon in that weather.
And yet, there are those moments in life when you just know you are a part of something special- those moments you know you will never forget. Today felt like one of those moments from beginning to end. I don’t know how many more marathons are in the cards for me, but I know I will always remember this one. It was, like my snowstorm descent of the Grand Canyon and my ascent of Mount Whitney, an unbelievable experience.
This marathon left me with a lot of questions. How much did the weather effect me? Did I run slower because of the weather or because of some other factor? Was I just unable to do my best running on that day? I didn’t have a great last two weeks of training, did that make a difference? It’s hard to say. As mentioned, I didn’t feel great all day, and I’m just not sure what caused that. I am interested to get out there for a marathon is a little bit better conditions and see what happens.
More than anything, I’m grateful I had the opportunity to do this. Marathons are amazing events. They are celebrations of both human will power and human craziness, and there is a certain kinship between all people who feel the need to subject themselves to these sorts of activities. It is, I admit, a little bit crazy, but there is vitality to be found in that craziness that can be found in few other places.
Today I’m tired, and I’m sore. I’m walking funny and my muscles tighten when I lay down. I’m pretty sure I am incapable of making sudden movements.
But I can’t wait to heal up and get back out there.
Napa in March maybe?