Surprise! I Ran the California International Marathon Race Report

“Are you training for a marathon?” My husband, Ben, confronted me as I was trying to get out of the house on Saturday morning for a long run. As I stood there wondering what to say, he crowed and laughed, “You are! You are! You are training for a marathon! When were you planning on telling me?”

Drats! My secret was out.

After a disappointing race season last year and much work-related stress, I lost all desire to train for another marathon. Marathons and I were on a long break for 2017. Or so I thought. Things in my life changed for the better. A much-needed reduction in work responsibility lessened stress and gave me more time to devote to the life part of the work-life balance. I hired a running coach. Me, of all people. I once declared that I was uncoachable, but I realized that I had taken myself as far as I could with what I was doing. I needed to change. As months passed, I noticed small incremental improvements in my running. I began flirting with the idea of marathon training again, but I shied away from committing fully to training until I nailed an 18-mile race in late August.

I asked my coach, “Do you think I can BQ?”

“Yes, I absolutely do.”

I clarified, “I’m not interested in a marathon PR. It’s BQ or nothing. If I can’t BQ, then I don’t want to do this.”

“You can do this,” she reaffirmed without any hesitation.

A Boston Qualifying time for a 40-year woman is 3:45, more than 14 minutes faster than my marathon PR that I set two years ago. I haven’t had huge improvements like that in over three years. I knew I could have simply settled on working for a PR, a much more doable and easier goal, and still have what anyone would have called a good racing season, but it wasn’t enough this time. I wanted to go big or go home. It was BQ or nothing.

I quietly started training without saying a word to anyone, not even to my husband. I was secretive about marathon training for a couple of reasons. Two years ago, I wrote how announcing your goals on social media is detrimental to goal accomplishment because the praise you receive for the attempt fulfills your achievement needs. The other reason is that I discovered that I loved being left alone with my training. I went out, did my training runs, and that was the end of it. There was no endless discussion from know-it-alls about how I was doing it all wrong. It was way less stressful for me. For several weeks I successfully trained without arousing much suspicion from Ben. Eventually he figured it out and good-naturedly agreed to keep the secret from our running friends.

I chose the California International Marathon for my BQ attempt because 1) I love downhill point-to-point courses, 2) the December race date meant that long training runs were in the cooler fall and not in the sweltering summer, and 3) I had a friend living in Sacramento who was thrilled to provide me with accommodations and be a race sherpa. My friend was amazing because she chauffered me everywhere and put up with last minute panic attacks that I was in over my head.

I took the pre-race shuttle from downtown Sacramento to the start area in Folsom, which looked like a scene from a post-apocalyptic movie with runners dressed in throwaway clothing wandering aimlessly in an empty intersection. The entire area had been closed off to traffic for CIM. The convenience stores were open, so I bought a small cup of coffee to sip nervously as I waited to start.

While standing in line for the portalets, I found two running friends in the line next to mine. I switched over and we chatted about our goals and expectations. Upon finding out that one had a similar goal time as me, we decided to run together for as long as we could, but that at any point one of us could take off. I really like that because it meant that I had company, but at the same time I was free to run my own race plan and didn’t have to debate with myself about whether I could stick with her if I wasn’t feeling it for any reason. For the first 15 miles or so, she and I ran within a few feet of each other. Sometimes she was a little bit ahead, sometimes I was, sometimes we were right next to each other. I really enjoyed having company, and along with all the great crowd support (just like NYC Marathon, only a lot smaller!), the miles flew by! I felt great and it was hard running 8:25 because I felt so good. I really wanted and was tempted to run an 8:15 pace. Seductive thoughts of blowing my time goal teased me. I was running so easy at 8:25 and honestly, 8:15 didn’t feel like any more work. I COULD DO THIS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Every time that devil tempting thought crept into my head, I firmly shut it down by whispering to myself, “Easy, easy, easy. 8:25. You have a plan. Stick to the plan,” and “Patience, patience. A marathon is a game of patience.” It was really hard running more slowly than I felt like. I forced myself to soak in the atmosphere. I smiled and waved (a little — had to conserve energy for later) at the cheering crowds. In my head, I sang along to the songs being played over loudspeakers. I punched a sign that said, “Punch here for Power.” I gently tapped a little girl’s hand who was eagerly giving out high fives.

Somewhere around mile 15 at a water station, I lost my friend. I was still feeling super good. I thought about Wineglass Marathon in 2015 and Steamtown in 2016 and how I felt in the second half. Although Wineglass went extremely well for me, I started to have mental problems starting at mile 14. Here I was at mile 15, 17, 18, and I was not suffering at all. I celebrated how differently I felt at CIM.

The first 20 miles were amazing and all I could think about was how I was going to do this.

Then at Mile 20.5 I hit The Wall.

No, seriously, they have a faux brick wall with a giant hole in the middle where the course goes through, so runners literally run through a wall. There was a huge cheering crowd, so it was a lot of fun.

It’s now time to fly! If only my legs would let me.

Mile 21, my legs are starting to feel tired, but it’s okay. Nothing I can’t handle.

Mile 22, legs are definitely heavier, as if they were starting to turn into cement. Things are less okay.

Mile 23, things are definitely NOT OKAY. My legs feel like cement blocks. I was slipping down to 9, 9:30 pace every time I glanced at my Garmin. I really wanted to stop. And since I couldn’t stop, I really wanted to slow down. Even running at a slower pace felt like a lot of effort and I couldn’t fathom running at my original intended pace of 8:25. I looked at the overall elapsed time, did some mental math and realized with horror that I could lose it all in the last 3 miles.

If I slowed down significantly I was not going to BQ. I’m starting to think that I wasn’t going to be able to do this. I thought of my race sherpa friend who was volunteering at an aid station at Mile 25. Her shift was going to end before I got there, but she promised to stay and wait for me until I passed through. I told myself, “Less than 2 miles until you see her. Push, push, push! You HAVE TO PUSH!!!” I had to concentrate hard and repeatedly tell myself, “Push, push, push!!!” in order to keep my legs churning. Otherwise, I was going to slow down too much. That easy 8:25 pace during the first 20 miles was now an uphill battle.

Mile 24, push, push, push!!!

Mile 25, I was so relieved at seeing my friend. Her broad smiling face dulled the pain in my legs the way no anesthetic could. She cheered extra loud for me and I gratefully grabbed a cup of water from her hand, which I promptly dumped over my head. I told myself, “There are 10 more minutes of suck left.”

That last mile was hard. I was so tired. My leg muscles were twitching. A blister had formed under my left big toe. I needed the bathroom. I just wanted this to be over. With every fiber of my body, especially my legs, screaming to rest, I pushed on.

I glanced at my Garmin and saw that there was only a half mile left. I told myself to take a moment to enjoy all this because it was going to be over soon. The other part of me said that it wasn’t going to be over soon enough.

I had studied the course map carefully and knew that there was a left turn at 8th Street, and after a few yards, there was another left turn to the finish line. I looked up and saw I was at 15th. I counted down to 10th Street, and then I sprinted for the finish line.

The last final turn, I see the finish line right in front of the gleaming white state capitol and I’m overwhelmed by the thought that I was going to do this. I raised my arms in victory as I cross the finish line.

I BQ’D! I ran CIM in 3:40:36, a time that gets me almost four and a half minutes under the BQ time I needed. I rang the BQ bell with the utmost enthusiasm.

I was interviewed by a news crew and I could hear my voice crack with emotion as I talked about BQ’ing. Until I BQ’d, I didn’t realize just how much it meant to me. I didn’t want to think about it as a coping strategy because I wanted to keep the pressure off me. And now that I had BQ’ed, an avalanche of emotions subsumed me. I was delirious, happy, exhausted, verklempt, and just about everything else.

7 months of coaching + 1,024 miles of training + 26.2 miles of racing = 3:40:36

I had a plan and I executed it.

I'm an academic, a runner, and a New York cliché. I write about the science of exercise, training, and the culture of running. My current goals are a sub-23:00 5K (achieved on 4/22/17 with 22:48) and a sub-1:45 HM (achieved on 10/1/17). Now what?

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  1. Huge congrats! I love your BQ or bust goal – I’ve done the same in the past, knowing it was that big scary goal that I needed on race day to be able to push through that pain and suffering. On my first attempt I didn’t quite make it (but ran a 14 minute PB) and the next time I took off another 6 minutes to nail my goal.

    1. Thank you! Sometimes it takes more than one whack to get your goal. I had a lousy training cycle last year that set up a good base for this year’s cycle.