My first time back to California in 25 years was a very different one. I was returning as a diabetic (no Disney candy for me) and as a runner. The most obvious part of this trip that stood out though was the weather. I think I must have cast my British ‘take the weather with you’ luck. We were in store for a real treat; thunderstorms all weekend with up to 30mph winds!
This was my inaugural race with Team Type 1 (now Team Novo Nordisk). A good chance to meet some of the guys before the end of the year. Eight of us from across the country were meeting up to race (at what is declared the fastest marathon in the west; California International Marathon (CIM) held in the state capital of Sacramento).
With the weather so bad, we were lucky (?!) the race was actually still going ahead. After witnessing first hand the on/off nature of the New York City Marathon with Hurricane Sandy a few weeks prior, I wouldn’t have been surprised if the race organizers scrapped this one too. But the show went on. We were going to get blown around and soaked for three hours and part of me was really excited by these insane conditions. I packed my usual race gear with a few extras. My tub of Aquaphor, lots of socks, band-aids and a baseball cap. This was my defense against the storm!
Half of our team were doing the relay; Casey, Matt, Nathan and Ben and seemed genuinely worried one of the marathoners might beat them! That was Benny. It was his first marathon yet everyone knew he was lightning fast. That left Chris, myself and Rhet (another first time marathon guy with a time goal way out of my league) to the marathon distance.
We woke up Sunday to the expected forecast. I looked out of the hotel window to witness palm trees swaying around in heavy rain. This was to be a swimathon, not a marathon. I was rooming with Rhet who remained focused and ready to see what he could do. No one seemed to adjust their goal plan of giving it everything.
The race course ran point to point from Folsom to Sacramento. A similar layout to Boston minus the four hills. I squeezed my way near the front of the start line in a packed area and somehow found Benny. It was almost pitch black, winds whirling around us and the rain coming down hard already causing many large puddles and flooded areas of road. This was anything but California sunshine.
We took off south. A lot of people were ahead or really gunning it to get there. This was because the race is popular with many elites for its fast design and also the relay teams starting at the same time. Soon we turned west for a long fivemile stretch. Winds pushed us to the right and everyone was doing their best to run straight and shield themselves with another body. Wearing a baseball cap helped keep the rain off my face but could do nothing about this intense wind.
My goal going in to the race changed a few times from a controlled sub-3 to wanting to PR. My mindset was slightly aggressive considering I was two weeks post my all out effort at JFK 50 miler but I went with my confident brain rather than my tired body and set the goal at 2:44. The first few miles were clipping off easily at 6:10 and I felt great. When do you not feel great in the first few miles right?
This pace soon changed though when we turned south for the next five miles. The south winds up to 30mph were now directly at us and I found myself sitting on two guys. One was upset that I was doing so but it would have been suicide to take the lead role. I looked around and saw another ten runners behind me! My guilt of drafting disappeared instantly! Anyone running in front or solo on this stretch was wasting some serious energy. Our pace was, well irrelevant, due to this situation but about 6:45 average.
Finally a right turn to get out if the wind and another west stretch. The lead guy from before had finally eased up and calmed down that no one was taking the bait for lead role. I nudged him and said, now you’re running smart. He agreed and no longer hated me! His buddy struck up a conversation mentioning he ran Leadville. We talked about Leadville for the next mile together realizing we probably ran past each other a few times as our finish times were within 30 minutes. Small world this running business!
I hit the halfway point at 1:22; 30 seconds ahead of my goal time at 1:22. Being the optimist, I said to myself; ‘All you have to do is run the same speed again and you will PR’. Did I mention I was running in heavy rain and 30 mph winds?!
We were now on a second long stretch of running directly into the ‘in your face wind’! There were so many puddles and flooded areas! we were running straight through them. Our feet had quickly adjusted to the fact they would be soaked the entire race and I was praying my layer of Aquaphor and two pairs of socks would shield me from blisters. At mile 16, I calculated I just had to maintain 6:15’s and I was on for a huge PR. I think the rain got in my head because I’m since sure my calculations were off.
As soon as I started to dream, my legs started to scream. I was hitting the famous marathon wall but four miles early! I was still grinding along and I tagged up with a guy about 6′-3″ and 200lbs; a perfect partner. Just like in cycling, we shared the lead rotating every 400 meters or so and kept at this for two miles until our paces differed and split again. It was that sort of race where you grabbed help where you could. This was no PR day for 99% of the 15,000 runners and I wasn’t getting too upset that my pace was dropping and I was part of the larger statistic.
The final 6.2 miles headed west into Sacramento. Hoping these miles would be better due to less wind, I was badly mistaken. My pace had shuddered way down to 7:45. This wasn’t a tire legs situation anymore, this was a hypo. I popped two gels and regretted not sticking with my routine of a gel every seven miles or so. If I had taken one at mile 20, this wouldn’t have happened. I wanted a really good post-run glucose reading and thought I would be ok just gulping on Powerade at the water stations. Even with my experience, I still get it badly wrong. I remembered talking to Matt on the flight over from NYC about shutting it down if it wast going my way. Even, in this situation, I couldn’t. I couldn’t let go. I wanted to perform at my maximum on that day.
With a mile to go I approached a long line of tall palm trees and knew that was near the end (from my minimal course research). As I saw the trees, I realized the rain had stopped. It was still cloudy but seriously, hallelujah!
My pace had picked up again with the gels doing their magic. I had been stupid not to take a gel back at mile 20 and had gone hypo and paid the price. I saw my team mate, Rhet ahead with less than a mile to go. He was meant to be done by now. I pulled up alongside him and without hesitation made sure he stayed on my shoulder. This was not my day and I wasn’t going to ditch a teammate. I wanted to see him finish strong. We swung around the last two turns at the State Capitol and finished together in 2:53.
Casey, Benny and Nathan were waiting for us right at the finish line. Benny threw down an impressive 2:43 first time marathon in those horrible conditions beating the relay team who had to settle for a 2:45. Yeah, Benny’s that good!
I went to the drop-bag tent to collect my stuff and dug out my blood tester. I was 91. I don’t want to know how low I was at mile 20! It wouldn’t have changed the outcome enough to still PR. We hobbled to the car and shared our stories. Of course, at his point the sun was breaking through the clouds. No time to enjoy California sunshine. I had a plane to catch back home!
What a blast with the team even though it was a quick trip in not so sunny California. The good news writing this is, at least I know I will be back next Summer for Western States 100. Then I’ll be crying about too much sun!