Monday, March 26, 2012

Running the Oakland Marathon: How I Re-Became a Marathoner

[This race has been, for me, almost 5 years in the making. Unsurprisingly, I'm a little wordy about it. So prepare yourselves for a detailed race report :) ]

On March 25th, I became a marathoner. Again. Throughout the training, and even the days leading up to the race, I felt this odd dichotomy of both being an experienced marathoner and a novice, all at once. In all honesty, with a very crazy and intense (and stressful) work week leading up to race day weekend, I didn't really have time to think about the race, beyond a lingering feeling that bordered on dread, in that my right foot and toe had been hurting for weeks, and I was scared I was about to repeat my Dick Collins mistake and run on an injury. I didn't run a step the week before the race, hoping that that would be enough to get me to the starting line recovered and ready to run. 

So, Friday afternoon, after a particularly exhausting science lesson, where I was filmed teaching (for a research project I'm working on), and after I sent home report cards, it suddenly sunk in that I was running a marathon on Sunday. As in, the day after next. And suddenly I was a bit scared. 

After a bit of begging, Ed took me to the expo, where I picked up my bib, some necessities (gu and body glide). I got to take in Oakland in the rain, as it was coming down the whole time we were up there, and tried to visualize myself running in that weather. I also picked out a practical yet pretty pair of accessories. 

I'd been wanting to try the arm warmer fad for a while, and this seemed like the perfect opportunity, since the weather was promising to be a bit indecisive, with rain, sun and clouds all predicted. [Spoiler: I love them! I took them on and off about 3 times during the race, which let me keep my temperature perfect in the changing weather. While the sun was out, I was so thankful to be able to take off the sleeves, but when the wind picked up and the clouds covered the sun, I was equally thrilled to put them back on. Great investment!]

The night before, like always, I laid out my outfit, which consisted of a lot more than usual, with the weather uncertainty. 

In the event of rain, I planned to wear my rain jacket, with my regular running gear below. No rain? Just the running gear and a lighter jacket (that I could ditch with Ed at mile 11).

 We woke up around 5, and I was feeling suprisingly unrushed and not incredibly nervous. I even hit the snooze! Once I got moving, though, that 45 minutes flew by, and before I knew it, we were heading out the door into the dark but dry air. 

The drive seemed longer that morning than it had the day before, and dawn had still barely begun to break when we arrived in Oakland at 6:40. My nerves had also began to wake up, as the enormity of what I was about to do started to sink in. Ed dropped me off in a parking lot about 3 blocks from the race start and then headed up into the Berkeley hills to do his own run while I headed to the starting line. 

(a beautiful pre-dawn photo Ed took at the start of his run)

(the beautiful mural where Ed dropped me off)

It was a little weird walking by myself to the starting area, through the still very dark Oakland streets, but as I got closer, more and more runners started filling the sidewalks and, by the time I got to the start, dawn had broken and runners filled my views. I saw a potentially familiar face as I walked across the street, and almost went up to him, but second guessed myself. Ends up it was an old running friend, Norbert, who was also running the marathon!

First things first, I stopped by the bathrooms. Shocking for a race, there was no line (any of the times I used it!), which was awesome. Great job race planners :). I still had plenty of time to kill, so I wandered around, figuring out the layout, and chatted with a nice guy from San Diego who was up here running his first marathon. Around 7, a bunch of armed forces guys and gals were being sworn into duty, which was pretty cool to watch, and at 7:10, they had us begin lining up. 

Us back of the packers sort of have an instant camaraderie, and I began chatting with a few women as soon as I had situated myself between the 11:00 and 12:00 pacing signs. My plan was to try to hit 5 hours, and there was conveniently a pacing group for that, so I figured I was all set. We all made amused comments about the fact that anyone beyond the 11min/mile pace was literally behind a fence, since obviously we weren't really part of the race. A woman named Kathy and I shared stories - she was here to redeem herself after she overdid it in the heat at Napa's marathon a few weeks ago and scored a DNF. She was planning to run a bit slower, shooting for a 5:30 race, so I didn't see her again after we started.

In what felt like no time, they were singing the national anthem and then counting down. When the announcer got to zero, the gun sounded and thousands of confetti pieces shot into the air, raining down on those front runners as the race began. 


We, of course, started with that expected walk to the start, as the runners took a few minutes to get through the starting line. People around me were jogging in place, but I decided to just walk until we crossed the timing mat. After a minute and 20 seconds, though, we had started the race!

The course itself winds its way through practically every neighborhood in Oakland, starting downtown and heading up to northwest Oakland, near Berkeley, then up even more into the Oakland hills, Then, you head south, down the hills and into the flatlands, passing through many different ethnic districts until you circle back around to lake Merritt and, finally, the finish line. 
I discovered about, oh, 1 minute after the start, that I would not be running with the 5 hour pacing group. If you don't know, a 5 hour marathon equates to roughly an 11:26 mile/minute pace. The group was running solid 10 minute miles to start, which was way to fast for my tastes. I let them jump ahead of me, confident in my garmin and my own abilities to pace myself, and chatted with a few other women who were also surprised by the fast pace of the group. I mostly talked with another very nice woman who was also doing her first marathon, from San Ramon. She was concerned about our pace (mile 1 clocked in at 10:48) and I encouraged her to slow down, since, after all, we had a very long way to go. I was a little concerned by how tight and sore my bad leg was to start the race. Still, I hadn't run all week, so tightness was to be expected, and I just hoped it would eventually go away. 

Miles 2 through 5 wound through Oakland heading northwest towards Berkeley, and is where we really started getting our first taste of both the hills (this was all mild uphill) and the great crowd support. Though it was still early, families were out in front of their homes, cheering, with cups of coffee in their hands. I made it a goal early in the race to say "hi" and "thank you" to every person in the crowd who cheered and every race volunteer and police officer helping on the course. Not only is it the nice thing to do, but you will automatically get some kind of encouragement back. And, since I didn't have any music, it was a great distraction. 

Once we got to mile 5, we hit a very familiar street, college avenue. We ran down the street that was a huge part of my college experience, passing my favorite pizza place, burger place, running store, 

and almost reaching my grocery store, before we turned around. I've done a lot of runs up and down this street, and having it as part of the race made it extra special. 

This was also a place where we did an out and back, and got to see some of the other runners. It was also the last time I saw the 5 hour pacing group (the ended up finishing just 2 minutes before me, so I guess they really slowed down in later sections). 

As we ran back by Rockridge Bart, I was thrilled to see an aid station with chocolate gu-s, my flavor of choice. I had been complaining to Ed the day before that races never have good flavored gu-s, which was why I needed to bring all of my own. I very thankfully took one, and let the volunteers know my appreciation. One complimented me on both my smile and my good manners, which so reminded me of my old running days, when I often got compliments on my smile. It reminded me that I was starting to look a little like my old self, and that smiling will often get you support, a tactic I used on many, many other spectators the rest of the way :). 

I was so thankful I had come up here for training because next was the part I was most nervously anticipating - the hills. 

I felt for anyone who hadn't looked at the elevation profile or done any hill training because they are, well, relentless. I made a plan as I headed up the first one that I would take a few more walking breaks than I had done in training, since I wanted to have enough left for a good end to the race, but that the breaks would be short. Up the first hill, I walked to the count of 10, but ran the rest, feeling strong. 

After the first hill, you get a bit of a "break" on a relatively flat pathway through the park. Since I didn't have music, I decided I would choose songs to "play" in my head, and started all with some "Hairspray." That carried me into the neighborhood part of the hills, which was, if possible, even more green and lush than it had been a few weeks before, due to the recent rains. I "switched" to listening to "Jesus, Joy of Man's Desiring" as we turned onto a side street "Fernwood" and ran under a canopy of overhanging tree branches while the sound of a nearby rushing creek set the perfect background sounds and sights. 

After we left this quiet neighborhood, we entered the Montclair district, with full streets full of cheers. There was also a short downhill, which I powered down, fueled by the crowd. I knew we'd have a bit more downhill until the last, and from my memory, toughest, hill arrived.

However, I had something special to keep me going up that last, steep hill. Ed. I walked about 2/3rds of the way up for 10 seconds (again), knowing I'd want to be running when I saw him. As I reached the turn onto Lincoln, two volunteers were cheering in the runners, telling us that the top of the hill was literally just beyond that turn.

(heading up the final hill of the hill section)

My smile from that comment shone even brighter as I saw Ed standing at the exact top of that hill, holding a sign saying, "Run, Adelyn, Run" that I had sentimentally held onto from my very first marathon. He had my own little aid station set up, and refilled my water bottle with more powerade while I grabbed some more gus. And then, with a kiss, I was off.

In the race, just like in training, the Mormon temple was a wonderful sight, as it marked the start of the downhill.

Plus, it's also where you get the best view of the course, a surprising treat after all the rain predictions.

Coming down the hill, I started chatting with another runner, a triathlete who had relocated to Marin from Georgia 3 years ago. She was interesting, but seemed to really dislike the Bay Area, saying she was so happy to be moving back because she "wanted to raise her children southern gentlemen, not hippie punks." She was a bit negative in general, complaining that her garmin was tracking 0.3 miles ahead (mine was 0.15 ahead to start, which grew to 0.4 by the end of the race). I tried to explain that that always happens since they measure the shortest distance of the course, but she blew that off, insisting that they had mismarked the course. In any event, I was happy that she was doing a walk/run strategy, so I wasn't running with her the whole time - her negative energy was pulling me down a little. 

By mile 12 we were in the flat area of Oakland, a stretch a bit more run down that I hadn't felt totally comfortable running solo during one of the training runs. However, running through it with its inhabitants out there cheering really helped me, and I'm sure others, see it in a different light. At one point, I heard cheering and looked up to see a little girl poking her head out of a barred window shouting, "Go, runners, go!" The next 5 miles went by relatively quickly. Mile 13ish was where the next switch was for the relay runners, so there were lots of people there, which was a nice boost. However, soon I started looking forward to mile 17, as that was where I would see Ed again. 

As we passed through China town, there were kids out holding up a dragon and playing some instruments. The different personalities of the neighborhoods really shined in some areas. 

While I was a little bugged by that woman's frustration with the "longer" course, I did find myself wishing my Garmin was more lined up with the mile markers. By here, there was more than a 0.2 mile difference, and the time between when my watch said a mile marker, and when I actually reached it kept feeling longer. 

But, in terms of hydration and nutrition, I went with my watch. Moreso than any race I've done before, I was very good about eating and taking electrolytes on a schedule. Every three miles I took a gel and every four miles I took an S-cap. Of course, I felt like I looked suspicious when I took the S-caps, and wondered if any of the cops who were watching the course wondered what exactly was in these white pills I was taking. I also did great drinking. I started with a bottle about half water, half powerade, and got it filled with water (usually about halfway) maybe 3 or 4 times. I also had Ed fill it with powerade the two middle times, and probably drank maybe 4 bottles total (around 80 ounces, plus the cups of water I snagged from aid stations). 

Ed gave me great advice in the car before the race, after prefacing that he didn't really think he could give me advice, since I was such an "expert". "Remember," he said, "being successful in a long race starts top down. First, worry that you have a clear head, then, make sure you're breathing right. Next, take care of your stomach. Then, your intestines, and finally, your legs. Even if everything is hurting, and it will, if your head is clear you'll be fine. But, if you don't take care of your head, you won't have a good race, no matter how good your legs are." I really took this advice to heart, making sure I took the electrolytes, water, and food to keep a clear head, and focused on deep, slow breathing. 

Finally, just past mile 17, I saw the most welcome sight ever - Ed.

Once again, he was the picture of efficiency, refueling me and I grabbed what I needed. I decided to try out an espresso gu since my stomach was doing okay and I was hoping for an extra little shot of energy. Before I could blink, I was off again, for what would be the toughest part of the course.

It was here, when I had been running for over 3 hours, and I still had 9 miles left, that the enormity of the distance began to sink in. After all, that meant well over 1 1/2 more hours of running, and I was still feeling pretty tired. But, I just kept smiling and running, and trying to keep my pace around 11:20.  At mile 18, I began running with a very nice man, who was holding a good pace. He complimented me on my smile as well, and then asked if I was part of "the team," short for team-in-training. "No," I replied. I was about to ask why, when I looked down and realized that the purple shirt I was wearing was similar to the TnT color. That was why all the TnT crews had been so supportive! Oh well, I'd take all the encouragement I could get.

My newfound running buddy noted that we were running into a headwind (on top of the sun already coming out to make it a bit warmer) and then asked if he could draft off of me. I told him sure, vaguely wondering if it would make it harder, but I didn't care.

Soon, we approached the Arch of Fire. Which is, well, an arch covered in fire - both metal and real, made by the Crucible

My new running friend asked if it would be bad form to walk through the arch. "Very" I replied, and so he pushed through. Soon after, though, we bid farewell as he slowed to a walk while I kept pushing. 

Around mile 20, I started to get pretty tired. It wasn't like I'd hit "the wall," after all, I'd been eating great. I was just tired. It was hard to must the "thank you" for people, but saying it forced me to act, and therefore be, more energized. Around mile 20, though, I began to notice that everyone was walking around me. Granted, we had joined up with the slower half marathoners, but still, barely anyone was running. This made things a bit more challenging, as I had to weave around runners, and made it a bit harder, since when you see people walking, it makes it a bit more tempting to start walking too. But, I had a goal to meet.

There was a great aid station around 20 with volunteers lining both sides of the course, cheering and holding out bananas, gus, and drinks. It was such a high! Of course, I remembered the race report that mentioned this from the previous year, and all the people who were throwing up said banana a mile later, and abstained, merely shouting a thanks as I passed. 

By mile 21, I was starting to just wave a thumbs up at the spectators - saying anything was just too hard - and I was looking forward to, more than anything mile 23 when I'd see Ed. Despite the fact that I was super tired, something about reaching mile 22 was emotional for me. I think it started to sink in that I was going to finish. I got a little teary as I rounded one of the bends in the course, realizing that I was really doing this. I was really running a marathon. 

The crowds in this section were unbelievably helpful and brought a smile to my face every time I felt like I just couldn't do any more. 

The best was when I hit mile 23 and Lake Merritt, and a woman shouted, "Holy sh**! You look great for a full!!" I'm not usually one for profanity, but that made me feel awesome. 

Equally awesome was the sight of Ed just up the path around Lake Merritt, ready to meet me. 

He also told me I looked great and then, surprisingly, asked if he could run with me for a bit. We began running together, and he told me a little bit about his run and started telling me all sorts of encouraging things. While it was wonderful at first, the thing was, I was really hurting by this point and, with as much love as I could, told Ed that, while he is amazing and I soo appreciated seeing him, I didn't really want him to run with me any more. This was an ending I had to do on my own. 

Dropping off my now unnecessary arm sleeves (literally dropping as they fell on the ground when I tried to pass them off), I was on my own once more, only 3 miles from the finish, and very tired but determined.

This last stretch around the lake was very mentally tough. You can see where you'll be finishing from mile 23, and knowing you still have over 3 miles left can be sort of disheartening. A very small uphill around mile 24 left me cursing, and the distance between my Garmin's measurements and the real mile markers seemed further than ever. I was also feeling even more frustrated by all the walkers here, since the path was so much narrower, and I was really having to dodge them and expend extra energy to get around. I started reverting to the general "On your left"s so that I could just run in a straight line. Just before mile 25, when I said that, I got the response, "Just as long as you don't mind me blowing past you at the finish line!" "All the more power to you if you can," I replied with a half-hearted smile. Seriously, I was very much running my own race, and couldn't have cared less about when anyone else crossed that finish line. 

Finally, when I closed in on mile 25, I really began to feel like I could make 5 hours, but that it would be close. By my watch, I was less than a minute ahead of pace, and I'd been slow the last few miles. I'd really have to push to make it. We went away from the lake a bit, and headed up a small uphill near the construction. I saw and overheard a man, running the full, pulled to the side, asking his friend, "I'm almost done, aren't I?" After his friend affirmed, I heard the sound of vomiting and was very very thankful that my stomach had really held up. I couldn't imagine being that close and not being able to continue. 

Finally, there was a little downhill and I knew I was close so I kept pushing. My watch beeped for mile 26 and I looked down to see a 10:30 pace and tried to pick it up even more, for that last 0.4 of a mile (very much cursing the mile differentiation here). I was so looking forward to that finish, to seeing Ed, to reaching my goal. 

As I rounded that last bend, I tried to put some speed in my legs, and took in the positive comments and encouragements from already finished racers and other spectators. In a bit of cruelty, the very last 0.2 was uphill, but I could see the finish line now, I wouldn't let that stop me. I kept trying to go faster as a huge smile spread across my face and tears dotted my eyes. My eyes searched the sides of the barriers for that familiar face, and soon I saw and heard Ed as he, along with everyone else, cheered me in. 

Stopping my watch, I looked down to see 4:59:04 and smiled a huge, grateful, proud smile as I slowed to a walk. I had finished. 

I walked through the finisher's chute in a daze, bypassing the food, but taking a water, as well as my medal and space blanket, and found Ed's eager arms at the other end. It was the perfect moment. From there, we went and sat on the grass (well, I laid down while Ed sat) and I regaled him with the tale of my run, while I intermittently commented on how sore I was, but how great, too. 

After resting, we made our game plan. I went and got a mimosa (or 2. They did give us two drink tickets after all!), and decided that the mimosa trumps beer for best post race beverage ever, and we walked to the 19th street BART to get back to the car. Walking down the stars was, admittedly, painful, but I was gleeful in the trip down memory lane. I hadn't ridden on BART since college. 

While I hadn't remembered that marathons make you so darn sore, I was so so happy I didn't really care. I didn't even really care that we had to walk another half mile from BART to find the car, which was quite a bit farther than Ed had remembered. Much.

We went to my friend Sarah's for a post-race celebration and then it was time to head home. To reflect and rest and celebrate.

The next day, I am sore (oh so much more sore than I remembered) but so very happy and already planning out my next race. It feels unbelievable to have run this distance again, after so many years, and to feel like I can return to the old, running me, to reclaim those running dreams I gave up so long ago. It feels great to be a runner and marathoner once more.

Thanks so much to all of you who knew me way back when I was Addy the ultrarunner and stuck by me through Addy the injured, when this blog was practically dead. While at the time, I was upset and scared to learn that my chronic pain was caused by a benign tumor, I've learned that it's a bit of a gift. Now that I know running can't make my pain worse, I can run worry free. And that? Has made all the difference.

Now, I just need to decide where to make my re-debut as a 50k runner :).

But for now? I'll enjoy this very special and very meaningful triumph.


runningtwig said...

Congrats!!! So happy for you!

Sarah said...

Congrats! Great to see you back marathoning. Ultras are just around the corner. :-)

Anonymous said...

Great report Adelyn! So good to see you and congratulations on finishing strong! See you at the 50s! ;-)

Kevin Luu said...

Congrats on finishing the marathon! Sounds like you had a blast. Here's to all you've accomplished so far and best of luck to all your future running, road or trails. Who knows, maybe Western States is in your future. :)

Adelyn said...

Thanks everyone!

Sarah - I sure hope so :). If my legs can handle a marathon, surely they can handle ultras, right?

Norbert - definitely :). Give me a year or two, though ;)

Kevin - I sure did. Would so love to imagine being out on Western State. Someday...

Jean said...

Addy, what a report! It has been a long journey back to this point, and I am so happy for you! What a wonderful narrative. Congratulations, savor this experience, and I wish you all the best as you plan for the next one! :)

Patty White said...

This has to be one the best recaps I've read about a full marathon! Thanks for posting this. I love all the photos. Congratulations you did it!!!!

Adelyn said...

Thanks Jean and Patty for the kind words :)

Tyler said...

Tough elevation profile! The positive the worst of the hills are over before the halfway point and you don't have 4 brutal ones from 18-22. Garmins tend to over-estimate your distance in races anyways, even on certified courses. Ryan Hall's from Boston last year had him running 26.3 and mine said 26.4 and he was out front able to cut the tangents. You can turn the auto lap off and hit the lap button every mile so your avg pace will be accurate for pacing instead of relying on auto lap. Each mile should read anywhere from 0.98-1.02 or so if the auto lap is off and you hit the lap button every mile. I also love the chocolate GU, the chocolate raspberry GU Rocatne is delicious, I could eat those for snacks during the day haha. Congratulations on beating your goal of 5hrs! Good thing you didn't go out with the 5hr pace group early since they took it out too fast.