It has taken me nearly a week to get a handle on my race last Sunday at the California International Marathon. All the runners who lined up at the start knew what they were getting into. I’m sure everyone else had spent the week before obsessively checking the weather too, thinking that there was still time for the chance of rain to become something less than 100%. By 6AM on Sunday, standing in the dark at the start with thousands of other equally crazy runners, I knew we’d be running in the rain. I knew it was likely parts of the road would flood, and I knew we’d be running straight into a head wind for much of the course, with gusts that would exceed 30mph. (Check out this gallery of photos from race day on the Sacramento Bee)
I’ve had a week to reflect on this race now, and it seems that life keeps trying to teach me that just because I plan and prepare for something doesn’t mean I can control the outcome. I’d trained hard for this race, my training culminated in a 23 mile training run at marathon pace + 30 seconds. I’d felt confident going in that a PR (better than 4:52) was definitely attainable, and optimistic that a sub 4:30 finish was possible if I ran a good race. Instead I finished in five hours plus a handful of seconds, and I’d be lying if I told you I wasn’t upset about that.
There were miles in the marathon where I was selfishly disappointed, sad that my legs had slowed past goal pace, annoyed that my shoes were heavy and soggy, and frustrated that my wet clothes were rubbing painfully against my skin. For so many more moments and miles though, I was grateful.
I was grateful for the army of volunteers who turned out. The only thing worse than running in the pouring rain has got to be standing in the pouring rain, but every volunteer I saw was smiling, cheering us on, offering water or Powerade and directing us around the worst of the puddles. One girl stood in a puddle that came nearly to her knees, waving to runners so we’d avoid the worst of the flooded streets. The police were out in their rain gear, blocking cars for us, while cheering and slapping high fives with the runners.
I was grateful for the spectators and totally astonished by how many of them lined the streets from Folsom to Sacramento. The volunteers at least had committed to being out in the rain, but the spectators could have easily stayed home in warm houses. Yet they were out with rainboots, umbrellas and signs protected with plastic wrap. Some of my favorite signs were “The rain won’t last, but your bragging rights will.” and “Longest Wet T-Shirt Contest Ever!” I also loved one that a little boy was carrying that read “Rain, rain, go away. Mommy has to run today!”
I am so grateful for my friends. Thanks to them I had a ride up to Sacramento and a room to crash in the night before. I had dinner the night before the race with a table full of 20+ enthusiastic runners. People just kept arriving and we added more tables and chairs until we took up a good chunk of the restaurant. Early race day morning, a friend’s sister drove us to the start, and we huddled together in the van wearing trash bags and throwaway ponchos wondering if we were all truly crazy. Somehow even in the rain and the crowds of runners I managed to run into a handful of friends during the early miles of the marathon. Seeing each one of them was a boost that distracted me from the soggy shoes and deep puddles.
I am so grateful for J and my family. The last six miles I just kept thinking that I’d see J at the finish line, and when I finally did see him right at turn for the finish line I suddenly had the energy to smile, wave and sprint for the finish.
When I caught up with him again in the finisher’s area he was already on the phone with my mom telling her that I’d finished, and everything was all right.
Despite the rain and wind, my race was textbook perfect for the first sixteen miles. I ran between a 9:50-10:10 pace for each of those miles, and I felt great. Of course looking back, I can tell you that this was a big problem. I was running as though I had perfect conditions when I actually had a Pineapple Express trinity of wind, rain and flooding. I completely underestimated how much energy I was using to fight the wind. Looking back, I think I’d have been better off running more conservatively in the beginning. At mile 16, everything ground to a halt. My back started aching, and I became acutely aware that my wet shirt was rubbing a hole on the inside of my arm. I’m always determined not to walk in a race, but even though I was running I saw my pace slow to a 13:00 minute mile, and I couldn’t seem to make my legs turn over any faster. Mile 16 is painfully early in a marathon to have the wheels come off the wagon.
I tried all my tricks: I took a gu, grabbed some powerade, promised myself a stretch break at the next mile marker. Eventually the last ten miles became a game of “just get to the next mile marker.” I never worried that I wouldn’t finish, I knew by mile 16 that I could walk in the last ten miles and finish even if it wouldn’t be comfortable. Every mile had a new mental trick. Mile 17 meant that I only had single digit miles left to go. Mile 18 meant just 8 more miles to go, and that’s just the length of my usual route to Cesar Chavez Park and back. Mile 19 meant we were nearly at 20, and Mile 20 meant just a 10k to go. For each mile past 20, I just thought of a route of similar distance that my run club had done together. The tricks distracted me a little, but this is an incredibly long way to finish a marathon, and it’s both mentally and physically exhausting. I don’t recommend it.
By mile 21 I let go thoughts of a PR and just became determined to finish. I was a curious mix of determined and disappointed these last few miles. I was determined not to walk and just to get the finish line as fast as possible, but I was disappointed and frustrated that the race had gotten so out of my hands. I wasn’t running my race anymore; I was just surviving on the way to the finish line.
It’s going to take me a while to stop being conflicted about my performance in this race. I wish I’d adjusted earlier so I wouldn’t have lost half an hour in the last ten miles. That said, I wouldn’t trade this race experience. How often do you get to say that you ran a marathon through pouring rain with a head wind and where the race course was occasionally diverted due to flooding?