The good/bad of writing a recap almost a month after the race: there’s only so much you remember (bad) but the parts you do hopefully make for a more succinct, compelling story (good). However, funny details are forgotten (bad) and so are some of the darker moments during the experience (good, generally).
On June 3rd, I was the 5:15 pacer at the Dream Mile Marathon in San Jose. I signed up thinking it would be a great way to get a very long, supported training run on the books. Plus, after pacing more than a handful of half marathons, I was curious about pacing a full 26.2. It would be a new, interesting challenge. Even though the pace seemed doable (12:01/mile), I knew that anything could happen during a full marathon. To convince myself I was up to the task, I tested myself with a 20-miler a few weeks before the race. I averaged 11:05/mile, even with 30s walk breaks every mile. That made me feel a bit more confident about pacing the 5:15 group.
What I hadn’t practiced for was the heat. (Insert foreboding soundtrack here.)
The course starts and ends near the Silver Creek Sportsplex in San Jose. It is mostly flat and runs along the Coyote Creek Trail (paved). The full marathon had two out and back sections: 3 miles south and back, then 9 miles north and back, with a one mile connector between the start/finish area and the trail.
As race day approached, there was much talk about the weather. The forecast called for scorching temps. I was glad I signed up for 5:15 instead of one of the faster groups and also that the race started at 7am.
There were a couple of bad signs before the race began. For one thing, 3 of the full marathon pacers were no shows. I don’t know what happened, maybe they were injured, but that wasn’t great. The good news was that at least all of the half marathon pacers showed up. This isn’t a huge race, so it’s not that big of a deal, but it does make our group look bad. As a result of the missing pacers, the pace group leader was trying to convince me to switch to 4:45. I said no way – given the heat and the fact that my slowest marathon was around 4:45, there’s no way I could responsibly sign up for that.
The second bad sign was that it was already hot at 6am. I had not been warming up or anything, but I was already sweating from just standing around. I tried to stay hopeful, but I knew it would be tough day ahead.
The race started promptly at 7:00 a.m. My strategy was to run even effort/pace and to walk through aid stations. (In retrospect, I think I should’ve banked some time when it was still relatively cool, for the first ~3 hours.) This is a tiny race, with only 67 entrants in the full marathon and 49 finishers. Many more people signed up for the other distances (half marathon, 10K, 5K). I made a few friends here and there during the race, but there was only one woman, C, with whom I leapfrogged from miles 8-16. Otherwise, I was running completely alone. However, since it’s an out and back course, you get to see other runners relatively frequently for the first half of the race.
I ran the Dream Mile half marathon a couple of years ago as a pacer and one of the things I really liked about this event was the friendliness of the participants and the volunteers. Most people shouted encouragements and cheerful greetings in passing. So, even though I was often alone and running without music/podcasts, I had enough interactions to break up the monotony, at least for the first 4 hours.
I’d say the first part of the race went as planned. I was even a little bit ahead of pace at the 20-21 mile mark by about a minute. Then things began to unravel. Actually, it probably started even before that. For the first 9 miles, there was intermittent shade that kept me relatively cool. Then, we crossed a bridge and went through a beautiful marsh area, which lead to a pretty but completely exposed grassy valley. It felt like I was running into an oven.
Despite the heat, I was feeling pretty good. I focused on getting to the turnaround point at mile 15.5, where there was an aid station. It was there that I ran into the 4:55 pacer, who was having a rough day. He was overheating and had started walking. Poor guy. So, compared to him, I was having a solid day so far. I was still eating a gel every hour, and treated myself to a Honey Stinger Waffle at the 2.5 hour mark.
My first feeling that things were going south was around mile 18-19. I had thought there was only 2.5 miles between aid stations when in fact it was longer than that (3.5? 4?). I had clung on to the idea of seeing that aid station and then getting some ice to cool off. But at every turn, when I kept thinking that the aid station would be right there, it wasn’t. Finally, I got to the aid station (I think it was mile 20.5?) I decided to take a longer than usual break. I had banked about a minute of time, and I had held off on peeing since the start of the race. It’s a weird thing when you’re both dehydrated and need to pee at the same time. When I had finished my business, I asked the aid station volunteers for some ice. I just wanted to hold it in my hand and put it on my neck, because I could feel my core body temperature getting too hot. One of the volunteers looked at me and asked me if I needed a salt tablet; I realized later on that I was covered in salt. I was also starting to feel nauseated at the idea of even drinking water or Gatorade.
I lost a couple of minutes at that aid station, but I reasoned it was time well spent. Plus, there wasn’t anyone running with me. I thought I could still stay on pace. However, after that block of ice melted, I started to overheat again. I grabbed ice at every aid station, but it only temporarily cooled me down. I made myself drink water and take my last Gu, even though I felt sick. I wouldn’t say that I was in danger of heat stroke, but in addition to the nausea, I was feeling quite dizzy and almost sleepy. I started to take A LOT of walk breaks. I felt bad that I was letting my pace team down, but on the other hand, I knew if I pushed myself, I could be putting myself in danger. Plus, there weren’t even any runners within range!
The last 3 miles were interminable. I went from being only a couple minutes behind the goal pace to 5, 10 minutes late and counting. There was a volunteer on a bike who was acting as first aid/sweeper. He gave me some of his Nuun and made sure I was OK. It was such a surreal moment of trying to finish this race and fulfilling my pacing duties, yet there were no people in sight, either in front of me or behind me. I just kept trying to make forward progress. Once I got off the trail and back on the street, I took it one block at a time. Eventually, I got to the last 0.2 miles and swore to myself that I would jog it in, which I did. I ended up finishing in 5:27:54, almost 13 minutes after my goal time.
I was extremely dehydrated and hot. Even after drinking a ton of liquids and eating some food, I had lost at least 5.5 pounds during the race. It took me hours to cool my core body temp down and I’ve never drank so much liquid after a race. It took me quite a while before I peed (sorry if TMI). This might sound strange, but I was grateful for these physical signs of the stress my body was under, because I was afraid I just wimped out mentally when the going got tough. Maybe I did a little, but I wasn’t in a good state physically either.
Am I disappointed that I didn’t meet my goal time? Yes. This was the first time I’ve botched a pacing gig, and I felt bad for letting my group down. However, I had to do what was best for me in these circumstances. I know you non-Californians are probably laughing at me, but it was 82 degrees when I finished, with a real feel of 91 F. That’s really hot for California. And I suppose if I had done any kind of real heat training before the race, it would’ve helped, but that weekend was one of the first really warm weekends of the year.
The good news was that I managed to recover pretty quickly after the race (all the iced drinks FTW). My legs felt fine the day after – they weren’t more sore or tired than they are after any long run.
Will I ever pace another full marathon? No, I don’t think so… not even in better circumstances. First, I’m starting to feel like the number of full marathons in my future is very limited (as in, less than a handful). I don’t really enjoy the distance or training for them. Second, pacing is another whole level of responsibility. I don’t think I want to sign up for that.
In summary, what I’ve learned from this experience is:
- marathon pacing is hard
- running in the heat sucks, especially with very little heat training
- in these conditions, it was probably advisable to bank some time when it was still relatively cool
- in hot temps, going slower is important, but so is keeping your core body temp down and replenishing electrolytes
I’m not going to write down all of the race logistics, since I already did that for the Dream Mile Half, but feel free to ask any questions in the comments.