My quads, especially my left quad, burned with each step. My feet ached. I glanced at my watch, thinking by now that my pace surely had slowed down by 20 or so seconds per mile.
I was wrong. Instead, my pace was 10 seconds per mile faster than I had run the previous 22 miles. It was only at that moment that I permitted myself to think that I just may not only PR but also BQ at this race.
While hiking in April, I sprained my foot and dislocated a cuboid bone, causing me to stop marathon training only 4 weeks in. The recovery period was just long enough to drop out of the Jack and Jill Marathon, but not long enough to completely derail my goals of PRing in the marathon in 2016.
The Portland Marathon was too soon, the Seattle Marathon was too hilly, but the California International Marathon was just right. The race is held on the first weekend in December and its promise of ideal weather, a fast but not flat course, and the highest percentage of BQers lured me in. The fact that it was near Yosemite, where Ryan and I had been yearning to travel for a few years now, sealed the deal.
In retrospect, my sprained foot was one of those setbacks that turned out to lead to something big. CIM was the perfect race for me: gentle rolling hills, sunny but chilly weather, incredible crowd support but a smaller race, and the race that revealed to me just what I can achieve in the marathon.
The flight from Seattle to Sacramento was short and scenic. We saw Crater Lake from the flight! We experienced a brief delay at SeaTac for de-icing (because you can never travel in or out of SeaTac without a delay) but otherwise our trip was smooth.
Sacramento is a fantastic city for a race. The airport is clean and uncrowded with very friendly and helpful staff. The city itself is beautiful, with blue skies and trees everywhere.
The expo was easy to navigate. We quickly picked up the bib and shirt – which is one of the best-fitting and nicest race shirts I have ever received. I even wore it on Sunday after the race!
We stayed at the Hampton Inn & Suites in Folsom, near the start line of the race. The hotel offered late check out on race day and early breakfast for runners and it was near several restaurants.
My mom had been in the hospital with inner ear problems, and on our way from the expo to Folsom we received the call that she was able to get home. I had been anxious the whole time, but that call melted away my anxiety. For dinner, we went to a nearby Whole Foods, brought the food back to the hotel, had a beer, and just relaxed. I was in bed by 8 PM and only slightly nervous about the fact that I was running a marathon in less than 12 hours.
The Race Itself
I woke up bright and early at 4 AM, had a cup of coffee and water, and walked around a bit to loosen up my muscles. I ate my pre-race meal at 4:45, had more coffee and water, and then we were off to the race start line by 5:30.
The start area of CIM was well-organized, including what appeared to be a quarter mile line of porta potties, clearly mark pace groups for self-seeding, and recycle and trash bins every few steps.
At CIM you have the option to take one of several shuttles from Folsom and Sacramento, or you can be dropped off. We opted for the drop off, since we was already staying in Folsom. The road closures threw us off a bit and it took us longer than expected to arrive at the drop-off point, but believe me when I say this was the only negative thing I have to say about CIM was that the directions to the runner drop off weren’t very clear on the website. We eventually found the drop-off area, and I boarded a shuttle from there to the start line.
I arrived at the start area at 6:15 AM. The lines for the restrooms were quick. I did a brief dynamic warm up to loosen up my muscles and activate my glutes, and then I lined up at the start line between the 3:38 and 3:43 pace groups.
The weather was ideal for racing – the starting temperature was right around 40 degrees and the sun was shining. After weeks of gray skies and constant rain in Seattle, the sunshine provided an energizing boost of vitamin D.
At CIM, the pace groups are based on the actual time you will likely need to get into Boston – not the BQ time. So instead of 3:30 and 3:35, they have 3:28 and 3:33.
The course is point-to-point, which is my preference for races. You never repeat scenery and you minimize turning – I recall only a handful of turns on this course. The point-to-point layout gives CIM its famous net downhill drop of 340 feet with a flat final 10K.
That said, CIM isn’t a completely downhill race – you still run uphill! According to my Garmin, the course climbs 433 feet, most of which is over the first 16 miles, and descends 768 feet.
As I had done during training, I ran this entire race by effort: easy for the first 5K, restrained through mile 16, steady until mile 20, and hard over the final 10K. I used my watch to monitor pace – I didn’t let myself go under an 8:00/mile during the first half and would back off when I saw that – but other than that I focused on effort and finding a rhythm.
My plan was to start 20-40 seconds per mile slower than my goal race pace and hold back during the first 2-3 miles. Earlier in the week, I had picked Susie’s brain about how she ran a BQ time on the downhill course at the Phoenix Marathon. She suggested that I use the first miles as a warm up, letting the downhill ease me into pace.
And that’s what I did. I treated the first mile like a warm up and ran a 8:26/mile. I continued to hold back over the second mile, which clocked in at 8:14/mile. These were my two slowest miles of the entire race.
After that, I comfortably settled into an 8:02-8:08/mile pace through mile 8. At mile 9, I caught up with the 3:38 pace group. I didn’t want to waste energy trying to pass this large group of runners, so I hung onto them for a while and ran an 8:11/mile. Finally, I was able to break ahead on another uphill.
The hills were barely noticeable for the first 10K, at least compared to the hills I train on in Bothell. I began to notice them more from miles 7-16, but no single hill was ever too steep or too long.
I did over half of my long runs and marathon pace runs on a route with rolling hills, which I truly believe contributed to running a strong race on this course. I convinced myself that CIM would have at least one hill similar to 100+ foot over ¼ mile hill that I climbed at the end of most of my long runs, the hill that makes me swear under my breath.
The hills were never that bad. In fact, I really enjoyed them, since you’d climb up for just a bit and then receive an immediate gradual but longer downhill. My muscles didn’t fatigue until the very final 5K, because I was constantly switching between different muscles with the rolling terrain.
I saw Ryan at the half marathon mark and quickly handed off my arm warmers to him. He encouraged me to keep up the pace and pick it up. I ran the first half in 1:46:47 – if I ran the second half at the same pace, I would just barely squeak out a BQ.
I continued to rein in the pace until mile 16, although after the half marathon mark I began to hit a few sub-8:00/miles.
As with every race, I experienced miles that passed with ease and miles that required more grit and focus – but I never had an awful mile. No cramps, no GI distress, no bonking – mostly, I was just having a lot of fun in that strange definition of fun that we distance runners have.
“Haul ass, Norris!” I heard at mile 20.5, as I ran through the Wall that was set up along the course. I quickly waved at Ryan and drew strength from these words. We had talked about cue words and mantras for different miles, and Haul ass was reserved the final 10K.
After that point, I only ran one mile that began with an 8:xx. Every other mile was a 7:50-7:59/mile – somehow, my fastest 10K was the final 10K. All those brutal progression long runs were paying off.
Somewhere around mile 23, I passed the 3:33 pace group. I briefly considered sticking with them through the end, but my legs just wanted to hold onto a 7:50 – 7:55/mile. At this point, I realized that a BQ was very much within my reach.
Over the final 5K, I was in pain – but the burning sensation in my quads wasn’t an injury and it wasn’t enough to slow me down. I acknowledged the pain, decided each time to endure it, and then distracted my thoughts with something happy – usually thinking about making Ryan and my parents proud. One mile at a time – until I was counting down city blocks.
The race finished at the capitol of Sacramento, which is gorgeous – the building is beautiful and it’s surrounded by all types of trees, including palm trees. When I saw those trees, I dug deep and pushed towards the finish. My finishing kicks in a race are never great, but I wanted to see how close I could get to a BQ.
As I entered the women’s chute, I saw 3:32:xx on the clock. I knew that approximately 60-75 seconds had passed from the start gun to when I crossed the starting line – and then the announcer said exactly what I had been thinking. He named off each runner as they crossed, noting if he or she ran a BQ time.
And sure enough, I heard the announcer’s voice call my name. Not only a BQ time – but hopefully one with enough cushion to get into Boston 2018!
My chip time was a 3:31:23 – far faster than I imagined running in the best case scenario for that day. My dream-big goal for this race was to run around a 3:33-3:34. I was astounded. Ryan hugged me from across the barrier (spectators could get right up next to the finish line, which I loved!) as I fully absorbed the culmination of 18 weeks of hard training and just over three and a half hours of racing.
I ran the second half of the race in a 1:44:24 – just over TWO minute negative split! The course certainly lent well to a negative split, especially if you held back over the rolling hills of the first 16 miles.
The finish line area featured music, lots of food, photo opportunities, and a BQ bell. Ryan and I sat for a while because my legs were so shaky once I finished running. I started to chill pretty quickly since the temperature was probably only in the high 40s. I didn’t feel nauseous, but I had absolutely no appetite either so I just snacked on a banana and sea salt Popchips.
I wanted to ring the BQ bell, but the line was long and I was beginning to shiver, even under my space blanket. Ryan had a change of clothes for me, but it was that type of shiver that came from the sweat on my skin – I needed to shower and then change clothes. So instead, we walked a couple blocks to the car and drove back to the hotel – with the late check-out time of 1PM, I had time to shower, elevate my legs, and relax for a bit.
The Whole Foods in Folsom had a beer garden (best Whole Foods ever!). We had planned on driving back to Sacramento for Burgers and Brew, but I didn’t to drive back downtown and my appetite wasn’t fully back – but the Whole Foods hot bar and some beer sounded good!
I won’t hesitate to say that I am proud of this race: not just for my finish time and earning my first BQ, but for running a smart race, nailing my nutrition and hydration, and feeling good and enjoying the race.
Thank you so much to everyone who messaged, texted, called, and left encouraging comments during training, before the race, and after the race. Running may be an individual support, but it’s with the support of others that achievements like a BQ happen.
And most of all – thank you to my amazing husband, who supported me during training, traveled to California with me (not that I had to twist his arm), drove all around to spectate during the race, and took care of me after the race.
When have you surpassed your expectations in a race?
Which marathon/race was your best race experience?