Thursday, May 06, 2010

The Orange County Marathon

I'm sure I blog way too much about my running, but this marathon was truly special... something I've been trying to do for years... and it all happened very unexpectedly. Here's my story... and it's not just about running... and hopefully it can inspire others to dream big, train hard, and shoot for the stars.

Back in 2006, as I was training towards the Boston Marathon in April 2007, I set off on a "Quest for Sub-3"... striving to run a marathon in under 3 hours (6:52/mile pace). To that point, I had never trained harder in my life for a race... and I ran my fastest times for 10K, 15K, and the half marathon leading up to race day. I flew to Boston with hopes high and came home with them crushed. That was the year of the nor'easter and I never ran a single mile that day at the necessary pace. I was embarrassed, frustrated, and disappointed with my performance... and worst of all suffering some injuries from over-training that kept me from running another marathon for 17 months.

Since then, I've encountered minor running injuries off and on... unable to be consistent enough with my running to make any progress at the marathon. In the meanwhile, I ran some tough, scenic marathons (Big Bear 2x and Leadville) since I wasn't in shape for a PR ("personal record"). Still, it seemed like I should be able to run a sub-3 marathon. In the past four years, I've run 35:53 for 6 miles, 38:40 for 10K, 57:45 for 15K, 64:55 for 10 miles, and five times in 1:25 or faster for a half marathon (twice in 1:23)... all of which pointed to my potential to run a sub-3 marathon... yet I had never gotten within ten minutes of that marathon goal.

After battling plantar fasciitis (inflammation of a tendon in the foot) for much of 2009, my training went well in the fall and I ran a PR 1:23:14 at the Mission Inn Half in Nov. I started targeting the L.A. Marathon for March 2010. I averaged 80+ miles per week (mpw) for 26 straight weeks (including tapering and an injury week)... 6 weeks in a row in Nov-Dec I ran 100+ mpw (including one week of 121). But I crashed and burned horribly at LAM. I wanted to try again soon and at least run a PR this spring and make progress towards sub-3:00 in the fall.

Since starting my "quest for sub-3" back in 2006, I hadn't even improved on my fastest time (3:11:50 at St George 2005... something I wanted to bury in the past since it was a downhill course). Meanwhile, one of my running friends who's my age who had not run sub-3 as of 2006 has since gone on to run sub-3 multiple times, including 2:41 a few weeks ago. Another friend in his 20s, who had not run sub-3 as of 2006, recently ran 2:28. Me? My bests since then have only been 3:14:56 at Boston '07 and 3:16:13 at LAM '10... both of which were huge disappointments for me.

Strategy for OCM?

I only had 6 weeks time between LAM and OCM... and I had never attempted full-effort marathons on such a quick-turnaround. This gave me: 2 weeks recovery from LAM (weekly mileage was 28.5 and 70.0), 2 weeks of solid training (82.0 and 83.5 miles), and 2 weeks of taper (67.6 and 28.0 before the marathon itself on Sunday)... and most importantly, I needed to correct my mistakes from LAM:

(1) Don't go out too fast. I crashed and burned horribly at LAM by going out too fast on the opening hills. But I didn't make that fatal mistake on Sunday, not even on the opening downhills. I kept my HR ~158-159 (about 2 bpm lower than at LAM) on the opening half and felt remarkably fresh at halfway... like I was just starting a half marathon race. My friend Sam Felsenfeld who is about my same speed got about a minute ahead of me after a couple of miles, but I didn't worry about it. I had to run my own race. By mile 10 or 11, I gradually caught up to him... but of course, his legs have run 6 marathons in the last 3 weeks... including 3:03 at Boston just 2 weeks ago... since he's running 60 marathons for his son this year.

(2) Fix the fuel and cramping problems. I've cramped up and bonked really bad in the closing miles of my last four marathons. This time: ate banana bread on the drive over... drank 1.5 quarts of UltraFuel (like uber-Gatorade)... took 5 gels (1 before the start, 4 more at miles 6, 11, 16, 21)... took 3 Endurolyte capsules (sodium, potassium, and magnesium) at start, mile 8, and mile 16. Never bonked. At mile 21, I was thinking and my mantra became, "What wall?" :-) Never cramped a bit. My fastest two miles were my last 2 miles.

(3) Lose some weight and try the old-school carb-deplete/load. I think I weighed 181 when I ran LAM (and even hit 183 at one point in the week or two before LAM). I was so mad at myself after LAM that I dieted while recovering. Lost 5-7 lbs that week. Lost 1-3 lbs for the next several weeks. Six days before OCM while carb-depleting, I weighed 164... 17 lbs of weight loss. My jeans wouldn't stay up without a belt. But it wasn't easy. Carb-depleting was miserable. Ate less that 20g of carbs a day for 7 straight days... that's not much carbs at all. My runs during that time were horrible... slow paces and high HR... but it didn't affect me mentally because I knew it was just glycogen depletion, and it would benefit me on race day.

Why OCM?

It was soon (at least sooner than San Diego Rock-n-Roll marathon in June). It was flat (at least flatter than Palos Verdes Marathon on May 16) and would probably have cool temps since it's next to the ocean. It seemed to be a good weekend... initially. I had to attend graduation at my school on the Saturday before, but no biggie. But that all changed quickly...

Ten days before race day, some of the men at my church decided to take the boys camping that weekend (Fri, Apr 30 to Sun, May 2) so we could all camp, bike, and fish together. Initially, I thought, "Nooooooooooo...." because I needed my rest for my big race. And I knew my son would want to go... and of course, I would want him to go... and me with him. I was so tempted to say, "I'm sorry, son... my race is that weekend... we can't go." But I couldn't. I didn't want to be "that dad"... you know, the dad whose own stuff is more important than his kids. Eleven year-old boys don't understand schedule conflicts. They just think they're not important if you say no to a camping trip. So against my better running judgment, I agreed that we'd go on Friday and Saturday but come home on Saturday night. And my son would also be bringing a friend who otherwise wouldn't be able to go. And I'd have to entrust these two rambuctious boys to the oversight of other dads while I attended graduation on Saturday morning. Things were getting complicated...

So my weekend?

Friday: drive an hour over to Costa Mesa to get my race bib at the expo, eat lunch with my friends Sam and John (both of whom were also running this race), drive home (east) on the friggin' 91 freeway on Friday afternoon (one of the worst in the LA/OC area), get home (later than I was supposed to), throw all the camping gear in the car, drive the 3 of us to Lake Perris, set up camp... and later that night in the dark when I moved my car to allow a friend to back in with his camper, I accidentally ran over two kids' bikes that had been left on the passenger-side of my car where I couldn't see them... major anguish and guilt-trip over that. :-( Went to sleep at 10:30pm.

Saturday: got up at 5:45am, ran 4.0 miles at Lake Perris, cooled off, entrusted the boys to friends, left at 7am, stopped by my house, showered (because I smelled like smoke from the campfire the night before), get dressed in coat & tie, cap & gown, attend graduation, drive back to camp (only had banana bread and iced tea for supper Fri, breakfast Sat, & lunch Sat), took the boys fishing for 2 hours in the hot sun (lathered in sunscreen and drinking tea non-stop), packed up camp, left at 4:30pm, got home at 5:30pm, unpacked, showered, threw all my race stuff in a bucket next to the door, was in bed by 9pm, and slept in my race clothes.

Sunday: never woke up for 7 hours until my alarm at 4am, used bathroom, grabbed race bucket, ate banana bread and drank UltraFuel while driving (also while driving: applying vaseline, pinning bib, putting on socks and shoes), arrived at the OC Fairgrounds (and forgot where I parked... had to walk the parking lot for 30min after the race searching for my car), hopped on the shuttle bus at 5:10am, found Sam, Tim, John, and other friends, lined up, ran. I didn't even know where I was running... hardly had a chance to look at the course map... knew where 3 hills were.

My Race?

Half a mile into the race, I look at my GPS watch at it read 4.5 miles and suddenly realized... dang it... I forgot to reset the daggum thing after Saturday's run while camping. (I normally do that at home on my laptop... but I never got a chance to connect it.) But it's too late. I can't reset it now. I know I ran 4.00 miles on Saturday, but I had no idea what the time was. Suddenly found myself having to "run blind"... other than knowing my HR and mile splits. I realized, I'll just have to run 26 one-mile races today. It's ok. Just get under 3:10. I won't be fast enough to get near sub-3 so it's not like I'm gonna miss it by a few seconds anyway.

The miles start clicking off and I keep running miles under 7:00/pace but yet I'm in control... I'm not straining... not feeling exhausted at all. It felt like a simple, long training-run... not much effort... the miles were clicking away one by one by one so easily... but of course, I'm not used to running on such flat ground.

When I caught up to Sam around mile 10 or 11, I asked his overall time and tried to subtract it from mine to figure out how to interpret my overall time. He told me and I tried doing the math and couldn't figure it out... 34 minutes? 33?... too much blood going to my legs instead of my brain... :-) (Afterward discovered the difference was 33:37.19.) I gradually pulled away from Sam and he cheered me on. But I reminded him that I had a history of crash and burn. He agreed. I replied, "You're not supposed to agree with that." :-)

Around mile 12 or 13, I crossed the first timing mat. I didn't hear a beep like I should have (and I crossed by myself with no one else right with me). I yelled back at the lady overseeing the device (who had pointed me through the timing blocks... which were rather narrow... only about 5-6' apart), "Hey, it didn't beep?!?" but I didn't stop and she had no idea who I was. But it concerned me. I looked down and my D-tag chip (the computerized timing device) on my shoe had come unglued and was flopping open (you can see that on my left in some of the pictures). I stopped and stuck it back together... but it came undone a few seconds later. No time to stop now... it was still stuck under two sets of my shoe laces. But I kept an eye on it all day to make sure I never lost it.

Everything was going smoothly... incredibly so. I geared back on the three small hills to prevent my HR from going too high and then picked the pace back up. At mile 21, I was feeling so good, I was thinking, "What wall?" and started pushing my HR a tad higher. I was reeling people in the whole second half of the race. No one ever passed me after the half-marathoners split off... and I wasn't surprised because I was careful not to overdo it on the first half. But somehow, one guy caught up to me around mile 22 or 23. I could tell by his breathing he was working a whole lot harder than I was. I also knew there was one last hill after we left the Santa Ana bike trail and Fairview Park. I went up that hill at a steady pace (not too fast and not too slow) and hard-breathing guy hung with me.

After that hill, I looked at my watch and calculated that I had exactly 2 miles left. And I just took off and ran like a man possessed. I left that poor guy in my wake. I can't imagine what he was thinking when I surged that late in the race, but I was feeling great... no bonking, no cramping... and I knew it was nothing but flat ground to the finish. I knew I was running a PR... but I had no idea what my overall time might be. 3:02? 3:03? I didn't know. I just wanted to get the best PR possible. My 25th mile... are you ready for this? = 6:26 (Yes, that's correct... 30 seconds faster than my average pace.) I didn't care that my HR had now risen into the 170s.

And I didn't let up. Occasional by-standers were pointing me out and cheering me on because I was clicking and kicking. In the 26th mile, my Garmin watch was showing a pace under 6:00/mile (!!!) and my HR was going higher and higher... but it didn't matter. I felt strong and was about to finish and I was running a marathon PR. I had a smile sand-blasted on my face because I knew it was my day. I couldn't stop smiling. I was pumping my fist as I crossed intersections and came across spectators.

I passed the 3-mile marker for the 5K and knew there was only one-tenth left. I sprinted for all I was worth... one more corner... I turn the corner and see the finishing clock ahead for the first time with less than 50 yards left... 2:59:20!!! I COULD NOT BELIEVE MY EYES!!!

I had no idea until that point... with just a few seconds left... I was going to run sub-3... I was whooping and hollering as I running towards the finish... I had no celebration dance planned because I wasn't expecting this... I just put two fingers up with each hand since there was a big "2" on the clock instead of 3... and crossed in 2:59:33. After crossing the line, I just shouted and yelled for all I was worth! A photographer from the Orange County Register took a bajillion pictures of me because I was so elated. I finally had to tell her to stop and told her my name, age, city, and that I had wanted to do this for years... my first sub-3 marathon. I look over to the side and see John and he was so happy for me. I spent several minutes in the chute just explaining to him through the fence that I couldn't believe what I just did... and that I had run a negative split and my last two miles were so freakin' fast.

I went through the chute, got water, found John (who ran a solid 2:50). A few minutes later, I found Sam (he ran a solid 3:06) and his wife, kids, dad (who ran the half), and step-mom. They were so happy for me. I wanted more than anything to call my wife and kids... but my daughter had lost our extra cell phone and so I had my wife's cell phone and she didn't have one on her.

I was so choked up afterward. I felt like Jim Valvano wandering around on the basketball court... I just wanted to hug someone. I didn't want Sam and John to notice the tears in my eyes so I kept stepping away from them. I wasn't crying because I ran fast. I was crying because I went camping with my son and I just wanted to hug him. I had done it the right way. When I got home, I told him, "You know, if I had run sub-3 today and not gone camping with you... it would've been hollow, shallow, and empty. I would have much rather missed my goal... even by a few seconds... and gone camping with you. I enjoy running, but I love you." Priorities matter.

But then my worst nightmare... I didn't attach my D-tag correctly on my shoe (didn't know that at the time, but now I do)... the chip part was under the laces and it never read all day... OCM had no results for me. And my Garmin file was messed up because it had Saturday's 4-mile run at Lake Perris, OCM, and then I never hit the stop button until long after the race. After analyzing the Garmin file, I evidently ran 2:59:28. I emailed OCM and after four of the longest days of my life, I heard back from them and they authorized and included my results based on my Garmin file and a finishing photo from the OC Register. Whew!


It was rather fortuitous that I was so stoked at the end because that photographer from the Orange County Register shot a great photo of me right after I finished which documents that I ran sub-3. And I even ended up with my picture in the paper (at least the online version).

I know some of my non-running friends were kinda surprised that I was so disappointed after I ran the L.A. Marathon. Sure I finished, but my goals were so much higher that day (and not unreasonable either). It's kinda funny... but 6 weeks ago at LAM I had 7 goals for that race (and only achieved one of them):

(1) Top 100 (ended up needing 2:57 to do so at LAM... at OCM, I was 23rd overall... but granted... OCM had 1500 marathoners while LAM had 25,000... but still I was in the top 2% at OCM)

(2) Sub-3:00 (I ran 3:16 at LAM but 2:59 at OCM)

(3) Sub-7:00/mile pace (My average pace was 7:29 at LAM but 6:51 at OCM)

(4) Qualify for guaranteed NYCM entry with 3:10:00 (missed it at LAM; got it at OCM)

(5) PR (missed it at LAM; got it at OCM)

(6) BQ = qualify for the Boston Marathon (got it at LAM; moved myself several corrals closer to the start at Boston by my time at OCM)

(7) Negative split... running the second half faster than the first (ugly 8-min pos split at LAM; beautiful 1:48 neg split at OCM 1:30:38/1:28:50)

Also, I never stated this, but I thought it'd be really cool to do what my friend Pam did at CIM... run my last mile as my fastest mile. I certainly didn't do that at LAM. My last four miles at LAM were 8:34, 8:19, 8:07, & 8:01... my four slowest miles of that miserable day... and those were all downhill. My last four miles at OCM were 6:47, 6:57 (some uphill), 6:26, and ~5:55.

Sorry for the long report. It's been such a long journey to the land of sub-3:00... and it happened when I least expected it. I wasn't being modest or sand-bagging when I stated my goal for OCM was merely 3:10. At one point to a friend, I even mentioned 3:05 and felt extremely nervous saying that... I remembered all too painfully how my hopes were recently crushed at LAM and didn't expect a lot better on Sunday. But sometimes it's your day... or maybe your weekend. :-)

Thanks for reading.