This has been my fourth year in a row running CIM. The previous three have all produced PRs, so I was definitely returning to the trough for more. I had seemed to be slowing down in the spring, having run a 1:36 half marathon, and the Napa Marathon in 3:24.
So a I took a two week break, then worked up to lots of volume, 70-80 mile weeks, while also doing weekly track workouts. Another half would have been a good pointer to how things were going, but I never got around to it.
The arrows started to point up. I got a small PR in a tricky 10K at Lake Merritt. The two cross country races where I ran the same courses as last year were also course PRs.
So what would be a good goal, assuming conditions were suitable? Well Duh. I had been aiming for 3:15 last year and missed, so it was time to knock that down before it became an insuperable barrier in my mind. What else?
The New York Marathon is changing it’s rules for guaranteed entry times. They used to be just a little harder than Boston qualifications, but too many people were qualifying so they are toughening it up for 2013. So for instance a man under 40 would need to run under 2:45, and I would need to get under 3:14. I have sometimes felt envious of those who have struggle to qualify for Boston. Not for the struggle part, but for the huge sense of achievement when they get it. My BQ time is 3:40, which um, lacks excitement. But 3:14 could be my reachable Holy Grail.
Last year I followed the 3:15 pace group, but eventually fell off it after some non-ideal pacing. The CIM course is easy to foul up on. The early downhills tempt a runner into going too fast, while the rolling hills are short enough to invite attacking at constant pace. This approach, while satisfying, burns precious fuel that needs to be conserved for the fast final miles.
My training was extemporized around a weekly framework. A track workout on Tuesday and something else challenging at the weekend, either a race, long run, or combination run with faster miles. Weekly mileage was in the 70s with the biggest week at 83.
Early in the program a suggestion had cropped up in the Runner’s World Online forum that I frequent, which I described to Cathi:
“CIM is on the morning of the 4th, the Las Vegas marathon is in the evening of the same day, and there’s a flight…”
“Hahahahaha!, I’ll go straight to Vegas and scrape up what’s left of you, then.”
“I’m not going to do it.”
But others would, and we had a get-together at the Spaghetti Factory on the Saturday evening. Some familiar faces were there, including James, who has run three or four marathons with me. “With” in this case means “Some considerable distance on front of”, but we seem to have a knack for bumping into one another at expos. He was doing the double, and was planning to run CIM at about 3:20 to leave something in the tank for Las Vegas. 3:20 was considered the cutoff for making the plane. At the dinner he was talked into trying for a PR (sub-2:58), then risking total flameout in the evening. Excellent advice as it turned out. Steve, who was doing his own version of the double, arrived to applause. He had run the North Face 50-miler in Marin that morning, cutting nearly two hours off his previous year’s time, and would be running Las Vegas the next day. In the company of these people, the prospect of attempting to PR at 26.2 the next day lost all it’s gravitas. It was as if I were about to run a 10K turkey trot. There were some new faces present, including Joel, about whom more later.
It was clear, chilly and windless in Folsom that morning. Predictably I ran into James at the bag drop. He showed me his well-stuffed CIM drop bag. “Everything is in there, street clothes, phone, everything.” Wow, talk about traveling light. He headed forward while I lined up near the 3:15 pace group. I asked the leader if he was the same guy that had led this group last year. No. I considered this excellent news.
I hung back a little as we surged to the line, wanting to take care of my own pacing until the pace leader proved himself. Even at a runners race like CIM there are a few rubes who start too close to the front, and once I’d weaved though them I was about 30yards back from the pace leader’s stick. Perfect. Nothing to do but relax, think about good form on the downgrade, and keep an eye on that stick. I was not wearing my Garmin, having reverted to the old-school method of stopwatch and pace-band (7:25 per mile, 3:14:27 finish). Nothing to obsess over until that first mile marker came into view. This pace felt more like casual group run than a race. What a lovely morning!
The leader was scoring points with me. There was an abrupt little rise just before the first mile marker, and he slowed quite a bit. First mile 7:35, so far so good. now for the real test. I missed the mile 2 marker, but mile 3 (22:30) revealed he had given up a little bit more and was in no big hurry to claw back those seconds. Excellent! I moved up level with him, complimented him on a good job, and looked around to see if I recognized anyone. Ther was Joel. He was a very fast runner at shorter distances who had yet to run a satifactory marathon. On top of that he had had a dose of strep throat that week. “Hi. How are you feeling?” “”Pretty good at the moment, but I always hit the wall at 23 miles.” “Don’t say always, say up till now.” I advised. The only other runner whose name I knew was because she had felt-tipped it down the sides of her legs. “Go Brittany!” “Ha! Apparently they don’t do that here.” She was from Detroit.
We ticked off the miles over the rolling terrain, 7:16, 7:28, 7:24, 7:25, gradually homing in on the 7:26 average required for 3:15. The leader knew the course well, and would loudly announce upcoming hills and aid stations. After the first relay handover point I found myself ahead of the group and went on autopilot for a little while, then I discovered I could not see the stick behind. Oops, this was too early to be leaving the group, no matter how comfortable I felt. I wanted to make solid sure of beating 3:15 before trying for anything faster. I tried to relax and pretended I was driving a car on empty. Just enough gas pedal to get up this hill, don’t pass that guy, coast down the other side. Relax, relax… After about two miles of this the group caught me again, and I stayed with them for quite a while. 7:33, 7:27, 7:14, 7:23 to mile 11.
I missed mile 12, but mile 13 was 14:49 (7:25 average), and we reached the half in 1:37:16. Still able to do basic math at this point, I thought Hey, we’re now ahead of 3:15 pace, how’d he do that? Gradually. We were right on my 3:14-and-a-half pace band.
Things got more purposeful now. While the pace was still comfortable, there would be no inadvertent drifting ahead anymore. My disposable water bottle finally ran out at mile 15. One unexpected problem had come up. My gels were in a small 4 oz. flask so that I could avoid the whole rip, squish, sticky fingers dance. Usually I diluted them a little bit but this time I had wanted to get the maximum gooey goodness into the flask. Big mistake. I had to squeeze really hard to get any out, and ended up only consuming about half of the contents. Oh well. Joel was running a little ahead of the group, and I joined him. “I seem to have got ahead of the plan” He said. Without really discussing it we dropped the pace slightly and started passing people.
7:19, 7:17, 7:19 to mile 16, speeding up a little now than most of the rollers were behind us. My friend Karen, out to support several LMJS runners in the race, intercepted my headband and gloves as I dropped them in front of her. She later commented “They skidded right past me. I was amazed at how fast you were going”
7:17, 7:17, 7:18, 7:20 (some uphill there) to mile 20. Joel was quite entertained by the ‘wall’ archway that we ran through at mile 20, with the grim reaper capering beside the course.
7:17, 7:17, 7:15 to mile 23. The hill to the bridge was the last uphill of any significance, So we just punched over it. This late phase of a race where you are passing people has been described as “assassin mode”. You pick out a runner, reel them in, pick out the next one, etc. This was not so much assassination as massacre, we were passing dozens and dozens of runners. It was good to have someone to run with to help keep a steady pace amongst all these slower runners. Joel was overjoyed not to have experienced the wall this time. “It’s a modern miracle” he exclaimed, and dropped the pace quite a bit. This was faster than I wanted to go, so he waved goodbye and tore off at sub-7 pace.
On my own now, it was time to do some serious work in the last three-plus miles. The pace band put me in sub 3-14 territory but my brain was now in innumerate mode and I wanted to make sure. At one point I had had to remind myself “Er, number on watch lower than number on band, that’s good, right?” The course did a quick left-right onto Sacramento’s L street. Brittany brushed elbows as she took the inside on the second turn. Assassinated! She must have been chasing us hard for several miles. Having passed me she faded a little and I was soon in front again. I saw from the results she finished a few seconds back, so must have witnessed what happened next.
Back at mile 18 or so Joel had remarked “These bottles are a life saver.” My response: “Er yeah. Wait, what? Bottles?”. Since my hand-held ran out I had been drinking from the little cups held out by the volunteers and had failed to notice a table at each station stacked with 12oz water bottles. Thus alerted, I guzzled two of them in the next five miles which turned out to be too much. After the 24 mile marker the queasiness set in. Uh oh. Please go away, I have a race to finish here. I fought for control but it got worse. That mile was unsurprisingly a bit slower at 7:24. By the 25 mile marker it was obvious I was going to be sick. I thought about Meb Keflezighi, who stopped to spew at mile 18 before running a PR at New York this year. Do I have to stop? let’s find out… After a some preliminary sputters, about half a pint of water/gel mix came out in a neat stream and hit the roadway. None on my shirt, Whoohoo! I was going though the final aid station at the time. My sincere apologies to the volunteers and to Brittany for that grossness. The effort of doing it made my head swim, but I felt better after slowing for a few seconds and started running hard again. That was one of my fastest miles at 7:15.
The remaining .2 was disposed of in 1:35 (7:12 pace). I saw Cathi yelling at me in the last 100 yards. She was startled at my slightly early arrival and failed to get a picture. I saw 3:13:low on the finish clock and felt very much better coming up to the line. Someone was handing out cartons of chocolate milk, and I chugged one right down.
So: 3:13:14 chip time with a 1:12 negative split. Mission accomplished. Joel must have really hauled ass after leaving me, since he managed a 3:10. I found him with his friend Rachel (3:05) from Australia, gleefully reading splits from their Garmins. I had failed to notice training buddy Bob quietly tailing the 3:15 group. He got a 3:14 PR.
And the Vegas-bound crew? Gone when I got there. James ran a 2:55, Matt a 3:01, Kevin 3:02, all PRs. Paul, whose crazy idea that had been. missed the flight to Sacramento and only ran Vegas. That was a terrible race, so it it was just as well that they slow-jogged it.