Friday, December 15, 2017

Race Report: California International Marathon 2017 (AKA The Surprise PR!)

Posted by Chen

I’m going to be real trite here and say: Is this thing on?

It’s been nearly 2 years since I last posted on this blog, and I have to say – I miss the days of documenting our training and telling stories of our experiences (and mishaps) along the way! As such, I thought I’d pop back in and write a race report for my 6th California International Marathon (CIM) and 32nd marathon overall, which happened a couple weeks ago on Sunday, December 3rd.

Going into this race, I felt calm and strong, but given that I had also been run-streaking for 243 days, I had major doubts about whether I’d truly been able to taper while running a minimum of 3.1 miles every single day. I wasn’t stressing about that, though; I had very few expectations and figured it would just be an interesting exercise to see what happened when I trained for a race by streaking. After 31 marathons, it’s always good to mix things up J.

Despite my tempered hopes, I also knew that my training runs had gone pretty well this cycle. Between the Santa Rosa Marathon in August (during which it was a million degrees and I slogged through to a 3:56 finish) and CIM, I had 12 weeks of consistent tempo work and long runs, with several track/interval/hill sessions thrown in there for good measure. It was nice to see progress again after ~2 years of generally mediocre (read: lazy) running, and while I still thought my PR days were behind me prior to this race, I figured I would try for a BQ time (which for me in 2019 meant a 3:40, or a 3:36-3:37 if I wanted to guarantee a spot). Aging up has its perks!

One thing I love about CIM is that it’s relatively close to the Bay Area, making for a pretty casual race weekend routine. I’ve run this race every year since 2011 with the exception of 2015, which means I know exactly where I need to be and when. As a sometimes neurotic planner, that knowledge helps me minimize any logistics-related stress.

My general CIM weekend schedule consists of a shake out run Saturday morning, heading up to Sacramento after lunch, checking into my hotel downtown, walking to packet pick up at the convention center, and then finding delicious carbs as well as an adult beverage or two. And that adult beverage is key. Important part of training. This year, I did exactly that, and I found some very tasty Thai food at a place called Chic on Q. If you’re ever in downtown Sac-town, I highly suggest you check them out!

While we ate dinner in our hotel room, Will and I started watching a ridiculous movie (Unforgettable) with Katherine Heigl and Rosario Dawson that may as well have been on Lifetime. It was awesome in that awesomely bad kind of way, so I obviously had to stay up way too late to see how it ended. And it was actually kind of fascinating and I’m glad I did. But with that, it was really time for me to get my ass to bed, and I managed to fall asleep quite quickly.

Race day

Race morning came with an early wake-up call of 4am so that I could get ready and catch the 5am busses to Folsom, where the race would begin. For those not familiar with CIM, it’s a point-to-point course from Folsom to downtown Sacramento with a net downhill of ~400 feet and rolling hills throughout the first 21 miles (it levels out after that). I love rolling hills because they allow me to mix up my muscle usage, which for me means I fatigue less quickly. That said, this course is often billed as being a fast one and good for Boston Qualifying, which some people take to mean that it’s flat or all downhill. I assure you it is not! It certainly doesn’t have the hills of San Francisco, but be prepared for lots of little ups and downs.

Another thing I love about CIM is that they allow you to stay on the warm, heated busses until just before the race start (7am). That was a particularly nice feature to have that morning given that it was in the upper 30s, and we weaksauce Californians can’t hang with that. We arrived in Folsom around 5:50am or so, and I was still so sleepy that I ended up taking a legit nap until 6:20am (you know you’re relaxed pre-race when that accidentally happens!).

When I woke up and saw that I was one of maybe 3 people left on the bus, I decided I should probably get this show on the road. Perhaps the thing I love the MOST about CIM is the seemingly never-ending line of porta-potties that they have at the start. It seriously takes many minutes to walk from one end of the porta-potty row to the other, and as a runner whose worst nightmare is pooping my pants mid-race, it’s like a fantasy come true. I found a line that seemed shorter, made it through within 20 minutes, reluctantly took off my warm sweats, and bag checked my gear.

I headed towards the starting area and found the 3:37 pacer, figuring I’d stay somewhere around that group for a while. I don’t actually like running WITH pace groups, because I find people can be oddly territorial about their position near the pacer, and in crowded races with narrow streets, it can be impossible to get around them. However, I knew the CIM course well enough to know that the streets would be wide enough for me to find my own space while still having someone to follow.

The national anthem was pretty cool this year, as it was played by the trumpet player from Cake (who I never knew was local to Sac-town!). That was followed by another gem of a moment, when just before the gun went off, to pump up the crowd, they played “Call Me Maybe” by Carly Rae Jepsen. I was moderately obsessed with that song back in 2012 (just ask Rachel about the shenanigans I pulled at her wedding), and it was another hint that maybe this would be a good day.

The gun went off at 7am sharp like it always does, and I promised myself I would follow my (loose) plan of keeping it VERY easy for the first couple miles before settling into a steady pace. I clocked in at 8:16 and 8:20 for my first two, which was definitely faster than I’d planned for, but the effort level was right. After that, I naturally picked up the pace to the low 8’s, which was again faster than I’d anticipated, but it felt quite easy, so I went with it.

One thing I noticed early on was that even though I was picking up my pace, the 3:37 group was still in front of me, meaning the pacer was WAY ahead of goal time, and I knew from that point on that I couldn’t rely on him and needed to monitor my own Garmin. PSA to pacers everywhere: Don’t be like that guy.

I don't actually have any idea when this photo was taken. Let's pretend it was taken early on.

Although I was keeping my effort steady, I noticed that my pace slipped to the 8:1X’s during miles 7-9, which normally would have made me nervous, leading to all sorts of self doubt and negative thoughts. One thing I’ve tried to work on with my running lately is my mental game, and I think that played a huge role in my ability to PR that day. Instead of worrying that I was already falling apart before mile 10, I reassured myself that I was still running at an easy effort and that my slip in pace 1) wasn’t that dramatic (like, seriously, Chen – get a grip), and 2) probably had to do with the hills at that point in the race. That tactic worked – I let it go, and I subsequently saw my pace drop back down into the low 8’s after that. And if I did see an occasional mile in the 8:1X’s, I reminded myself that this entire race had already gone faster than anticipated and that I was still feeling good.

1 – 8:16
2 – 8:20
3 – 7:58 (downhill)
4 – 8:03
5 – 8:02
6 – 8:04
7 – 8:11
8 – 8:14
9 – 8:11
10 – 7:57

Mile 10 is one of my favorite moments in the race, when you make a big turn in Fair Oaks and see a ton of people cheering and screaming their faces off for you. Marathon spectators are the best (and marathon volunteers are the bestest). That turn is quickly followed by one of the largest and longest climbs of the race, but I put my head down, reminded myself that I lived in SF for 8 years and that this was nothing, and got over that hill at a steady effort.

This was definitely taken like two seconds after the photo above. Again, let's keep pretending.

After that, I fell into a groove, and things were generally a blur through the middle miles. At that point, I had thrown away the disposable water bottle that I always start with, meaning that I had to actually utilize the water stops. It's always comical during a goal race when you don’t want to waste too much time stopping, so you try to run through them but just end up spilling electrolytes all over yourself. Word to the wise: Just stop, drink, and start up again. It doesn’t actually take that much extra time, and you end up in a much more hydrated place J.

11 – 8:01
12 – 8:08
13 – 8:02
14 – 8:01
15 – 8:11
16 – 7:55
17 – 8:02
18 – 8:05
19 – 7:57
20 – 8:04

I remember hitting the area around 19 or 20 when they always have a large inflatable brick wall for you to run through, and I was amazed at how strong I still felt. This is usually the point in a race when I know if I’m going to negative split (a rarity) or if I’m going to blow up (yep, usually), and this time, I told myself that this was where the real race began.

Another part of my mental game focus has been telling myself that marathons are supposed to hurt, and that when the pain sets in, you should just expect it and embrace it, rather than let it get you down. So when I slowly picked up the pace further into sub-8:00 territory and finally started feeling the fatigue that I normally feel in marathons, I let it happen, told myself it was normal, and kept going.

At this point, I had long passed the 3:37 group and was coming up on the 3:32 group, and I started to do some mental math. A PR (which at the time was 3:31:12) still seemed out of the question, but I figured something in the low-to-mid 3:30s was still possible, which would far surpass my expectations for the day, and that gave me an extra boost.

It looks like I'm trying harder in this photo, plus it's sunnier out, so let's assume this happened later in the race.

It wasn’t until mile 24 that I realized a PR was actually possible (I was still in disbelief/shock about that even as it was going down in front of me), so I decided to give it everything I had left and ran my last 2.33 miles at tempo pace, which I never imagined I could do at the end of a full marathon. As I made the last turn towards the state capitol, I sprinted it in and crossed the line with a new PR of 3:30:51. Even as I received my medal and post-race treats, I was still in disbelief but also incredibly elated with the entire race experience.

21 – 8:04
22 – 7:59
23 – 7:53
24 – 7:54
25 – 7:37
26 – 7:24
26.33 – 7:02

Overall time: 3:30:51 (8:01 Garmin pace, 8:03 official)

Yay for free race videos from which you can steal a free screenshot!

As I said before, I legitimately thought my days of PRing were over (because let’s be honest, we’re getting old here), but after this race, I’m eager to see if I can finally run a sub-3:30. This has been a goal of mine since marathon #2 (goal for marathon #1 was to simply not die), because there was a time in my life when running a single sub-8:00 mile seemed impossible. To hold that pace for 26.2 would mean a lot to me, and I think I can do it. I just need to do what I did this time and not flake on my speed work every single week J.

In terms of what’s next, I’ve been keeping up the run streak (today was Day 256!) but plan to keep it easy until the New Year. At that point, I’ve signed myself up for a strength training program and am really eager to see how that impacts my running. I will likely sign up for Mountains 2 Beach in May and then CIM again in December (creature of habit), so I’ll have a couple of shots on goal in 2018.

Until then, I plan to consume my body weight in wine. Every week. Cheers, and happy holidays, everyone!


  1. Congrats on the race! I got a bit teary for you while reading! So, your run streak is 3.1 miles per day?


    1. Thanks so much, Wendy! And yes, my streak is a minimum of 3.1 miles a day. Totally arbitrary - it just happened to be that my shortest run in the first week was 3.1, so I figured that would be my goal moving forward :).

      Melissa (AKA Chen)

  2. Congratulations on this awesome PR 6 months ago!! Sub-3:30 is happening. I can really relate when you say you started doing the mental math... the closer I get to the finish of a race, the more I start calculating what's possible and impossible :)

    You know, I just recently signed up for a few crazy things we did several years ago, and I'm glad to have this blog to look back at all my race reports, see all the mistakes I made, and attempt to not make them again. We should revive the blog!!