I am writing this race report from a lovely canopy bed in an “undisclosed location” while savoring homemade molasses cookies and a rich latte. My quads, glutes, calves and toes are complaining about what I put them through on Sunday, but I feel elated. So grateful to be away with my beloved husband, celebrating the culmination of months of effort and pausing to recover and reconnect.
I loved racing the Ventura, CA Mountains to Beach marathon. The first 19 miles and the last half mile were amazing and exhilirating. Miles 20-26 were hard, and worsened by a hard fall that left me scraped up. But part of the human experience is the joy that comes after pushing through pain and difficulty. And I can’t wait to work on these weaknesses in the hope of having a better experience in the fall.
Here is how my experience unfolded.
We arrived in Ventura on the Saturday afternoon before the marathon and found a charming and unassuming town. Pre-race packet pick up at the local high school was an easy and unstressful affair that took about five minutes. We ate dinner at a lovely local bistro, with a pre-race dinner of salad, seared foie gras, homemade mac n cheese and one glass of white wine.
After dinner, we scoped out the finish line and two points along the course where my husband would be able to see me.
We stayed at the Bella Maggiore Inn, which was steps from the shuttle to the starting line and walking distance from the finish line. I sat out my clothes the night before and felt ready enough that I was able to sleep until my alarm went off at 3:15 am.
At 4 am, shuttle buses ferried us from the marathon finish, in Ventura CA, to the start of the race in Ojai. With 1,600 runners, the atmosphere could not be more different than the start of the 50,000 participant NYC marathon that I have run twice in the past. The starting line has no athlete’s village, no assigned starting corrals and no coffee and bagels for the runners. Local volunteers who work the baggage check are pleasant and friendly. Unlike big city marathons, almost all of the runners are experienced marathoners. No runners ready to run-walk the course in skirts and tiaras, or superman capes, and no Kenyan or Ethiopian elite runners. Just a group of serious and club runners hoping to finish in the range of 3:10-4:30. Like me.
I meet Nicole from Sacramento, who tells me she plans to join the 3:33 pacing group and shows me the planned splits. They look very similar to the race plan I had devised for myself, though mine allowed for more fade at the end, so I decide to join it and know that I may lose them in the last couple of miles if I finish at my “A” goal of 3:35. Nicole and I run a 1 mile warm up together, barely survive the portapotty lines and squeeze our way in near the pace group just as the starting horn sounds.
Miles 1-9. The 7:58 first mile feels too fast for Nicole, so she drops back. She finishes in 3:31. Great job, Nicole! Good lesson in running your own race. In the group, our pacer Don, a 3:05 marathoner, does a great job of telling us about the course and entertaining us along the way. He openly enjoys being surrounded by a group of women, mostly 30 somethings who hope to make the 3:35 BQ time. The pace feels soooo easy, but I remember Cinnamon’s caution to respect the distance, and stay with the pacer. We finish this section of the course at an 8:10 average pace.
Miles 10-17. We hit the downhill section of the course and pick up the pace. The scenery is gorgeous and our pacing group has developed good camaraderie. I meet sisters and badass marathoners Angela and Aubrey. Aubrey drove in from Utah to surprise Angela for her birthday and pace her through the marathon. Angela is a mom with three kids who has completed 25 marathons! We talk about the stories of the suspected Boston cheater who made our Friday five discussion a few weeks ago. Angela and Aubrey stop several times to get bananas and applesauce from Angela’s husband, who is playing pit crew, make pit stops for the bathroom, and still manage to catch back up with our pace group. Amazing. I cross mile 13.1 at 1:46, well on track to finish in under 3:35, and feeling great. Around mile 16, I have to slow to get water, and am able to surge in the 6:30’s to rejoin the pacing group, but start to worry about bonking if I have to surge again. We finish this section with an average pace of 8:05.
Mile 17-19. We make it through the downhill part of the course onto the flats. Fueling is going as planned and my body accepts my third gel at mile 18. I start to feel confident. At the water stop near mile 19, however, everything changes when I slow for water again, and feel that I can’t surge again to rejoin the group. A few minutes later, my music cuts out. Bummer. At least I had practiced running without music during the prior three weeks, just in case. I am holding on with an 8:06 average pace.
Mile 21. We enter Ventura. It feels hard but I know in one more mile we will be along the beach and my husband will be watching for me. My pace has just faded to around 8:30, but to this point I have held my average pace to 8:06. and know I am on track to finish within my “A” goal of 3:35 (8:12 avg pace) even if I am unable to pick the pace back up until the last mile.
Just after leaving the water station, I trip and fall, scraping my hands, hips and shins. Two fellow marathoners stop and help me, offer to take me back to the water station and run slowly with me for 60-90 seconds to make sure I am okay. Thank you, ladies! At this point, my body confidence has been seriously rattled and cannot muster anything faster than 8:54 pace.
Mile 23. I walk the water stop. Our pacer Don had told us repeatedly that there is no shame in walking a water stop if you are hurting, and can even “reset” your body to do better. I try it, and my body recovers to a 7:45 pace for about two minutes, then stubbornly resumes its 8:54 pace. At this point, I know a 3:35 finish is beyond me and decide not to make myself hurt to better my finishing time by 60 to 90 seconds.
Mile 24. I am near the beach and can see people a couple miles ahead of me in the “back” part of the zig zag that leads to the finish line. I am convincing myself to keep going for the number of minutes that I have left to run and knowing that my husband is waiting for me at the finish line. I get a boost by seeing and hearing my husband cheer me on.
Mile 25. I walk through another water stop. Slowly. Ugh. Resume running at 8:54 pace. See a woman jump into the course and wonder whether she is pacing someone to the finish or cheating by cutting two miles out of the course. I’ll never know.
Mile 25.5. Five more minutes of running. I tell myself I can do this, and I can finish strong. I pick up the pace, and soon see a wide expanse of ocean with the finish line ahead. Woo hoo!! I start to run hard, and am elated when I see my husband cheering me on to the finish.
The last three minutes of the race are an amazing experience. I sprint to the end, feeling elated, in 3:38:03, a 5 minute personal best and 7 minute Boston Qualifier. Close enough to my 3:35 “A” goal to call it an A-. See awesome Angela and Aubrey again, who finished in 3:33, and introduce them to my husband. Hope to get the chance to see them again.
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Things I did well:
1) Solid training season. More than five months of consistent training with high aerobic mileage and three 20 mile runs gave me the foundation I needed for this race. The training enabled me to enjoy the first 20 miles of the race.
2) I was well prepared. I remembered to run with sun glasses, a lesson learned from my last marathon, and trained for the contingency of not being able to run with music, and so was not too devastated when it cut out late in the race.
Areas for improvement and lessons learned:
1) I need to do some fartlek workouts. My inexperience with and fear of surging lead to me losing my pace group earlier than I otherwise would have, and my race was a down hill spiral from there.
2) I need to do longer long runs to improve my body confidence. I did three 20 mile runs this past season, and felt confident on the course through 20 miles. After 20 miles on this race, I abruptly lost that confidence. I think I would benefit from a couple of longer long runs at slower paces so that my brain knows what the distance feels like and does not unduly slow me down.
3) My carboloading was slightly inadequate and I think I paid for it at the end. Last marathon, I followed a multi day carboloading protocol (mostly with juice, bagels and quinoa) that I didn’t enjoy, but had little fade and finished with a second half that was only three minutes slower than my first half. This time, my stomach was too unsettled from plane travel to carboload nearly as much, and I think I paid for it.
4) I will need a lot of experience to master the marathon. There are so many variables to control for an unexpected situations that can arise that experienced marathoners (like Aubrey and Angela!) can more easily adapt to. That’s great, because I hope the marathon will keep me engaged and interested for a long time to come.
5) I did not push 60-90 seconds out of myself that I think I could have, in part because I was off my “A” goal and had plenty of room to make my “B” goal. Should I have made a more aggressive “B” goal, and should I have pushed myself harder? I am recovering better because I was more kind to my body, and will more quickly be able to get back into aerobic base building that ultimately will enable me to get faster. But I still don’t know whether I set a bad precedent by being too easy on myself on race day.
6) I like destination marathons. For me, the experience was a great way to enjoy a change of scenery, meet new people who share my passion for running and, most importantly, get away and celebrate the end of a long training season.
I can’t wait to work on my new lessons. But first, I have some serious lounging, eating and drinking to do.