I ran my first marathon (Vancouver, BC) in 2008 along with my graduate school friend Rachael Sanders, who, incidentally, qualified for Boston in her first attempt. I clocked a 3:30 something and was of course instantly hooked. We were just starting our graduate school program then, which pushed me mentally very far outside of my comfort zone. I found running extremely cathartic -- it allowed me to shut off, soak (literally) up the beautiful sites of Seattle, and also reduced my stress. I looked forward to my long runs where each weekend I'd plan an ever-longer route through some new neighborhood or destination not knowing whether I'd have to catch the bus home. It was such an adventure, looking back on my life, that was the time when I shifted away from my heretofore work hard – party hard lifestyle into a more healthy forward-looking approach.
In many ways, running provided me an escape. I think most people who get deep into running have that in common. Non-runners often see the task as boring, mind-numbing, and perhaps painful, which, to be sure are accurate statements at times. This was how I had always felt about running before I started 'running.' But, I've played a lot of sports in my years, and I can honestly say that there is nothing that can compare to a well-paced run where the machine is working just right. You feel unstoppable. You get runner's high. It's probably not far off from the sensations one gets from opiates. Running can break you down to the point of tears, a battle that tests who you are as a person. In short, running probably taps some sort of survival mechanism within us that is rarely felt, at least among most people in the western world.
However, over the years as I have developed as an endurance athlete and steadily moved up the ranks, running has become harder, more mechanical, and yes, more painful. In training, specific paces and heart rates need to be met; specific workouts need to occur at specific times. But, in my quest for best Napoleon Complex of the century, I researched the science behind running, and have gotten to the point where I analyze all my workout data, splits, heart rate, and any conceivably useful metric. Turns out all those statistics classes were useful! As my Strava friends can attest, my training leading into OC was strong, the build and peak were well timed, as I began to hold 6:30 and 6:40 paces in high zone 2, which I had only seen once before (last year right before Ironman Texas). Heading into the OC, most of my metrics were indicating I was capable of running around a 2:40 marathon. However, given that this race was perhaps a B+ race for me as opposed to an A race, my taper was limited to just a week, as opposed to a more traditional two-week taper.
So, as I lined up on Sunday at 5 freaking 30 am, 2:40 was my “goal time.” Anything faster than 2:40 and I would be shot-callin', between 2:40-2:45 I would be happy and satisfied, and anything between 2:45-2:50 would still be a PR but I would know I had significantly underperformed. Looking at previous results would probably place me in the top 5-10 slots with these times, but as we lined up the announcer revealed an elite crowd of about 6 men and 4 women; and one of the men had previously recorded a 2:11! Scanning the runners I noticed a guy with a Kenya reference on his shirt. Well looks like I'm not winning this one!
The OC course is mostly flat although there are definitely some hills and rollers, with a total of about 350 feet in elevation gain. That may not seem like a lot, but compared to some courses it is not flat. As we began the first mile (uphill), I was reading a 6:20/6:30 pace and my heart rate pretty quickly jacked to around 163 or so. I knew this was a bit too high for me but also with the adrenaline I figured it would settle in. Pretty quickly a lead group of 10-15 runners emerged and I had to make a decision whether to stay with this lead pack or keep to my own plan. By the time we hit the MacArthur descent this was mostly sorted for me as a group of a few guys and one woman took off ahead of me.
I played it cool and let my heart rate settle under 160 for most of the downhill stretch. I ran with a few guys until we hit Ocean Blvd near Corona Del Mar but they gradually dropped back. Around this time (mile 4), I reached the third place woman who was running strongly and as I passed her she tucked in just behind me. We basically ran like this until mile 9 when I had to stop and drop a bomb (stupid cheese pizza I told them to take it easy on the cheese!). But, they always say train like you race, so I made mince-meat out of that bano in under 30 seconds according to my calculations. Back on the road I grabbed a few quick gatorade sips at the aid station and was back on my way. The woman and the second place woman were just ahead with really no one else to be seen.
The three of us slugged it out for about four miles but as we crossed half way in about 1:21I threw in a 30 second speed change (for kicks) and that seemed to crack them a bit. I settled back into my pace looking back occasionally and saw that the gap was widening. Sarah showed up around this time on a bike and informed me I was in about seventh place and that at least one of the guys ahead of me was not looking so hot. We exchanged a few pleasantries and I was happy I was able to talk albeit I wasn't exactly in a conversational mood (it indicated my breathing was just about right for this distance). Around that time (a long straightaway) I saw the guy she was talking about. I was definitely gaining on him and caught him around mile 15 or so. He tried staying with me for a bit so I threw in another speed change and that mostly did him in. I thought about crop-dusting him and the aid station volunteers just for a laugh but frankly it was a risky proposition given my previous visit to the bano.
It seems to be that although people talk about mile 20 as "the wall," mile 16 is the spot where shit tends to go down. A lot of people tend to fade hard at this point as they become carbohydrate depleted and the effects of running too hard early on really start to emerge. While I was not feeling great, I was not feeling terrible either, which, in terms of marathon running, is pretty fucking good! I worked my way (rather quickly in hindsight) through the shopping center and onto Bear Street in Costa Mesa. I found myself all alone and it would stay that way for the next 9 miles. It became what it always becomes, a grind.
The last 8 or so miles of a marathon are indeed the most crucial and most painful. This is where experience and mental strength show themselves. The legs slowly turn to led and the mind begins to look for excuses to slow down. You feel your form and gait changing, which may be true or may just be the numbing in your legs leading you to think that is what is happening. During these miles, it is imperative to stay in the moment, focus on one mile at a time, and draw on as many positive motivations as you can (e.g., I'm doing this for my mom who died of cancer, my brother is going to think I suck, I want a PR, etc.).
Miles 20-22 were on the Santa Ana River Trail, a bike trail with which I am very familiar so I knew exactly where I was. I was getting close but I decided to break the remaining portion into two mile chunks: the bike trail, the hilly section between miles 22-24 which I had deemed the hardest part of the race, and then the home stretch where I would have to rely on adrenaline to take me home. This is exactly how the race played out and even though my pace dropped the remaining four miles (mostly on account of the elevation gain), the fall-off seemed not as bad for me than for most other similarly situated athletes.
Coming home through the fairgrounds the last half mile was a grind, but I saw my friend Michael John and gave him five along with some other half marathoners who were hanging out and drinking brews at 8 in the morning!! My watch was reading 2:42 and as I rounded the corner for the final 200 meters I gave it everything I had reaching the finish line in 2:43 and change. A little short but a solid time nonetheless for a triathlete who, while appearing petite, is actually quite bulky in comparison to an average elite or semi-elite runner. Sarah and I then hung out for a while, grabbed a beer, some food, got a massage, cheered some runners in, hit up an amazing Mexican joint in Anaheim where we ordered in Spanish (until they spoke to us in English), then headed home to Riverside! Thanks to my Snapple Triathlon Team for providing support and motivation, and our sponsors Rudy Project (glasses), Sweat Vac (visor), and Pierce (shoes I use for training). Also thanks to Riverside Roadrunners who provide track and long runs Tuesdays and Sundays, respectively, and a hamburger after the race (I don't normally eat a lot of red meat)! Thanks also to Sarah for supporting me and encouraging me along the way. And of course thanks to my parents and in-laws for watching the splits come in during the race.
By day I am a political scientist studying campaigns, public opinion, and race and ethnic politics. By early morning and/or night I am an endurance athlete.