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On a cool and beautiful Saturday morning in February, 87 hearty souls raced through the desert to complete the 2017 Death Valley Marathon. The course runs through spectacular Death Valley National Park along the same road traveled by the infamous Badwater 135 ultra marathon.

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View of the starting line on Highway 190.

Instead of the national anthem, the race director led us all in a more appropriate and moving rendition of America the Beautiful.

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Marathoners and their friends gathered for the 8 a.m. start. You can play “Where’s Angela” and find me in the purple top toward the front of the group.

Before the race, I worried that the out-and-back course might be a bit dull, with the same view for miles. I needn’t have worried, as the park is gorgeous and the course winds through the valley with ever-changing views of mountains to the east and west. Also, while the course boasts less than 325 feet of elevation gain, that number is deceptive. It felt to me like we were usually on a slight uphill or downhill grade on rolling hills and rarely running on just flat pavement.

The course roadway is open to park visitors, but I found the vast majority of drivers to be extremely respectful of the runners. We ran on the west shoulder at all times, and while that meant a little jockeying for position at the beginning of the race, the runners soon spread out and by the second half, I often found myself running alone through the desert. Spectators are not allowed on the course, and aid stations are only every three miles. The stations were well-stocked but I thought the Gatorade was a little too watered down (that is foreshadowing, in case you didn’t catch that).

I really enjoyed the first half of the course. The problem for me came around mile 16 when my calves started cramping. I can only speculate that I undertrained for the race or underfueled during the race, or some combination of the two. I had brought my own homemade sports drink that worked fine for me in training but obviously did not do the trick in the race, and the Gatorade on the course didn’t make up for it in the final miles. My splits went from a super-consistent 8:52.6 and 8:52.4 in miles 8-9 and 8:58.8 and 8:58.9 in miles 14-15 to 13:56 for mile 21 and 15:03 for mile 24! At one point I considered whether I wanted to drop out of the race (that might have been the time I heard the raven caw above me and wondered if that was a vulture coming for my carcass when I dropped to the ground. I might have gotten a tad bit dramatic in my suffering). I asked myself if I was going to injure myself by continuing. When the answer was no, I asked myself if I would feel better if I stopped, or better if I finished. I knew for certain that I would feel better if I finished, so I set my mind to it. I decided that I needed to take the focus off my cramping, painful calves, and concentrate on something that didn’t hurt. Somewhere after I really hit the wall in mile 20, I started counting my arm swings. My arms didn’t hurt, and I felt more powerful and in control as I counted each time my right fist punched forward. Long story short, by the time I finished the race, I had counted over 4,200 swings of my right arm. I got into a zen zone by the final miles, and brought my pace back down from 15:03 to 12:38 for mile 25 and 11:37 for mile 26! Mike brought the girls to the finish line, and they gave me a burst of energy as I ran the final 0.33 in a pace of 9:46.

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The most special moment of the race, as the girls ran with me to the finish.

I finished in 4:28:01, a full 51 minutes off my PR of 3:36:58 (recap of the Phoenix Marathon here). I had hoped to come in under 4 hours, but no such luck. My final stats:

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The first place male and female finishers came in at a blazing 2:49:40 and 3:21:08 respectively. Including all of the 87 finishers, the average finish time was 4:39:40.

If I had to do it over, I would train harder (though I thought I had trained well, with 3 20-milers under my belt), and carry Gatorade instead of my homemade sports drink. Or perhaps, knowing what I know now, I would have opted to do the half marathon and had more time to view the rest of the national park, which truly wowed me with how beautiful it is in the winter. [Edited to add: a couple of weeks after this race, I ended up getting some blood work done and I found out that I had iron-deficiency anemia. No wonder my race time was significantly off my best time! I’m happy to report that my running has started to get back to normal after some iron supplements prescribed by my doctor.]

I was very happy to find that the finish line fare included trail mix with nuts, raisins and M&Ms (heaven!) and a pretzel mix too. I picked up my cotton race t-shirt, which I will wear with pride. While I didn’t finish anywhere near the time I hoped, I am unusually proud of myself for finishing this race. The marathon always has something to teach me, even in my 8th one. This time I learned that the mind really can control the body. My mind carried me through 10 miles after my legs started cramping. It wasn’t pretty, but it was a pretty impressive display of sheer determination.

It’s been three weeks since the race and I’m back up to running 10 miles for my long run this weekend. I am still thinking through what I’d like to take on next. Do I choose another marathon after three particularly hard experiences (REVEL Canyon City, Boston and this one)? Or turn to a different challenge? All I know is I like having a big goal, so I’d better start planning.

What was your hardest race and why? Have you been to Death Valley? (If not, you should go — in the winter!)

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Five years ago I first ran the local school district’s Turkey Trot 5K. (Five years ago? How can that be?!) I couldn’t run it again until now because the date always conflicted with my fall marathon training. But it fit in nicely this year since my next marathon is not until February 4, the Death Valley Marathon. I didn’t train specifically for a 5K and I only tapered two days for this race, so I didn’t have a great idea of what I should set for my race goal. It’s a hilly course so I knew I couldn’t expect to come close to my 5K PR of 22:19 set at the Downtown Anaheim 5K over a year ago, but I at least wanted to beat my time from the 2011 Turkey Trot, 24:37, and I hoped to come in under 24 minutes.

It was a gorgeous morning for racing. Cool but not cold, sunny but not blinding.

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292 finishers participated in this lovely neighborhood race.

The junior high choir sang a beautiful rendition of the national anthem, and then promptly at 8 a.m. we set off with the sound of the blow horn. So many youngsters took off at a blistering pace and my job in the beginning was not to trample any little kids. You would think I would learn not to get swept up in the excitement and go out too fast with them, but when I first checked my Garmin the pace said something in the 6 minute mile range! Oops. I reined it in over the rest of the mile and the mile splits for the race ended up being 7:39, 8:02, and 7:57. Maybe someday I’ll master 5K pacing and not suffer so much in the 2nd and 3rd miles!

I raced the big finish line clock down the home stretch to come in just under 24 minutes as I hoped. My Garmin said 23:56. But then I checked the official race results and my time said 24:07. So unsatisfying! That’s the problem with races that are not chip timed, I guess. I shouldn’t care so much, but I do, so I ended up writing the timing company to ask why my result didn’t match the finish line clock (I don’t expect my result to match my Garmin, but I do expect it to come within a few seconds of what the finish line clock said). At any rate, I was happy with my effort in the race and pleased to win 1st in my age group out of 20 women ages 40-49 (I am 45).

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The first place medal came with $15 in gift certificates to A Snail’s Pace running shop in Brea.

Saturday is my long run day and my plan called for a long bike ride (this plan from Smart Marathon Training sometimes substitutes long rides for long runs, which I find very refreshing). So after the race I drove to a paved path and rode the ElliptiGO for an hour and 40 minutes.

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Oh how I love a dedicated bike path!

That hour and 40 minutes on the ElliptiGO was truly easier and more fun than running a race for 24 minutes, let me tell you! I listened to running podcasts (Another Mother Runner had on Dean Karnazes and The Runner’s World Show talked about Running While Female) and enjoyed all the thumbs-up I got for the ElliptiGO, which remains a curiosity on the trails.

Are you watching the NYC Marathon today? Because I don’t have cable I’ve had to content myself with following the live coverage on Twitter. Hooray for American Molly Huddle coming in 3rd for the women in her marathon debut with a time of 2:28:13!

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Imagine the satisfaction of completing your first half marathon. Then imagine the satisfaction of beating that finishing time and setting a new personal record. Then double all that satisfaction and you just might get to the level of satisfaction I felt as I watched my 14-year-old and my husband complete their first half marathons at the Fontana Days Run last weekend!

About five months ago I encouraged Mike and Shannon to start training for a half marathon. I chose the race, the Fontana Days Run, because it offered a gentle downhill profile, the timing was right with the race taking place on June 4 a week after Shannon graduated from 8th grade, it was inexpensive for a half marathon, it was just a 45-minute drive from our house, and we could pick up our race packets on race morning.

I wrote out a training plan for Mike and Shannon to incorporate into their busy tennis schedule. They play 10-15 hours of tennis per week, so I figured they could get by with three runs per week: two shorter runs of 4-5 miles (one easy, one with some hills or informal speed work) and one long run on the weekend that gradually built to a 13.1 mile training run and tapered to an 11.7-miler and a 6-miler in the two weeks before the race. Everything seemed to go well in training, although I had no idea what pace they should target for the race. Shannon set the pace for the long training runs, and that generally averaged out to about 11 minutes per mile. I knew Mike and Shannon wanted to break 2 hours for their finish time, and that would require a pace of about 9 minutes per mile. Could they really run two whole minutes per mile faster in the race than they ran in training? I encouraged them to go out at a comfortable pace and not let their legs fly too fast on the initial downhill (the race has a drop of 2,125 feet from start to finish).

Unfortunately, a heat wave hit Southern California in the week leading up to the race. The race day high was 100 degrees in Fontana. The temperature in the mountains at the 7:30 a.m. race start was about 68 degrees F and the temperature at the finish in Fontana at 9:30 a.m. was 82 degrees. That further muddied the waters as to what pace Shannon and Mike could be expected to run. Here’s a chart from Runner Academy that estimates the impact of hot weather on running pace:

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So I expected them to run about 30 seconds per mile slower in the heat than they could have if we’d had ideal race day temperatures.

 

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As you can see in this photo of me it was quite sunny at the start.

Without fanfare or much warning at all, really, the starting gun went off and Mike and Shannon set out at a comfortable pace. I carried my iPhone and used the MapMyRun app to keep track of our pace, but I kept the data pretty much to myself the whole race. The first few miles of the course run down the road through the San Bernardino National Forest and it’s simply gorgeous!

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After the first few miles though we were in full sun and by mile 5, I really started to feel it. There were adequate aid stations but some just had water and not Gatorade. Thank goodness I brought my own sports bottle and could refill it at the aid stations every 3-4 miles. Given the unusual heat that day, the volunteers drove around in a golf cart and handed out wet washcloths which I appreciated. I coached Shannon to run through the aid stations and just grab a cup of water and dump it on her head. Then I handed her my bottle of Gatorade to drink every mile or so. This worked very well.

 

Mike ran just slightly ahead of Shannon and me, and he seemed to have an internal, innate sense of pace. I mean, just look at the consistency of these splits!

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The course is downhill but it’s so gradual that it never feels taxing. The last seven miles are a straight shot into the town of Fontana, which means you don’t have to worry about running the tangents. It’s not the most scenic, but it’s fantastic for a PR attempt or a first-time race.

 

By about mile 10 I knew that Mike and Shannon could come in under 2 hours, and I started encouraging Shannon to keep up the pace and not let off. She had the best attitude the entire race and never complained. We caught up to Mike around mile 12 just as his calves started cramping due to not taking in enough Gatorade. I passed him my bottle and he was able to revive and keep running. Shannon sprinted to the finish to come in at 1:54:21. I was one second behind her with a huge grin on my face! Mike clocked 1:54:49.

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A happy Mike at the finish line (and some random guy’s rear end. My photography skills can use some work). 

I could not have been more proud of Mike and Shannon. They blew away my best hopes for them and did not seem at all affected by the heat. And for the icing on the race cake, Shannon came in first in her age group!

 

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Later in the week, I interviewed Mike and Shannon separately about their experiences. I probably should not have picked the day of their peak soreness (delayed onset muscle soreness peaks about two days after the race). They didn’t have much to say, but what they said warmed my heart.

Me: Are you glad you did the race?

Shannon: Uh-huh.

Mike: Yup.

Me: Did you meet your goals?

Shannon: Yeah.

Mike: Yes.

Me: Would you do another half marathon?

Shannon: Yup.

Mike:  Maybe.

Me: How did I do as your coach?

Shannon: [Thumbs-up.]

Mike: You were A+. It made it easy. It made it so we could not fail. We were going to meet our goals no matter what. I give you 99% credit.

 

Ahhhh! What a relief. They had a great race, came out of it uninjured, and were happy with the results. And for those wondering about whether or not it was a good idea for a 14-year-old girl to run a half marathon, I can say in our experience it was a very positive, safe, healthy experience for her. She had a checkup with her pediatrician this week including blood work done, and everything came back normal. And today, only 6 days after running the half marathon, Shannon won the Girls 14 and under division of the 18th Annual Laguna Niguel Junior Open Tennis Tournament!

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Continuing from Part I and Part II….

Spirits were high among the runners in wave 3, corral 5 as we trotted across the starting line timing mat at 10:50 a.m. on Monday, April 18, 2016. No one said much as we tried to navigate the pressing crowd of runners, pretty much running in lockstep and not trying to bump into anyone else. However, the spectators were already making plenty of noise to make up for our silence! The entire Boston Marathon was just a fantastic experience, and I mean FAN-tastic! The spectators could not have been more welcoming and encouraging along the entire route. The race course runs through eight cities: Hopkinton, Ashland, Framingham, Natick, Wellesley, Newton, Brookline, and Boston. Each community managed to extend its own unique form of hospitality. As a runner, I could tell that the spectators genuinely wanted the race to run through their town, and they not only welcomed the marathon itself but each and every runner that passed by. The spectators all along the way somehow managed to make each runner feel like a rock star, like we all mattered just as much as the elite athletes! That outpouring of support makes the experience of running the Boston Marathon a good one regardless of the runner’s finishing time.

Speaking of time, while I had said before that I had not planned to run this race for time, that didn’t mean that I wasn’t going to pay attention to my pace. I had run the Phoenix Marathon in a PR time of 3:36:58 with an average pace of 8:16 per mile. Every article I had read on Boston warned not to go out too quickly on the early downhill miles on the course or you would regret it around mile 20. So I planned to stay between 8:45-9:00 per mile for those early miles and I thought I might finish in a total time somewhere around 4 hours.

Miles 1-3 (8:52, 8:42, 8:44)

I certainly didn’t want to waste any energy dodging other runners so I just tucked in the crowd and maintained my pace. That became easier said than done though when I factored in walking through the aid stations. In light of the high temperatures forecast for the race, the organizers had sent out an email advising runners to pay close attention to hydration, and indeed I needed to stop at the first aid station at mile 2 along with nearly every other runner. The volunteers did a great job, but there’s just no managing that volume of runners (27,491 runners total). I couldn’t use my usual technique of speeding up a bit before the aid station to “bank” time to walk through the aid station because other runners blocked the way. It was also hard to get going again, and it was odd to run on the road completely covered in Gatorade and cups. Once the road cleared, my shoes were sticky for about another 100 yards! My advice to runners wanting to race Boston for time? Especially in the early miles, skip the aid stations on the right and go for the less crowded ones on the left. Don’t stop at the first Gatorade table — there are 4 at each station (followed by 4 of water).

Miles 4-6 (8:35, 8:50, 8:43)

In mile 4 in Ashland, don’t be alarmed when the course splits in two to go around some cement traffic islands. Volunteers make it clear you can run on either side. Running the tangents on this course is hard due to the crowds and features (spoiler: my “marathon” ended up being 26.74 miles instead of 26.2).

In rare quiet moments along the course, the runners’ footsteps sounded like the pattering of raindrops. The sheer sea of runners in front of me again reminded me of a zombie apocalypse! I kept waiting for the crowd of runners to thin, but it didn’t let up as much as I expected (I might just be a bit biased given that the other six marathons I have run have each had 1/10th the number of participants as Boston). All I know is I got elbowed by other runners right up to mile 25 and even in the finishing chute! No one was particularly aggressive, there were just a lot of people on the course.

Miles 7-9 (8:45, 8:47, 8:48)

In Framingham, the winds picked up, especially by Lake Cochituate at mile 9. At first I appreciated the cool breeze, but then there were times where I felt the need to draft off runners to protect myself from the wind (for once I was grateful for the crowded pack of runners!)

Miles 10-12 (8:49, 8:54, 8:38)

The course enters Natick and I took in the sight of yet another town common with a beautiful clock tower. There are also digital clocks at every mile marker along the race, which is helpful if you can do the math to figure out how that time compares to when you crossed the starting line.

When I entered the town of Wellesley, I kept an eye out for a Wellesley girl to kiss. As I said, I came to this race for the experience and I wasn’t going to miss out on any of it! You could hear the girls screaming before you could see them! I rounded the bend and saw a girl holding a sign that said, “Kiss me — I’m from Cali!” I knew that was my girl and dodged over to the side, pointed to my cheek and asked for a kiss. She kindly obliged, and I ran on with a smile and renewed energy. Later though I thought maybe I should have stopped for the girl whose sign said “Kiss me or I’ll vote for Trump!”

Miles 13 – 15 (8:43, 8:47, 9:12)

The half marathon point is in Wellesley and I passed the timing mat at 1:55:41. I remember my energy dipping a little at that point. I don’t know if was the relief of passing the halfway point, or if the noise of the Wellesley “scream tunnel” took a little out of me, but I felt a change in my ability to keep pace.

Miles 16-18 (8:43, 10:09, 9:41)

The course enters Newton next and the hills begin in earnest. Frankly the whole course felt like rolling hills and I had a hard time distinguishing one from the other. A lot of people on the course started suffering at this point. Talk about the zombie apocalypse — I’ve never seen so many people walking on a race course! I suspect that a lot of runners trained hard to qualify and ended up injured, or got injured in training for Boston itself, but they didn’t want to miss out on the experience running Boston so they vowed to get to the finish whether they had to walk or crawl to get there. Heck, I even saw a girl in the first mile wearing the kind of boot you need for a stress fracture! And as I passed Newton-Wellesley Hospital somewhere between the 16 and 17 mile points, I watched grimly as someone was wheeled off the course and into the hospital on a stretcher.

Miles 19-21 (9:25, 9:45, 10:33)

My family and friends were waiting for me at the mile 20 marker. You can see that I picked up the pace a bit in anticipation of seeing them! The kids made these awesome signs for me out of pipe cleaners, beads, and blue glitter.

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I grabbed some Gatorade from the aid station and then braced myself for Heartbreak Hill. The funny thing is that I didn’t even realize that particular hill was THE Heartbreak Hill until I saw a spectator holding a sign! It was just another hill, and I’d done a pretty good job of training on hills in my hilly neighborhood. I never walked (except through aid stations) and kept on trucking. My pace certainly slipped in that mile though.

Miles 22-24 (9:26, 9:31, 10:05)

Honestly in these miles through Brookline and into Boston, I was simply focused on running and keeping my legs moving. The crowd support became more important than ever. Not only their cheers, but their offers of ice, flavored ice pops, orange slices, banana slices (watch out for those peels on the course — I’m not kidding!), jelly beans, pretzels and M&Ms. I could have even had a full can of beer if I’d wanted one, and I was sorely tempted, not so much by the beer but by the idea of grabbing the can and stopping to walk along and enjoy it!

My favorite bit of course support though was when people had set up their hoses to spray the runners. While the temperatures did drop a bit the closer you got to Boston and the ocean, much of the course this year (at least for those in the later waves like me) was uncomfortably warm.

Miles 25-26.74 (9:45, 9:25, 6:39 pace for 0.74 miles)

Two things encouraged me in these final miles — the sight of the Prudential building (Boston! A building in Boston!) and the sight of the Citgo sign. I used to be able to see that sign outside the window of my on-campus apartment at MIT, so that held special significance for me even beyond the fact that it meant the final miles of the race.

I really picked up the pace when my Garmin beeped to say that I had run 26 miles. At that point I knew I had it in me to sprint and I really wanted the race to be over! So funny that I paid for the privilege to run this race, but I was just so ready to be done at that point. I sprinted for nearly 3/4 of a mile. There’s a little hill when you turn up Hereford but you are rewarded by the sight of the finish line when you turn left at the top and look down Boylston Street. Once again I could hear the absolute roar of the spectators and I felt like a rock star! Could they really be cheering that loudly for middle and back of the pack runners? It was amazing and it made my heart swell. I received a lot of support along the way, from my family, from readers of this blog, and from the race volunteers and spectators, and I was extremely grateful. I came in at 4:05:09 with my arms in the air as I finally crossed the Boston Marathon finish line.

It’s a long walk in the finishing chute. I almost didn’t grab a space blanket to keep warm because I was so heated from the race. Thank goodness I did though because by the time I reached the family meeting area and my family arrived to walk me to the T, my lips were blue! I felt really good though — sore but not injured — and just happy to have come full circle on four years of marathon training from my first marathon at Santa Barbara in 2012 to my seventh marathon at Boston in 2016!

I’ve never been particularly excited about race medals, but this one just symbolizes so much.

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Continuing from Part I….

I slept really well and got up at 6:30 a.m. Our host John had so kindly made me some steel cut oats and coffee for my pre-race breakfast, and I packed a banana for the bus ride up to Hopkinton. Christine drove me in to Boston and dropped me right off at Boston Common at 7:45 a.m. so I could board the bus at 8 a.m. I had to laugh because it looked like a zombie apocalypse with all the people walking across the Common toward the buses! There were plenty of porta-potties for use before boarding the school buses. The volunteers were chipper and helpful and I got on a bus right away — no waiting at all!

I chatted on the bus with a very nice woman who was running Boston for a third time. She echoed the advice I kept hearing: don’t go out too fast in the first five downhill miles or you will regret it on the hills of Newton!

I arrived in Hopkinton around 9 a.m. with plenty of time before my wave #3 was scheduled to depart the Athletes’ Village at 10:50 a.m. I hit up the porta-potty line and this time there really was a line — it took 40 minutes of waiting. By that time I pretty much needed to hop back in line to make sure I could go one last time before the race. So I didn’t even sit down once in the village!

I was happy to sip on some of the Gatorade provided for free in the Village. I unsuccessfully tried to eat the Clif Organic Energy Food sample that was included in the race goodie bag. It was nothing I hadn’t eaten before — oatmeal, bananas, maple syrup. I’m sorry for the bad review Clif, but it tasted like warm, mushy baby food and it was so unpalatable I had to throw it away. Luckily though Clif redeemed itself with a booth in the Village where I gratefully grabbed two free samples of White Chocolate Macadamia Nut Bars, something I already knew I liked and could tolerate before my run. You really could find anything you needed in the Village — in a great spirit of camaraderie people were passing around bottles of sunscreen and leaving things that you could use to sit on the grass.

Before I knew it my wave was being called and it was time to walk a few blocks to the starting corrals. It was sunny and quite warm by 10:50 a.m., in the high 60s in Hopkinton. I was glad I’d worn compression shorts and a short-sleeved tee.

I was in corral 5 and on the way I saw someone wearing her race tank top from the 2015 Phoenix Marathon, so we chatted about how we both qualified at that race. After the starting gun went off it took a while to walk to the starting line from corral 5. On the way I got high-fives from five race volunteers and passed up many more! I should have taken that as a sign of what was to come. Click the link to the next post for Part III of my Boston Marathon 2016 Race Recap!

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I’m still catching my breath after an amazing weekend in Boston. Some crazy person scheduled me to run a marathon on Monday, fly 6.25 hours home on Tuesday, and start my first day on my new job at 5:30 a.m. on Wednesday. Oh wait, that crazy person is me! And I have a lot to say about the whole Boston Marathon experience!

So, first I must confess the fact that I missed my flight to Boston on Friday and added six hours to an already very long travel day. Add on top of that the cough and chest congestion that I managed to catch during taper, and it was a pretty rough start to the weekend. Thank goodness I had already planned to run to enjoy the experience and not to race for time, because I wasn’t doing myself any favors in the days before the race.

I got happily settled at the house of some long-time friends John and Christine and enjoyed catching up with them. My brother- and sister-in-law and nephew also came up from Connecticut and it was great to see them and have their support at the race!

On Saturday my family went to the expo with me at the Hynes Convention Center. What an amazing sea of people! I’m not a fan of expos but I have to give credit to the organizers. Any time I had a question a volunteer seemed to step forward and give the answer before I could even ask the question! In no time I had my bib and an exceptionally nice blue and yellow long-sleeved technical tee. I couldn’t leave yet though without finding my name on the wall of marathon participants.

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So happy to be listed on that wall among all of the 2016 Boston Marathon participants!

Once outside the expo we walked down the street to see the marathon finish line on Boylston Street.

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Tourists crowded around to see the Boston Marathon Finish line on Boylston Street.

We had to go across the finish line to get to our lunch restaurant but I refused to walk across it and made my husband carry me. I wasn’t going to cross that finish line on my own two feet until I raced across it on Monday!

On Sunday, the day before the race, I pretty much laid low and drank as much herbal tea as I could to try to get as healthy as possible! For the pre-race dinner my husband Mike cooked us all an amazing pesto pasta dish with portobello mushrooms and asparagus, and made a caprese salad and garlic bread. Carbo-loading like a boss!

After dinner I took a hot bath to relax and help ease the cough and congestion. Then it was early to bed at 9:30 p.m.! Click the link to the next post for my Boston Marathon 2016 Recap Part II!

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I have mixed feelings when it comes to my recap and review of the 2015 REVEL Canyon City Marathon, so I’m going to break it down by the race elements.

Race Expo

I love a relatively small marathon (1,199 finishers) and a small marathon expo is just fine with me. I want to be in and out and not on my feet for a long time. This expo was held at a company warehouse in Azusa with ample parking. I had no trouble picking up my bib, gear bag, and t-shirt. This race offers a lot of runner-friendly features, one of them being a t-shirt exchange at the expo — if the size you ordered doesn’t fit you can trade yours for another size, or you can pay to upgrade to a long-sleeved shirt or tank top!

Flattering gray and blue shirt shown with my marathon finisher's medal

Flattering gray and blue shirt shown with my marathon finisher’s medal

It was nice to be able to check that my timing bib was working and that my name, age and gender information were correct in the database.

The timing mat at the expo confirmed that my bib timing chip was working and my information was correct in the database.

The timing mat at the expo confirmed that my bib timing chip was working and my information was correct in the database.

Race Day Parking and Buses

The race did a good job communicating the with runners about the location of the parking lots and bus pickups for this point-to-point course. Unfortunately, while the parking map said we could just plug “701 E. Foothill Blvd” in Azusa into our navigation system to get to the full marathon parking, when I did that on my iPhone it directed me to a dead end in a new subdivision of homes! And I know I wasn’t the only one, because there were at least four cars driving around that subdivision at 4:30 a.m. and a lot of runners panicking about making it to the buses before the last one left at 5:00 a.m.! I plugged the address into my car navigation system and that took me to a road that was blocked off for the finisher’s chute! I drove around in a big circle and in a stroke of luck eventually made it to the right entrance. The irony of the whole thing is that I’d written down directions on paper before I left and I had them in the car with me, but I couldn’t see them in the dark and just blindly relied on the iPhone. Never again! I boarded the bus at 5 a.m. (there were still several other buses so I know people were able to board after that time) for the 1-hour bus ride up to the race start in the San Gabriel Mountains. Tip: Make sure to board a bus with a bathroom! It’s a long ride to the start and the race nerves can get the best of you. Plus, it’s nice to use the warm facilities on the bus before you step out into the cold at the top of the mountain.

The Marathon Starting Line

It wasn’t as cold at the top as I’d expected, maybe 45 degrees? The race goodie bag included gloves and a mylar blanket. I brought hand warmers (a brilliant suggestion by Hungry Runner Girl) and those kept me toasty and happy.

It looks colder than it was. Plenty of people were shivering but I think that was more out of nerves than cold. A hat, sweatshirt, sweatpants, gloves and hand warmers kept me plenty warm before the race.

It looks colder than it was. Plenty of people were shivering but I think that was more out of nerves than cold. A hat, sweatshirt, sweatpants, gloves and hand warmers kept me plenty warm before the race.

As you can see it was a gorgeous day for a race. There were plenty of porta-potties and I never waited in line more than five minutes, even as it got close to the race start. I ditched my sweatclothes in my gear bag and had that in the truck by 6:45 for the 7 a.m. start. At the very last minute I tossed my hat and mylar blanket but kept my gloves and hand warmers (tossing those at mile 3). It was so warm I decided not to wear my arm warmers and just went with shorts and a t-shirt.

The course starts at the Crystal Lake Cafe at the top of the 39 in the San Gabriel Mountains National Monument. It’s just a spectacular location for a race.

Out of respect for those in the campground next door to the start (I assume) there was no music at the start and not even a bullhorn for announcements, a national anthem, or starting horn. We started at exactly 7:00 a.m. with a countdown by the race director and the crowd.

The First Half (Average Pace 7:25)

I love running downhill and the speed that comes with it, and the first half of the marathon course is a downhill lover’s delight with over 4,000 feet in elevation drop. While I practiced on the course in training (see my 20-miler REVEL Canyon City course preview for more photos of the course), in retrospect I should have practiced the downhill running at race pace. As it turns out, running those 20 miles at a 9:00 easy pace did not prepare me at all for running the first 13.1 miles at a 7:25 pace! While people warn you that downhill running will trash your quads, I didn’t find that to be true at all. What hurt were my calves! Perhaps my form changed as I ran faster, or perhaps I just wasn’t well-trained enough to hit that pace during the race. I took a calculated gamble on letting my legs fly on the downhill, and I paid for it. Every race is a learning opportunity and now I know what I would do differently for a downhill race: in addition to doing wall sits to strengthen my quads, I would do lots of calf raises, and I would log several downhill miles at race pace. This course could offer a huge PR if you train properly for it.

I wasn’t the only one who got chewed up on the first half and spit out on the second. I bet if you looked at the race results you’d see a lot of positive splits by a huge margin. Many people were walking up the hills around miles 14-16 and 19 and even on the slight downhill in the last 5K of the race.

I should mention here that every single runner in the full marathon cut the course. You’re supposed to stay to the left of the cones (the right lane was open to occasional traffic guided by police cars), but I did not see a single runner adhere to that. I tried but gave up.

Miles 13.1 to 23.1 (Average Pace 9:10 for those 10 miles)

The aid stations in general were well-stocked and manned by enthusiastic volunteers, which is especially important on this course since spectators are not allowed on course until about mile 23. However, the aid station at the half marathon point (which you’d expect to be very well supplied since it was the start for the half marathon race) was lacking. A few volunteers held out cups of water and one cup of sports drink. I reached for the sports drink just as a guy behind me was calling for sports drink. When I took that last available glass, the guy yelled, “F***ER!” That took some of the wind out of my sails for sure, but I shook it off as best I could. I’m hoping karma took care of that guy.

The course hits some rolling hills over the next six miles, nothing too troublesome as long as you run by effort and not by pace. As I said though, several people chose to walk those hills, including me at some points.

The 3:25 pacer passed me at mile 16.4. I wasn’t surprised and didn’t even try to keep up. I did hope to keep ahead of the 3:35 pacer.

Miles 23.1 to the Finish (Average Pace 9:43 for that last 5K)

The 3:35 pacer passed me around mile 23. It was very motivating to me to see him holding up that 3:35 flag and I hung on behind him for dear life. I wanted to come in under 3:36:58 — my PR from the Phoenix Marathon last February — and I thought if I could just keep him in my sights I would be okay. WRONG! The 3:35 pacer completely fell off the rails and started walking in the last 5K. He finished behind me, and I finished in 3:39:08. I sure could have used his help in those last difficult miles. The last mile or two of the course was different than last year’s and I’m sorry to say it wasn’t an improvement. I ran the 25th mile okay but the 26th felt uphill until the last two turns into the finisher’s chute.

Overall I’m happy with my time, especially given that I qualified for Boston 2017 with 15:52 to spare (I’ll be in the 45-49 age group for that race and the women’s standard is 3:55). I really had high hopes for this race though and I wish I had done a few things differently. It just wasn’t the joyous experience I’d had at the 2014 REVEL Canyon City Half last year, or on my 20-mile training run. I can finally admit to myself that if I want to run a BQ effort, it’s going to take a level of mental and physical output that takes everything I have, to the exclusion of a joyous race. Which leads me to the conclusion that I’m going to run Boston 2016 for fun and for the experience! Thank goodness I have that on the horizon. I can enjoy a month of recovery workouts on the bike and in the pool and on the roads, and then training for Boston begins in December.

The Verdict

Would I discourage someone from running the REVEL Canyon City Marathon? Absolutely not! It’s a gorgeous course and a well-run (no pun intended) event. But if you’re going to go for the full, take my advice and strengthen your calves and quads. Practice downhill running like I did, but take it a step further and practice downhill running at race pace. And then go out and get that PR!

Would I encourage someone to run the REVEL Canyon City Half Marathon? Absolutely. It remains my favorite race ever to date. All the fun of the downhill and the views without the punishing of the extreme elevation loss.

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