Splish Splash I Was Running a Race (L.A. Marathon)

2011 was going to mark my triumphant return to marathon. After spending 2010 focused on Ironman 70.3 (and moving to Flagstaff, Arizona) I registered for the Los Angeles Marathon. 

I ran L.A. back in 2008, and it was fine.  I managed a new PR (Personal Record), I enjoyed the company of a great friend who came down to support me, spent some time with my parents and found the course to be o.k. 

Last year they changed the course to a new “Stadium to the Sea” course – starts at Dodger Stadium and ends at (or near) Santa Monica pier.  I was really excited about that course but last year I couldn’t fit the race into my schedule.  So when the opportunity came up to try that course this year I jumped at the chance. (Or should I say “dove at the chance”?)

Great Expectations

Not only was I excited about the scenery on the new course, I was envisioning a breakthrough race for myself.  Back in November 2009 I ran the New York Marathon, even though in some ways the race was disappointing I did manage to beat my L.A. Marathon PR by 6-1/2 minutes.  But now I was in better shape, lighter (by about 7 pounds) and had the advantage of months of training in the high altitude of Flagstaff.

The new L.A. course is a net downhill and I was thinking the sub-5 finish that eluded me in New York was well within my reach at L.A.  This was going to be a launching pad race on my way to Ironman Texas.

Bring Out Yer Dead!

Then, 6 weeks before L.A. Marathon, the Black Plague hit our household. Carrie got it first, then I did. A nasty cold, or something, took over and training came to a halt.  It was one of the worst kinds of colds for training too – not one of those that lays you flat out for a few days then lets you continue on your merry way.  Oh, no, this one left me mostly functional but also had me coughing like an old Chevy every 3 minutes. 

Walking up or down the stairs was guaranteed to result in a debilitating coughing fit and running more than a few steps was pretty much out of the question. This lingered for 3 solid weeks.  Finally, less than 2 weeks from race day, I was finally able to get out and run.  2 miles. And even that I only accomplished while somewhat medicated.

While it felt good to run I realized that I’d lost a TON of fitness over those 3 weeks (and 5 pounds of weight; bonus) and it was somewhat unlikely that L.A. Marathon was going to be offering Robitussin at the aid stations. Though I couldn’t say for sure. (more on that shortly)

I ran every day for a week or so, gradually building up my mileage/distance.  But the longest run I managed in that period was about an 8 miler and that didn’t feel very good.

My lungs were sort of o.k. (I could manage only a couple of coughs per mile) but my legs felt weak and atrophied.  No speed in them.  And I had no idea how I’d fare on a run longer than 10 miles…since it had been at least a month since I’d managed that distance.

At this point I was pretty sure that the sub-5 race I’d been hoping for was out of the question.  I was still cautiously optimistic that a new PR (5:17:56 is my current PR) was achievable so that’s what I set my sights on.

Driven for Success

I think this is the first time I’ve raced an out-of-town event and actually driven there.  There aren’t any direct flights from Flagstaff to L.A. and since driving (or flying) to Phoenix or Vegas and flying from there would be more expensive and really not any faster I decided to just do the 7 hour drive from Flagstaff to L.A.

Not a bad drive, though a little monotonous. Got caught up on my podcasts in the car. Hardest part was probably driving past all those In-N-Out Burgers on the way to L.A. Don’t worry my tasty little friends…I will be back this way in a couple of days.  Oh yes, I will.

Hello Expo

If you’re a regular reader of this blog (Hi mom) you’ll know that I’m sort of a connoisseur of event expos. At New York I was almost looking forward to the expo as much as the race. Seattle and San Diego had good expos.  Honolulu’s is sort of anemic and sad.  Disney’s is disappointing. L.A. in 2008 had a wonderful expo – I could have spent all day there (and darned near did; might as well get value for the $12 they were charging to park at the Convention Center).

This year’s L.A. Expo was at Dodger Stadium, and outdoors.  I wasn’t quite sure what that was going to mean; would it just be a couple of tents and a folding table?  But actually, on arrival, I discovered a pretty vibrant expo going on. 

We had to park on the opposite side of the stadium and walk what seemed like a half-marathon to get to the thing…but that gave us the opportunity to make new friends. I ended up chatting with Christian, a fellow marathoner and L.A. local as we walked and walked and walked.

Heard: “We gotta walk all this way!?!?!” from a middle-aged lady who apparently takes her pre-race taper seriously.

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Expo had pretty good representation from other races, a couple of “retail tents” selling shoes, shirts, race nutrition, etc.  They were a little shameless with the booth babes too, if we’re honest. Lot of pretty young lasses in short-shorts standing outside the booths encouraging us to check out their goods, as well as whatever the booth was promoting.

Seen: A booth girl selling Gu packets telling a guy to buy some Roctane Gu to use for the race…even though he’d never tried it before.  Hey, she’s a sales girl, not a marathon coach.  I quietly suggested he might not want to try a new Gu for the first time on race day but she was a lot cuter than me so he, with some trepidation, took the Gu to the cash register.  Hope it worked out for him.

I Like Short Lines and I Can Not Lie, You Other Brothers Can’t Deny…

The packet pickup lines were amazingly short and efficient – I don’t think I’ve EVER had a packet pickup that went that fast and smoothly. Maybe it’s because I showed up on Friday afternoon and the crowds were still thin but I was impressed. If you’re thinking of doing L.A. next year, you should definitely go to the Expo on Saturday…’cause I’ll be there on Friday and I like short lines.

Old Home Weekend – Part 1

Along with being in town to race, I also had a few reunions set up with old friends from L.A.  The first of these was with Jill, whom I hadn’t seen in close to 20 years.  I had some navigation issues finding the restaurant but I finally got there and enjoying catching up with her over iced tea.  How is it I look 20 years older and she looks 20 weeks older?

Dinner At The Landing

After tea with Jill I headed out to Westlake to meet my folks for dinner.  They’d selected a place called “The Landing” which is one of their faves. I can see why, lovely lakeside setting, yummy pasta, delicious apple puffs for dessert.

After dinner it was back to my folks place to relax and get some sleep.  Before bed I did a quick check of the weather report for Sunday.  It was ominous, but I was trying to stay hopeful.  Heh. 

The Nethercutt Museum

On Saturday we grabbed breakfast at Panini.  Good food, chatty waitress, comfortable atmosphere.  Then to the Goodwill store in Canoga Park to pick up some throwaway clothes for the expected cold/wet pre-race hours. Then it was off to Sylmar to visit the Nethercutt Museum a favorite of my parents.

The Nethercutt is a collection of classic cars, immaculately maintained and presented.

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That’s just a small taste of the more than 200 autos they have.

Cool: The cars are gorgeous, of course, but I found the amazing array of hood ornaments, many of them from marks I’d never seen before, to be especially fascinating.

Saturday afternoon we grabbed an early dinner at Maggianos and headed for home. It was going to be an early night (and an almost earlier morning) for me.

Race Day

My alarm went off at 0240.  What’s the O stand for?  “Oh my god it’s early.”  I’d laid out 2011-03-19_18-01-37_572my gear the night before (of course) so getting ready was as easy as can be. In fact I had planned to be on the road by 0315 for the drive to Santa Monica but I was actually ready to go 5 minutes early!  Unprecedented.

I triple checked my gear, slid behind the wheel and off I went.  I had decided to take the more direct Topanga Canyon Road instead the circuitous freeway route. Google Maps said it would take about the same amount of time so I opted for the more scenic (and direct) route through the canyon.  Worked out fine – it was actually a sort of relaxing way to go, not so much hustle and traffic.

I had taken the step of pre-buying a parking space in Santa Monica through the race website and I’m glad I did. Despite echoes of San Diego (where it was almost another marathon to get from the finish to the car) it worked out well to get to the lot nice and early, get a good parking spot, a casual stroll up to the shuttle buses and an easy ride from there to Dodger Stadium.

First Mistake: Left the Gatorade Prime I was going to take pre-race in the car.  Oops.

The shuttle was a bit subdued – lot of couples who were running together and talking quietly amongst themselves. In front of me were a couple of young women excitedly tweeting and Facebooking on their Blackberries.  Across from me a couple of young Asian guys, one of them seemed to be wearing brand new shoes. Hmmm…that could be a mistake.

Dodger Stadium

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Got to Dodger Stadium (file photo at left; not actual size) much earlier than expected.  We were on one of the first shuttles and made it to the stadium by 4:15AM for a 7:30AM start. Hmmm…reminds me of NYC.

When we got to Dodger Stadium though and walked up to the staging area I discovered that they were letting us wait INSIDE the stadium.  Sah-weet. Much better than NYC where we spent our chilly pre-race hours huddled under the bridge like hobos.

In fact Dodger Stadium had opened their restrooms to us and the stadium seats.  I found a nice seat, under the upper deck (out of the weather) right by first base and settled in. They had L.A. Marathon videos running on the Jumbotron and the crowd gradually swelled as more participants arrived.  Without a doubt the most comfortable pre-Marathon experience I’ve had – well done, L.A.

Throughout the morning we nervously checked the sky. Not raining.  Oh, wait, raining.  Oh, now it stopped again. Whew.  “Maybe we’ll get lucky?” one runner mused.  We didn’t.

7:15AM, I’d already made two trips to the restroom and consumed the gallon-sized Red Bull the AM/PM market had so nicely provided (for $6).  We started to stream out of the stadium to the start corrals outside.  I peeled off my top layer – warm-up jacket and pants – and stuffed them into my gear check bag which I dropped off at the appropriate Pod.  No line. Easy-peasy. 

Off to the porta-potties…where, in keeping with the theme thus far, there were almost no lines. Disappointed smile Really? 24,000 runners and you have short packet pickup, gear check and porta-potty lines?  Remarkable.

In past races I’ve had trouble with too many potty stops during the race.  In L.A. in 2008 I think I stopped 3 times in the first 6 miles.  For some reason I can go twice….feel perfectly fine, but 10 minutes into running I feel like I have to stop and go again!  Once I’ve done that I’m usually good for the rest of the race, but still…it’s lost time. So now I force myself to go just about as many times as I possibly can pre-race. I think I made about 5 trips before this race started. If I could have reached in and wrung my bladder dry, I would have.  Bathroom stops during the race are wasted minutes and every minute was going to count today. (he says, presciently)

At L.A. Marathon they give the elite women a head start equal to the difference between the women’s and men’s course records.  It’s about 17 minutes I think.  Then they start the elite men and see if the guys can catch the girls.  There’s a big bonus for finishing first overall so the ladies are motivated to get to the finish before the first guy can overtake them.  Clever idea and certainly makes it a little more interesting. 

Doesn’t really confront me, though, I was just hoping to beat the girl dressed as a giant banana. (and not all that confident that I would, if we’re honest)

As we waited for the gun in our corrals we got rained on twice, both times very very briefly, and got our eardrums blasted out by the guy on the P.A. 

TIP: If the runners are holding their hands over their ears in the corral you might want to rethink your speaker placement or volume.

I waited until the last minute, then peeled off my throwaway clothes and…well…threw them away.  (There are sweepers who come through after us, pick up the discarded clothes and donate them to the shelters.)

Finally….

GO!

Or…don’t. The gun went off, “I Love L.A.” blasting on the speakers.  The crowd filled with excitement and…well, in typical L.A. fashion we were stuck in traffic.  We stood there, not moving at all, or inching forward, for what was probably the better part of 15 minutes.  Eventually, gradually, slowly, the crowded started to ooze forward and at long last we could see…the starting line.

Honesty: It’s almost demoralizing to be 15 minutes into the race (gun time) and just now be seeing the start line up ahead.

Finally though we took off across it, started our watches and dashed into the cool, overcast, (but still relatively dry) Los Angeles morning.  Spirits were high and my pace was right on target as we rounded Dodger Stadium and descended towards downtown.

The first 4 miles are a little hilly, up and down as you work your way through Chinatown, Olivera Street and then back through downtown up to the Disney Concert Hall.  Still I was holding pace fairly well, a bit slow on the uphills but I knew I’d make it up on the downhills and this race is a net downhill.

Here Comes the Rain Again

Around mile 4 the rain started again.  And didn’t stop.  No, really…it kept raining until Monday.  Rain brought its friend wind along and we were in for an interesting 22 miles.

Unfortunately around mile 5.5 something else came along…a need for another potty stop.  I found a set of porta-johns where the lines weren’t TOO epic and resigned myself to stopping.  Big mistake.  I lost 5-1/2 minutes in those lines.

I started doing the math and realized I’d need to make up about 20 seconds per mile to be within striking distance of my goal time so I set off to do just that.

For the first few miles it was going fairly well.  Despite the steady rain I was 25-40 seconds ahead on each mile.  Could I sustain it?  Didn’t know, but I guess we’d find out.

Not much further along a young lady named Dolores strode up alongside me and asked about my Ironman jersey. Turns out she’d done Ironman Arizona and her goal time for L.A. was basically the same as mine.  Thankful for good company we ran together for the next 10 miles or so which definitely helped those pass easier.

Not really a lot faster though, by mile 8 I was completely drenched.  Hat, shoes, shirt, socks, shorts…I’ve come out of the pool less wet.  By mile 14 it was clear that I wouldn’t be able to sustain my advanced pace.  My biggest problem was really just the cold and wet….my feet, encased in soaking wet socks and heavy soaked shoes felt like two blocks of frozen hamburger.  They were practically numb (a mixed blessing) and I was only vaguely aware of the thud, splash, thud, splash as I ran along.

The rain also had a dampening effect (pun intended) on the crowds.  Whereas the 2008 L.A. Marathon brought out enthusiastic throngs of supporters (sometimes too many) only the real die-hards ventured out in the monsoon.

The spirits of the runners themselves were a bit subdued as well.  We ran and talked quietly in pairs and threes but the usual supportive energy just didn’t seem to be there as many of us just sort of withdrew under our caps like turtles.

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By mile 17 I really couldn’t keep up with Dolores any more and I wished her luck as I dropped back a bit.  She had family waiting at mile 20 and she was anxious to see them.

Miles 18 to 21 were a largely uphill slog through the rain and wind and Westwood/Century City.  At one point they had to divert us off the street and onto a sidewalk/grassy area because the street was so flooded we couldn’t run in it.

At a few points we trudged a few strides through ankle-deep water.  A few people tried to improvise sidewalk routes around the streams but most of us were already so wet it didn’t matter and so we just set our jaws and plowed through.

From mile 21 on it’s largely downhill through residential neighborhoods to the coast and the final mile down Ocean Blvd.  Oddly enough right about then I started to get a second wind and found myself running faster and easier again.  I even managed to get back on my per-mile pace (though I was hopelessly behind overall).

Seen: The wind was wreaking havoc with the police barricades.  Quite a few of them blew over and had to be reset by poncho-encased officers dashing from the cover of their vehicles through the rain to right them. Around mile 23 one of the barricades actually floated past us in the river of water running along the curb.

Felt: It was a little discouraging to see my goal time tick past and still be almost 2 miles from the finish line.

Passing mile 25 I tried to encourage some of my fellow runners, “Last mile, let’s go!”  I got a modest response from the drenched but hearty crowd.

Making the left onto Ocean I was taking my mantra of “Last mile, best mile” to heart and actually managed to run about a 9:50 mile.  I even surprised myself a bit, though I knew I couldn’t sustain that for very long at that point.

This is near the finish line, I believe just before I finished actually. If you look past the bushes you can see the runners going by.

 

Finally, at long last, the finish line arch came into sight in the distance.

Flashback: At Honolulu Marathon you can see the finish line about a kilometer before you actually arrive at it. That kilometer feels like the longest .62 miles you’ve ever run. The line never seems to get closer. The mental trick we use to overcome that is to look down and count the parking stripes.  Only look up every 10 stripes. That helps you get the sense of motion (and progress) you need.  I tried the same trick at L.A. but I couldn’t find any parking stripes.  Maybe they’d all washed away.

The Finish!  Or is it…?

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Crossing that finish line was bittersweet.  It felt great to be done, but at the same time a little disappointing to have turned in a 5:33:11, 16 minutes over my goal time.  My pace was 37 seconds per mile behind what I had hoped for.  How much of that was weather vs. the lost weeks of training?  Hard to say.  I suspect that if I’d been able to continue my training though that I might have been able to push through the weather and at least get a PR on the day.

Crossing that finish line was not the end of the journey though.

After you cross the finish line you still have a long trek. First they had volunteers struggling to peel the foil thermal blankets from the rolls and pass them out. I finally managed to get one, but it was partially torn – not the volunteers fault. Peeling those blankets off the roll in that weather is like trying to sell newspapers in a windstorm – you just have to do the best you can.  Didn’t really matter anyhow – I was already soaking wet and the wind and rain weren’t really letting up. No little foil blanket was going to make a lot of difference at that point.

From there you continue down Ocean Blvd. for what seems like forever.  Eventually you find people handing out finisher’s medals, then a ways further you find bottles of water, then bananas and chips and bagels.  I took a bagel but passed on the water…had a little too much of that already.  At this point I really just wanted to get my gear check bag and get to my car, but even though I walked and walked and walked…the “Finish Line Festival” seemed to go on forever and no sign of gear check.  One person wrote that the festival was three blocks from the finish.  Actually it’s almost 7 blocks and nearly 3/4 of a mile.

At long last I came to the area where they’d set up the gear check Pods.  By this point it had largely devolved into self-service, we all just piled into the Pod that had our bags and pawed through the boxes to find our own. I think as much as anything we were using the Pods as shelter and respite.  I found my bag pretty quickly and happily pulled my warm-up jacket on.  It wasn’t terribly warm, but at least it was dry and, in conjunction with the tattered foil blanket, would offer some comfort.

A deep breath and then I forged back out of the Pod and into the rain…asked a Santa Monica cop for the shortest way to the parking lot (still another .6 of a mile away) and I set off.

I can’t tell you what a welcome sight the car was.  I didn’t have my remote with me but I scampered to the door, unlocked it and jumped in…so relieved.  Found Greta (glad I left her in the car; before you call Child Protective Services or the ASPCA that’s what my phone is named) and called to let Carrie know I’d made it o.k. 

At that point I was so cold and wet though that I really didn’t want to talk too long.  Plus Greta’s GPS navigation app doesn’t work while you’re on the phone, so I got off the phone and had Greta find me the nearest In-N-Out Burger  (and a route out of here).  Off to Culver City I went for my burger…and then on back to Woodland Hills.

What Went Well

  • My nutrition plan actually seemed o.k.  I wasn’t able to stick to it precisely – it was hard to handle/open gels with numb wet fingers but I did pretty well and never really felt like I bonked. Spiz and Red Bull are a good team for me pre-race.
  • Altitude training.  Holy cow.  I could definitely feel the difference in my breathing. Despite the residual cold I was able to breath MUCH better at L.A.
  • Santa Monica Parking.  Good idea to pre-buy the parking spot.  I’ll do it earlier next year to get a better (read: closer) location.
  • Leaving early, getting there early, shuttling to the stadium early.  Got a better parking spot, didn’t have to fight the crowds, got a great seat at the stadium.  Could have slept in a little longer, I suppose, but less stress this way.
  • Going to the Expo on Friday afternoon.  Crowds weren’t too bad, lines were non-existent.
  • Laying out the gear the night before. Made race morning a breeze.  Just put everything on, nothing to forget or hunt for.
  • Going to Goodwill for throwaway clothes.  Got a Scooby-Do sweatshirt and a pair of warm-up pants for $5.50.  Total.  Lifesavers on the day.
  • Leaving Greta in the car.  I was tempted to carry her with me, maybe even listen to music during the run as I often do during training.  Not sure she’d have survived the weather though.
  • The B-Chip integrated into the race number bib. No need to affix it to a shoe, no chance of leaving it in your hotel room when you go to the start line (Yes, I’m looking at you Chicago Half-Marathon).  Seems to have worked perfectly, even in miserable conditions.

What Didn’t Go Well

  • Well, the rain.  Can’t really help that.
  • Getting sick and losing 3 of my last 5 weeks of training.  Not sure what I could have done better there.
  • The Run-Walk method was out the door quicker than something you’d toss out pretty quick.  I made a strategic decision to not do the full walk intervals in the first couple of miles in order to try and make up a bit of time and after the unfortunate bathroom stop I just couldn’t – I felt that I needed the time.  I did some shorter walk breaks but rarely the full 60 seconds and most of the walk breaks were dictated by the terrain (uphill) rather than time.
  • The potty stop during the race. Wish I could figure out how to not have to do that – other than maybe less pre-race hydration and more pre-race stops? As it turned out the 5-1/2 minutes didn’t make the difference in me missing my goal, though maybe working harder to get back on track messed me up.  Who knows.
  • The rain led to a lot more chafing and blisters than I’m used to. Maybe more Body Glide was in order.
  • Forgetting my Gatorade Prime in the car. Not sure it really mattered though.
  • Should have taken my Aleve sooner. I think part of my 2nd wind at 21 was due to the Aleve kicking in. I probably should have taken one back around mile 10 and maybe I’d have felt better from 17-21.

Small Rant

L.A. Marathon needs to do a better job of communicating certain things pre-race.  We didn’t find out what the sports drink on the course was until a couple of weeks ahead of time – and even then what they said it was, wasn’t always correct.

We coach our runners not to try new things on race day, to find out what the race nutrition is and try it out in training.  You can’t give us 14 days notice and expect our athletes to be able to try that out on their long runs before the race. We don’t want to find out at mile 14 of the race that Orange-flavored Cytomax makes us nauseous. 

Luckily the race drink they eventually selected was standard Gatorade, which most of the athletes have probably had a chance to try before.  Unfortunately they said it would be Lemon-Lime Gatorade and a couple of the aid stations actually had Orange.  End of the world?  No, but it’s a detail they really should sharpen up on for next year.

And speaking of communication – my mother and wife both said that the race tracking website was a #FAIL.  Apparently overloaded the site just didn’t come up unless you refreshed over and over again and apparently just wasn’t very reliable.

Two other race-feedback items:

  • The aid stations on the course are practically unmarked. Sometimes you were halfway into an aid station before you even realized it was there. They need to follow the lead of NYC and put up signs.
  • Might have been weather-related but a lot of the mile markers had been taken down when we came through.  I had my Garmin (which said the course was long) but I often heard other people pondering “Are we at 7 or 8?” One guy even asked me if I knew where we were on the course.

Randoms

  • Will I do this race again?  Yes.  In fact, I’m pretty sure I’ll do it again next year.  I still really like the course, just wish I could have seen more of it instead of being heads-down so much.  Properly trained I’m confident I can go sub-5 on this course; as long as I don’t have to wear water wings.
  • Post-race a fellow I chatted with was trying to figure out how to get back to Dodger Stadium.  That’s where he parked and had expected there to be shuttles.  There weren’t.  I was tempted to give him a ride, but it was a long way out of my way and I was cold, wet and just wanted to get home ASAP.  Maybe I should have given him a ride anyhow…he seemed confident he’d find a way though.
  • For the second-straight time my Garmin doesn’t agree with the L.A. Marathon’s course measurement.  According to my GPS that race was 26.5 miles long.  Roughly the same as what happened in 2008.  Dunno who is wrong; I guess I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt.
  • I tried to say it as often as possible on the course but the volunteers were REALLY terrific at L.A. Marathon. I’m always grateful for them for coming out and supporting us, but to do so under those conditions was really above and beyond. Every aid station was amply staffed by smiling, soaking wet, volunteers
  • Supposedly 23,000+ runners started this race and only 19,000-some finished.  Since there really isn’t much of a time cutoff (the last runner I know about took almost 10 hours) I can only assume that accounts for 3000+ runners giving up due to the weather.  Tough break that.
  • To answer one friend’s question this was my 13th marathon and I don’t have any other stand-alone marathons planned for 2011. I am doing two full Ironman races (Texas in May and Arizona in November) so I’ll have to run marathons in those.
  • Thanks to all of the friends and family who sent words of support and to my parents for being wonderful hosts as always. And, of course, to my amaZing wife Carrie.  She couldn’t come with me on this trip because she had to teach on Monday, but she was in my heart every step of the way.
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One Response to Splish Splash I Was Running a Race (L.A. Marathon)

  1. Pingback: Running Is Like a Box of Chocolates | Caution: Slow Children at Play

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