As I mentioned in my earlier post, I have been nursing a strained hamstring for a few weeks. I was concerned that it would give me trouble with all the hills on the Carlsbad course. But like so many times before, what I was worried about was replaced by something I didn't expect.
The rain in the forecast slid back a day and we had perfect running weather - 45 degrees with a slight cloud cover, warming up to probably 55 degrees by the end. We took off in the dark at 6:00am. Sean and I ran together for the first mile before he sped up to try and capture his goal. The sky slowly brightened, and soon the high cloud layer was radiant in hues of orange and purple.
My training was just okay this time around. I had a goal, but no real expectations. As it was dark at the start, I couldn't see my watch to check my pace, so I just ran by feel. I eventually caught up with one of the pacers, but it was still too dark to read his sign to know what his goal pace was. I just trotted alongside until the sun came up. I eventually saw that it was the 3:40 group, which was faster than I wanted. I was hoping for a 3:45 if all went well, so I tried to relax the pace a bit.
We turned inland after mile five, and that is when the real climbing began. And the pain. It wasn't the left hamstring I had been worried about, but my right Achilles tendon that was tight and painful. I have never had any issues with this, so it was a little disheartening so early in the race. I headed uphill, trying not to push off too hard on my right foot.
At the eight mile mark, two thirds of the way up the hill, I checked the clock for the first time. I was about 30 seconds ahead of pace, nearly perfect so far. I saw our awesome supporters just a few steps later. Kristy, Marci and the kids got out of bed at the crack of dawn again to cheer us on. It is hard to explain what a boost it is to see a familiar face along the way. They were out in the cold instead of snuggled up in bed, even though Kristy is still a little dubious about this running thing, and Marci is days away from giving birth.
I stripped off my gloves, hat and arm warmers and after a quick kiss, headed uphill again. I saw Sean on the other side of the street already headed back out, and we exchanged encouraging shouts and a hand slap. After the turn-around at mile nine, gravity helped me pick up the pace and rest my Achilles tendon. The ladies had crossed the street and cheered us on again as we zipped downhill.
The course returned to sea level at mile 13. After another short out and back (and another Sean sighting), I pulled over to try to stretch and massage my Achilles. It was stiff and painful, but nothing I did seemed to help. I felt a stab a few steps after starting up again, so I tried to run a little easier. I also took a half dose of Tylenol at the next water stop.
The course heads out and back along the coast for the next ten miles. The half marathoners joined us at that point so the road was much more crowded, but the sounds of shoes slapping the pavement were drowned out by crashing waves. The road has a number of rolling hills so it was difficult to maintain a pace, and every uphill brought on more pain.
There is a short but sharp uphill at mile 18. It took the wind out of us last year, and my Achilles was dreading it again this year. The pain was too great to run up it, so I stopped to walk. The pain immediately stopped, but I couldn't force myself to keep walking. I had been checking the clock every two miles and I was holding pretty steady at a minute under pace. So I ran backwards. It looked silly, and maybe like I was showing off, but I was able to climb the hill without Achilles pain.
Kristy and Marci cheered us on at miles 17 and 19, before and after the hill. I was in pain, but still feeling like I had things in control. The high fives, smiles, cheers and tambourine gave me an extra boost.
Of course the last six miles is where the test begins. At mile 20 I was still 45 seconds ahead, but at mile 22 I had lost the time cushion completely. I stopped looking at the clock.
Over the proceeding marathons, I have managed to forestall the crash just a bit more each time. But it always comes. Last time in Long Beach, I crashed hard in the last few miles and stumbled across the finish delirious. I had promised I would not go there again. Last year at Carlsbad, I was feeling pretty good at mile 23, but I was walking by mile 24. This time I found something I hadn't before. An extra click on the dial, an ability to go to eleven.
My IT bands slowly tightened over the last few miles, bringing with it the related knee pain. I could feel the despairing thoughts coming on and the voice in my head that wanted me to walk. But this time I felt stronger mentally, more in control than before. Of course I was tired on top of the pain, but where in the past it felt as if someone yanked out my power cord, this time it seemed like more of a steady dimming of the lights. No amount of mental toughness could have carried me through last time, so I had somehow managed my energy better this time.
Maybe it was the rest this past week, maybe it was the Achilles forcing me to run more steadily, or maybe it was simply the cool weather. I can come up with multiple reasons why things went wrong in the past, but it is hard to pinpoint what I did right this time. Whatever it was, I felt focused and (nearly) in control from start to finish. As I rounded the last corner, I saw the clock ticking at the finish line. I saw it approaching the 3:45 mark and tried to pick it up for a push to the finish. I watched it go past 3:45 but I kept pushing, not knowing how far behind gun time I (and my timing chip) crossed the start line. The official clock read 3:45:12 as I broke the imaginary tape.
I was out of breath, spent, and my head was a little swimmy, but at the same time I felt great. No staggering, no threat of passing out, exhausted but in control. Sean found me a few minutes later in the finish area. He had a tough race fighting through his own knee pain, and had crashed hard like I had in Long Beach. He looked wobbly and glazed, and I knew he had pushed himself as hard as he could.
While standing in the endless line to get my gear that I had checked, I found my official time online. I had snuck in under my target to finish in 3:44:57, a new personal best by almost three minutes, and seven minutes faster than last year. Sean had finished four minutes earlier in 3:40:51
It seems a little redundant when I netted my best time to say that this felt like my best race so far. But this was only the second time in eleven marathons where I felt like I had managed my pace, pain and fueling just about perfectly. The other time was in Las Vegas in 2009, and I was aided by a gradual downhill over the last six miles. Even in marathons where I ran new personal best, I have felt like I screwed something up and didn't do my best. This time I think I did.
After the race, we went back to casa de Sean and Marci, enjoyed the spoils of victory (pizza and beer) and swapped stories in the sun. For the first time in a while, I don't have another marathon on the calendar. I will probably run one in the fall, but for now I am going to spend my weekends either biking or hiking. It will be a nice change of pace, and it was nice to go out with a victory.
If you would like to read about the other Sean's experience, you can find it here. It is wonderfully written.