Thursday, December 1, 2011

California International Marathon, December 2011

A year ago I had no idea what the letters CIM stood for. I saw it referred to time and again on MRT (the Marathon Race Training forum on RWOL) but never bothered figuring out what it meant until one of my online friends announced that she was thinking of running it in 2011.

Turns out CIM stands for the California International Marathon, which is held in Sacramento at the beginning of December each year. It is well-known as a FAST marathon course on account of its net elevation loss: it rolls at the start but the overall effect is very much downhill and it's a popular place for runners to try for a time that will qualify them for Boston or, for the super-talented, the Olympic trials.

At the time this came up it was only 4 weeks since I ran the Canberra marathon, and soon my mind was thinking it over....hmmm....actually, CIM might be a very good course for me to have a tilt at running sub-3:10. It didn't take much more prodding from my online friend before I signed up to run CIM in 2011.

The training

The original plan was some kind of Pfitzinger pain-fest involving at least 70 miles per week (112km) but this was significantly derailed by a host of minor injuries that took me off the road most of July and August. After my slightly insane return to racing in September (see here and here) I reeled things in for a week and then cautiously (well, for me at least) embarked upon rebuilding my mileage to a point where I could jump into a proper marathon training program.

I started off following an 11 week multiple-marathon plan, which meant a slow buildup (which I needed) but a decent peak as well. I decided in a moment of rationality to leave out the speedwork, and then ended up pretty much making it all up as I went along anyway.

The result was a 3 week build-up, 7 weeks of decent mileage peaking at 72mpw, then a 2 week taper. The middle 7 weeks averaged 59mpw and the longest run was 22 miles, so despite the slightly haphazard nature of the whole thing, I felt relatively happy with my preparation as I got ready to hop on a plane to California. Oh, and the 10K PR I set in November didn't hurt either!

The travel

Never one to pass up the opportunity for international travel sans children, I settled in and thoroughly enjoyed every minute of the flight to LA and then on to San Francisco, despite the hopeless movie selection.

my ride to LA

The A380 is an incredible aircraft and my window seat and comfy pillow - plus a judicious amount of sleeping pharmacopeia - meant I managed to get almost 8 hours sleep on the way to LA. Hopefully that would set me up well to cope with jetlag over the 2.5 days until I had to be fronting up to run CIM.

The lead-up

Once in Sacramento I had the great pleasure of meeting up with a whole host of imaginary friends from MRT, which made for an entertaining and enjoyable 2 day lead-up to the marathon.

With Weslie and Annette from the BQ ladies' thread

The night before the race was one of the highlights: a huge group of MRT runners gathered at the Old Spaghetti Factory to eat pasta and talk running, and this meant another 8 or so imaginary friends became real friends, which was totally awesome.

Over dinner I spent a lot of time talking with Ron, a very experienced (and fast) marathoner who gave me a LOT of helpful advice about the course, and when I told him my recent 10K race time, said (very accurately, it turns out) that 3:08 was a soft goal for me.

Another highlight was the running partner I managed to acquire on Friday morning as I stood outside the hotel, waiting for my Garmin to load up the satellites in the frustratingly slow manner it always does when I move the poor thing thousands of miles to another continent.

I was standing there with my arm stuck out when a foreign voice said "You go running with me?" I looked over and saw a woman whom I remembered seeing the night before when I was checking in - small and wiry, with a shock of blonde hair - she was smiling encouragingly at me and clearly really wanted someone to run with her. I ummed and ahhed a bit, then thought "Why not?", gave up on the Garmin and off we went. I immediately asked her about her time goal for the race on Sunday, and almost fell off the kerb when she casually replied, "Oh, 2:48".

Turns out my running buddy was Alina Gherasim, a Romanian professional runner who competed in the Sydney Olympics in 2000 (I probably saw her run past on Oxford St) and was the female winner at CIM in 2006! She is not only my age but also has a daughter almost the same age as mine, so we chatted happily as we ran along at her "easy" pace, which turned out to be 7:24 min/mile or so - I checked when my Garmin finally figured itself out! - for almost an hour. So my easy 5 miler turned into something more like a 7-8 mile mini-tempo run, but it was absolutely worth it to run with a former Olympian. And the stories she had to tell about her life as a professional runner - SO thrilling!

Race Day

Getting up at 4am on Sunday morning is quite the challenge, but my roomie Weslie is up already at 3:45am and she kindly brings me a white bagel from downstairs, which I sleepily eat as I drag my race clothes on. I'm wearing a LOT of my lucky racing colour - pink - and it turns out to be a great omen for the day.

Downstairs we meet up with two other friends from MRT and together we head out into the cold - thankfully the wind has died down completely overnight but it's still a chilly 38F or so - and are soon aboard a toasty warm school bus, headed for the start line at Folsom. It takes a disturbingly long time to actually get there, and we are all thinking "We have to run ALL THAT WAY back?? Really??" but once we hit the start area there isn't much time to stand around and think.

I down a vanilla GU, line up for the porta-potties, drop off my bag....and suddenly the start is almost upon us. I position myself close to the 3:10 pace group; the gun goes off and it takes about 30 seconds to get moving, but then I'm off and running. YEAH!

Miles 1-2: 7:18, 7:10 (pace in min/mile)

A lot of zigzagging gets me through the worst of the congestion, but the 3:10 pace group is HUGE and pretty early on I decide I don't want to risk hanging around amongst all these dudes and possibly getting tripped up or slowed down. So I thread my way forward and position myself right next to the 3:10 pacer, who is chatting and encouraging the runners in his group. I introduce myself, turns out his name is Mike, and we run along talking comfortably for the next 6 miles. Pace feels nice and easy at this point.

Miles 3-4: 7:10, 7:05

I'm following the advice I've been given on MRT and deliberately not charging the hills, which are small but consistent: the "rollers" I have heard so much about are definitely there. Other than that, I'm too busy yapping to Mike about running in Australia to notice much else.

Miles 5-6: 7:16, 7:05

A bit of pace variation here, but I'm not worried. I start to pull a little ahead of Mike at this point, but I can still hear him right behind me talking to others. There's a dude ahead of me with a red shirt on and some quite distinctive logo on it - something about San Francisco and a bridge - he seems to be running about my pace so I start talking to him and ask him his time goal. He replies with "3:10 or a little under" - I tell him cool, that's my goal too! - and we run together for the next 10 miles.

Miles 7-8: 7:03, 7:07

Sean (the red shirt dude) and I are just loping along here, talking a bit and enjoying the run. It's a PERFECT running day, a little warmer now that the sun is up, but still cool enough that I'm very comfortable in my arm warmers (old knee socks with holes cut in the toes) and gloves. I take my first GU (vanilla, the magic type) just before the water station around mile 8, and I'm still feeling awesome.

Miles 9-10: 7:07, 7:01

The crowd support is a little sporadic, but where there are people there is certainly a lot of yelling. I feel very comfortable, and am hearing a lot of "Go Pink!" and "Looking strong there in pink!", which I'm totally lapping up (of course) - I'm waving to all kinds of random people and calling out "Thank you!" a lot. Is marathoning supposed to be this much fun?

Miles 11-12: 7:07, 7:10

Can't remember much about this bit. Pace is still feeling really good; I'm just loving it. And I'm still talking quite a bit to Sean about goodness knows what. We go past some photographers and I do my very best to strike a cute pose; I'm wearing pink after all and the photogs are yelling out "Runner's World! Come on, guys!" - who could pass up an opportunity to be in RW, seriously??

Having waaaaay too much fun!

Miles 13-14: 7:04, 7:00

We go through the half in 1:34 exactly on the clock; later I find my official half time is 1:33:26, so it must have taken me 34 seconds to cross the line. I'm pretty thrilled with this - it means I'm exactly on track for the 3:08 that I'm aiming for, and if I can negative split then I'm on track for something even better. Awesome! I throw my gloves at a spectator (“Dude, you want some gloves?? Here!”), take another GU and do a little victory dance in my head. First half well-executed; second half awaits.

Miles 15-16: 7:13, 7:05

Around mile 15 something totally fantastic happens. I'm just cruising along quite comfortably when suddenly I hear someone SCREAMING my name and look over to see a very excited person jumping up and down and waving at me. What ON EARTH?? I automatically grin and wave back, whilst trying madly to figure out who it could be and how they know my name - and as I pass her I realise, OMG it's one of my imaginary MRT friends whom I haven't met in person yet!!!

So I turn back and yell "PAM!!! HI!!!!!!" and then my momentum carries me onward and I'm gone....but her excitement is contagious and I'm grinning crazily for the next few miles at least as I keep running. A big THANK YOU to Pam Kennedy for making the drive up from SF to be a part of this awesome day with me!

Miles 17-18: 7:06, 7:10

By now I've pulled ahead of Sean and I'm pretty much running on my own at times. At the 18 mile mark I realise, wow, I've only got 8 miles to go and I feel pretty much as good as I did at the beginning of this marathon. Maybe it's time to push a little harder - the rollers are well behind me now and I know it's pretty much all flat or downhill from here.

Miles 19-20: 7:07, 7:07

Considering how late it is in the race, I'm happy to be able to hold 7:07 pace fairly consistently at this point. I keep telling myself not to cut loose altogether, and it seems to be working. Time for another vanilla GU at mile 20 - that stuff is even starting to taste goooood!

Miles 21-22: 7:07, 7:06

Okay. Right now I'm telling myself "2 more miles at a comfortable pace, then it's GO time, girl". My definition of "comfortable" right now means "not killing me", and I'm certainly feeling good still, although my quads are starting to feel like they actually did just run over 20 miles. Nothing to worry about, though; I still have fuel in the tank, for sure. Enough to be still striking silly poses at the photographers along the course:

Miles 23-24: 6:53, 7:00

Time to drop the hammer. I think back to the "assassin-mode" that I know some of my friends on MRT use over the final miles - pick a person ahead of you and make it your goal to pass them - it's a term I think was coined by one of the people on MRT that I respect most. So I think "Yep, time to go into assassin mode", put my foot on the accelerator and start passing people. Man, it feels good.

Miles 25-26: 6:44, 6:28

I'm really going for it now. I concentrate on keeping my head up, shoulders down, and swinging my arms the way my PT guy (god bless him) taught me. I hear Audra and Barb (two of my former-imaginary-now-real MRT friends) yelling encouragement at me but I'm going too fast to do much more than wave and yell "Wheeeeeeeeeee!" before I'm gone past them. I'm passing people all over the place now - some obviously in pain and struggling - but I feel GREAT. Onward!!

Final 0.2: 5:48

I'm sprinting all-out after I pass the Mile 26 banner. A guy in yellow - whom I have just passed - races past me again but then blows up completely and stops. I snigger to myself as I shoot past (just chicked him, poor thing) and make the final turn into the women's finish chute - strange that they separate men and women, but whatever - I look up and see the clock reading 3:05.

photo courtesy of Steve, ultrarunner and all-round awesome dude

Oh. My. God. I put my head down, charge for the line and make it over before the clock hits 3:06. OH YEAH BABY!!

Finish time: official chip time is 3:05:13, pace 7:04 min/mile - a 7 minute PR and without a doubt the smartest race I've ever run in my life.

Placings: F40-44 AG 22nd/444

Females 108th/2484

Overall 467th/5755

My splits for the 2 halves of the race are 1:33:26 and 1:31:47, so a 1:39 negative split - and that means I've achieved just about everything I set out to do at CIM, as well as have the most fun weekend of running of my life.

note Australian flag on left shoulder


Unlike other races where I've felt like death as I cross the line, this time I feel really good. No wobbling around, none of that. I see Pam again and go over for high-fives and hugs from her and Steve, another incredible runner and MRT friend. Soon I'm joined by two others who have each run a PR (personal record), one by a whole 10 minutes. This particular friend was sick in the days leading up to the race and I am actually standing there considering checking the medical tent for him when he grabs me and it turns out he's run a 3:10, a time he never imagined was possible for him. Other friends arrive with similar stories - it's PRs all-round for my MRT crowd. AWESOME!!!

I also spot Mike, the 3:10 pacer, and go over to thank him for running with me those first 6 miles. He did a great job - ran 3:09:something - and he congratulates me warmly on my time. Runners are such great people, did I mention that?

The first priority is to get a shower and get changed, so we walk over to the hotel to do that, but then all thoughts turn to BEER and FOOD. We head to the Pyramid Alehouse and sit a long time over burgers, fries and beers, and the company is just as good as the refuelling process itself.

Awesomeness in human form: the post-race crowd at Pyramid Alehouse

The analysis

I'm really pleased with how I executed my race plan - it went almost EXACTLY as I wanted it to - and of course totally thrilled with my new marathon PR. CIM is certainly a great course to run a fast time, many other courses are much harder, but the big lesson I have learned is NOT TO GO OUT TOO FAST. Surprising that it took me this long, but I never said that listening was my strong suit.

The most exciting thing is that now I can really see how my training has paid off, and for the first time I'm thinking that one day I may indeed run a sub-3 marathon. The other thing I'm thinking may be more difficult, which is that I now need to convince my husband to move to the United States. That may take more time than the sub-3, but I'm certainly going to be working on both goals in the near future.

Next up? Boston 2012! It’s very sad to say goodbye to so many great running buddies as I prepare to make the long trip home, but on the other hand my parting words to many of them are “See you in Boston!” and that feels really, REALLY great.