*Originally posted on Runners World forum in June 2012, before I had a blog.
Short version: I ran the Ojai 3 Ocean Marathon on 3 Jun 12 and set a 44-minute PR, lowering it from 5:01 to 4:17; additionally, a few months prior, my PR had been 5:12 for over 3 years.
On the 5+ hour drive home yesterday, I tried to figure out where to begin telling my marathon story. If you’re in a hurry, don’t bother reading any further; the title tells the summary.
I chose to start telling this story from the beginning. Logical, right? I ran my first marathon in November 2008 and expected to check it off my bucket list and be done, but I wanted to do more, in spite of my previous absolute hatred of running. Between then and October of 2012, I ran a total of 3 marathons, 8 ultramarathons (mostly in the 30-35 mile range plus 50 miles in 12 hours and 66 miles in 24 hours), and a bunch of shorter distance races. I was a slow runner and I just accepted that as a fact. To give some reference, my marathon PR for that period of time was 5:12:33, which I’d run on my first marathon. I was content to do the longer distance races and be happy just finishing them.
However, in October last year, through a chain of small random events, I came to the realization that I wanted to explore how much potential I actually possessed. One of the tipping points was coming across this quote: “No one has the right to be an amateur in the matter of physical training. It is a shame for one to grow old without seeing the beauty and strength of which their body is capable.” (Socrates)
Around that same time, I re-discovered the blog of an ultrarunner I really respected (Ian Sharman—www.sharmanian.com) and discovered he was offering coaching services. I’ll avoid all of the details, as I’ve explained them in previous race reports, but the bottom line is that after thinking about it, I realized it would be foolish to pass up an opportunity to be coached by someone who was an elite in the sport I wanted to get better at. He lives in a different state, but in the words of my dad, “Considering you’ve made a long distance marriage last, I don’t think being coached from a long distance will be that big of an obstacle.” True!
Instead of entering as many races as possible, I chose just two goal races for 2012: a 50-miler in June and a 24-hour race in September. I planned to do a few more races, but just as supported long training runs. Each week, Ian and I would Skype and then he would give me my plan for the following week. He’d tell me which runs to do at what effort levels and the projected weekly mileage; the weekly mileage was always greater than the sum of the runs added together, meaning I did quite a bit of walking in addition to the running. I was surprised how much mileage I was able to put in and how easy my runs felt.
I did two marathons as training runs for the 50-miler. Both were at higher elevations (3,500-4,800 feet elevation) compared to the 2,200 feet where I live and quite hilly. In the most difficult one, I finished in 5:17, only 4 minutes off of my marathon PR. The other, more recent one, wasn’t as difficult, but definitely not easy, and I ran it in 5:01, which was a new PR.
Having Ian as a coach has really helped from an accountability standpoint and also allowed me to just focus on running. Sometimes I think that putting together the pieces of my training plan for specific goals and accommodating all of the little things that come up in the course of a person’s life is the hard part. All I have to do is run! 😉
I completed my 50-miler in April in a time of 11:21:05, good enough for 3rd place female. Ian recommended I find a marathon about 4-6 weeks after the 50-miler to take advantage of the fitness I had built up training for the 50-miler. I found one called the Ojai 2 Ocean Marathon in southern California 6 weeks after the 50-miler, about 5 hours from where I lived. The course had a net elevation loss, it was low elevation (800 feet at its highest point) and lost elevation over the course, and the weather was supposed to be cool.
I took an easy week after the 50-miler before bumping my mileage back up. The longest run I did between the 50-miler and marathon was an 18-miler 2 weeks before the race, and my total mileage covered (including walking) between the races was 292 miles. Even in the heat of Las Vegas, I was surprised how well my running was going. True, the heat here is dry, but when it close to 100 when you’re running, it’s still hot. 😉 I felt really good about this race, but it almost seemed too good to be true. I was waiting for something crazy to get in the way. I also became extremely paranoid of getting sick the few days prior, which is common for me before a big race.
I had no doubts that I’d be able to run this marathon in under 5 hours, but I was really torn on what to aim for. 5 hours had been a HUGE (mental) barrier for me since before I ran my first marathon and all I’d ever wanted to do was to run 4:xx. Ian mentioned a few weeks prior that based on the time on my 50-miler and the conditions there, plus the paces of my training runs, that I could probably get around 4:30. 4:30, WHAT?! That just sounded ridiculous to me. My half marathon, after all, was 2:19, which was only half the distance, which meant a 4:30 would include besting my half marathon PR and running twice the distance.
I experienced a big difference between what I thought I could do and how well my training has gone. As someone who has only ever seen herself as slow, with the attitude of “at least I’m running,” it was difficult to admit, even to myself, that I may actually be improving. There were quite a few times in my training over the last several months when Ian has asked me to do things I was sure I wasn’t able to do, with regard to distance a little bit but especially with regard to pace. However, based on his knowledge and experiences, and the fact I’ve been very open to him about everything running-related, I trusted his judgment about my abilities more than my own. As a result, I’ve been shocked multiple times about runs I’ve done. However, going anywhere near 4:30 in a marathon seemed quite inconceivable to me.
When I asked Ian about a pacing strategy for this particular pace, he mentioned starting out around 10:30 minutes/mile and seeing how that felt. That pace would get me in the vicinity of a 4:30. I’d done a lot of my long runs in the 10:30-11:00 minute/mile pace and that had felt okay, so I figured it wouldn’t hurt to try it out. He had cautioned me, though, about going out too quickly and told me that’d be the only way I wouldn’t get below 5 hours.
Anyway, Saturday morning, I drove 4.5 hours to California to have lunch with a friend, and then I drove an extra hour to Ventura to check into my hotel, pick up my packet, see where I’d need to go in the morning to catch the shuttle, and grab some pizza for dinner. Still, things seemed to be going really well and falling into place. I got 6.5 hours of sleep and was excited when my alarm went off at 4am, which is very rare for me, even on race days.
I ate a banana, did a little stretching, then drove 10 minutes to the shuttle place. I was there 20 minutes before the shuttle, but traffic was crazy, yet I really wasn’t concerned. Everyone in line was there to catch the shuttle, and there were a LOT of people behind me, so I figured they couldn’t leave us ALL behind. 😉 I boarded the shuttle and took the 25ish-minute ride to the start line. I saw a digital sign saying the current temperature was 58 degrees, which felt awesome. The race was pretty small (1,000 people registered for the full marathon).
The course’s elevation profile can be roughly summarized as starting at a little over 700 feet, downhill about 2.5 miles to about 550 feet, uphill about 2.5 miles to about 800 feet, gradual downhill for 15 miles to about 30 feet, then very minor elevation fluctuations the last 6.2 miles with a finish at a little under 10 feet right by the ocean (luckily not on sand). The first 6 miles were a loop and then it was point-to-point to the finish. I’d printed out the course-specific splits I’d need for a 4:35 finish, and my iPod playlist was about 4:45 long.
The first few miles were uneventful and felt easy. Pretty much the whole course for the first 20 miles was on a paved path through an area that had lots of trees; I was overwhelmed with how green it looked, compared to the dirt I’m used to living in Las Vegas. Miles 4 and 5 had some decent uphill, relative to the rest of the course, so I took it easy and didn’t really focus on keeping a particular pace, but even by that point, the printed out pace chart was irrelevant because I was easily hitting paces that were quicker than it predicted.
Next came the long mostly gradual downhill section. Since I was feeling great, I decided to speed up a little bit and not focus so much on my actual pace. Just a few miles into the race, I passed the 4:40 pace leader who seemed really slow to me for some reason. I hoped this would not come back to bite me later. In the past, I’ve become a slave to my Garmin and my own mental limitations and have slowed down unnecessarily; when I’ve seen certain paces on my Garmin, I’ve slowed, not because I physically feel like I should, but mentally I’ve thought, “YOU don’t run that fast and can’t sustain THAT pace.”
A little over 6 miles into the race, I was looking at my elapsed time and wondered if I could get to 6.55 miles (25% point) in 1:07:30, which would indicate a 4:30 finish if I could sustain it. This sounded funny to me, but I like to play little math games with myself while I run, so this kept me occupied for about a half mile. I got to that point just under that time and was pleased; I figured that I could at least say I’d been on pace for a 4:30 marathon for a quarter of the time. With a previous half marathon PR of 2:19, I thought it’d be cool to unofficially break that too. In the back of my mind, as I was ticking off miles pretty easily, all under a 10 minute/mile pace, I was hoping I wasn’t going out too fast and that I wouldn’t burn out in the end.
Water stops were every 2 miles or so, and I also had a 20-ounce handheld. I drank predominantly from my water bottle since that’d what I’m used to doing and I can easily do it while running. I got water from maybe 8 or so of the aid stations. My routine was to grab a cup and take a mouthful while I walked just a few steps before tossing the cup as I began to run again; each one of these “stops” took about 5 seconds, and these marked the ONLY times I walked during the whole race. It was encouraging to me that I could run so easily and walking was inconvenient and not really a welcome break to me.
As the race went on, I was passing a lot of people. This was exciting, but I was still afraid I was running too quickly to sustain. I also intentionally sped up before that halfway point because I wanted to unofficially beat my previous half marathon PR by as much as I could realistically. When I got to the halfway point, based on my Garmin distance (which was within .02 of all of the official mile markers), I was at 2:10:19, which was just over 9 minutes faster than I’d ever run 13.11 miles in a race. I smiled at this unofficial PR, but I was pretty sure I’d made a bad decision to do that so early in the race.
Even with the uphill section in the first half, the majority of the elevation loss occurred in it too, meaning the last half would be more difficult. Soon after, I noticed a group of people running up ahead and as I approached, I realized it was one of the pace groups. I ran with them for a few minutes, but they seemed too slow, so I ran past them. They were the 4:25 pace group. I was quite sure they’d catch back up to me and I decided that when (not if) that happened that I would try to stay with them as long as I could.
Based on my time at the halfway point, I started thinking about a 4:20 finish time. Honestly, this was more about just keeping my mind occupied than actually thinking that could happen. I knew I’d definitely need to stay under a 10 minute/mile pace and actually get a little quicker since 10-minute miles would mean I’d get to 26 miles in 4:20; I needed to allot for the .2 at the end, and maybe a little extra since I didn’t know how my Garmin distance would compare to the actual distance of the course.
During this time, I was thinking back to Ian saying that it’s very difficult to run negative splits as most runners fall off toward the end, in especially the last 6 miles. But at the same time, an encouraging quote came to my mind from a movie that I’ve only seen the previews for: In Soul Surfer, when the young girl who is re-learning how to surf after she lost one of her arms to a shark, she said, “I don’t need easy, I just need possible.” I became committed to doing whatever I could to stay on pace, even though I was running mostly by feel and just using my Garmin to confirm I was generally where I should be: somewhere in the 9:xx-minute/mile range. I didn’t need or necessarily want the event to be easy; I just wanted it to be possible to be do run a good race and I was up for that challenge.
I was continuing to pass people. I really don’t have memories of people passing me, which made me really feel like I was doing something foolish. My paces stayed where they should be. Mile 18 was crazy to me because I ran it in less than 3 hours; I remembered when my average pace for most runs used to put me at barely 15 miles for the same time. Mile 19 was exciting to me because it was the mile where I realized that an average of 10-minute miles (not sub-10s) would get me to 4:20 (my time was 3:07:53, meaning I had the 2-minute leeway I’d been trying to build plus 7 seconds, assuming the course didn’t measure long according to my Garmin).
The race really didn’t have crowd support to speak of, except right at the finish line. There were a handful of people, though, who went from point to point on the course to cheer for people. I was amused that the same people somehow managed to be along the course in about 6 or 7 places. One of the things that made me smile the most were these two young girls, maybe 15 or 16, who seemed to be everywhere, and they were yelling and cheering the entire time. One of them was holding a sign that said “FINISHING IS THE ONLY F^%$ING OPTION.” Not that I ever thought I wouldn’t finish this race or that it was an incredibly original sign, but it made me smile every time I saw it.
Around the 18-20 mile range, I felt a little fatigued, but I wouldn’t really say I hit the wall. It just took an increased amount of effort to keep the pace I’d been running. I’ve run through that tricky phase many times before, and while I noticed it (sometimes I don’t), my attitude was something to the effect of, “Seriously? I don’t have time for this. Go away and let me run the race I’m meant to run.”
Around mile 20, the course exits the more secluded very green area and gets into a more city-type area with neighborhoods and the beach. The elevation here was mostly flat (not completely flat, but barely noticeably uphill or downhill). It wasn’t very scenic, compared to all of the greenery, but it was encouraging that I knew I only had roughly an hour left if all went perfectly.
I don’t remember the exact point, but somewhere between 20 and 21 miles or so, I did something which I don’t advocate or will sit here and say was safe, but… As I was running, relatively happy and surprisingly on the pace I wanted, I looked ahead to see one of the most terrifying things I’ve seen during a race: the railroad lights were flashing and simultaneously, I heard the warning bells of an approaching train. Seriously, this could not be happening. On worse days, I may have slowed down and used the legitimate justification for falling off of my goal time for a train cutting through the course, but not that day.
I wasn’t interested in a break, and I really didn’t want to know what the train wait would do to my time. I sped up, got to the crossing arms that were already down, looked around at the few other people who were there assessing the situation, hesitated for a second, and then at the urging of volunteers there yelling that we could make it, I went around the crossing arm and jumped the tracks. Just so it doesn’t sound like I was totally reckless, I did see the train in the distance, but I judged I had enough time. I wasn’t the only one who crossed, but I was the last one. That actually gave me a boost of adrenaline, and I chuckled about what had just happened as I ran on.
Not long after the train incident, between miles 21 and 22, I heard my name and looked to the left to see my dad sitting on the curb with his camera taking photos. My dad lives about an hour and a half from the race location and woke up at 4am to drive there and see me. I hadn’t seen my dad since February, and he’s had lots of health issues lately, including only being able to walk very short distances, so it was nice to see him and it meant a lot to me that he’d chosen to come to the race. The only other race he’s attended was my very first marathon in 2008. I was excited to see him and waved.
The next few miles were rather uneventful. There were a couple little out-and-back sections in a neighborhood which I didn’t really care for. My mind started acting up again. Part of me really wanted to get 4:20 if that’s what I was capable of doing. But there was also a little voice in my mind telling me that if I slowed down or even walked a little bit that I’d still get a huge PR and it’d be very easy to justify. I mean, most people slow down at the end, right? Even Ian mentioned how difficult the last 6 miles can be. But I also remembered Ian talking about not going out so fast at the beginning that I blew up at the end and that I should aim to maintain a consistent pace. Then the quote about only needing “possible, not easy” came to mind. My mind was overflowing with different things and while I tried to sort it all out, I just kept running.
There was a water station in the 24th mile, and I took an extra sip of water and also took a couple deep breaths during my walk break (which meant this stop was my longest one and probably 20 seconds, but it made a huge difference. That was my slowest mile in the second half (barely), but it was worth it because I was able to clear my mind and just run.
The last mile or so was on a paved area near the ocean, which was a bit annoying. There were lots of beachgoers walking on the race course which was also their walking path, and a lot of them seemed to not realize there was a race even going on, so there was more people dodging than I would have preferred. However, I picked up a bit of speed anyway because I didn’t want to finish any slower than necessary.
Running at that pace, compared to the paces I’ve held in previous marathons, it was incredible to look to the right and see people running back where I’d just come from and know I was a couple miles ahead of them. I wasn’t necessarily amazed that there were people behind me but that the people I saw who were somehow behind me looked fit and pretty fast; they were not the people who look like walking death, who are typically the people who do finish behind me. I was in awe that I was somehow running faster than they were. I don’t mean that to sound at all condescending, but it was evidence to me that I have changed as a runner.
It was incredible to pass a few people at the very end and then see the clock read 4:1x:xx. I mean, I knew I’d broken 4:20, but to actually SEE the clock was awesome. My official time was 4:17:41, which was exactly a 44-MINUTE PR.
Also, while it’s not official since there wasn’t a timing mat at the halfway point, after running the first half (according to my Garmin) 9 minutes faster than I’d ever run 13.11 miles before in a race, I ran the second half 3 minutes faster than the first half (12 minutes faster than my half marathon PR). Also related to this is that not only did I run the marathon faster than my average pace in my half marathon PR, but I ran every single marathon mile split faster than my half marathon PR pace per mile. That’s just ridiculous for me to think about, and it really makes me want to run a half marathon soon! Unfortunately, I live in Las Vegas and any half marathon I’d do near here in the next couple months would not be PR conditions, particularly the weather. All in good time, right? That’s what I keep trying to convince myself of, haha.
I re-fell in love with marathons during this race. I was comfortable with the distance, but don’t confuse that with being comfortable the entire time because it did take effort, especially toward the end, to not let my pace slow. Even in the weeks leading up to the race, I was really enjoying the runs I was doing, which is not always the case when I’m training for something. I look forward to doing more races, including marathons in the future, but I think that breaking this PR will be a challenge. This was an easy course and perfect running conditions, in my opinion.
Here are my mile splits, in order: 10:23, 10:16, 10:17, 10:37, 10:22, 9:48, 9:53, 9:50, 9:54, 9:35, 9:21, 9:20, 9:45, 9:54, 9:49, 9:44, 9:47, 9:34, 9:45, 9:57, 9:48, 9:28, 9:53, 10:07, 9:51, 9:25, and 1:22 for the past .2.
As for what’s next for me, well, my next goal race is North Coast 24 in September. I’ll do a couple races in the meantime just as training runs. And now Ian’s talking about how he thinks I’m capable of training for and running a sub-4-hour marathon. Oh my…
I know I haven’t fully exercised my full potential yet, but I’ve already improved more than I ever thought possible. It’s amazing what some commitment, guidance, and lots of miles can do for a person’s racing times! 😉 Oh, plus I eat healthier than I had been eating, not that I was eating terrible, but I have been eating lots more fruits and veggies and less animal products the last couple months. I’ve had a lot more energy, lost a little bit of weight, and overall, I just feel great.
My hope would be that someone would read about the progress I’ve made and realize that they’re capable of far more than they think they are. People have different reasons for running, not just to be competitive (against others or themselves), but if you think you can’t improve, you’re wrong. It’s not easy, but it can be done. I’m proof of that. Yes, having a coach has helped me, but it was still up to me to put in all of the training. 😉
My dad took these photos when I ran past him between miles 21 and 22:
I normally don’t care for the official photos that are taken at races, but I found three from this race that were actually pretty good!
A few miles in:
Between miles 12 and 13:
Finish photo (floating!). Not smiling as much as I normally do, but I definitely think I felt better than the lady next to me. 😉
Here’s a photo of the shirt and medal: