Scroll all the way down to the end of the post for the tl;dr version.
I’d been chasing sub-3:20 in the marathon since training for the 2012 New York City Marathon. The race was cancelled that year, but I’ve set that time as my goal for every marathon training cycle since then. However, I was trying to run that time on some pretty tough courses or in less than ideal conditions. Last year, I thought maybe I should try to achieve that time on an easier course. After doing some research, I decided to run the California International Marathon (CIM) as my goal race for the fall. It’s a net downhill and known as a good race for elite runners to achieve the Olympic Qualifying Standard or for recreational runners to qualify for the Boston Marathon.
For my past marathons, I’ve followed the training plan in Pfitzinger’s Advanced Marathoning. But this time, thinking of the expression, “Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results,” I decided to try a plan by Hansons Coaching Services. I chose the 20 week marathon plan with mileage in the 65-80 miles/week. Put very simply, after the initial mileage build up, the plan featured three workouts a week – a long run, an interval workout, and a tempo run at goal marathon pace. The taper was two weeks and while it had a mileage reduction, it still maintained two hard workouts a week. I wanted to fairly evaluate the plan so I followed it pretty precisely except: 1) I ran the 2015 New York City Marathon a month out from my goal race, and 2) I ran the Alexandria Turkey Trot 5 Miler about 8 days out from CIM. Those are pretty major deviations, though.
During my training, I used 3:20 (7:38 pace) as my goal marathon pace. That goal wasn’t based on any recent race results – it’s just been a goal of mine for a few years now. I struggled training at that pace and about a month out started to admit that it might not happen. With about a month to go, I decided to stop punishing myself and find what my actual marathon pace probably was. After reviewing my training, I came up with the following:
- Achievable Goal: 3:29 (7:59 pace). I feel like I’m roughly in the same shape that I was in for 2015 Boston Marathon. This time is also just a little faster than race equivalents for the races I did this summer – the 2015 Parks Half Marathon and 2015 Crystal City Twilighter 5K. It’s also roughly the pace I ended up with when I didn’t push myself too hard during my goal marathon pace workouts on October 28th. and November 15th.
- Stretch Goal: 3:23 (7:45 pace). If I’m more optimistic about how my training went, I think I might be slightly faster than 3:25 shape. And, with CIM’s net elevation loss, maybe I can subtract 2 minutes from that and eek out a PR (sub-3:22:56 or 7:45 pace).
- Dream Goal: Sub 3:20 (7:38 pace). This is the pace I trained for this summer. Maybe, just maybe, everything will align and I’ll surprise myself and actually run it. And, it’s not so unrealistic. I ran the Alexandria Turkey Trot in a time that equates to a 3:18:32 (7:35 pace) marathon according to the McMillan running calculator.
The course is a point-to-point. It starts in Folsom, California and ends in Sacramento. It’s nicknamed “The Fastest Course in the West”. According to the graph provided by the race, the course is a net downhill going from 366′ to 26′.
However, online comments described the course as rolling.
I compiled 3 hours and 24 minutes of music for CIM. It was mostly favorites but I also included some California themed songs.
I woke up at 4am and did the scheduled 5 easy mile workout. My legs felt pretty heavy but I told myself that that’s normal during the taper. I was very nostalgic during the run – thinking about the most memorable moments of this training cycle. It started very rough as I tried to hit 7:38 pace in my goal marathon pace workouts (Week 5). Eventually, I did and was so proud of myself (Week 9). But, those mid-week tempo workouts were a grind. I finally admitted to myself that sub-3:20 probably wasn’t in the cards. (Week 13). I felt at peace with that. I just wanted to run my best on Sunday.
I finished my last easy run with a half hour before my friend was picking me up, so breakfast was quick. I flew out of National Airport. I had the window seat on the right side of the plane and got an aerial view of East Potomac Park/Hains Point. I couldn’t help but think of all the goal marathon pace runs I ran there and hope that they pay off in a couple of days. On the flight, I watched Spirit of the Marathon II. It was good but I found the first film more educational and inspirational, but there was one story line that brought tears to my eyes.
I arrived in San Francisco, rented a car, and drove to Sacramento. If I wasn’t turning this trip out west into a vacation, I would definitely have flown into Sacramento.
I arrived at my hotel, the Hyatt Regency Sacramento, and checked-in. The hotel gave every runner a goodie bag with water, a banana, some Nuun products, and ear plugs. It was a nice gesture. I hoped I wouldn’t need the earplugs. After talking to the desk attendant, I thought my plan of heading to San Francisco immediately after the race might be foiled since the race ends along L Street, which is also where the garage exits.
I wanted to do all my sightseeing on Friday so I could rest my legs on Saturday. They felt swollen after the flight and long drive. The biggest attraction seemed to be Old Sacramento, which was about a mile walk from my hotel.
I finally had dinner at the hotel bar. I met a very friendly woman who has run CIM a few times. Back in my room, I sipped some Nuun in hopes it would help with the swelling, did a little foam rolling and then went to bed. My legs started to feel a little better.
The next day, I got up early – about 4am. The race was organizing a shake out run for runners and with some of the elites at 8:30am. I decided to join in. My schedule only had me running 20 minutes – the shortest shake out run I’ve ever done. We did laps around the Capitol and each lap was about a mile. I ran with two gentlemen – one from Chicago and one from Florida. It was nice to meet other runners and it took my mind off of the race for a while. I ate breakfast after and then retired to my room to rest.
At 12:30pm, it was finally time to hit the expo at the convention center. It was very well organized. I picked up my bib and t-shirt in no time. The race merchandise booth was a little chaotic but I managed to buy a couple of items. I was impressed by the number of vendors. There weren’t as many as Boston or New York but there was a nice variety of exhibitors – gear, clothes, other races.
At 1pm, I sat down and listened to a panel discussion, “How to Run CIM”. The panel was composed of a pacer, a sports medicine doctor, the race director, the timing company representative, and a coach from the Sacramento Runners Association. In addition to specific information about the race, the panelists also gave general running tips. The one that stuck with me was taking it easy during the first 5 miles. I knew I needed to start slow but I didn’t really have an idea for how long I should wait to push the pace. The other thing I learned was that, in order to help people get some time under their Boston Qualifying time, one of the two pacers with each pace group would speed up at the half marathon point to get people 2:30 under their goal time. I did some quick math and thought perhaps I should run with the 2:25 pace group and then go with the faster group at the half. I met the pacer and talked with him a little but wasn’t convinced I wanted to go that route.
I returned to the hotel for lunch and then back to my room to lay out my clothes. Hours passed by and I wasn’t getting hungry. I went back and forth about attending the pasta dinner or at least finding something light to eat. But, I was so full for lunch, Nuun, and water. I decided not to eat dinner. I’ve done this before without disastrous results but I hoped I wasn’t making a big mistake.
I was in bed by 7:45pm.
I woke up at 3:45am. I tossed and turned a little overnight but guessed I got about 6-7 hours of sleep. Pretty fantastic! I checked the hourly forecasts in both Folsom and Sacramento one last time. It looked like showers starting by 7am in Folsom, temperatures in the mid-40s, and winds out of the southeast at 9 mph. And in Sacramento, the rain would be light after noon with winds 6 mph out of the southeast. I forgot to do some pre-race things before the New York City Marathon a month ago. This time, I followed my checklist to a tee – including taking an Imodium.
I left the hotel on time – 4:45am. We stood in line for a while. I don’t think we boarded the school bus until about 5:30am. I couldn’t help contracting it with Boston and New York where the lines move continuously. I shared a seat with a woman from Colorado who was running her first marathon in 10 years. We chatted all the way to Folsom about all sorts of running topics. (I checked the results after the race and she finished.)
We got to the race start in Folsom at about 6/6:15am. The race start was 7am, so I thought the timing was perfect. A nice thing about CIM is that you don’t have to get off the bus at the start area. Since rain was in the forecast, a lot of runners were taking that option. But, it wasn’t raining now, so I got off the bus and went straight to the port-a-potties. At the expo, the race director said CIM has more port-a-potties per runner than the industry standard so I couldn’t wait to see just what that looked like. Sure enough, the lines were only one to maybe three people deep when I got to them.
I found a piece of sidewalk to sit down and get myself race-ready. With about 30 minutes until the start, I used the bathroom again. By then the line was much deeper and I started to get a tad anxious about getting to the start on time. With 15 minutes to race time, I went to check my bag. As I took my sweatpants off, I noticed my legs felt great! Somehow, I lost a safety pin on my bib, though.
I lined up at the start. I did some leg swings and as I was wishing good luck to one of the elites, the skies opened up. and it poured. We laughed about it. (I checked the results after the race and she missed the B standard by less than a minute.) The rain ended quickly, though. I found a spot between the 3:20 and 3:25 pace groups. I started my Pink Lemonade Honey Stringers. A woman started singing the National Anthem and a few lines in, the crowd joined in and sung along with her. It was pretty moving. The announcer did a countdown… 3-2-1 and we’re off!
Temperature (Sacramento): 51 at 6:50am, 51 at 7:50am, 53 at 8:50am, 55 at 9:50am, 57 at 10:50am. Winds were 5-10 mph out of the south, northeast, and then southeast. Trace precipitation at the start. Pretty ideal despite the forecast from the past few days. If anything, a little warmer than some marathoners would want but certainly not hot.
Early Miles, Part I – Miles 1 to 6 (Folsom to Citrus Heights)
I felt good at the start but focused on holding back. I checked my Garmin and was surprised to see 7:45 pace felt so easy. The first mile of the course is straight and downhill. Toward the end of that mile, the course turns right onto Oak Ave and uphill for a short stretch. Ah, here are the hills that I read about online. The course follows this street for the next 5 miles.
As far as the field, there was a fair amount of space on the road so there wasn’t very much jockeying back and forth. I tried to block it out but I seemed to be going back and forth with a woman in an orange singlet. No matter where I ran it seemed like she was there. I remembered the guy at the expo said to take the first 5 miles easy. I thought, Maybe he meant that the hills are over by mile 5. The hills were mostly small – the grade of a highway overpass. I didn’t think they were terrible and thought if these are the “hills”, I’ll be fine.
I stopped at all but the first water stop for water. A few miles in, I got a bit of tightness in my left side – not quite a stitch but a stitch in the making. At mile 5, I finished my Honey Stingers. I crossed the road at the water stop to toss the wrapper but just as I crossed, the woman with the trash bag went to the other side of the road. All that wasted energy thinking of the environment! I tucked the wrapper into my arm sleeve.
The course turned left onto Fair Oaks Boulevard. At that point, we reached the first exchange for the relay. It went very smoothly and didn’t disrupt the marathoners at all. A little down the road, we hit a little downhill, a good sign comes on my iPod (Suburbia by the Pet Shot Boys.) I let my legs run a little and lose the pack I had been running near. Still, I was telling myself, The race starts at the half.
Splits (course markers): 7:51 (late hitting lap button), 7:50, 7:46, 7:27, 7:43, 7:38.
Early Miles, Part II – Miles 6 to 12 (Citrus Heights to Fair Oaks)
I’d decided to wait until 6 miles before starting the second pack of Honey Stingers. My side stitch was gone and eating became tolerable again. The miles have been flying by. It seemed like they were coming up much sooner than I expect them.
I ended up running next to a pair of runners – a guy in a shirt that had “Sole Soul” (or was it, “Soul Sole”?) on the back and a woman in a black spaghetti strapped tank and pink shoes. They seemed to be going the pace I want to run at so I followed them for a while.
The course followed Fair Oaks Boulevard south for four miles. I thought the hills would be over by now but the course continued to roll. We reached Old Town Fair Oaks. I remembered this section from the course video that I found online. It was one of the few turns on the course and I could see the downhill slope. I saw Sole Soul and Pink Shoes stop at the water stop so I though I might have lost them.
There’s a huge downhill a mile 10 and I zoomed down it. Again, a good song came on my iPod (All the Right Moves by One Republic). I mused, I guess we’re getting all the downhill in mile 10. I consulted my pace band at mile 10. I was about a minute off sub-3:20 pace, which I thought was good. I was happy knowing I’m still on PR pace, though. What’s 60 divided by 16 miles? I guessed it was about 4 seconds a mile that I have to make up. I sped up.
Now, we’re running west on Fair Oaks Boulevard. The hills hadn’t stopped. I was either climbing uphill or drifting downhill. The next split was sub-7:38 and I got a little concerned. I tell myself, “You don’t have to make up the minute all at once”. There was a pretty substantial uphill after that long downhill. A few minutes later, my unofficial pacers rejoined me. At the 1:20ish mark, just short of mile 11, I see 1:20:something on my Garmin and panicked a bit. I thought, Two hours to go? I can’t sustain this pace for two more hours.
Splits: 7:41, 7:56, 7:52, 7:36, 7:37, 7:50.
Middle Miles, Part I – Miles 12 to 16 (Fair Oaks to Carmichael)
There were balloon arches over the road at a few of the mile markers welcoming us to The Middle Miles. Instead of being motivating, it stressed me out thinking I had so much racing left to do.
At the half marathon point, my Garmin read 1:41:something. I’m on pace for a 3:22:00 – a PR! Hold it together, Julia.
A little past the half marathon point came the second exchange for the relay. There was a lot of cheering in this section. I remembered this on the course video, too, because it seemed like we were leaving the suburbs and entering a strip mall area. I told myself it was time to run those 7:38s I’ve been training to run. I saw Sole Soul and Pink Shoes stop for water. She looked a little pained and I wondered it I would see them again.
The course turned left – still on Fair Oaks Boulevard, though. For a while, I ran next to a guy in a neon green long-sleeve and a wind breaker. With the weather forecast calling for rain, there were a lot of overdressed runners. I thought he had to be too warm. A little down the road Sole Soul and Pink Shoes caught back up to me. At mile 15, I was supposed to start my last packet of Honey Stingers but I really didn’t want them. My stomach didn’t feel bad really. I just felt a little full.
Splits: 7:38, 7:34, 7:50, 7:43.
Middle Miles, Part II – Miles 16 to 21 (Carmichael to Sacramento)
By mile 16, the course went to the right and it seemed like the worst of the hills were over. Hooray! But, I could tell my legs were done. It was so frustrating because my heart and mind wanted to fight and go faster but my legs weren’t having it. I noticed a lot of runners slowing down and walking. Those of us who went out too hard were starting to pay the price.
What’s this? My left calf was tightening up. I’ve only cramped up a few times during a marathon but it was my hamstring and never this early in the race. I was taking water at all the stops during this section. I’m not particularly thirsty but it’s taking my mind off the pain.
Just past mile 18 at the 2:20ish mark, I realized I had an hour left. Wow, that seems like a lot.
The mile marker at mile 20 featured a fake wall. Cute, but not really what you want to see when you’re hurting. I started my last packet of Honey Stingers and got some water. I figured maybe the calories would give me an extra boost. The final relay exchange was at this point, too, which made the whole scene a bit chaotic.
For the most part, the aid stations were manageable. Except, late in the race, runners were slowing down while passing the volunteers with water which made it difficult to merge in and out of traffic. At one point, a runner ran right in front of me and slowed down. I almost tripped and said something like, “You have got to be kidding me, right now.” (I liked the “right now” part because I’ve never used that expression before).
I saw a sign that we are in the City of Sacramento. I felt so relieved.
Splits: 7:42, 7:49, 8:01, 8:06, 8:07.
Later Miles 21-26.2 (Sacramento)
I got a little bit of a second wind on The H Street Bridge towards the end of mile 21. I remembered the expo guy said this was the last real hill in the race. After the bridge the course goes downhill for a stretch and then is completely flat.
During mile 22, there was a sign on a freeway overpass that said something like “Sacramento’s Final Four”. Wait, what? I thought there were only three miles to go. Oh yeah, the marathon is 26.2 miles. A few moments later, the “fast” 3:25 pacer passed me. He was the one I talked to at the expo. I tried to stay with them. They’re running my PR! I hang on the back of the pack for maybe a half mile but I have to let them go. I was pretty low at this point in the race. I turn up the volume on my iPod and try to just take my mind off the race for a while. I tossed my Honey Stringers at the aid station. I wasn’t eating them and I was tired of carrying them. I reached mile 23. Okay, this actually is like all those miles on Hains Point. Three more hard miles to go!
After mile 24, the course turned left for a few blocks and then right. This part of the course reminded me of RnR DC and the turns in the H Street neighborhood near Capitol Hill. There are a lot of businesses in this area and a fair amount of spectators cheering. There are aid stations in this mile but I ran past them knowing that nothing I drink can help me at this point. The “honest” 3:25 pacer passed me. My spirit sank a little. Wow, I’m really fading. How did this happen?
In mile 25, the scenery looked familiar and I realized I was running close to where we ran yesterday during the CIM shake out run! The “fast” 3:30 pacer passed me. Seriously? How bad is this going? I would be really upset if I finish over 3:30. She gave me encouragement but my music was blaring so loud that I don’t hear what she actually says. Soon thereafter, my playlist ran out of music and I had to go back. I hate when I have to do that because it means I missed my goal time. I listened to Chandelier by Sia on repeat for the rest of the race.
I thought I was on the south side of the Capitol and then I realized – No, we’re on L Street! A few steps later and I ran past my hotel. I jokingly thought of stopping and going directly to the hotel.
Finally, I saw the mile 26 mile marker. I was relieved knowing the race is almost over. The course turned left onto 8th Street for a block and then another quick left. There’s a separate finish for women and a volunteer directed me to stay to the far left. I saw the finish line and the clock above it. I felt overjoyed and yet disappointed at the same time. I finished the race strong, raising my arms in the air in triumph. It was rough but I completed the California International Marathon!
Splits: 8:22, 8:27, 8:25, 8:37, 8:31, 1:47.
I took a finish line picture and got my gear. I put my dry clothes and walk though the very post-race festival. There was free beer. I took a cup but tossed it after a few sips. It just wasn’t what I wanted that soon after a marathon.
Back in my hotel room, I showered and took a selfie with my medal and watched the finishers from my window. I was surprised by how few there were. I got brunch, with a mimosa, at the hotel and checked out of my hotel a little later than I thought I would be I needed to rest a little before hitting the road.
I finished in 3:27:09 (7:55 pace). Missed a PR by 4:14 – about 10 seconds/mile. But, I was the 1084th finisher (top 20%), 257th woman (top 10%), and 33rd in my age group (top 8%). Considering the fast field the race attracts, that’s not bad. Also, since I will be 45 years old on race day, it’s a BQ-28:00 for the 2017 Boston Marathon.
Interestingly, my Garmin measured 26.22. I don’t think I’ve ever run a marathon that close to the actual distance.
I allow myself to feel disappointed about a race for two days. After that, it’s time to move on. During that grieving period, I was mostly upset because I felt like I missed an opportunity. I really couldn’t run any harder during those last 6 miles?! (If you could, you would have.) It’s hard to go through 19 weeks of hard training and not feel some sense of failure when you don’t hit your target.
A few days out from the race and I feel better about it. I’ve missed my goal time in races before and I will again. I went out gunning for a PR, even when I had serious doubts about whether that was possible, and I’m really proud of myself for that. Physically, my left piriformis is sore but that’s it. However, I won’t run again for a few more days. I’ll wait until I miss it a little more than I do right now. Although, with the Boston Marathon about 18 weeks away, I am feeling some pressure to start training again. (I’m planning to do a separate post on what I thought about the Hansons marathon training plan I followed.)
As far as the California International Marathon itself, the race was fantastic – so well organized and friendly. I will definitely recommend it to anyone looking to qualify for Boston or to run a marathon on the west coast. But, I doubt I’ll run it again mostly because it’s late in the season and personally, I didn’t find the course that much easier than the New York City Marathon where the hills are steeper but more spread out. If I were to knock anything about the race, it would be that it seemed overly focused on those qualifying for the Olympics or Boston. As someone just trying to set a PR, I felt a little disconnected from the event. But, I should never say never. Part of me wants to run this course smarter and get redemption.
Logistically, everything worked out great flying into San Francisco and driving to Sacramento. Picking up my number at the expo was quick and there were enough vendors and speakers to make it interesting. The course was rolling hills for the first 16 miles – some grades steeper than others – and then mostly flat or downhill to the end. There was plenty of room to run and the race was well supported with a surprising amount of water stops and crowd support considering its size. As far as my race, I thought I started conservatively and was consistently running PR pace splits in the 7:45 range through mile 20. But, just as the course turned favorable, my legs gave out on me and my pace slowed. By the end, I was running 8:20-8:30 pace. My time was 3:27:09 (7:55 pace). It’s not the time I wanted, but based on my training, it was probably the time I deserved even though I got it the hard way.
Thanks for following and supporting my training for the California International Marathon!