Tuesday, December 16, 2014

California International Marathon 2014 race review from a first time runner.

 I don't run alot of road races but for that very reason I felt like testing my marathon PR (3:46) in a BIG way. I got the idea back in the late summer that a road race would shake things up and reinvigorate my training. When deciding on which marathon to run I always favor a new course over a re-do and since San Fran and Napa have already been done CIM is the next logical choice. CIM is synonymous with Boston Qualifying and I figured why waste the opportunity. If your going to run it you might as well go for the BQ which is 3:15:00 for 40 year old men. Chopping a half hour off my PR is probably unrealistic but that's my style. Go big or go home. That 2 month training cycle did not go well due to health issues and I went into the race clearly under trained so my plan was to just rely on my grit and expierence. I planned to line up in the 3:15 pace group, hit the 7:15 pace and hang on until I passed the finish line or passed out.

For the readers who are first time CIM racers looking for practical info let me give some of the non-race info very briefly. First off; I stayed at the Sheraton that is across the street from the convention center where the expo is held and one of several locations where the buses pick you up to take you out to the start. The Sheraton is also very close to the finish line and a few restaurants and deli's are by. For the hotel itself, frankly I thought it was over priced, lacking in customer service and the rooms seemed small and the restaurant downstairs seemed over priced. The location can't be beat but you pay a premium for that. Other hotels are just a block or two away so I would likely roll the dice on one of those next time.

The expo was good. I thought the vendors were offering decent discounts on some merchandise. Bib pick up was fast and easy at 10:30 Saturday morning. I paid very little attention to the speakers but they always drew a descent crowd so they must have been worthy. The aisles were nice and wide so walking around wasn't a big crowded hassle. I had my son in a BOB stroller and we were fine for the most part. The Official CIM merchandise was limited compared to San Fran but more than Napa if your into that stuff. The long sleeve race shirts were very nice but that and a 26.2 sticker is the extent of the free swag. Napa gave out embroidered backpacks that were awesome. Overall I thought it was very well done. Even if I wasn't running the race I would pop in to check out the deals.

Registration fees include a bus ride to the start. Buses arrived right on time at 5:00 AM. They filled up quickly and moved out to let the next wave of buses in. I was on a bus in the second wave by 5:15 and I was at the start just after 6:00. The amount of porto-potties lined up is a sight to behold. There had to be 50+ which made the lines move along. The line I got in took about 10 minutes at most. The weather for 2014 was about as good as you can hope for in December, 50° at the start with no precipitation, no cold wind and no fog. I wore a short sleeve shirt with arm warmers that I could take off easily and that seemed to be just right. In 2012 the race had severe rain storms blowing sideways and flooding the streets. In 2013 the start temp was in the 20's and remained bitterly cold for most of the race. Keep an eye on the weather every day leading up to the race to be safe.

The race does not have corrals, instead you will see these large pace signs lined up and down the side of the street. Pace leaders can be found holding their little pace signs on sticks near the bigger signs. I lined up with the 3:15:00 pace group and did what any under-trained racer would do, prayed for the luck of the running gods to smile down on my unworthiness. The National Anthem was sung, the wheelchair athletes were released and a minute later we were off and running. I looked backwards and as far as I could see people were crammed together on a 4 lane wide street for at least a quarter mile of more. I think this years total was around 5,800 racers. In the ranking of large US Marathons CIM was #13 and San Fran was #14. Los Angeles, Big Sur and Napa were not mentioned.

 This race is a net downhill of about 350 ft. If you are use to flat road races this course can pound on you quite a bit in the first half. If you are a seasoned trail runner who regularly climbs and descends than this course will not be a problem. As a net downhill comparison the Skyline to Sea Marathon is much more difficult to endure. I had no quad issues in this race at all. I thought the small hill just around mile 1 or 2 was steep but very brief. Around the 7 mile mark there are 2 hills to take note of that may slow you down but again I didn't think much of them. The hill at mile 11 which is in an area referred to as "The San Juans" (as in the mountains in Colorado) is one of the most hyped hills on the course because it lasts longer than the other hills. I had no issue with it zapping my strength or depleting my stamina but it did slow me down and cause some deep breathing exercises. Just beyond that around the halfway mark the course levels out considerably. The only other "hill" of note is at the bridge over the river at mile 22. It's late in the race so I had sympathy for those who got the cardio knocked out of them on this one but I was literally shocked at how little of an incline it was. Most articles I read were calling this a monster that will kill you and I was expecting a lot worse. Strong quads that are hill conditioned for the constant concentric and eccentric loading of this course are essential. I had no quad pain in the race or during the days that followed this race.

 I was able to stick with my pace group for about 2 miles and then I could see them gaining ground on me little by little. I backed off that 7:15 pace and settled in around 8 minute pace. By the 10th mile my calves started to jump up a little bit and that became worrisome. I never have calf problems! I took some salt pills (old wives tale) and some Vespa fuel to see if that calmed them down. I also increased my water intake but the calves just got worse. The cramps would grab harder and hold longer. I had slowed considerably and crossed the half way mark at 9 minute pace (1:58:00). By mile 15 I was stopping to walk and stretch it out almost every quarter mile. This went on and got more unmanageable as the miles ticked by. By mile 18 I did the calculations and texted my wife my finish time of 5 hours based on my 15 minute mile pace. On J Street in the downtown section just after you cross the American River I started counting down the blocks starting in the upper 40's and aiming for the finish shoot near 8th Street.

Counting the steps to the quit line!
By now the old saying "water seeks it's own level" was true. Alot of the runners surrounding me from mile 20+ were injured and doing a walk/ run, death march type of strategy just to get to the quit line. The crowds along the course are just spectacular with cheers of encouragement raining down on you from all directions. This course has very few stretches where no cheerleaders could be found. Even in the more rural areas out near Folsom their was still quit a few people cheering us on. In a few areas along the course like the Fair Oaks area it is jam packed with excitement and cheer. I always tried to suck it up and power through when the crowd was big and buzzing. I really enjoyed high 5'ing the little toddlers on Dad's shoulders as I went by, something I would have never done had I been running well. By mile 25.5 the crowd was giving me all the love they could and I just broke down sobbing. I stepped off the side of the course with my hands on my knees in excruciating pain and it didn't feel like this one was going to release. A man came running over and told me in the most encouraging way that I couldn't give up this close to the end. I protested telling him I couldn't make my legs bend at the knee. I couldn't produce forward propulsion. He said there was no shame in walking it in because quitting at this point is just not an option and with that I took a step. After 2 or 3 steps I broke out into a trot. The crowd  around us erupted in cheers of encouragement as I began a very slow, awkward, Frankensteinesque trot towards the finish. My wife and son were just up the road about a half mile and by the time I reached them I was in screaming agony. I wanted to stop but I was too embarrassed to show her or my son just how beat up I was. If I did actually stop I would likely crumble into a heaping mess of tears and sweat soaked stank and getting my legs to start back up again to finish this off would be nearly impossible. Not willing to chance it, I shuffled on by with a high 5 and some hellos. I rounded the corner onto 8th street. One more block and it was a left into the male finishers shoot. As bad as I wanted to stop when I saw Mary was nothing in comparison to this last quarter mile. The crowd was huge and cheering loudly and pictures were being snapped and I had no choice, I had to keep shuffling through the finish line. Both of my calves and my left hip flexor were in a vise like grip and the pain was making me tear up and grunt like a wild animal with every foot fall. I crossed the 2nd electrical mat and stopped immediately. I literally cleared the finish line by just a few steps and stopped cold. No movement.

 Volunteers were already hustling to grab me. They helped me move off to the side where a medal was draped around my neck and asked me if I needed medical. I did but I didn't want to take the time to go seek them out. I thanked them profusely and told them I was going to the message tent. I lied. I didn't even know if they had a message tent. I just wanted them to be comfortable with letting me go on about my business. Turns out they did have a massage tent and I was close to it but all I wanted to do was find my family, find my gear check bag and get out of there. The finish area is huge with a ton of stuff going on in all directions. Dozens of tents, thousands of people and I spotted Mary right away playing with our son on the steps of one of the Capital Buildings. We started looking around for the gear check trucks. I stepped off a curb and grabbed a light pole to keep me from face planting in the street as a pain swelled up in my left calf like nothing I've ever felt. It was like my calf was a balloon being blown up and the tendons that anchored it to me were going to tear in half. The skin was surely going to explode like a hot dog that had been microwaved too long. I was immediately screaming in pain. This very nice couple came rushing over and offered assistance and advice. They were very nice in suggesting I go to the massage tent just 30 feet away. I agreed and told them I would do just that as I thanked them for their kindness. That's when I learned that this race really does have a massage tent but I have been down that road before and it is usually a long wait for a scary massage that might hurt more than it helps. I was not willing to chance it so when the cramp let up I continued on my journey to the gear check. We found it relatively quickly and my bag was retrieved for me in short order by the teenage volunteers manning those positions.

CIM 2014
 We walked slowly back to the hotel stopping along the way for a hot coffee and a well deserved pastry. We loaded up our car and headed for home knowing that we would stop soon for a meal rather than hang around and eat a bunch of finish line snacks. When I am really beat up, I get tunnel vision. In this case I wanted to be down the road, in a restaurant with my feet up, eating and relaxing. I wanted to be on my way home and I wanted to go to sleep and put this nightmare behind me. I crossed the finish line just after noon and I was in Elk Grove eating lunch by just after one o'clock.

 The official results of the race were posted the next day and I crossed the line in 5:03:11. That is 4732nd place out of 5807 finishers. Each metric that is tracked by the ChronoTrack website, such as Overall Male Placement, M40- 44 placement, Masters Male Placement had me in the bottom 1/3rd of the finishers. This was by far my worst race result to date. That is a major bummer when the course and the course conditions are perfect for a PR. It is even more troubling when the cause of this problem is out of left field. I would have never even dreamed of having calf problems. That never happens to me and certainly not on a course as easy as this. I guess it just goes to show you that anything can happen and you just gotta make the best of it and that is what I did. I wanted to quit so bad at mile 18 when I realized I was going to be out there for another agonizing 2 hours peeling off those 15 minute miles but I just couldn't bring myself to pull the plug. Mary was a phone call away and that means sweet relief on the one hand, but an absolute failure on the other hand. Elite runners can drop out to keep from doing damage but us regular people can't drop out. The race and its finish is all we have. We will never win or even come close but we can compete against our own personal best and when that goes haywire we can at the very least, strive to finish the race. If I went home knowing I couldn't even finish the race I would be infinetly more disappointed in myself. That feeling of failure would hang over me like a heavy dead weight just dragging me down until I regained my former bloated ego with a good showing at another race. I can't have that. I must finish even if it means dragging my dead stumps across the finish line. That's just how I see it at this stage in my running. I am not a newbie and this is not my first rodeo. I have no reasonable excuse for failure so failure is not an option.

 In conclusion I just want to say to all of those who are thinking of running this race, go for it. Don't be intimidated by the net downhill pounding. It is not that bad. The race is very well organized, the atmosphere is electric and the aid stations are plentiful. This is an excellent choice for first time marathoners and those who are looking for a new PR or perhaps a Boston qualifying time. I know I will be back to run it again.