Friday, May 2, 2014

Hometown Race Weekend

I grew up in a little coastal California college town called San Luis Obispo. Very few people here in Texas have even heard of it and have no idea where it is. I've said "it's halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles right along the coast" more times than I can remember. I love my little town. It's perfect in every way and the only place in California I'd ever want to live.

In 2012, after a 26 year marathon hiatus, San Luis Obispo held a new marathon and half marathon race, and my mom finished her first half marathon. I regretted not being able to come out there to race with her, but vowed to get my butt out there sooner rather than later. 2014 became that year! As soon as registration opened, I was in. It would be my 10th marathon and my second of the year.

Training went well leading up to the marathon, despite being the only one among my usual long run buddies doing a spring marathon. It was a bit of a mental challenge to keep going with training after completing two half marathons and another full marathon during the season. I was ready for a long run break! But I felt strong going into what would surely be a very tough marathon. Hilly Hilly HILLY.

I traveled to SLO by myself for six days to relax, hang out with my parents, and just enjoy being home and doing something different than my usual marathon routine. I got a chance to see my niece Katrina and her two sweet kiddos Hunter and Cambria in Santa Barbara after I arrived the Wednesday before race weekend.

I also got to see my girl Dennette while in SLO - friends for almost 20 years!

My mom and I drove the race course and I think the only thing I said the whole time was "wow" and "there's another hill." It was SO BEAUTIFUL, and despite the massive number of hills that just wouldn't quit, I was getting so excited to experience my hometown on foot like that.

But before I could run my marathon, I had to race a little 5K on Saturday. I had spontaneously decided to register for the Mo's Smokehouse Chase the Pig 5K the day before the marathon, figuring that if I was in SLO for a race, I might as well make it really worth my time and race both days. It wouldn't be a fast 5K but it would still be fun and give me a chance to loosen up and relax.

My mom headed over to Madonna Inn (if you've never heard of Madonna Inn, you're missing out. Google it!) for the 5K on Saturday morning. It was a beautiful day already and I was looking forward to a short, easy race on the Madonna Inn property. Years ago I actually worked here, and the property still fascinates me.

I figured I'd run about a 9 min pace, maybe a bit faster, nothing that would overly fatigue me. It was really fun running around the property, although the long steep hill in the beginning wasn't all that much fun. I figured it would just be a preview of the marathon hills. We had to hit that hill, plus a second one twice on the two loop course, so this wasn't much of a PR course anyway. I didn't really feel all that bad about not "racing" it at this point. I kept up a nice, slightly fast, not too uncomfortable pace and sped up as we crested the second hill to the fast finish.

It would be another 90 minutes before they did the awards, and even though I was sure I didn't place with my 26:59 time (8:43 pace), I'm glad I had the good sense to check the results before taking off for home. I ended up winning my age group! I was pretty happy, but surprised. a 26:59 5K is a very solid time, but I really didn't think it would get me a medal. What a pleasant surprise!

Now comes the marathon....

A lot of people asked me what my goal for the race was. In my mind not every race is an automatic PR attempt. If I plan to PR a big race, that's my focus for training. For this particular race, my focus was to maintain my fitness enough to just have fun. It was a challenging course, and a PR attempt (4:17) would hurt. I wanted to enjoy running in my hometown, to soak in the beauty of the wine country. I thought maintaining about a 10 minute per mile average would be a really reasonable "A" goal, and I definitely wanted to run under 4:30 ("B" goal), and at the very least, NOT WALK. So...could I do a 4:22? I'd give it a shot, but overall, I just wanted to enjoy myself.

I was up early Sunday morning. My mom drove me to the high school to drop me off about an hour before the race start. I saw my friend Sarah right before lining up in the corrals (she was running the half) and got a hug, so that was great. Since there were less than 1000 people running the race, and we weren't starting with the half marathoners, I knew it would be a very different experience that the other marathons I've done. I wouldn't have to jockey for position in those early miles, wouldn't have to worry about getting stuck behind slower runners or getting in the way of any faster runners. It would be awesome. I surprisingly wasn't very nervous, just excited, although as we were in the start corral and I was around people I didn't know, I definitely started to miss my marathon buddies. It would have been extra special to have them there with me. These thoughts went through my mind several times during the race.

At 6:00 sharp, we were off!

As soon as we turned down Monterey Street I just soaked in the fact that I was running IN MY HOMETOWN. The old art deco Fremont Theater came up on our left and it made me smile. I could see the Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa ahead. We were running through historic downtown, then through the old charming neighborhoods, then back by the high school, and I was loving every step of it. Our first long big hill was about 3 miles into the race, and I knew if I tackled that feeling good, the rest of the hills would be fine (I was certainly optimistic!). It really wasn't so bad at all, and it gave me a confidence boost. I waved to a friend's mom at mile 4, and before I knew it we were running out into the wine country, where we would spend the bulk of the race.

I snapped a pic while I ran down Orcutt Road in the early miles

Did I mention the weather was absolutely perfect? High 40s at the start, with lower humidity than expected. The sun was rising and the day was gorgeous. By the finish it would only be about 60 degrees, with some winds.

The hills were definitely daunting, and it seemed like as soon as we were done with one, we'd have to climb another, but none were too steep or too long (well, maybe the mile 7 one was a little rough). And the views around us made every one of those hills totally worth it. Blue skies, rolling hills of vineyards, mountains, horses....just perfect. Because the roads were completely closed and we were out in the country, there weren't very many spectators. That's very different than what I'm used to. However, we did have many, many volunteers from a local Youth Academy that were out cheering us on every mile or so. They would sing, cheer, and high five us and it was a great boost to see their smiling faces. The aid station volunteers were top notch as well, and even helped me refill my handheld water bottle a couple times so I didn't have to slow down too much. I got to chat with many fellow runners, as I seemed to be around many of the same people for much of the race. I even got to experience the half marathon leader fly by me at twice my speed about an hour into the race (CRAZY fast).

Around Mile 6

Aid station about 7.5 miles into the race. Pic courtesy of SLO Marathon

I was running exactly the pace I wanted to for the race, keeping my miles between about 9:35 and 9:50. It wasn't difficult to continue to run those miles, I was comfortable and happy, and I wanted to hold that for as long as I could during the race. I suppose if I did that, I actually had a shot to PR.

I hit the halfway point at about 2 hours, 9 minutes. Double that and I had a very solid marathon performance, but I knew that the later hills could really take a toll on me so I tried to just keep my head in the game. I honestly was not tired yet and not getting bothered by the hills. I had been hydrating and fueling well up until this point. We started running down another road on the course (Tiffany Ranch) that was dotted with some country homes and was very shaded and it was a nice change from being out on the main road (Orcutt). I just felt GOOD. I saw another friend right as we crested the steepest of all the hills (thankfully it was a short hill), and that gave me another boost. 15 miles in and I was pretty darn happy.

Around Mile 13

Around Mile 14

Another uneventful few miles with more and more hills, and my pace continued to hold steady. I really didn't start feeling the real effects of the marathon until 18 miles. My stomach started bothering me right after I fueled, and I just didn't feel so great all of a sudden. I had forgotten that from miles 16 to 20 is a steady incline, and I think it was finally starting to take its toll on my legs. I tried not to slow down, but I could tell I wasn't quite running the same pace that I had been. But I was still running, and that's all that mattered. I just hoped the yucky feelings would pass in the next couple miles and I'd get another energy boost to finish this thing out. But for the meantime I focused on the landmarks and the mile marker signs and just tried to make it from one to the next.

As I passed Mile 20, I knew I had definitely slowed. I was running about 45-60 seconds per mile slower now and my A goal was teetering on the brink of not happening. I was at 3 hours, 17 minutes when I hit Mile 20. It would be close, but I really needed to start speeding up again. I did remember that the last 10K was a net downhill and I hoped that this might give me a bit of a boost. Sadly, that elevation chart doesn't tell the whole story. There were still uphills and they were starting to kill me slowly.

Faking a smile at Mile 21

I saw my parents right before Mile 22. My sweet dad asked if I was okay and I was so happy to see them, even for a fleeting moment as I ran by. This was where I was supposed to fuel again....and there you have my one big mistake for this marathon. When you feel like crap and you start slowing down, YOU FUEL. I needed to eat again and I didn't. Perhaps my pace would have picked up if I had fueled my muscles when I was supposed to. But when you're in those later miles in a marathon you're not always thinking clearly.

At Mile 23 I saw my friends Erin and Jason and I yelled to them "Why do I keep doing this?" How awesome is it that Erin snapped a couple pics? What a sight for sore eyes she and her family were!

Thanks for the pics, Erin!

At this point, the course took us on a biking trail, and what a wonderful, peaceful change that was in these later miles. Spectators lined the trail and many had posted some funny, inspirational, motivating signs for us to see. Despite feeling so fatigued, I still managed several smiles on this stretch. To get off the trail, we had to cross over the Jennifer Street bridge, but to get up on the bridge required a steady climb on a switchback...definitely unusual for a marathon course! But thankfully it was an easy incline and nothing too taxing. I knew that we had less than 2 miles to go in the race. My miles were still coming in way over pace, but I was well under my "B" goal and well within hitting a second fastest marathon time, so my spirits were still up.

The best thing was that I still hadn't walked at all. Every step of this marathon was RUNNING.

Another couple of miles through neighborhoods before we would hit Madonna Inn property and the finish line. Just a couple more miles.....

I was SO DAMN TIRED. Every step felt like a crawl (it actually was a crawl....Mile 25 was 11:20!), but at least I was still moving forward.

My mom warned me about the very last hill you climb as you enter Madonna property. It doesn't look bad until you have to run it after 4 hours. And she was right....that hill was short and AWFUL. I was barely shuffling as I trudged up it. But I knew as soon as I crested it, it was a downhill quarter mile to the finish and I would finally be done.

You couldn't wipe that smile off my face if you tried as I finished out those last couple minutes of my 10th my hometown....with my parents waiting at the finish line.

4:25:33 - my second fastest! During what was by far the absolute most difficult course I had run. 

It was worth every single hill!

I'm already registered for the 2015 SLO Marathon. There's no way I'd miss running this race again. It was perfection.

And those friends I kept wishing were with me while I was running? They better get their butts out there with me.

How could they possibly resist THIS the day after the race???....

Baileyana Winery on Orcutt Road

Edna Valley Vineyards at Mile 19 on the course

Spending time with my family, with friends, winning my age group in a 5K, completing my 10th marathon, conquering hills, running through vineyards in my hometown....I'd say I had a really REALLY great weekend. I even read 3 books while I was gone. Sign me up for next year (oh wait....I DID)....