California International Marathon

Like many of the people who ran or spectated CIM 2018, I wanted to share some feels on the experience.

CIM 2018 was my fourth marathon. I loosely subscribe to the one marathon per year or less plan, and it usually works out to be about two marathons in every three years. Here’s the path that led to CIM 2018, with links to the race recaps.

  • Avenue of the Giants 2014: 2nd, 3:09:45

    • This was a serene race in the redwoods, with nearly identical half marathon splits. I had a stress fracture scare in the last month of the buildup that left me in the pool for a week and lead to an extended taper.

  • Boston 2015: 425th, 3:10:28

    • I was diagnosed with two hip labral detachments about four months ahead of the race, and spent a lot of time in the pool and navigating physical therapists who know hips.

    • I felt very, very lucky to be able to finish a marathon with only 11 weeks of training and one 20-mile long run.

  • Chicago 2016: 56th, 2:55:57

    • This was virtually a perfect buildup. I missed one workout during the ENTIRE cycle. This doesn’t happen if you’re me (see the previous two marathons).

    • Every workout built on top of the previous ones, and I went into the race feeling fairly confident that I would break 3:00.

    • The key workout for me was a 24 mile long run, in 6:53 pace, feeling chill AF.

Less than ideal for marathoning, perfect for vacationing

Less than ideal for marathoning, perfect for vacationing

All of those marathon buildups were radically different, and it’s harder to learn from marathon buildups because you have so much less data than with shorter races. However, now that I’ve gone through training for CIM 2018, I’ve learned a few things about myself. One of those is that I am a perfectionist. This means I tend to hold my breath and close my eyes when things get hard. I know that I can outlast the hard thing, and once I do, things will be easy again. This isn’t the healthiest habit, but I’ve gotten through hard things with this coping mechanism.

For CIM 2018, the training was a bit of a mess. David, my coach, and I adjusted workouts or runs at least once a week. I’ve had a lot of silliness going on at work recently, and I would get to the end of the work week feeling like I had no emotional capacity for Saturday’s hard 20-miler. I was at the point when expectations started to feel oppressive, when the holding-my-breath technique wasn’t working anymore and I was starting to suffocate. At this point, it was either give up the marathon training entirely or learn to handle less-than-perfect training. I chose the latter, and started to feel comfortable with not being perfect or doing the training exactly as David had laid it out. Some days, 20 miles at 7:00 pace wasn’t going to happen (in fact, it never did). If I couldn’t do the workout as planned, I did what I could instead. This is hardly radical, and most people can handle this, but this was a big change for me. I stopped worrying about what a specific workout meant for my future (likely nothing) or an upcoming race (also likely nothing). The messy training cycle meant that I had a few moments of lightness, an occasional workout or mile that might be construed as fitness. But there was no single workout or long run that convinced me that I was ready to run a specific time.

As a side note, I also compared the two most recent marathon cycles. My highest weeks for Chicago were much higher (84, 83, 73) as compared to CIM (70, 67, 66). However, the average miles per week over both 11-week cycles was way closer than I thought, coming in at 60.4mpw for CIM and 62.7mpw for Chicago.

Bike accident carnage - lucky to be healthy, lucky to have nice hair

Bike accident carnage - lucky to be healthy, lucky to have nice hair

About ten days before CIM, I told David the following:

I doubt I’m the fittest I’ve ever been, but I am the toughest.

The past year has been a tough one. Right before the 2017 CIM weekend, I was involved in a bike accident. A homeless lady was biking the wrong way in the bike lane without lights, and we collided. I had a concussion and ended up taking an ambulance to the emergency room. I don’t remember very much of that night. A few months later, after recovering from that accident, a venture capitalist hit me in his car while I was riding my bike to work in broad daylight. I ended up flipping off of my bike and breaking a rib. All of this happened in late 2017 and early 2018, but I feel the effects today. I can’t ride a bike to work anymore, my ribs hurt when I do hard intervals, and I’m generally a little more scared than I was before.

I headed into the 11-week CIM cycle with the baggage from both bike accidents, and the addition of a lot of work unpleasantness. There were some rough, rough days in this buildup. However, it felt necessary on some level to train for and run CIM, to prove to myself that I had gotten past the bike accidents and that work stress wasn’t taking away the things that I love to do.

Now, the race.

I expected that I’d be able to run between 2:50 and 3:05, and I finished right in the middle, at 2:57:02. As mentioned, there was no specific workout that convinced me that I could run under 3:00, and I thought my plan would be to go out with the 3:00 pacer and see how it felt from there. David also writes a pre-race email to all of his athletes, and in it, he encourages us to prepare for the worst case scenario on race day and to plan out a course of action. I didn’t quite do that, but I did make a plan for after it started to hurt. I reconciled myself to the fact that the pain was inevitable, and I would acknowledge it when it came.

Amped with our 3-minute turnaround in Starbucks

Amped with our 3-minute turnaround in Starbucks

The morning of the race was a little scattered. I woke up, ate my banana, peanut butter, and clif bar, and then we were off to Starbucks to get coffee for Sam and Caroline. The barista at Starbucks deserved a medal, as we were in at 5:00am and out at 5:03am. Then it was an agonizing 30-minute bus ride to the start line, where I almost peed in Sam’s empty coffee cup. As the sun came up, I did the last shuffling of gels and questioning of gear choices, and after some mild panic with the portapotty lines and gear check, we were ready to go.

I decided early on in the race to not look at my watch, as I knew that it wouldn’t change my course of action and might panic me instead. It would be an effort-based experience - I didn’t see the 3:00 pacer and I also wanted to be a little lost in the sea of people.

I was very careful in the initial miles to chill hard and to not push any uphills. I took my first gel around 45 minutes, and the second at 80 minutes. The crowds at CIM were pleasant and manageable - there’s no wall of noise as in Chicago or Boston and this led to the race feeling very calm. Most of the course is slightly rolling, and this felt great on the legs to switch it up very slightly the whole time. The temperature was also ideal - a little chilly every now and then but very comfortable.

My parents and Caroline had worked out a spectating plan to see us at a few points, and I looked forward to seeing them the whole race. Around mile 8, I recall being so excited that I was going to see my parents in two miles and really hoping that they’d be able to see both Sam and me. I was thrilled when I saw them slightly after mile 10, as they’d made it safely and were wearing their typical secret agent gear. I blew kisses to Deb and tried to stay in position for optimal pictures for Marky Mark.

I saw Caroline at mile 14 or so, and she handed me a fresh bottle of water. We were working with the same plan as we’d had at Chicago - two collapsible 8 ounce flasks to supplement the on-course water and electrolytes. This worked well in Chicago and again here, and that is all due to Caroline being able to spot me and yell loudly enough so I run toward her.

I also had disaster strike twice during this marathon - TWO poop stops. I’ve never even had one during a race, and CIM turned out to be the day for two. Around the halfway mark, my stomach started feeling a little funny, and by mile 14 I knew things were bad. I had a hard decision to make. I could either:

  • continue to run and stop taking down gels to avoid pooping. There was a HUGE risk of bonking, especially this early in the race.

  • Or stop to poop and then continue to eat gels, mitigating the risk of bonking

I chose the latter, and when the gremlins came again at mile 21, I knew that I had to stop again. Looking at the Strava file, I’m pretty impressed that my total stoppage time for both poops was about a minute. I did run pretty good tangents to the portapotties and I didn’t lock the doors (RISKY) but it worked out just fine.

Parents! They’re so cute

Parents! They’re so cute

CIM also has a big arch at mile 20, labeled The Wall. I was at a low point in the race, hurting a bit, and I was cranky to see the wall and know that there was still a 10k left. I was also most tempted to look at my watch to calculate the splits for a 10k at this point, but I resisted. I was pretty sure that I was on track or close to sub 3:00 pace, and I didn’t want to start playing games. I’m not good at calculating splits when I’m clear-headed, and in the latter stages of a race, my cognitive function is poor.

Once we were through 20 miles, I expected to see Caroline around mile 22. My thought process was to get to Caroline, and then cope with the remaining miles. When mile 22 came and went without her, I had a moment of self-pity and then focused on the task at hand. Near mile 23, I heard Caroline yelling and it was one of the most welcome sounds. She knew that I was a little gassed, but she told me that I looked good and that I needed to keep it together.

From there, I had a few thoughts on repeat. One was that pain is a mental construct, and that yes, while I was objectively feeling pain, I could decide how I felt about the pain. I also sometimes thought about the things that felt good - my breathing was never hugely labored and this was comforting to me. The last thought was about this particular journey and all of the things that had happened during the training cycle and during the race.

Jess, one of my training partners, had mentioned that once you arrive in Sacramento, the street numbers start counting down from 120th Street to the finish line, which is at 8th. I was oblivious to this until about 53rd Street, and then I started checking them occasionally. At 17th, I was very ready for the end and we were grinding.

DONE!

DONE!

I saw Pamela, from SWAP, right before the turn for the finish line. She was so uplifting that I was jarred out of the purgatory of the last few miles and finally allowed myself to think that I was going to finish SOON. I saw Deb in the crook of the final turn for home, and then it was the finish line arch and the clock.

Looking back on the splits for the race, I’m pretty surprised at how even they were. With a few exceptions (💩), it was 6:40s the whole way through. I also felt like the effort was very evenly meted out, and that engagement was high during the entire race. I didn’t lose touch with the mile I was running or the pain, and that’s all new for me. Much like Boston 2015, the results after a marathon cycle with constraints are very interesting.

As far as the next races or plans, I’m mostly enjoying five whole days of downtime. Perhaps we’ll do a holiday-themed race in a few weeks, and Bay to Breakers 2019 is a certainty. Much love to everyone who’s been there along the way: Sam for being my training buddy, Caroline for the meticulous logistics and for being real about all of it, David for the quiet wisdom and belief, Jess and Nicole for the moseying and funny texts, my parents for their excitement about my hobby jogger athletic achievements, and all of the friends I wish I could run with more regularly.