Saturday, April 28, 2012

SLO Marathon 2012 Race Recap

I can't believe I am doing this again. That's the thought that crossed my mind as I got up at 2:30 in the morning in preparation for my 25th marathon, my 2nd marathon so far this year. I learned about the SLO marathon less than a year ago and even made it into the commercial spot. With my running schedule, as time progressed, I became unsure if it would even be possible to squeeze this event or will I even be conditioned enough to run it. As it was, I had already milked the training for NYC  this past November twice: first, for CIM in December, then a second time in Napa in March and now a third time for SLO. I kept going back to the well, when it's all but dried up. This day was a test to see what else I got--if I still had anymore left in the tank. Deep down I knew it wasn't going to be easy. When friends asked about my readiness, I downplayed it and dismissed my own doubts by saying, "I'm just going to have fun and hope for a 4:25-4:30 finish, as in my SFO and Big Sur times."

I didn't plan on a rough preparation. I only had 3 hours of sleep the night before. My daughter had a friend stay over while hubby and I stayed up watching some late night trash tv. (Mindless shows relaxes me, okay?)  I didn't have to use my alarm.  Unfortunately my daughter's friend got sick right at 2:30 in the morning and had to call her mom to pick her up. It was no big deal since I had to get up anyway. After the kid was picked up, I performed my marathon rituals, ate my breakfast (experimented with breakfast--never doing that again, by the way), donned my outfit and got ready to go. By 4:30 am I was on the road.

I decided against the shuttle. Marathoners were asked to be at Madonna Inn at 4 a.m.  I would have an extra hour more if I drove myself to the start at SLO High School. I knew the secret parking spots and studied the road closures, so I had an advantage. All my doubts disappeared when I reached a stop light on Foothill Blvd and Santa Rosa at 4am. Five huge first-class buses passed by, one by one.  I had the most excited feeling, seeing them drive by before me. My goosebumps couldn't hide the fact that at that moment, I was so proud of SLO for finally having this marathon after 25 years of hiatus. Seeing the runners through the windows of the buses, I could only imagine hearing their nervous chatter. As they drove off, thinking to myself, "Lucky sons of bitches, you guys are in for a treat." I was so glad I signed up, it was a sold out race. I was proud to be part of something this big.

It was still pitch black when I found my parking spot and wouldn't you know it? There were others who thought of my plan. Before walking away from my car, I went back and forth whether or not to bring a jacket. I fretted about the weather for days knowing it might get toasty. Last I checked it was going to be 93-98% humidity. It was about 56 degrees at 5 am so I decided to wear my running vest instead of my light jacket for the simple fact that I would be able to stow that in my back pocket. (This would prove to be an annoyance later in the course of the marathon.)
The walk to the start was three short blocks. The excitement washed over me as I got closer to the start arch that was being blown up. "This is happening, SLO has a marathon finally!" I got to the staging area at SLO High, and it was already crowded with marathoners milling around, chatting, topping their reserves, looking for their friends. Everyone seemed happy and excited. On the loudspeaker was some funny guy, entertaining us--didn't catch his name. He was lively and poked fun of runners and their quirks and made no apologies since he was a marathoner himself.
My first order of business as always, was the porta-pots. There were two rows, one with a huge bright spotlight on it and one that was off the area, dark and secluded. I opted the latter rows. Then funny guy in the loudspeaker announced, "Hey there's a whole section of porta pots in the dark, down there with no lines." Great, a swarm of runners started walking where I was. Thanks a lot funny man.

My friend Jen from work found me. She was pacing her sis-in-law for a sub 2:00 half-marathon. We wished each other luck.  After Jen, I didn't see the rest of my gang such as Julie and Heidi.  They found a space in the nick of time. That's how they roll. Me? I like a big cushion. This was why I got up at 2:30. They find me weird for wanting to get to my races too early. I like the 1 to 1-1/2 hour padding to do my business, eat, stretch, warm-up, do my business again, etc. Before I knew it, it was time to stroll to the start. The marathoners were called out to the front, and I took the opportunity to do some stretching. Some welcome words from Race Director Heather Hellmann then came the National Anthem which was sung beautifully by a high school student. At 6 am, at the break of dawn, we were off and not a second later. This was the most prompt start ever! I hope they stick with this early start in the future.

I stood in the middle and it took me about 15 seconds to step on the timing mat. I could have been further back and in hindsight I should have but the fervor and excitement of it all, it was too much. I got swayed with the faster start. It must have been 1/2 mile before I checked my Garmin, and it showed 8:38! (This would be the only time I checked my watch throughout the day.) Not my normal 10:20 starting mile, but I foolishly went along with it. I felt I was abandoning what I've learned in my many years of training. This was just going to be a "fun" marathon. I thought that 4:25-4:30 goal would allow me cushion to have fun and enjoy the scenery, but my recklessness will catch up to me as the miles piled on.

The course wound up in the downtown area for 3 miles before the first significant hill. It showcased the Mission, the Fremont Theatre, etc. It was kinda funny, because I never noticed that there was a 7-Eleven on Monterey! What do I know? The ascent to Johnson was the first bump on the course, pun intended. I start to see people slowing down, including me. The road seemed to talk to me "Hello Aileen, I'm your lunchtime running pal, you run on me at least once a week and now here you are getting spanked." I knew at this point that it will be a long day. I was already feeling warm and the humidity is starting to weigh me down. My sweat is drenching me. I only had one water flask, 8 oz of bottle that I carried with me. I thought I would refill that sucker on every aid station instead of the water belt. (The volunteers at the aid stations were wonderful by the way.) The motto today was, the lighter the better.

After Johnson, we cut left on Orcutt with even more rollers. It is before this section when I made my first porta potty stop. I took of my vest and rolled it into my back pocket. Because of the humidity and the moisture in the air, the vest absorbed all my sweat, so what I had was a heavy wet ball of vest that bounced up and down my back. It was annoying but, I didn't have any choice. The rolling hills on Orcutt were not too bad, but one after another can take its toll. The biggest spectator spot so far was the on the corner of Johnson and Orcutt/Tank Farm. My friend Jenifer at the start reminded me that if I had wanted beer, her "Hash" running group would be handing them out on Miles 4 and 22. I was so in the zone, I didn't even notice them, or the beer. I was so in the zone that when I pulled up to my other running buddy Julie near the 8th mile, she said she was saying hello to me earlier and I didn't answer. Oh I didn't want to be like that!  That was a sure sign of me not having fun. Julie asked how I was doing.  I had to lie to her and say, I was "good."  She looked strong and I didn't want my negativity to rub off of her. With my calves yanking my pace, Julie pulled away.  

Sporadically along the course, people got their lawn chairs out and watched. Maybe it was just me, but it seemed that the spectators were on the subdued side. Maybe it was too early in the morning, they were just waking up. Maybe, they were wondering when the heck they were going to open up the roads again? It seems like they were not there to support the runners but rather, just curious to see who these running fools were. Don't get me wrong, there were family, friends and supporters of runners who were out there, loudly cheering for their own. But the vibe I felt say from Oakland's Inaugural (the link was from 2011, but my experience was identical to 2010)  was not quite the same. SLO had the same feel as in Santa Barbara's Inaugural Marathon in 2009, where the crowd support was lukewarm at times.  Perhaps next year, SLO will have a different crowd or a different draw--with a much more vibrant support--after all this was the first year.

The stretch on Orcutt Road was long and undulating all the way to Varian Ranch which was our turnaround point. There were wineries left and right but the clouds covered its beauty. It was also hard to appreciate when one is struggling at this point. On one training run, I was in awe of the sight with the California Golden poppies in full bloom all along the Edna Valley course. Today was just a "blah" kind of day. Before the turnaround, my calves started to cramp. By Mile 10, I had to slow down considerably or the cramps got stronger and tighter. When I backed off the pace, the cramps seemed to subside. But any hill or trying to push the pace made it come back.

Pictures from my training run, not cloudy as Marathon Day.

Before reaching Varian Ranch, we had to cross paths with the faster runners as they made their turn to Tiffany Ranch. This was a chance to see my friends who were up ahead, and give them high fives words or nods of encouragement. Well I wanted to be the recipient since I was the one struggling. When I reached Mile 14 with calves seemingly happy, I tried to press on the gas. I could only go for 3 more miles at this pace. At Mile 17, I was face with more hills, which meant, calves not too happy. I thought, if I go straight to Broad, I would be home in 15 minutes. Hubby can get me and I would be done. I was not having fun. In fact it was torture. I gathered myself together because the negative thoughts hounded me. I should have had that pasta with Tina on Friday for lunch, instead we had sushi. I shouldn't have taken out my orthotics for the training runs and decide on marathon day, I would put it back on. Now the bottom of my feet feels bruised from the hard plastic that it wasn't not used to. What else did I have? Heat? There was no heat this day. The cloud covers were awesome. It was as humid as Florida, but not enough to warrant a ride home. Could it be the first marathon I will ever DNF? In my adopted city? Six days ago, my running buddy, Liz, ran her first Boston in probably 87-degree heat? She didnt' stop. As I thought of her, I made that right turn to Biddle Ranch Road. Stop whining and keep moving. I walked a little, and saw the two ladies I've been hitching a ride with in front of me pull away in the distant. Goodbye blue ladies, see you at the finish, thanks for the ride. I stopped at my second porta-pots and slightly felt better. I squeezed one more Gu and started running again. My excuses were not good enough to stop me today. I was okay, I was not bleeding, although I had a hot spot forming under my foot, but I could take it. One foot in front of the other.

Biddle was my rough spot. It was hard to play my own cheerleader. I guess that's why NYC Marathon appealed to me so much, where the crowds just energizes you. In a lonely stretch of road here, I had to play mental games. I turned up my ipod's volume and tried to match the steps with the beat of my favorite songs. I tried counting steps, but that got boring fast. When I saw the hill ahead, I would tell myself, if you want you can walk it, no need to run up it. That's what I did. Before long, I saw the Blue ladies again. I was closing in on them. If I could keep this pace up, I will catch up again. Finally on the second to the last hill back on Orcutt, I closed the gap with my pathetic shuffle if you can call it even that. It felt more like a gimp if you ask me. As we made that final left to arrive to the train track trail, my most anticipated downhill,  I thought there was an end to this madness, then I saw a familiar face. I cut out my music. It was Coach Nancy on her bike, yelling to me "How are you feeling?" I replied back "I'm hurting,"this time I was telling the truth.

Seeing Nancy was such a boost to my diminishing spirit, especially at this late stage of the game. I was on the train track, where I usually do my lunch time runs, and this day was especially hard tacking this portion in the last 3 miles of the course. Had Nancy not been there at my side, I would have walked on this patch no doubt about it. Nancy talked me through this, reminding me little steps, "Do your shuffle, Aileen." I told Nancy that I didn't once look at my watch since the first 1/2 mile 4 hours earlier. So I had no clue what my time was. She told me that I was doing fine and my projected time was reasonable most specially since I was struggling. She asked if I wanted to know what my projected finish time was, but I told her I would much rather be surprised. Nancy was an angel, announcing every bump on the road in that last 3 miles to the finish, "Watch out there's a little slight incline on the right..." I was listening to her, but I had very little energy to say anything back. She kept asking if I wanted to be left alone, and I was like no. What I really wanted to say was "Please don't leave me." This was the only marathon, I've had where anybody ran/biked alongside me. Maybe the man upstairs knew I needed some help. With Nancy's yelling out running mantras, I managed to keep running. I told her I wanted to walk, but she countered with, "You can walk, but you would have to power walk." I thought, "I don't want to power walk." So I kept shuffling. The only place that I had to finally walk was the shortest, steepest hill on the Madonna reserve on the way to the chute with the white picket fences. The thick crowd lined up all alongside the fences. It was great, people were cheering and I felt like a rock star. I wished I could thank every single one of them. I was so thankful that Nancy stayed with me even at the finish. She was truly a God-send. I never really knew how much her encouragement helped me so much to stay focused when all my digging deep was spent.

That final downhill was at first glance seemed easy. I thought once I crested that nasty hill, I can push the pedal to the metal. But as soon as started the descent, cramps started to feel the strongest tug as if both my legs were going to lock up. I had to back off and gimp to the finish. So I thought, Well okay, if this is the kind of pace I need to finish, so be it. It looked painful, but I will finish. As I gimped along trying to run as fast as I could, I was watching the seconds tick away, "Hold on I'm coming..." It was like a movie in slow motion. I was so focused on stepping on the timing mats and wondered why at marathon finishes they always have 2-3 of them in succession. Which of the mats recorded the most accurate time? Then I spotted a little kid handing out medals--what a sight for sore eyes!   I leaned down to let him hang my medal around my neck.  I've been waiting for this for 4 hours 24 minutes and 46 seconds.

I'm coming, I'm coming! Baby got Back! No that's my jacket in my trunk.
What is this a stroll in the park?
Hamana-hamana finish! Translation: "I'm gonna, I'm gonna finish"

This has to be one of my hardest marathons ever. It was a combination of a lot of variables. It could have been what I ate, my lack of sleep, my blotchy training and half-hearted attempt to train on some days. It could have been the risks I took when I got my feet used to training without my orthotics and putting it back again in the last hour. The challenging course was a factor, the humidity was beyond my control. The course was definitely harder than Big Sur or Buzz Marathon. It's right up there with Oakland 2011 and both times in Nike Women's Marathon where I had to dig deep. Usually by the 13th mile, I have enough cues from my body to know, whether or not it's going to be a torturous or a semi "fun" marathon. Today was one of those "not-so-fun" days. But there's more marathons to run, more to train for. I can't begin to tell you how proud I am to have been a part of this Inaugural race. For a 4:24 finish, it was a hard-earned medal and honestly, the ones that are the toughest are the ones that motivate me to work harder. This is a special medal with a special meaning. I've hung it at my cubicle at work. Everyday I look at it and when I see it, it's a reminder of my struggles, my rough patches and how close I was to giving up when there's really no acceptable reason for me to give up. I know there will be more roads like that for me in the future in my running; my medal reminds me giving up is not an option.   
May you run long and happy!

Coach/Angel Nancy Steinmaus, Heidi, Liz, Me and Irma (Ex-SLO, now lives in Albuquerque, NM) 

The Marks:
The Expo: A+
Nice venue, quick and easy pick-ups.
Me on my way to get my bib
The grounds of Madonna Inn, where the SLO Expo was
Another shot of Madonna Inn

My favorite loot: The Jadeite Chalice from the Madonna Inn

Volunteers: A++
Thank you for coming out and supporting us. Sorry no pictures...
T-shirt: A+
Beautiful design, long sleeve & women's cut, always a plus in my book.

Medal: A+
Chunky and brilliant. Attractive ribbon

Goody Virtual Bag: A+
Green is in!

Course: A+
Beautiful but challenging.

Cost: B
Maybe next year do an early bird incentive?

Aid stations: A+ Some fruits were brought out too early, we need nutrition after coming back from the turnaround. At the fourth mile we're not depleted yet. Also might want to consider rationing food accordingly. It seems like the 1/2 marathoners, might not need as much food as the marathoners would. Just saying.)

Overall Grade A+
For a year 1 event, my experience with the race organization was top notch. I am looking forward to participating again in the near future. What's not to like? As Coach Nancy said, "Everyone who participated in today's race had a course record."

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