My alarm went off at the rude hour of 5:00 a.m. It was dark and just above freezing outside – with temps in the upper 30’s/low 40’s. I begrudgingly got out of my warm bed to get ready for the Walnut Creek Half Marathon – my 9th half marathon on roads and 16th half marathon overall. I got dressed in front of the space heater and chugged hot coffee. Despite the cool temps, I had decided the previous evening (perhaps with too much bravado) to dress in a RaceRaves singlet and shorts, with knee-high-socks-turned-arm-warmers as my only protection against the chill. I reasoned that as early as the 2nd mile, I’d be happy with my outfit and tried not to think about the 15-30 minutes between bag drop and the start that I’d be without my hoodie.
I made my way to downtown Walnut Creek without any problems. Concerned with the parking situation, I decided to play it safe and park on the garage on Broadway, only 2 blocks from the start. I made a pit stop at a real flushing toilet in Civic Park, looking smugly at the folks in the porta potty line while I waited, then made my way to meet up with a small group of friends at 6:40 a.m. – Cathryn, Roserunner, DD, and others. After a quick hello, we went our separate ways to the bag drop, bathrooms, and start line area. It was very cold, but nothing too uncomfortable. Back at the start area, I managed to find DD and her friend M, who was only 12 weeks postpartum. They said they were planning on taking it easy, approaching it like a social long run. That sounded good to me, so I figured I’d start out with them and gradually pull ahead at mile 2-3.
After the Star Spangled Banner was sung, there was a countdown and the race started. The field was less crowded than I had anticipated, so it only took me about 40 seconds to cross the start mat. I started off alongside DD and M, but they quickly pulled ahead, lost in their conversation, and I let them go. For the first mile, I was confused and concerned about being behind the 2:20 pacer- especially since I wasn’t wearing a watch – but then felt relieved when the 2:05 pacer passed me and those around me talked of paces in the 9-10 minute/mile range. I decided to follow my game plan of starting off slow, then gradually increasing my effort throughout the race. I would be patient up the big hill between mile 4.5-7, and then try to reel-in runners for the rest of the race.
My other loose plan was centered around Gu consumption. I decided to have a Gu right before the race, then around mile 4 and again at mile 9. I was glad that I brought my own Gu, as they only had Gatorade and water on the course, with the occasional appearance of sliced oranges. I don’t know if it was my pacing or fuel strategy (probably both), but my energy levels felt good for most of the race.
As I’ve already mentioned, the downside of not wearing a watch is not knowing how fast you’re running. The upside is that the miles seem to go by so much quicker. Mile markers seemed to appear in quick succession, and before I knew it, I was at the bottom of the big hill (mile 4) and looking forward to seeing Danielle, who had generously agreed to come out in the cold to cheer for us. When I saw her, I heartily waved to get her attention. She jogged with me for a short stretch and then we parted ways, agreeing to meet at the finish.
Thanks to Kimra’s race report from 2012, I knew that the hill wasn’t a steady climb as portrayed by the elevation chart on the race website. It’s more like a steep-ish hill which plateaus out for a while, allowing for some recovery, before you encounter another steep ascent followed by a more gradual grade all the way up to the top of Ygnacio Valley Road. Mentally prepared for this, I took my time up the hill, passing quite a few people who were already walking pretty early on. This helped boost my confidence tremendously. While it was a big hill for a road race (maybe 400-500 feet in total elevation gain?), it was nothing compared to what I’ve seen on trails.
Near the apex, I tried to focus on the positive (one of my goals for this race), and I said aloud, to no one in particular, “Wow. Look at the view!” Truth be told, the view wasn’t that great, but it was still proof positive that we had come up a LONG ways from where we started. Once we crested the peak, I channeled my inner competitive spirit and went full throttle down the hill. Knowing it had the potential to be punishing after a while, I made sure to concentrate on my form and not brake too much with my quads.
I started passing a lot of people in the next 3-4 miles. Not thinking too much about my pace, I would focus on someone ahead of me who looked fluid and graceful, then set my mind upon catching and passing them. This was a useful strategy for many miles, but eventually, I started feeling the fatigue setting in. Various aspects of the course design didn’t help; for the first 11 miles, the course was on a very straightforward, rectangular loop trajectory. However, as we made our way back toward the start, they decided to send us off on these weird out-and-back loops in various parks. Not only did this lead to bottlenecks on the narrower park trails, but it can be really discouraging to loop around like that, especially so late in the race. It almost feels like you haven’t made any progress, when in fact you’ve run almost a whole mile.
The volunteers were great though, and very encouraging. However, I did not believe them for one second when they kept yelling, “Only a mile to go!” Even though I was running sans GPS, I had the distinct impression that we were at ~mile 11.5. Plus, I think anyone with a few races under his/her belt knows not to listen to spectators or volunteers when they say, “Almost there!”
It was around this time that we came upon my least favorite part of the course — this road race had somehow morphed into a Tough Mudder event. Now, in my weather diatribe above, I had failed to mention that we were actually exceptionally lucky: there was significant rain the day before and the day after the race. The unlucky part is that the race organizers decided that, instead of shoving us onto a very narrow paved path, we should trample through a field of mud instead. In retrospect, I should’ve disregarded the official course and jumped onto the paved path like a sane person, but at that point in the race, I did not have my faculties about me. I obediently followed the lady in front of me and tried my best not to slip and fall.
We finally cleared the field and rejoined the Iron Horse Trail, a multi-use paved trail that used to be the railroad track linking the cities of the east East Bay. I was happy to see the Mile 12 sign, and cheered a bit when one of the runners around me shouted, “Mile 12! Let’s do this!” That energy spurt was short-lived, as my legs and lungs were finally starting to complain, and the typical “are we there yet?” whines started coming from the recesses of my brain. I tried to stay positive for a while, concentrating on gratitude, but with half a mile to go, I was in dire straits. The tiny steep hill up to a pedestrian bridge didn’t help matters. I saw a woman ahead wearing a purple sparkly skirt who seemed to be struggling and I made her my next target. Serendipitously, she started walking up the hill as I passed her, huffing and puffing all the while. I cursed the “stupid bridge” as I ran across it. A course marshal on the other end of the bridge directed us to go to the right, yelling out, “Last turn!”
Sure enough, I turned right and simultaneously saw the finish line in the distance and the mile 13 marker. “OK, time to finish strong!” I thought. I saw a lady ahead of me and made it my mission to pass her. Just as I was doing so, the sparkly skirt woman overtook me on the left. Dangit!
My official finish time was 2:03:08. I was slightly disappointed, as I had hoped for a time closer to 2 hours (versus 2:05). However, considering the giant hill in the middle, and the fact that I finished almost 2 minutes faster than the 2:05 pacer (despite not passing her until ~mile 9.5), I felt pretty good about my performance. I was also grateful to finish without any foot pain, which had plagued me the week before. Moreover, I knew I had given it my all – upon crossing the finish line, I was completely spent. Not giving up in the last 1-2 miles is something that I continue to work on, but I think I’m getting better with every race. I could also feel muscle soreness almost instantly, though what I thought was hamstring soreness at the time might actually be a strain, as it’s still tender a week later.
After the race, I reunited with our group and we caught up on our race experiences. There weren’t a lot of PRs, but plenty of strong performances. In particular, M, who was 12-weeks postpartum and hadn’t done any long runs leading up to the race, finished in 1:58! Amazing stuff.
We rounded out the morning with brunch at Denica’s. Hot coffee, delicious food, and good friends. Pretty good morning, if I do say so!
30/108 AG, 155/617 F, 418/1092 overall
About the race:
- Race website
- Location: Starts and ends in Civic Park, Downtown Walnut Creek.
- Bib pickup: I was lucky and got a friend to pick up my bib for me, which was held the day before the race at Dick’s Sporting Goods in Pleasant Hill. I know that there was pickup on race day, but they were discouraging that option.
- Course: Loop course along major roads for the first 10 miles, then meanders through parks on/near the Iron Horse Trail for the last 3. Not the most exciting or scenic.
- Cost: Rolling registration, starting at $65 (March/April) and topping out at $100.
- Parking: Free and paid garages, and street parking (meters in effect at 10 a.m.)
- Aid stations: About every 2 miles. Only water and Gatorade at the first 2, then the later ones had orange slices.
- Bathrooms: Porta potties at the start, and some real bathrooms around the park.
- Swag: Medal (meh), very nice long sleeve tech t-shirt, food, and a bottle of water. TWO reusable bags (one Dick’s drawstring bag and one large Lululemon shopping bag.) There was an expo at the finish.
- Pros: very well-organized, medium sized field (which I prefer), nice race t-shirt, decent weather, easy logistics.
- Cons: very expensive for a not-very-scenic, not easily PR-able course. I probably wouldn’t choose to run this again, but it’s a fine race.