Tuesday, March 29, 2011

River City Marathon Weekend

It was eight years ago, in March of 2003, that I began training for my first ultra, the Tahoe Triple. I remember it because it was a new thing for me to be intensely focused on a race that was seven months away. I also remember it because it was a particularly snowy March, and I spent more than one long run dragging myself up the climb on Old Highway 40 through a blizzard and ever-deepening snow. Fear was a powerful motivator, and I was well aware that success on race day would be heavily determined by my fortitude this many months out. I may have been an ultra rookie, but I was a wise runner. I have been doing my best to tap into the mindset of that same fearful, badass girl during  recent weeks in this similarly snowy March.

I put it to my husband this way: “I’ve put in some good training, so I’ve been okay with being flexible, but it’s almost April. It’s time to get serious.”

In other words, it doesn’t matter how epic the powder is on a given Saturday. Running, not skiing, is now the order of the day. Every weekend.

With this in mind, I added a Sacramento area race to my schedule, the River City Marathon, and called Jamie to see if she wanted to run some hard miles the day before the race. A trip down the hill and out of the snow was in order for some speed, quality and distance.

I had a thankfully uneventful, if slow, drive through the last storm of our own March Madness and arrived in Folsom early on Saturday afternoon. Snow in the mountains means rain in the valleys, and I was prepared to get wet. Good thing!

I wanted to run some speedwork in order to “take the edge off” before Sunday’s marathon. My plan was to race on tired legs in order to keep me from taking it too seriously and pressuring myself to run fast. It would cap off a solid week of quality training with a little “distance speed.” Frankly, Saturday’s speed workout had me more nervous than Sunday’s road marathon, so I’d say my mindset was in the right place.

Jamie and I took off into a light rain for a 30 minute warm-up along the American River. We followed that with 5 X 10-minute pickups. It felt good to quicken the pace, and especially to be running it with a partner. I normally tackle all of my speedwork solo.

At the end of the last pickup I felt tired, but it was that good kind of tired. I could tell I hadn’t killed myself, but I had gotten a good workout, and now I looked forward to a nice warm-down at conversation pace. Apparently, I’m new to Jamie’s definition of a warm-down.

First, the rain started picking up. I hadn’t really noticed it while we were running hard, but now I realized it had swelled to a torrential downpour. Then the wind joined it. We ran across an exposed stretch of trail along Folsom Lake, and the wind blew sideways so hard that it kept pushing me into Jamie, causing me to run her off the trail. All the while, she regaled me with stories that kept me in stitches, seemingly unaware of the furious wind and stinging rain.

Then she looked at her watch and uttered the dreaded phrase, “Uh oh. We’re going to be late for the sitter.”

“Maybe your sitter has no life,” I reasoned with a shrug, but she was already several paces ahead of me and picking up speed. Apparently it’s a bad thing to alienate your favorite babysitter.

After that, it was time to take a short-cut. She tore up and down suburban streets like she had a score to settle. I hadn’t realized it was possible, but the wind howled even stronger and now hit us directly in the face. I was certain the rain pelting my skin must be hail, but it turns out that I’m a bit of a drama queen when it comes to rain. Jamie just sprinted on.

“You’re killing me, Jamie!” My words were carried off by the gale.

“What?” She yelled over her shoulder.

“YOU’RE KILLING ME!” I screeched as I tried to keep up. But she could hear the laughter in my voice and just smiled. I would have just slowed down, but  A) I had no idea where I was or how to get home,  B) I was totally drafting off her, and  C) I was a little concerned about possibly getting swept up in a tornado.

We finally arrived back at her house soaked, exhausted, happy, and only slightly late for the sitter.

The following morning found me again on the bike trail along the American River, this time headed from Folsom toward Sacramento. The original course for River City was one-way and finished at Discovery Park. At this point however, Discovery Park was under water. Rumor had it that the bathrooms were completely below the water line. The River City had become just that.

The new course had us simply turning around at 13.1 and returning to the starting line at Negro Bar State Park. This was fine by me as it put me closer to home at the end of the race, and I was feeling pretty relaxed about the day anyway. The rain had stopped the previous evening, (about 30 seconds after Jamie and I finished our run, I believe) but the sky was still overcast. It was cool with no wind. In short: perfect running weather.

My guess had been that I would run in the 3:40-3:50 range, depending on how much I could feel the previous day’s workout. I had left my Garmin in the car on accident, but was content enough with just my wristwatch. There were no mile markers so my pace was pretty up in the air, but I felt relaxed through the first half. 

Nearing mile 13, I counted the women headed the other way to find that I was in 7th place. Not bad. I was even more surprised to see that I hit the turn-around in 1:45 exactly. I felt comfortable enough that an even split sounded reasonable, and that would put me in at 3:30. I raised my eyebrows in surprised approval. That sounded much faster than I had been expecting.

Silly me, though—I also forgot about my competitive nature. Somewhere around mile 18 it kicked in, and I decided it was time to make things fun.

I still felt relaxed and saw no reason not to see how much I could push things. How many women could I pass? I got gradually faster and faster, heart rate picking up, breathing louder, grinning madly, wanting that race to be just a little bit longer so I could pass just one more woman. I moved into third place about 100 yards before the finish line. I felt a little bad passing that last woman so close to the end, especially since this was really just a training run in my mind. But, you know, it was still a race. Right?

The most amusing part about my whole day was that I finished in 3:27. Just one minute faster and it would have been a PR. Apparently I’m in better shape than I thought.

It feels like I’m in that fun phase of my training at the moment. You know, when you’re always hungry and could pretty much eat a house, when times keep getting faster and you feel stronger every day. Instead of feeling exhausted and run down, you’re feeding off the hard workouts. They’re fueling you.

I took yesterday off but ran trails in Reno with renewed vigor this afternoon. The dirt was dry, awash in sunshine, and I hit my fastest times of the season on my hill repeat workout.

I know in a few more weeks the mileage and intensity will catch up with me. I'll probably be crawling through my workouts, feeling sleep-deprived and exhausted, and I'll look back on these days and think, Ah, it was good while it lasted!

Yup. It sure is.

Thanks to Robert and Linda, as always, and their fleet of awesome volunteers for a beautiful race on Sunday. (Complete Results) And thanks to Jamie for foregoing a 300K bike ride to run with me on Saturday!


My friend Matt is a musician and he just released his latest single, Faster. I'm going to go ahead with the cliche phrase and honestly tell you that I prefer his older stuff. But I'm liking the title of this particular song, if you know what I'm saying, not to mention the way he hitches his leg up when he sings it. And since this version is live, and it's just Matt and his guitar ... well, it just sounds a lot more like Matt to me than the studio version.


  1. Wow Gretchen! That's awesome your training is going so well- it's amazing how our bodies adjust and thrive on hard work like that. And thanks for introducing me to Matt's music- I'm going to check out his stuff. His little knee lift was cute, endearing even. Cool guy~ :)

  2. Ah, that was a GREAT read, Gretchen!! So exciting how you just busted your move like that! I freaking love it! :)

    Your Saturday run took me back to RDL; loved that day! What great back-to-back workouts, very impressive!

  3. "Due to my competetive nature", ha on you! Passing poor gal 100 yards before she got her first ever podium! Shame!
    Gretchen, great run! Don't you love it when the thought "I am in better shape than I thought I am" pops up? Wish it was like that more often? :))

  4. Nicely written, your voice somehow came through in this post even more than usual. The bit about chasing Jamie home was hilarious. Like, beverage-spitting hilarious.

    Super-impressive, too. All my heroes seem to be getting stronger and stronger, and faster and faster. Oh no!

  5. Amber - Yeah, isn't it funny how sometimes hard training makes us feel stronger instead of tired? Nice when it happens.

    And Matt putts on a beautiful and usually hilarious live performance. I find a lot of his recent stuff to be a bit too "pop" for me, but his roots are folk rock, which I adore, and he's immensely talented. He's got a ton of stuff on Archive.org, or I would recommend "Live at the Point" off iTunes.

    Paige - Thanks! Actually, I was recalling RDL on the Saturday run as well. Lots of familiar territory there, but you know - colder and wetter this time. The drive home was exactly on the route between all the aid stations at first too, so that had me thinking of all my sleep-deprived, humorous episodes trying to crew. ;)

    Olga - I know! Can't you feel my shame? That's why I had to make a public confession about it. Ha ha! At least I can laugh at myself. And hope that 4th place woman doesn't read my blog. And yes, I do love the surprise of being in better shape than I thought. Races are kind of a good yardstick that way.

    Stac - Hey thanks! I always worry about posting something with absolutely zero pictures - like it will be too boring for anyone to get through. So I'm glad you liked it! Of course, you're probably biased since you know both Jamie and me, but I can happily ignore that factor. Anyway, I consider it a major accomplishment when I cause beverage spitting. :) (Really though, I do!)

  6. Wait - Matt Nathanson is a friend of yours?! We've been listening to his music for years - our whole family really loves him. I think I first heard him on Pandora a few years back and just started buying songs from iTunes. Is he a Truckee guy? You need to tell me more about this sometime.

    And there was something here about running, I guess ... but I honestly kind of forgot. A race or something. I'm sure you did great.

  7. Donald - Oh sure, ha ha, out-shined by the rock star. No, Matt was an east coast guy, now living in San Fran. He helped me survive years of French classes in College.

  8. Only your long-time die hard fans know that you WON that Tahoe Triple that you described in the first paragraph!

  9. Ha! So the rumors are true. Burning up the pavement! My source is Frankie Stone who will also be at AR.

    You are a total stud. You just keep getting faster every year. Unfortunately, my build up has been less than stellar and I'm just hoping to survive 50 miles in 8 days (but who's counting?)