[Listen to an audio version of this blog here.]
I signed up for the California International Marathon in the summertime, months before the race was set to happen. After running almost exclusively on trails and mountains for years, I felt a certain pull to go back to the road. The last time I ran a road marathon was in 2018, when I ran the Chicago marathon on a charity bib for the American Red Cross.
My training leading up to Chicago was half-hearted at best, and I showed up on the starting line feeling unprepared. There is no worse feeling than to start anything unprepared; a race, a presentation, a relationship, etc. And, starting unprepared is not how I like to do anything. I spent 2017 figuring out if I even wanted to run anymore, or if I could continue running in a healthy way. In 2018, I ran whenever I wanted to, however much I wanted to, and the marathon loomed in my mind as impossibly daunting. It was the longest I’d run up until then, and I made all the rookie mistakes; starting too fast, not eating or drinking enough, not doing enough long runs. I bonked at mile 16 and shuffled my way to the finish line, clocking a 3:35 and feeling terrible doing it.
After 2018, I started running trail races, working my way up to a 50 miler, then a 100k, and eventually a 100 miler. I not only fell back in love with running, but I became incredibly fit in an entirely different way. My body grew stronger from the terrain and I grew stronger mentally. I learned to endure long hours on the mountain, how to fuel correctly, and how to be incredibly patient. At Chicago in 2018 I was not patient, and it bit me right in the ass. So this year, as I considered my race strategy for CIM, I vowed to start conservatively.
The race started at seven, but I was up at four. My friends and I went downtown to catch a shuttle bus to the start line. There were about 9,000 people running CIM and the only way to get to the start line was one of the hundreds of buses provided by the race. The line to board the buses was long, and the ride to the start line felt even longer. I wore a large sweater I’d purchased at Goodwill the previous day, in an effort to keep warm in the misting rain. We arrived at the start line at 6:30 and immediately got in line for the porta potties. I stepped inside one just as the national anthem was starting, and I stepped out as the mc announced three minutes to the start.
I’ve always liked to race from behind, so I can pass people later on instead of being passed. I made my way up to the 3:40 pace group, and started behind them. I didn’t know if I could maintain a sub-8 mile pace, which I would need to get a Boston Qualifying time. But I did know that eight minute pace felt comfortable, and that was my plan; to stay comfortable at least through the first 13 miles.
The race was chip timed, so I crossed the start line about seven minutes after the gun went off. People around me jostled and pushed to get ahead of everyone, and I made my way to the side of the road to avoid being swept up in the crowd. I don’t like running in huge packs of people, and found the general melee of a road marathon a stark contrast to the laid-back atmosphere at the start of an ultra. In an ultra, I can spend the majority of a race alone and away from other people. In a road marathon, there is no such reprieve.
The miles ticked off quickly, and I enjoyed how fast the race seemed to be going by. The first eight miles flew by, and I was averaging well below an eight minute pace. My boyfriend would be at mile 13 and again at mile 20. At mile 13, I felt good, and smiled when I saw him. I ran through the half marathon timing mat in just over and hour and forty minutes. I can probably do that again, I thought. As the middle of the race wore on, I found myself feeling worse. Miles 18-20 were especially bleak, and when I saw my boyfriend again at mile 20, I barely registered that he was there.
The more I run and the more I race, the more I understand the difference between mental and physical fatigue. Sometimes, especially in an ultra, there are times when you just need to stop and refuel or rehydrate; get your stomach and body in check before continuing. In the marathon though, I knew my food and water intake was fine. As mile 20 ticked by, I felt a mental cloud lift and I knew the difficult miles I’d just run were more difficult mentally than physically. My legs were fine, my body was fine, and all I really needed was to reframe how I was feeling. I can run 6 miles, I thought to myself. I run 6 miles all the time. I’ve run 6 miles in far worse condition than I’m in now.
The last six miles were mostly flat, and the proximity of the finish line pulled me in. With two miles to go, a friend I didn’t know was running pulled up next to me and broke me out of my mental stupor. Despite feeling low for a few miles, my pace had remained relatively steady, and my finishing time was 3 hours, 26 minutes and 54 seconds.
I didn’t train as well as I could have for CIM. The longest road run I’d done beforehand was 15 miles. I didn’t do much speedwork, and continued to do long, mountain runs on the weekends. What all my ultrarunning did provide though, was an incredible well of endurance. I’m used to races that take all day, or all day and all night. Enduring was never going to be the issue. If and when I do another road marathon, I will commit to a more structured regimen that includes speedwork and tempo runs as well as some longer road runs.
For now, I’m going to go back to the mountains, where there’s a lot less hype but more room to breathe; more shit to carry, but a far better view.