Thursday, March 25, 2010

Running from the Stadium to the Sea

We live in the internet age so yeah, people already know my time at the Los Angeles Marathon (LAM) on Sunday... 3:16:13... basically half splits of 1:34/1:42... an ugly 8-minute positive split. And yeah, I'm disappointed with my performance, although I feel I gave it my all. But here's the story.

Background and Training

So back in 2003, I ran the L.A. Marathon as my return to marathoning. It was my fifth marathon, but my first in five years. My training for it was pathetic. In the 12 months leading up to it, only 3x did I run farther than 14 miles (17.8 was the longest)... and two of those runs were only 12 and 9 days before the marathon when you're supposed to be tapering... a recipe for disaster... and it was. It was a warm sunny day... and the last 8 miles were pure misery. In long-distance running, you can never do better than your training. My training was abysmal and so my race was painful.

That year, LAM had the novel idea of printing our names in big letters on our race bibs. It was a great idea while I was running decent (well, at least running) in the first half of the race. But in the death march of those last 8 miles as by-standers would yell, "Go Jeff! You can do it, Jeff!"... I just wanted to be anonymous, and for it all to end as soon as possible... which was about the only motivation that kept me moving.

That was then, this is now. Now 9 marathons and 14,000 miles later, I entered the L.A. Marathon again, this time hoping for a PR ("personal record"). After that initial experience in '03, I had pretty much sworn off this race. It was hard running through the throngs of 20,000+ runners in the opening miles. For several miles, you couldn't run full stride because of the thick mass of humanity surrounding you. And it all seemed too much like an "event," even a circus, rather than an actual race. I really prefer to run the smaller marathons in more scenic locales instead of the big-city mega-thons and their logistical hassles.

But for 2010, LAM was sold and received new management. A new course was designed... running from Dodger Stadium, through Hollywood and Beverly Hills, and ending at the beach in Santa Monica. And the race promoters hyped it as a "landmark every mile." So I figured I'd give it another shot.

After battling plantar fasciitis for much of 2009, my training started going well in the fall. I ended up running a PR at the Mission Inn Half in Riverside and that projected that I could potentially (and finally!) run a sub-3:00 marathon... a longtime goal of mine which I've never actually come close to doing. Running that fast doesn't come natural (at least not for me). It takes large amounts of consistent training. For 6 months, I only missed a total of 10 days of running (8 due to a hamstring strain in January, a rest day after a marathon in Feb, and a rest day before LAM itself). It's not easy doing that... but it's the only way to improve at marathoning. Most of those runs began well before sunrise and one as early as 4:15am. Six of my long runs ended up in the rain (which is usually rare in SoCal... except for this winter). Nothing like running 20 miles in a downpour at 5:30am with cars driving by wondering, "What is that idiot doing out there?" Git 'er dun.... :-)

And there's no substitute for mileage in marathon training. So my weekly miles while training for the last 6 months have been: 62, 78, 77, 80, 80, 80, 80, 91, 100, 108, 100, 110, 121, 102, 62, 6 (hamstring strain), 80, 80, 85, 81, 81, 86, 89, 84, 58 (tapering), and 57 (including LAM)... an average of 81.3 miles per week for 26 straight weeks. In that span, I ran 21 runs of at least 20 miles (not counting LAM itself), the last several of which were fast-finish long runs in which I pushed the pace at the end of the run. And my training included other key workouts such as mile repeats, hill sprints, 14-mile MP (marathon-pace effort) runs, and LT runs (lactate-threshold). The only reason I mention this is simply to say I didn't show up on race day and expect to run a decent marathon without the training... I can only run as well as my training... but the cruel thing about marathoning is that even with all the solid training, there's still no guarantee that it will go well on race day... but conversely, it can't go well without the training either.

I give you some of that background to help you understand why I'm disappointed with my run at LAM. I know some of my friends are surprised that I'm disappointed. But I had been targeting this race for 6 months, my training had been solid and consistent, and my shorter races projected me to run at least 3:01 in a full marathon. I really didn't think I'd be quite that fast on Sunday, but I did think that 3:10 was very, very doable... almost shooting too low.

My mile splits from LAM (based on my Garmin 305):
Mile .... Time - AvHR MaxHR
Mile 01 - 6:50 - 155 - 170 (MaxHR is probably a false read)
Mile 02 - 6:38 - 164 - 176 (MaxHR is probably a false read)
Mile 03 - 6:26 - 162 - 169
Mile 04 - 7:20 - 165 - 176 (MaxHR is probably a false read)
Mile 05 - 7:21 - 166 - 171
Mile 06 - 7:11 - 164 - 168
Mile 07 - 7:02 - 162 - 166
Mile 08 - 7:25 - 161 - 164
Mile 09 - 7:13 - 161 - 165
Mile 10 - 7:20 - 161 - 164
Mile 11 - 7:10 - 162 - 168
Mile 12 - 7:10 - 162 - 167
Mile 13 - 7:32 - 162 - 166
Mile 14 - 7:06 - 163 - 168
Mile 15 - 6:57 - 161 - 167
Mile 16 - 7:14 - 164 - 169
Mile 17 - 7:14 - 165 - 169
Mile 18 - 7:34 - 166 - 169
Mile 19 - 7:23 - 165 - 169
Mile 20 - 7:54 - 167 - 169
Mile 21 - 8:10 - 167 - 171
Mile 22 - 7:58 - 166 - 170
Mile 23 - 8:34 - 166 - 168
Mile 24 - 8:19 - 164 - 168
Mile 25 - 8:07 - 163 - 171
Mile 26 - 8:01 - 167 - 173
..26.37 - 2:45 - 169 - 174
Totals = 3:16:13 (chip), 3:16:19 (gun), 7:29 avg pace, avgHR 164, 381st overall, 66.52 PLP

From the elevation profile, you can understand a little better...
(1) why miles 2, 3, and 15 were faster
(2) why miles 4, 5, 8, 13, 18-23 were slower
(3) why I'm very disappointed with miles 24 to the finish.

My Goals: (from toughest to easiest)
(1) Top 100 (would've ended up needing 2:57:34)
(2) Sub-3:00 – only if I ran a perfect race on a perfect day (didn't really expect to do this)
(3) Sub-7:00/mile pace (roughly 3:03:30 finish) – tough goal
(4) Qualify for NYCM guaranteed entry (sub-3:10:00)... seemed very doable based on all my race times (10-mile, 2 halves, and a 10K in past 6 months)
(5) PR – try to beat both my actual fastest (3:11:50 St George 05, severe downhill aided) and what I consider my PR (3:14:56 Boston 07)
(6) Qualify for Boston (sub-3:20:59)
(also) Negative split – run the second half faster than the first... which was possible because the toughest part seemed to be the opening 8 miles and the last 3 are a nice downhill.

I did get #6, the BQ, which used to be a huge, long-time goal for me, so I am grateful for that... but it's really disappointing not to get #5... that's my main goal as a runner for this year... and it seemed very doable. And if I at least got #4, it would be good progress towards goals #3 and #2.

Race Expo and Logistics

I got my first taste of the potential chaos of LAM before I even got to the race expo at Dodger Stadium on Saturday. On my way, going up the 5 and 101, the freeways became a parking lot. Still not sure why... other than, It's LA. Took me 2 hours to go 25 miles. I kept looking at the clock thinking, I'd better get to that stadium soon 'cause I can't run the race the next day without my bib... well, I guess I could, but not with any kind of official time. And I really wanted my bib... I had considered all kinds of possible names or slogans to put on it... "Me"... "Olden Sloe"... ended up settling on "Git er dun"... :-)

The expo itself was a zoo... crazy long lines for everything, and especially to pick up bibs. I only had to wait 45 minutes in line for mine, but afterward the line was multiple times longer... maybe as many as a thousand people waiting to get theirs standing in the sun in the parking lot at the stadium... on the day before you run 26 miles. Lesson learned for the next morning: get to the shuttle buses very early to beat the crowds or else my race could be ruined before it starts.

The expo seemed a little disorganized for such a major event... not just the crazy long lines for bib pickup, but everything else as well. They ran out of the race t-shirts which are free for registered runners. No biggie for me. I've got enough t-shirts... although LAM keeps emailing me now saying I can buy a finisher's t-shirt... how nice of them to offer. But when the expo ran out of sub-4 corral bracelets, that really bothered me. LAM only has two starting corrals (sub-3 and sub-4) to seed the faster runners at the front of the race. Back in November when I registered for this race, I sent in my race time from Big Bear last year and had a confirmed placement in the sub-4 corral. But you had to pick-up the blue sub-4 wrist bracelet at the expo or else you couldn't get into that corral on race day. After 15 more minutes of waiting, they got the bracelets for us.

For race day, LAM allowed no parking at Dodger Stadium (the start) since the race circled the stadium one full time before going out onto the roads. LAM wanted runners to catch pre-race shuttle buses from the finish line in Santa Monica (first bus at 2:30am; last bus at 6:00am). LAM also wanted runners to buy parking ($17) at the public parking structures in Santa Monica in advance for Sunday. Since I had my reservations for the shuttle and parking, I headed on towards Santa Monica where I was going to spend the night.

Traffic was crazy. The drive from Dodger Stadium took me nearly 2 hours (not counting my dinner)... I nearly ran it that fast on Sunday... well, not really, but you know what I mean. I had wanted to drive the race course to see the route and hills for myself in advance, but traffic was so ridiculous that wasn't even possible. I just wanted to find the fastest, easiest way to get to my room for the night so I could rest and relax before the big day.

Santa Monica itself on Saturday night was pure chaos. It's a small little beach city and it was completely overwhelmed by the crowds. Traffic was stand-still bumper to bumper. You could sit through a traffic light 4 or 5 times before getting through it. It could take 15-30 minutes just to circle one block. Parking was nowhere to be found. Even all the hotels had sold out their parking lots. I called my wife ~8pm and said, I can't park anywhere. I might have to drive home (70 miles away) and drive back at like 3:30am... or drive about 20 miles away and just sleep in my car... and I wasn't exaggerating. I was completely at a loss at what to do. I did find parking... finally... and checked in. Got to bed about 9:30pm, but tossed and turned most of the night. Really poor night's sleep.

Race Day

I woke up at 4:15am (before my alarm) knowing I'd better get my tail to the shuttle buses ASAP, even though I had a reservation on the 6:00am bus. I ate a PB & honey sandwich and had two cups of coffee and headed for the buses two blocks away. About 5:00am, I was on the bus heading to the stadium and got there ~5:30am... two hours before the start. I had no idea of the chaos I avoided by my early arrival.

About 5:45am, I entered the sub-4 corral and was only the second person there. So I got to relax and sit on the ground against a pole right near the front of that corral. My earliness paid off. Two hours later when the gun fired, I was only about 10 rows back from the Kenyans and crossed the start line only 6 seconds after the start. I never had to worry about tripping over the crowds in front of me. And I positioned myself strategically on the inside of the circle around the stadium to minimize the distance on that part of the route. And after 1 mile after I had circled the stadium, I looked over and saw the starting line and half the runners in the chute behind me had not even gotten to the start line yet. At LAM, it's absolutely imperative to get in the corrals up front.

So early that morning, I sat in the corral for 90 minutes as it slowly filled up. Most of the time I spent chatting with one of the Legacy Runners (there's 234 runners who have run LAM all 25 years). He was a great guy. Until 2006, he had always run LAM under 3:30. But then he was in a real bad car wreck. He figured his LAM streak was over, but his kids convinced him to do it that year even though he was injured and on crutches! He said he was bloody and sore afterward, and it took him over 6 hours, but he was very glad to have completed it. He's yet to break 5 hours since the wreck, but he hoped to do so on Sunday. I sat there and thought. Wow. Just wow. I hope it went well for him. What an inspiring guy. Made my day just talking to him.

Little did I know about the chaos outside the corrals. Bathrooms in the stadium and porta-potties outside were all overwhelmed by the 25,000 people. LAM was unprepared for the over-hydrated masses that had an immediate issue to take care of. As one runner put it, "An army may travel on its stomach, but marathoners travel on their... well... you know." :-)

But that's nothing compared to the traffic. I've heard reports and seen pictures of hordes of people having to walk/run from the freeway to the stadium... more than a mile or so... just to get to the starting line... because the freeways became so grid-locked. It wasn't just people being dropped off in cars... even the shuttle buses couldn't get through and people were jumping out the doors and running to the stadium because they knew they were going to miss the start. The start ended up delayed by 22 minutes... and at the time as I sat in my corral, I kept wondering why... but fortunately the sun never came out in full force so the late start didn't push us into the heat of the day (as expected).

It had dawned on me as I left the chaos of the expo on Saturday... basically LAM 2010 was like an inaugural race, even though this was its 25th year... it had new owners, new management and a new course... a situation ripe for disaster when you've got 25,000 runners, a p2p course, shuttle buses, parking issues, and major road closures. It'd be really hard for them to pull it all off smoothly with no snafus. So now, I'm really glad I got there early and avoided ruining my race before it even started... I don't need their help with that... I can do that myself out on the course. But enough with the logistics.


I didn't do the carb deplete-load thing that some of my marathon friends do. But I did load up on carbs... good carbs... for three days starting on Thursday. I also was drinking fluids non-stop to hydrate well, especially on Saturday. I had a good plate of spaghetti on Santa Monica Blvd on Saturday night... well, other than the long hair I found cooked into it... so the meal now goes down as my worst pre-race meal ever. But I kept telling myself despite all the snafus with traffic, the expo, parking, etc... just stay positive... it'll all work out.

And early Sunday morning, three hours before the race, I had my PB & honey sandwich with coffee. And on the bus and in the corral, I finished a second cup of coffee and a bottle of water. I took three gel packs: (1) 10 minutes before the start; (2) another at 10 miles; and (3) another at 20 miles.


It was supposed to be ~52° F and cool at the start, and it was. The humidity was ~75% (acc. to the TV broadcast)... but that's not miserable or unreasonable. Weather at the finish in Santa Monica was more of a concern. It was supposed to be sunny and a high of 75° in the mid-afternoon. But fortunately, the marine layer of thin overcast cloud cover never burned off. It was almost hard to detect shadows. It was mid-60ish when I finished... warmer than I prefer for a marathon, but again not unreasonable.

Tactics and Race Execution

I ended up at front of sub-4 corral (just behind sub-3 runners) and crossed the start line within 6 seconds of the start.

And I must say, I thought I did an excellent job running the tangents. I'm surprised my GPS says I ran an extra 0.15 miles. I was on the inside of the circle going around Dodger Stadium. I always spotted the direction of the next turn and ran gradually diagonally to it... often by myself apart from the parade of other runners. But running the tangents like that can help prevent running an extra minute or two in a marathon with all the turns and curves.

LAM records my 5K splits as:
05K - 20:46 - 0:20:46
10K - 22:52 - 0:43:38
15K - 22:29 - 1:06:07
20K - 22:39 - 1:28:46
25K - 22:18 - 1:51:04
30K - 23:25 - 2:14:29
35K - 24:59 - 2:39:28
40K - 25:54 - 3:05:22

I pretty much ran by feel. I wore my HR monitor, and I suspect some people think I'm obsessed with the thing, but I really didn't watch my HR or pace much while racing. There were so many hills on the first 8 miles that pace was irrelevant. You just had to go by feel. And I could always feel if I was starting to push too hard, and usually my HR monitor would indicate that as well.


I'm still trying to figure out how I missed all my main goals so miserably. Running 3:10 seemed way too doable, almost as if I was shooting too low. As I was running towards the finish and knew I could push no harder because I was cramping up so bad... I was wondering... am I just an over-achiever at shorter distances (half in 1:23, 10K in 38, 10-miles in 64) and just an under-achiever at the marathon? Or maybe both? I dunno. The frustrating thing is that I trained specifically for the full marathon... not for shorter races... lots of long training runs as I mentioned... lots of MP miles.

But I was cramping up pretty bad in the last 6-8 miles. It was really demoralizing when the 3:10-pace group and their balloons on a stick came bobbing by ~mile 18. And I couldn't do anything about it. I saw my goals running off down the road without me. Of course, it was also pretty bad when I got passed by Minnie Mouse around mile 10 or 11... you never want to get passed by a guy dressed like Minnie Mouse in a race... never... I don't care who you are... at least with my disappointing run at Boston 07, then I was able to beat the Easter Bunny and a Dairy Cow.

It was really disappointing to not get to take advantage of the super sweet downhill in the last 3 miles. The women's winner ran 2 of her fastest miles of the day (5:10 and 5:17) in those 3 miles... but not me. At that point, I was spent and cramping up really bad... calves... legs... abdomen... very hard to keep from stopping and walking, but I never did... but I also never ran faster than 8:01 for any of those 3 miles... over a minute slower than what I had hoped. It really hurts to be cramping up while running downhill... well, actually it hurts if you're cramping and running uphill too... or on flat ground... or walking... standing... sitting... breathing... existing...

After I finished, I just wandered around kinda aimlessly and cluelessly. I didn't know what to say. I wasn't happy at all with my performance and couldn't explain why it went this way. I walked on back to my car and was happy that it wasn't towed. :-) And then I remembered, Dang it... I checked a bag at Dodger Stadium that I needed to pick up... and my brain was so fried, I couldn't remember what I had put in it... My wallet? No... Cell phone? No, I don't have one... What was in the mystery bag? So I walked back to the finish only to find that I had to descend down the pier nearly 100' in elevation (not distance) to where the bags were. After a long wait, I got my treasures and was grateful to find all the insignificant food and trash I had checked before the race. Good planning by my pre-race self. Then I looked up and saw the street way above me... seemingly perched atop a high alpine peak... in my delusional state of mind I wondered, Where do you catch the tram back up to the top?

Anyway. Such was my day. Three days later, I've had lots of time to sit and think... especially to sit... my legs still don't like the idea of walking yet... I nearly fell on my face in front of a class of students on Monday because my legs didn't respond when my brain clearly sent them nerve signals to move and they didn't. And I'm still trying to sort it all out. I dunno. Maybe I just haven't given myself enough time lately to develop as a marathoner. I ran Leadville (July 09) and Big Bear (Sept 09) on minimal training (due to the PF) and survived those two. It's really only been the 6 months since that I've had solid non-stop training (except for the hamstring hiccup in Jan). It really takes several years of consistent training to truly develop in the marathon.

Did I peak too early in my training cycle? I don't think so. I did a 2-week taper this time and my runs in weeks 5, 4, and 3 were progressively getting faster and better. I felt like I was peaking just right for this race.

Was I dehydrated? Again, I don't think so. It didn't turn out hot and sunny, but I did sweat a lot nonetheless. I took Power-Ade or water at nearly every mile aid station. And I drank a cup of coffee and a bottle of water on the bus and then in the starting corral... and I seemed sufficiently hydrated and re-used both of those containers for other purposes. I am wondering if I need to take electrolyte supplements to help avoid cramping and to help stay hydrated though.

As I still scratch my head and wonder what happened, I'm thinking probably more than anything, I just ran too hard on the hills (both uphill and especially downhill) in the opening 8 miles. I think I probably trashed my calves and quads at the cellular level more than I realized at the time (even though my effort and HR didn't indicate I was overdoing it)... and then I just paid for it later. Many of those opening downhills were pretty steep. I should've remembered all the warnings about the same kind of downhills at the start of Boston... if you run them too fast, your quads will hate you at the end... and it'll become a death march.

But you know, at Boston 07, I regretted that I never attacked the course and ran aggressively... I never gave myself a chance to do well that day. On Sunday at LAM, I may have overdone it on the opening, even though it didn't seem like it at the time, but I'd rather go for it than be hesitant. Hitting half in 1:34 seemed very reasonable (at the time)... 9 minutes slower than I ran the Palm Springs Half 5 weeks ago (1:25)... but then again the front half of LAM was much, much hillier than Palm Springs.

Fortunately, unlike Boston 07 (my last marathon PR attempt), I'm healthy and injury-free... sore from cramping... but injury-free. So I should be able to recover, resume training, and build on this (unlike Boston)... well, I hope to. Three days later, my left calf and thigh are still pretty sore. We'll have to see how this recovery goes. If it goes well, I might consider doing a quick turn-around marathon instead of waiting again until the Fall... maybe the OC Marathon (May 2), maybe Palos Verdes (May 15), maybe San Diego Rock-n-Roll (June 6). But they each have their plusses and minuses... and I'm still pretty stiff and sore.

And I don't mean to sound depressed or distraught by this race report. I am frustrated and disappointed with my race performance and execution. I don't get a second chance at a marathon this weekend... I'm not built like my friend Sam Felsenfeld who is running 60 marathons this year... and wow, I have so much more admiration for him now after the pain I felt this weekend. My disappointment is simply that I trained very well for this race and just didn't execute it well on race day. That's frustrating.

But all in all, it was still a great run. Despite the logistical snafus with the new course this year, it was a great race. The course has a net downhill of 430' but it's still not an easy course... especially in miles 18-23 with some uphill. The downhill finish to the beach is super sweet if your legs aren't trashed from the hills at the opening.

It's an incredibly scenic and iconic course. Flying down Rodeo Drive was a blast. Running towards the Hollywood sign on Sunset Blvd was great. It was great running down Hollywood Blvd in front of the Pantages Theatre (where my family saw Cats just last weekend), Grauman's Chinese Theatre, the Kodak Theatre. On the TV broadcast, they showed that even Samuel L. Jackson was outside at the Kodak Theatre cheering on runners. My son thought it was cool that Mace Windu had cheered me on. :-) The crowds were outstanding... all the way... lots of bands, cheerleaders, and other groups.

So yeah, it was still a good experience, just not a good run on my part. It had been 7 years since I had run LAM, and this time I really hoped to nail it. But I didn't. But I am healthy, injury-free, and looking forward to my next attempt.

Sorry for the way too long description and thanks for reading. And btw, here is a great time-lapsed video of the race.