Sunday, February 08, 2009

The Surf City Marathon

Back in November, when I chose the Surf City marathon as my “comeback race” (i.e. - something to get me motivated to run again) it looked attractive for a few reasons. Among these were the chance to visit family in Orange County, get away to somewhere warm in the midst of a snowy winter, and run a flat course at sea-level. All of these enticements came together to create a beautiful running vacation for me last weekend.

My training back in November started out well. I had a handful of excellent speed sessions on the track, in spite of a long illness that kept my mileage low. As soon as the snow fell in early December though, covering the melee of pot-holes, goose poop and mud puddles that Truckee High calls a track, my speed-work went to hell. I still managed the occasional fartlek and/or tempo run on days that the roads were ice-free, but they never had the quality of an interval session. My weekly mileage was moderate at best, hovering between 30-35. The one bright spot was that a few of my long runs were done down in Sacramento along the river, and I was able to keep about an 8 minute pace for those.

I decided to take an actual taper for this race because…well, because it was a good excuse to take some days off I guess. Which begs the question: how much does it help to taper when you were training like a slacker in the first place?

With all these factors, I wasn’t really sure what kind of shape I was in. Some things had gone well, but I had some major holes in my training. Upon signing up for the race, participants were asked for their projected finishing time. I had put 3:40 without giving it much thought. In the days before the race, I found myself feeling that my 3:40 prediction had been a bit arrogant. Wasn’t it? My PR, run nearly 11 years ago, was 3:26. Did I really think I could come within 14 minutes of my PR?

My sister had signed up for the 5K, and my mom had volunteered to drive us, making it a girls’ day at the beach. We left the house at 5:20 for the 6:50 am marathon start. Mom and Laura dropped me off at the finish line in the pre-dawn fog, and headed off in search of the 5K start.

I couldn’t recall the last time I’d actually warmed up and stretched for a race. I headed off along the bike path paralleling the sand for a mile or so, and was thrilled that I felt so excited about running. The first rays of light gave the ocean a serene glow, and the empty beach was beautiful. I spotted a few bathrooms that were far enough away that there were no lines, and they were miraculously unlocked. That was a definite score, and I made use of them several times before heading to drop my gear bag off and jog to the start.

The start area was cordoned off into two sections: those who expected to finish in under four hours, and those who would take longer. It was honor-system, and I had no compunction about heading to the under-four-hour section. Standing around with the other racers, I heard a woman talking about an expected finish time of 3:15 or 3:20. Then I noticed the guy standing in front of me was wearing the official 3:10 Pacer’s singlet. Hmm…maybe I was in the wrong place? I started to get a little nervous, but it was too crowded behind me to move back. Well, I thought, I’ll just be sure not to let the crowd take me out too fast.

They cranked up the official song over the loudspeakers, of course, “Surf City” by the Beach Boys. With that, we were off down Pacific Coast Highway. “Surf City, here we come!” (I'm pretty sure it wasn't "two to one," but whatever. Boys can dream.)

The morning was cool and foggy, but I felt perfectly comfortable in shorts and a tank top. My sunglasses stayed perched atop my head for the first 8 miles before the fog cleared to reveal a perfect, blue-bird day.

I had planned to run no faster than 8:20 pace for the first 10 miles, then try to pick it up from there if I felt good. Thus, I had to let streams of faster people go ahead in the first two miles or so. It took all the common sense I could muster, plus a lot of fear about crashing and burning later, to let them all go. Two girls passed me wearing red running skirts, matching red sports bras, red and white polka dot visors, and pigtails with red and white curly ribbons in their hair. The kicker? They carried red pom-poms. I thought about how much Claire would want me to kick these girls’ butts. I took a deep breath and calmly let them go. I was not going to let a couple of cheerleaders ruin my pace.

During the first couple miles we ran past the starting area for the 5K. I managed to spot Laura and my mom cheering as I ran by, while they waited for her race to begin.

When I saw the 3:30 pace group go by me around mile 3, I thought I was finally running with my people. I looked back to see the 3:40 pace group not far behind, and I settled comfortably into the less-crowded space between them.

Since I haven’t done a road marathon in a long time, the whole “pace group” thing is a new phenomenon to me. I found it hilarious how everyone wanted to be as close as possible to the person with the pace shirt on, yet 15 yards behind him/her, the crowd was much thinner and the running more comfortable. It was like they thought the closer they were to the pacer, the better chance they had of running that golden time.

Mile 4, and I made my first pit-stop in an outhouse. I allowed myself to run fast up the hill immediately afterwards so I wouldn’t lose too much time on that mile. To this point I’d been doing about 8:15 pace, and I still managed 8:40 for the mile with the pit-stop. Not too bad. Now I was a bit behind the 3:40 pace group, which I thought was fine.

We headed out for a loop through a big park. The paved trails were surrounded by eucalyptus trees, and a slew of local kids had been recruited to cheer throughout this 5-6 mile section. They were amazing! I don’t know who taught them how to cheer, but they were loud, enthusiastic, and sincere. They had me smiling the whole way.

I kept coming up on the 3:40 pace group, but told myself I shouldn’t be passing them until mile 10. It was so crowded right near them though, that I couldn’t stand it anymore, and I finally let myself pick it up a little and pass them at mile 9.

I felt totally relaxed, and until this point had been focusing primarily on not letting my pace get too fast. I picked it up to 8 minute pace, and it wasn’t until I started to hear myself breathe, that I realized I hadn’t been breathing hard at all in the first 9 miles.

By mile 13, 8 minute pace was still feeling easy, so I allowed myself to pick it up to whatever pace felt good. I started clicking of 7:40-7:50’s without much trouble. Now I was passing people with some consistency. The sun was shining and I was feeling fast.

Around mile 16 we turned onto the paved bike path that went along the beach. It was a beautiful day, and I was immediately captivated by the sight of the paddle boarders surfing out on the water. I was so caught up in the scenery in fact, that I missed 3 mile markers in a row, and I had no idea what pace I was running. I was still passing people like mad, and I felt good, but I was frustrated that I lacked some confirmation of my pace. When I finally saw another marker, it looked like I had averaged about 7:55 for those 4 miles. I was satisfied with that, considering I'd had to make use of another outhouse during that time.

Somewhere in this section I saw, and passed, the cheerleaders. They were walking. Somehow, that took all the pleasure out of passing them.

The bike path section was an out-and-back, so runners going the other way were actually some distance ahead of me on the course. I hit an aid station at about mile 19 and noticed it was unusually crowded. Where had all these people come from? A few yards later I hit the turn-around. As I came back through the same aid station, I realized who the crowd must have been: the 3:30 pace group!

I could see quite a ways down the beach ahead of me, but there were so many other people on the path—runners, bikers and families headed to the beach—that I couldn’t tell how far ahead the pace group was. One thing was for certain, I was gunnin’ for ‘em, and I was sure I could catch up.

With only 6 miles to go and feeling great, I knew there was nothing to hold back for now. I spent the rest of the race pushing things as much as I could, and wondering not ‘if’ I would pass the 3:30 pacer, but only how soon. My biggest hindrance seemed to be the increasing crowds on the bike path. With runners going in two directions, plus recreational users out on the path, I felt like kind of a jerk yelling “on your left” and trying to weave my way through the crowd.

Running 7:35 pace during the last 4-5 miles in a marathon led me to wonder. Perhaps I should have run faster than 8:20 pace in the first 9 miles? It’s a difficult question to answer. If I had run faster earlier, maybe I would have just slowed down later, and felt worse. When I ran my marathon PR, at a somewhat similar pace but starting much faster, I felt like hell in the last three miles. By stark contrast, I felt absolutely great at the end of Surf City.

I finally passed the 3:30 pacers with 3 miles to go. My only question now was, how much time could I get on them? I knew that I wouldn’t hit the sub-3:26 I’d need for a PR, but I was pretty excited about the knowledge that I would be under 3:30.

My mom and sister were there to cheer in the last half-mile. I found myself passing the woman whom I’d overheard at the start discussing her plans for a 3:15 finish. She looked like she was in real pain, and I actually felt pretty bad for her. Maybe I had done the right thing after all by starting slow.

As we re-merged with the half-marathon runners on PCH, I was suddenly passing masses of people again. I felt as though I was running the 5K and they were the marathon runners. Fortunately, there was plenty of room on this road for passing, and I crossed the line in 3:28 something.

As I approached the finish, I heard the announcer call out my name. I started to raise my arms in excitement. Then I remembered that I was wearing a tank top and hadn’t shaved my pits in probably a week. I didn’t need hairy pits in my finish line photo, even though I knew I would never purchase it. I quickly put my arms back down and just smiled.

Near the finish. That's me on the far left with the orange bib number, sprinting past the sea of half-marathon runners with yellow bibs.

After the race, Mom, Laura and I chowed finish line food while sitting out on the beach and watching the surfers. It was a beautiful day, and Laura and I both basked in the post-race glow of a job well done.

Overall, Surf City was a wonderful race. Between the marathon, half-marathon and 5K, there were over 18,000 runners. The marathon itself had about 2,000. (They limit the marathon field because we run for much of the course on a narrow bike path.) Aid stations were plentiful, and in addition to water, they had some electrolyte drink, Lara Bars, and Sharkies. Yum! My only complaint is that some of the mile markers were pretty far off. In the last 5 miles my watch said I ran two 9:30ish miles followed immediately by a 4:10 mile. I laughed out loud at that one. (I think all three of those miles were about 7:45.) Many thanks to the race organizers and all the volunteers who gave water, cheered and made it happen!

Final stats: I finished in 3:28:50, averaging 7:58 per mile. I was 142nd out of 1943 overall, 14th out of 851 women, and 8th out of 138 in my age group.

In the days since this race, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how things went so right (and how I can duplicate that experience in the future). Although I'm still not really certain, a few thoughts come to mind. Here are some of the things I thing might have worked in my favor to bring about a good race:

I had no major goals for this race, so there was no pressure.
I had some excellent speed workouts (although they were a long time ago!)
I was well rested
The weather was perfect
The race was at sea-level, and I live a t 6000 feet
The course was flat

I remember exactly how hard I trained to run 3:26 though, and I still can’t believe I came so close to that time with so much less training. Maybe a few years of running ultras helped, rather than slowing me down like I would have thought? Maybe 35-year-olds are faster than 24-year-olds? (I was 24 when I ran my PR.) That makes no sense to me though. (What does make sense is that an 11-year-old PR needs to be taken down!)

Anyway, I still have a few ultras on the schedule for the spring and summer, but after Surf City, I think I’ll pick up at least one more road marathon and see what I can do. I like running fast!

"I got a '39 wagon and they call it a woody. (Surf City, here we come!)"


  1. Great job, Gretchen!
    Very well paced.
    For your next, PR-breaking marathon, check out the River City Marathon (part of the series this year)--that should be pretty fast on familiar terrain.
    Take care!

  2. Gretchen, you are an enthralling writer! I very much enjoyed this post, and laughed out loud reading about your finish line-crossing. :) Kudos to you for that amazing time- you astound me with your speed, and how easy you make a marathon sound.

  3. Awesome race! Ultras, 1500m, and marathons - clearly you're a girl of many talents. Your marathon time is even more impressive coming from an ultra background - it seems like when that speed goes, it's gone, baby. But apparently not for you.

    Excellent report as usual. Good luck with your future races.

  4. "Two girls passed me wearing red running skirts, matching red sports bras, red and white polka dot visors, and pigtails with red and white curly ribbons in their hair. The kicker? They carried red pom-poms."
    Damn straight I would have been mad if you hadn't passed them. I think you should be MORE satisfied that they were walking when you passed them, they didn't even have the umph to keep running for goodness sake! Don't let those laid-back ultrarunners completely dull your killer instinct. Sometimes you just gotta clothesline a bitch or two, especially if they're wearing skirts and pigtails.

    This was such a great race report, and I'm glad you wrote it. I'm going to take home a few lessons from it about pacing. Congratulations on coming so close to a PR. I think that ultras CAN make you a much stronger marathon runner, because you're not fighting just to hold on for the last 6 miles, but that's just my opinion.

  5. Great blog - I'm doing my first 100 at TRT this summer. I don't think I saw you at AR50 (my first ultra) but looks like you came in with a great time. Thanks for the detailed report of the TRT - maybe I'll see ya around at an upcoming event and pimp you for advice on the 100.