Last week, I ran a secret marathon. If you know me, I’m terrible at keeping secrets, especially when they’re as big as, “I’m running a marathon!!” Despite my recently attained ultramarathoner-status, I still think 26.2 is a pretty big deal. However, I didn’t want to make it a big deal, hence the secrecy on the blog.
The truth is, I had thought about running the Santa Rosa Marathon for a while. I knew from Angela and Amy‘s experiences last year that it was the kind of race I tend to enjoy – small field, low-key atmosphere, and pretty scenery. During the peak of Big Basin 50K training, as I started feeling strong during midweek 10-milers, I thought, “Hm, maybe I’ll give SRM a try.” I felt like I could capitalize on 50K training and try for a road marathon PR. However, instead of registering for SRM right away, I forced myself to wait until after Big Basin in order to focus on BB as my goal race.
During BB, I struggled mightily and swore off endurance running for a while. I was glad I hadn’t registered for SRM because there was NO WAY I wanted to run a marathon 4 weeks after BB. Well, you know what they say, the pain of an ultra fades quickly, sometimes as soon as you cross the finish line. For me, it took about a week. As happy as I was that I was able to finish BB, I also felt there was unfinished business. I immediately started thinking about fall races. During my first run after BB, exactly 1 week post-race, I made a realization: what if I ran SRM, but just with the goal to have fun? Forget trying to PR or executing any race plans. At the very least, I’d qualify for Marathon Maniacs upon crossing that finish line. With that new mindset, I decided to register for SRM.
It was hard to know how to “train” for SRM with only 3 weeks before race day. I knew my endurance base was there, but I wasn’t sure if my body would recover in time to run a full marathon. Fortunately, everything clicked into place and I didn’t struggle with any post-ultra injuries. My long runs were time-based – 2:30 hours and 2:00 hours – where I started off slow but would negative split without trying. Because I didn’t have any time goals, I didn’t worry about pacing as much as I usually would. At Big Sur, I managed to get to mile 21 feeling good, and then fatigue and cramps got the better of me. At SRM, my hope was to push that envelope even further — see if I could get to mile 22, 23, or even 24 before I faced any major obstacles.
My plan, as written by Coach Gypsy Runner, was to NOT have a plan. The GR thinks that I overanalyze everything (which I do), to my own detriment. He asked me about my long runs, and why I never seem to bonk during those. I answered because they’re training runs, I don’t put any pressure on myself, and I pace myself accordingly. I did decide to implement one piece of race strategy, and that was to start SLOW. Having learned my lesson the hard way at BB, where I went out too fast, I knew the key to enjoying the race AND not blowing up would be to start slow. Not just slow, but “uncomfortably slow” as marathon vet Mike advised.
Because this wasn’t a goal race, I also decided to forego my Garmin and my handheld water bottle — two things I’ve hesitated to run without in high pressure situations.
There was no race day pickup, so I was very lucky that Angela agreed to pick up my bib and swag for me — this, despite the fact that she pulled out of the race due to a stress reaction. (Thanks, Angela!!) On race day, I woke up in the middle of the night (3:15 a.m.) to make it to Santa Rosa by 5:00 a.m. to pick up my stuff from Angela, then drive to the race for the 6:00 a.m. start. Logistically, everything went smoothly, from parking to bathrooms to getting positioned in the corral. For such as small field (1400+ runners), I was surprised that there were corrals at all. Having put down an estimated finish time of 4:45, I was assigned to the 3rd and last corral. I should note that because this is a fairly flat and fast course, it attracts a lot of people hoping to qualify for the Boston Marathon. This is reflected in the fact that the first 2 corrals were intended for estimated finish times of 4:23 or better (for comparison, the average marathon finish time for the biggest 3 U.S. marathons in 2013 was 4:33). I lined up behind the 4:38 pacer with my old-school Timex watch and waited for the race to begin.
We got super lucky with the weather. The week before, temperatures had soared into the 90’s, and a week after, it’s been unusually humid and muggy. On race day, thick clouds and fog made for a cool morning. The sun didn’t make an appearance until 11:00 or 11:30, after most of the runners had finished.
It took me almost 4 minutes to walk to the start line. I started with a slow jog and kept the 4:38 pacer within sight. I focused on my breathing and taking in my surroundings as we weaved around Downtown Santa Rosa. This part of the course wasn’t particularly interesting, so I’m glad we ran through it in the pre-dawn darkness. My mile splits were in the 10:40 range, which I was fine with, considering all of the turns, as well as planned (aid station) and unplanned stops (guy fell down in front of me and a bunch of us went to help him get back up).
After about 3 miles, I heard a runner near me say, “Yay, the pretty part!” We then entered the Santa Rosa Creek Trail, which ran alongside its namesake creek – completely dry, unfortunately, due to the California drought. It was still a pretty greenway, though, and I felt like I was on a big group run. Over the next 3-4 miles, I steadily caught up to the 4:38 pace group, eventually passing them around mile 7. I made sure that I kept my effort smooth and easy; it was still very early in the race, after all. The mile markers kept appearing at a steady rate and I made sure to take a gel every 45 minutes. I didn’t want to spend any extra time at the aid stations, but I was having a hard time gulping down both water and Gatorade as fast as I could. This is something I definitely need to work on in the future! But otherwise, I was feeling great. To pass the time, I looked around and took in my surroundings, and occasionally listened in on the conversations that people were having around me.
Between mile 8.5 and 10, I made friends with a runner from Ojai, though I never caught his name. We made small talk about our marathon histories. Neither of us declared any time goals — he had just gotten over a foot injury, and I told him I was aiming for something between my personal best and my personal worst. Then, I said something cheesy like, “I just want to finish feeling my personal best.” It was true though, and declaring those intentions as I approached the 10 mile mark seemed like a good sign.
We ran though the DeLoach Barrel Room, which is one of the highlights of the course. I tried to take a video, but it’s terrible (and was taken sideways). Now I know why GoPro was invented.
After running through the Barrel Room, I pulled away from my friend from Ojai and started following a strong and steady-paced older lady. I sensed my pace quickening, but I made sure to stay patient. The goal was to make it to the half marathon mark and then reassess. I got to the 13.1 timing mat in 2:16 feeling quite strong. I did the simple math in my head and knew I could PR (beat 4:32:39 from CIM 2012) by at least a couple of minutes, if not more.
The flat course gave way to short rollers on country roads cutting through vineyards. While some people struggled on the hills, I kept my head down and took short but steady steps to easily ascend the rollers. All of that trail running I had been doing for months was paying dividends on this section. Despite the hills, my pace continued to get faster with about the same effort. Whenever I started projecting to the finish line, I reminded myself to stay in the current mile.
I got to the mile 16 marker and celebrated the fact that I only had 10 miles to go. Single digits! I smiled at the few spectators that were cheering and thanked them for being out there, as well as every volunteer who handed me a drink. Even though I was feeling good (and running ever faster), I told myself to hold back until mile 20 to really start pushing. When I made the turn back onto the greenway and crossed the mile 20.2 timing mat, I could hardly contain the smile on my face. I had just run 20 miles and I was still feeling incredibly strong and fresh. It was simultaneously bizarre and awesome. I knew for sure I would PR; it would just be a matter of by how much. It was so amazing — magical is the way I keep describing it — to have that kind of once-in-a-lifetime marathon. I wish I could’ve bottled that emotion and that moment so I could relive it whenever I want to.
With every mile that passed, I simply could not believe how great I felt. Of course, part of me continued to be wary that a bonk was just around the corner, but my intuition was that I could actually RACE this thing to the finish. I was passing so many people and no one was passing me back. Having been passed a lot in the last miles of a marathon, I knew exactly how those struggling runners felt. I felt simultaneously sympathetic and smug.
I think I had just passed the mile 24 marker when I looked ahead and saw a white sign bobbing up and down in the distance. It was the 4:23 pace group, now dwindled down to the 2 pacers and 2 runners. Seeing them was the boost I needed in the last couple of miles. I made it my goal to pass them and then some…which I did over the course of the next mile.
It wasn’t until ~mile 25.5 that I started to get a little desperate for the finish line. I was still pushing hard, but I felt that I was finally nearing my limit. Plus, all signs indicated that the finish was near, but I had no concept of where it was. All of the spectators kept yelling that I was almost there, that it was just around the corner, but I couldn’t see any signs of it. Finally, the course took a left out of the greenway and onto a main road, where we continued for a short bit before turning left again into the finish chute. I was still gunning it, so I didn’t see that I was running directly behind 2 runners, who effectively blocked me from getting a finish line picture taken. Oh well.
I crossed the finish line at 4:21:52, an almost 11-minute PR and an 11-minute negative split (1st half vs. 2nd half). Woot!
I’m incredibly happy and grateful about how SRM went. Of course, running a personal best has a lot to do with it, but just the fact that I was able to run so strong in the last 6 miles and not combust – that was huge. I think the GR was right – I have a tendency to overthink things, to the point where I’m sometimes my own worst enemy. Running relaxed helped a lot, and trusting that I could start slow and get faster was another big lesson. I also decided to never race with a Garmin again, especially on a well-marked course. I kept hearing everyone else’s Garmins beeping way in advance of the mile markers; I know that would’ve driven me crazy eventually. Not knowing the pace until *after* I hit the split button on my Timex kept me focused on my effort, not on my pace.
Did 50K training help me to PR at SRM? Yes, of course! But I think beyond the physical aspects, having gone through a tough race like BB so recently helped me to stay calm and focused during SRM. Except for the last mile, SRM honestly felt like a walk in the park compared to BB.
A week after BB, I was restless and felt like there was still unfinished business. Now, a week after SRM, I feel satisfied and at peace. I have no plans or goals for the foreseeable future except to run happy. :)
Official finish time: 4:21:52 (9:59/mile)
56/94 AG, 344/607 F, 955/1441 overall
(1-6): 10:42, 10:41, 10:26, 10:45, 10:25,10:30,
(7-12): 10:22, 10:13, 10:25, 10:20, 10:09, 9:57,
(13-18): 10:08, 10:00, 10:00, 9:46, 9:47, 10:50*,
(19-24): 8:39*, 9:27, 9:21, 9:20, 9:25, 9:37,
(25-26.2): 9:24, 9:10, 1:52 (9:20/mile)
* Pressed split button late.
Mile 8.23 split: 10:32/mile
Half marathon: 10:23/mile (10:09/mile for 4.87 miles)
Mile 20.2: 10:11/mile (9:47/mile for 7.1 miles)
Finish: 9:59/mile (9:23/mile for last 6 miles)
Between mile 8.23 and finish, I moved up 286 places overall, 136 places among females, 19 places in my age group.
About the race:
- Website: Santa Rosa Marathon (part of the California Half and Full Marathon Series)
- Cost & Registration: $155 (plus fees) 3 weeks before the race. I believe earlybird entries started at a more reasonable $125 (?), and then increased by $10 periodically. There were lots of discount codes floating around that were no longer valid by the time I registered. This was the first year that the marathon sold out, which happened about a week before the race. It’s still a young marathon (this was the 7th running), so I expect that as its reputation grows, SRM will sell out earlier and earlier.
- Field Size: 1441 marathon finishers. There was also a half marathon (1308 finishers) and 5K (808 finishers).
- Expo: At DeLoach Vineyard. No comment, since I was lucky that Angela picked up my bib for me. From what I’ve heard, it gets very crowded and traffic can be a nightmare. This year, they were running a shuttle from downtown Santa Rosa hotels to the expo to relieve the congestion.
- Course: Relatively flat for a majority of the course, with a few rolling hills out in the vineyards (miles 12-20) just to change things up a bit. I would describe it as a lollipop course with the miles 3-9 overlapping with miles 20-26. About 12 miles of the course is run on a greenway, which I liked, but others may find boring. There were very few spectators out on the course, and no bands or other entertainment. At mile 10, you run through the DeLoach barrel room, which was a neat diversion.
- Parking/Transportation: $3 for all day parking in a shopping mall garage that’s less than 2 blocks from the start/finish. Super easy.
- Aid stations: There were aid stations spaced approximately 2 miles apart, with water and Gatorade Endurance. I appreciated that the Gatorade tasted full-strength and not diluted like at other races. Two of the aid stations were giving out Gu gels – I think at miles 14 and 17?
- Bathrooms: Decent amount of porta potties at the start/finish area, and 3-4 at every aid station.
- Swag: Ginormous spinner medal, a high-quality Leslie Jordan windbreaker with the race logo embroidered, a bottle of DeLoach “Runner’s Red”, and various samples of snacks in a Whole Foods reusable grocery bag. They also had commemorative posters on sale for $5 after the race (and maybe at the expo too). There was a virtual goodie bag, which was full of offers I did not find useful (something I find to be true for 95% of all virtual goodie bags these days).
- Post-race food and drinks: At the finish line, they gave out bottles of water, chocolate milk, and cold, sliced watermelon (so refreshing!!). Each bib came with tickets for free pancakes and beer or wine, but the lines were very long. I waited ~40 minutes for 2 pancakes! Luckily, Kind was giving out free samples and I inhaled a granola bar while I was waiting. The line for alcohol was shorter by the time I got my pancakes, but I was by myself and very sleepy already, so I didn’t think a beer would help with my drive home.
- Other notes/summary: A very well-organized and well-supported race. I can see why people pay extra for SRM – the amount and quality of the swag is pretty impressive. If they offered same day bib pick-up, I wouldn’t hesitate to run this race again. I loved the course and didn’t mind the lack of spectators or entertainment. The only minor criticism I have is of the start area. It was really difficult to see anything in the dark, and there wasn’t obvious signage except for the corrals. I ended up following the crowds to find the porta potties and the start corral, so I was fine, but I heard several people asking out loud where the bag drop area was and no one seemed to know.