Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Race Report: 2012 California International Marathon

The first big  storm of the 2012 winter season was a warm one. So warm, it melted the pre-season snow at the ski resorts around Tahoe. The California International Marathon (CIM) in Sacramento, California coincided with the peak of the storm.

Thanksgiving day's 10-day forecast revealed jellyfish-shaped storm-cloud icons, with rain cascading from them like nematocyst-saturated tentacles, marching across race weekend as if it were "War of the Worlds". Five to seven days of rain and flooding expected; the heaviest wave was probably going to hit on race morning. I'm sure those runners who had signed up for CIM as a replacement for the cancelled-due-to-weather New York City Marathon felt that fate and Mother Nature were conspiring against them.

CIM is an impressive event, with over 14,000 participants and thousands of volunteers, but run so efficiently it feels like a "hometown" race. Founded and organized by the Sacramento Running Association (SRA) in 1983 (then the Sacramento Long Distance Running Association), the CIM has become famous through endorsements by the likes of Bart Yasso and is a favorite for those seeking a Boston Qualifying time. Boasting beautiful weather (most years) and fast times, the individual marathon attracted 9,300 entrants in 2012, and reached the limit of open registration (8,000) two months earlier than it did in 2011

Historically, the weather has been beautiful (better than 80% chance of dry weather). Just don't look at 1987 or 2001. The legend of 1987 is reputably as the worst weather CIM in history. They called it the "Stormathon".

"It rained over four inches and we were kicking fish out of our path" claimed Denis Zilaff, one of the CIM Streakers. Runners were seen hiding in phone booths. 2001 was a drizzle in comparison, as it lacked the high winds, according to most.

2012 was Stormathon Redux.

I wouldn't have wanted to sail in those conditions. Most of the mile markers had either been flogged to pieces or blown away. Twigs and branches were coming off the trees: Force 9 on the Beaufort Scale! Running in such a storm, with the support of the organizers, the other participants, and truly awesome spectators, turned out to be an epic experience. Out of the 9,300 entrants in the full individual marathon event, almost 6,500 started and less than 300 did not finish.
The warming tent was prone to flight in the gusty winds

The crest of the storm approaches
I stayed at Lake Natomas Inn, about two miles from the start. Nice digs. The room had a fridge for my smoothie, and free wifi. Plus, all the hotels in Folsom come with a perk: a VIP warming tent at the starting area, reserved for hotel guests. It was crucial to have a warm place to stay out of the driving rain, and there was a private corral of porta potties, so no one had to stand in line in the rain. I spent an hour commiserating with the other runners, looking at doppler images and forecasts on our smart phones. I finished my smoothie and hit the john with plenty of time to relax and stretch in the tent. Outside the tent thousands of runners huddled beneath the gas station pump island roof trying to stay dry. That warming tent was worth every dime I spent on my nine hour stay at the hotel.

Here are some details about how the storm progressed through the morning (you know how I like details):
  • Both the American and Sacramento Rivers rose more than a foot during the race
  • The flow (cfs) of South Fork American River rose by 500% on race morning:

South Fork of the American River at Kyburz
  • On race day, over an inch of rain fell on the course
  • A wind gust of 139 mph was measured at Ward Peak, 60 miles WNW of the starting line
  • The storm crested an hour into the race, then conditions slowly improved
  • Wind speed at nearby Mather Air Base averaged 19 mph and gusted to 40 mph
At 6:50, I donned my dress-sized garbage bag and headed to the sweat check vans to drop my bag, which contained only my smoothie bottle.

This outfit was short-lived, but functioned in spades. I took it off 15 seconds before the race start
I jogged up and down the starting area identifying the pace groups for a few minutes and settled into the crowd the to do a final shake-out, relax and eat a ViFuel. The wind drove the rain hard so hard it felt like little pebbles hitting my face, and the Race Director's voice washed over the crowd carried by waves of wind and water. Think: the teacher from Peanuts, only wet and windy.

Conditions at the start of the 2012 CIM, photo by Paul Kitagaki Jr.

The start, photo by Paul Kitagaki Jr.

OK, enough about the storm. It was wet. It was windy. But it was not cold, so it was bearable. I would even call it exciting. Bill Bowerman's words about weather rang in my head:

"There is no bad weather, just soft people"

No soft people on the start at this race. At 7 am sharp, we were cast off into the tempest.

I crossed the line about a minute and a half past seven. The large pack of runners in the first mile cut the wind, and the majority of the runners were still wearing their garbage bag ponchos. It was quite the cacophony! Some wore a grocery bag on each foot, which I found rather foolish. Everything would be soaked soon anyway, why risk slipping? The first mile was like a haute trash Tough Mudder obstacle: lawn and leaf bags, grocery sacks and dime store ponchos alike were flopping through the field of runners like tumbleweeds.

Slowly we gathered steam, and made the first turn onto Oak, which made the headwind more of a variable wind, sometimes coming from the side, and even swirling around behind us at points, eliciting whoops from the crowd as we were suddenly pushed along. Room to run started opening up, and by the end of mile two my pace had settled around 8:05/mile. As long as I found someone larger than me that I could draft off, the wind was not as bad as I had expected. The problem was finding a blocking lineman that was running at my pace! At times, breathing was as simple as opening my mouth and pretending I was a Goat with a blower.

Open wide and breathe DEEP

I suppose I should tell you what my strategy was for the race before we get too far along. Coach Tim set a goal of 3:40 (8:20 pace) for the race, my first marathon. I felt that it was a perfect pace to challenge me, yet comfortably slower than my 'flat' half marathon PR of 7:44. I was eager to attempt an even pace/effort for the duration of the race.

A body check at mile four yielded all systems go. No niggles, no chafing, everything soaked but warm. In hindsight, I did not think about my gear for the rest of the morning (I'll include a gear list after the details at the bottom). I kept the gloves on until about two hours in, when it simply got too difficult to put the sopping wet things back on after removing them to get into my zip-lock bags (note to self: put S-caps and other supplements in pill organizers inside baggies). Everything else stayed on for the duration. The KT Tape held up through the finish.

As soon as the crowd thinned out enough to see where I was going, I began watching for manhole covers, painted lines and road reflectors. When I found myself negotiating traffic, I wanted more than just proprioception on the rain-slicked road surface. Staying alert became a theme of my race experience.

The spectators along the rolling horse pastures were scattered, but enthusiastic. A big roar came up for a young boy running next to me. "I think they're cheering for you!" I said as I passed the boy and his father. Those first five miles were really spectacular. The rain was building, and the road before me rolled just enough to see the thousands of bobbing heads, a carpet of humanity bridging each little valley, like downtown Manhattan during rush hour. The conveyor belt was moving, and it felt effortless.

Then the 3:40 pace group caught up to me. At first I just heard a couple of voices saying extremely encouraging things, like "relax on the downhills... cruise control the flats" and "remember to drink... and take short steps on the uphills".

Soon, the spectators began yelling "3:40, looking good guys!".

And so it began... the push from behind. With only 21 miles to go, my race went from a surreal, effortless, thought-provoking, beautiful meditation to being chased by a support, err... pace group.

Just before the 3:40 pace group began encroaching, in the middle of the 5th mile, a strong gust of wind blew a dead palm frond out of a 60 foot tall tree. The branch flew through the air, landing amongst the runners about 50 feet in front of me. No one was hurt, but the road was littered with palm fronds in front of that tree. There were branches down in many places along the course, but that palm frond was the only obstacle I actually saw come down.

Through the 5.9 mile split in 49:31 (clock time), my average pace was 8:15. I wanted to slow down, but the chase continued. It perturbed me a little, that the pace group was 30 seconds ahead already. Banking time in a hilly first half sounded like a bad idea. But banking time is a bad idea. I should have just run my own race, but I could not bear to let them pass. I did eventually appreciate their banter, continually reminding everyone to relax, drink, relax, cruise the flats, short strides on the hills.

At six miles the course turns onto Fair Oaks Boulevard and heads south to begin meandering, as if it were a river of runners (and rainwater), across the Sacramento Valley towards the Capitol. The spectators at this turn were thick, as it was the first relay exchange. The crowd was dense, and excited, in a downpour. In fact, spectators throughout the course gave copious amounts of energy to the continuous stream of runners slogging through the storm.

The storm peaked around 8:20 am, as I entered Old Town Fair Oaks and the low point which marks the start of the San Juan Hills. I had seen the famous "Fair Oaks Free Range Chickens" crossing the road in front of my truck during my scouting drive the day before, but they probably had been swept away like rubber ducks in a duck race by the time I ran through on race day. The roads were flooded with water flowing ankle-to-shin deep in places. This was my first opportunity to truly test out the Drymax socks, and they worked as advertised. Despite feeling saturated and squishy upon leaving a large puddle or flooded corner, they would feel dry again within a few hundred yards! 

BIG kudos to the spectator handing out orange slices just past Sunrise Blvd. Right at the bottom of the steepest hill on the course, there was this little blast of fresh fruit. I was at the top of the hill before I finished the slice. And freshly showered to boot, as the pouring rain began to reduce visibility. During the long downhill that followed, I returned to focusing on my form, trying to relax, run tall and balanced.

Soaked and focused
I continued my pace through the hills, staying just ahead of the 3:40 group, through the half marathon point at the intersection of Fair Oaks and Manzanita. The crowd at this relay exchange point was double or triple that of the first. As we hit the timing mat, I looked at my watch: 1:48.

The pace group was two minutes ahead of their intended pace (1). I confirmed with one of the group leaders that they had gone out fast, and then let them go. I cursed myself for going out too fast with them and not running my own race, but those negative feelings melted away as I came upon Twirly just after the turn. She was wearing her sailing foul weather gear, and took up a jog along with me for a hundred yards or so. It was good to see her at that point. I was still feeling strong, and I was happy to have her support. She wished me well, we blew each other a kiss, and off I went to chase the 3:40 group.

At the half: 1:49:07 by the clock; average pace: 8:19

The storm dumped one last bucket as we rolled along down Fair Oaks Blvd towards Carmichael. I saw my favorite sign of the race near Arden and Fair Oaks:

"Watching you run is making me wet" - held by a woman in full rain gear and rubber boots

With most of the hills behind me at that point, my plan going in was to start picking it up and see how fast I could finish. The first half had gone really well: no gait-altering niggles (my ankles and feet were beginning to ache), no anaerobic bouts, my heart rate was under 160 (except on the climbs). The hills had not seemed to take too much out of me; I had recovered well when I could. It was time to pick up the pace.

Or so I thought. As the rain lessened, my pace began creeping up. It was not a catastrophic bonk-type of event, as my fueling was going really well: ViFuels every 30 minutes and an S! Cap every hour. I felt I had good energy, but my turnover was lacking. I took another dose of Sportlegs and tried a few strides. My cadence started slipping, and miles 13-15 went 8:06, 8:17, 8:30. Suddenly I was ten seconds off pace, when I wanted to be twenty seconds ahead! 

I put in some extra effort, focused on form and smoothness for miles 16 & 17.

8:28, 8:25

I had stopped the bleeding, but the effort had sapped my energy. I should have taken an extra gel. At mile 18, I started rationalizing with myself.

"Hey, this is my first marathon. No need to set the bar too high, just finish the damn thing"

"Finishing was never in doubt. I could walk it in from here. DON'T LEAVE ANYTHING OUT HERE!"

"Just finish. That's all you have to prove in the first one. Just finish."

And so I talked myself out of pushing against, and into cruising through, the wall. My pace dropped to the high 8:XX range until I got to mile 20, at which point my form was ugly, and I was all arms. My spirits remained high though. The rain was finally letting up, and the course was flat as a pancake.

Smelling the barn
Lo and behold, suddenly there are photographers on ladders in the middle of the road. Sold American. Gimme that photo.

After crossing the American River on the H-Street Bridge, the spectators took on a different tone. They congregated near bars and began sounding more rowdy than earlier in the morning. One man stood on the median offering free beer to the runners! I briefly considered it, but passed it up. The cross streets began counting down from the high 50's to the finish at 8th street. I had been counseled not to look at them, so I pulled the brim of my cap down and focused. I could still make 3:40 if I could get back on pace...

20 mile split: 2:48 by the clock, average pace: 8:20

Mile 21 was my first over 9:00 pace. I tried to latch onto people as they passed me, but my legs felt like lead. I couldn't find the speed. I kept reminding myself to relax, run tall, stay on my fore-foot, swing my arms.

My pace continued creeping slower and slower. We made the jump from H Street to L Street at the freeway, and it was then that the 3:45 pace group caught up with me. With a mile and a half to go, I had to find some way to stay in front of this guy and his damn red sign.

I don't think I have ever swung my arms as hard as I did those last fifteen minutes. Once we were downtown, and I began recognizing the landmarks I had scouted during my shakeout jog the day before, it really hit me. I even got a little emotional. The crowds grew thick, the rain stopped, the clouds parted and blue sky filled the air above the course. I caught a glimpse of the Capitol Dome glistening in the fresh sunlight. I had arrived.

Those last three blocks from 11th to 8th took FOREVER, and will be ingrained in my memory for longer than that. I gave what little kick I had coming into the finish. Twirly caught some video. It isn't pretty:

Finish: 3:45:04, avg pace 8:38

I crossed the line with a triumphant heart, arms raised, and as soon as I stopped running, I could not walk! The pain below my waist was not constrained to any one joint, muscle or tendon. The fire burned from the soles of my feet to both hips. I was handed a space blanket, chocolate milk, a medal was hung round my neck. It was over. Nothing illustrates Newton's First Law like the end of a long hard run! I shuffled into the finishers photo line, which was still blissfully short, and then went looking for another chocolate milk.

CIM 2012, in the books (note the damn red sign behind me)

The signage at the finish was a bit confusing, especially for my addled mind. Things were too spread out. Fortunately, Twirly helped me navigate to the food, and more water, and ultimately my gear-check bag. The grounds around the finish area were a muddy mess. I changed into the dry clothes Twirly had brought for me while wrapped in my space blanket on the Capitol steps. I can imagine the finishing area on a good weather year would be a sea of grass and runners recovering, stretching, etc., but 2012 was beginning to look like Woodstock in places.

I'll have another. As soon as I can walk.

I needed some help getting down the steps, and then shuffled towards the parking garage. We had to cross the course to get there, and timing my ferry across the runners was comical, given my inability to move. My Facebook wall suddenly provided just the comic relief I needed:


Gettin' naked at the Capitol
I really do struggle for the words to summarize this experience. Setting aside the fact that this was my debut marathon, the race was top notch. From the plethora of porta-potties at the start (not to mention that VIP warming tent), the thousands of volunteers, to the course itself, the SRA knows how to put together a world-class event. Factor in the weather, and the spectators, and I'm not sure any road marathon could ever compare to the 2012 CIM. Despite having some trepidation going into the race Sunday morning, I had an unforgettable time, pushed through the boundaries my body presented, and never once doubted myself. I may not run CIM again, but it will always hold a place in my heart. It took my marathon cherry amidst a maelstrom, and gave me a life-long dose of confidence in return.

And now, the details:


Gear list:

  1. Update: The 3:40 pace group was almost perfectly paced for a gun time 3:40


  1. Congratulations!! CIM was a great race, good choice for your marathon debut!

  2. Thanks giraffy! I like your pix of the course - you got some great shots of the flooding.

  3. You did an AMAZING job out there! You ran so strong and you had FUN! It really was pretty damn fun out there in the rain...even just standing around :) You did run past us at all three of our cheer stations...bummed I didn't see you...but it given that I have a hard time seeing people I've actually met in person, it isn't surprising that I didn't recognize you out there! Again, really GREAT job! Congrats on your first marathon...CIM was my first, too :)

  4. Fantastic write up -- you sort of made me want to do it again (heh). You did so wonderful and managed to make it fun as well. Congratulation! And as you say, we'll always have CIM 2012!

    1. You're damn right we'll always have CIM 2012. No one can take it away from us. Glad you liked the RR. This race was one of my favorites. In fact, if the weather doesn't make an appearance at my future races, I'll be a little disappointed. ;)

  5. This is so very inspiring!! Thank you for sharing your experience. I've signed up to run the CIM this year (my first full) and I am absolutely terrified. This post and your story gives me hope & a renewed sense of inspiration! Thank you for that. And congrats on all of your races! :-)

    1. Hey Robyn, thanks for reading. Giving back and helping others plan for their races is one the main reasons I write Wanderplace. Stick to your training, listen to your body, and you'll have a great time at CIM this year. It's a fantastic race! Good luck :)