Sunday, February 6, 2011

Surf City USA Marathon 2011

For once I attend a marathon where my wife and friends will actually participate! I may be on my fourth full, but everyone else braves their first half. They are notably anxious, but seem excited to be doing this together. An added perk is one invited us to stay overnight at her home in Huntington Beach. She and her family treated us to amazing homemade Bun Bo Hue and Italian-style seafood pasta. Consider us sufficiently carbo-loaded.

As soon as I realized our friend's place is just two miles from the start of the race, I decided I should walk and jog to the course. Being stuck in traffic just minutes before last year's Los Angeles Marathon forced me to run 1.1 miles from the 101-110 interchange uphill to the starting line...an unplanned warm up that seemed most unwelcome at that time, but one that may have led to my PR. Not having to worry about traffic, finding parking, or securing a ride means less stress on a morning like this. Plus, my wife and friends can sleep in without worrying about me. Everyone else's race will begin at least an hour-and-a-half after mine!

Yesterday's pre-race Expo solidified my decision. Pacific Coast Highway was horribly backed up. Officials turned away cars attempting to enter the parking lot from Beach Avenue and, as we would learn the hard way, PCH as well. The next lot south was closed off, forcing us to circle back. Deterred from trying to get anywhere close to the event, we ended up parking near the intersection of Beach Blvd and Atlanta. Just to obtain our bibs and pre-race packets, we had to walk two miles (one there, one back).


My alarm goes off at 4am. I awaken immediately, perhaps due to how lightly was sleeping. Not only had I failed to fall asleep as early as planned (three first time half marathoners in the nearby kitchen apparently could not contain their enthusiasm), but I also received quite a shock around 1am. Valerie woke up and exclaimed, "Eric!" as if I had overslept.

I make coffee for myself, toast half a bagel (I ate four meals yesterday, so this seemed more than enough), put on sunscreen, and suit up. I wear a tattered old long sleeve Crash Bandicoot shirt to keep me warm until the race starts, one I don't mind discarding. I grab a bottle of water so I can pre-hydrate en route. I have plenty of time to get ready, but still leave the house ten minutes later than planned.

With the route I plotted on Google Maps firmly committed to memory, I start walking. It is dark out, but the streets are sufficiently lit. Though I tell myself the neighborhood should be safe, unfamiliarity and crossing through unlit patches are a bit disconcerting. I stick to the better lit sides of each street and cross fingers that Google's walking directions are accurate. According to the route, I can use Frankfort as a shortcut, but only if I can reach Frankfort's cul-de-sac from the intersection of Indianapolis and Beach Blvd. Thankfully, there is a sidewalk joining Indianapolis with Frankfort exactly where Google Maps suggested it would be.

Now just a little more than a mile from the start of the race, it is time to jog.

I take it easy as I head down Frankfort, but can tell my legs really want to run. The morning air is cool and moist (probably in the low 50's), but I am not cold, especially now that I am moving. I do not bother to monitor my pace as my thoughts drift ahead to the race. I almost forget to look for Huntington Street, but remember to do so just as I come upon the intersection. Who knows how far I would have gone had I run past it.

Marathoners and half marathoners emerge from cars parking along Huntington. Are the lots already full?

I reach the starting area on Pacific Coast Highway. I may have left late, but have arrived a bit earlier than planned. The starting corrals are empty. The officials are still setting things up. The sky is still dark with no sign of stars...apparently there is a marine layer this morning (I did not see any mention of it in the forecast). There are some runners milling about and stretching, but I could have easily slept for another twenty minutes.
I locate and use the nearest restroom near the beach...no need for porta-potties here. Everything could not be going smoother.

I am among the first to step inside my designated corral. I could stand at the front, right behind the elite runners, but decide to hang a few rows back because I know I will not be going out as fast as many in my wave. I turn on my old cellphone to snap a couple of pics, but shut it off immediately thereafter to conserve battery. The battery barely holds enough charge to last an entire marathon, so I must be careful how I use it or risk not having tunes.

Twenty minutes before the race, I make another pit stop...just in case. There is a line this time, albeit nothing compared to those I have stood in before other races. 20,000 will be running today, but only 2,000 are allowed in the marathon. It is simply not that crowded yet.

I return to the corral and have no problem finding a good spot, but the spaces soon fill. Ten minutes before the race I feel my bladder again. I tell myself it is just nerves and try to ignore the building pressure. I cannot leave now or risk missing the gun. The announcer welcomes us to the race...tries to engage the crowd, but everyone seems pretty mellow. People from 19 countries and all 50 states, 15 septuagenarians, 5 octogenarians, and 1 world record holder (106 marathons in one calendar year!) are participating. The sky turns a brighter shade of gray as a woman sings the National Anthem. Perhaps we will get lucky and not see the sun for the entire duration of our races.

The horn sounds and the tune "Surfin' USA" accompanies the rhythm of footsteps as runners head northwest on Pacific Coast Highway. Unlike previous marathons, I cross the initial timing mat just seconds after the horn. For once I could actually refer to the official course clocks, but I prefer to rely upon my Garmin Forerunner 405. Why calculate my pace in my head when I can glance at my watch and get instant pace updates?

Knowing a course is mostly flat is a double-edged sword because I feel free to let my legs dictate the pace. A glance at my watch suggests I will comfortably hit my first mile in 7:30. Even though I am targeting an 8:15/mile average, I do not want to slow down.
In Los Angeles, I was constantly having to shift gears to weave through a crowd of slower runners. Here, everything is already flowing smoothly. Is it bad that I am already thinking about setting a PR today?

I complete the first mile in 7:20. I try to relax my pace a bit. The first water station soon approaches. Having pre-hydrated, I figure I can skip this one. The cool weather should allow me to skip every other station. Besides, I still need to go. I pass a row of porta-potties and briefly consider stopping. I have already found my stride, so I grin and bear it. I turn on my Walkman phone and cross fingers that the music will serve as an additional distraction.

I complete the second mile in 7:28. I know I cannot sustain such a pace for even a half marathon. That said, the longer I can keep this up, the more time I can allow for a pit stop...one that may eventually prove to be necessary. For some reason my music stops. I did not start my tunes at the beginning of the race because I anticipated it might die before the end. My Walkman phone's battery is quite old, but should have lasted for more than two songs. I press the play button to no avail. If I remove the phone from the armband I risk losing my credit card, driver's license, some cash. Not good.

I take water at the next station, turn up Seapoint, and complete the third mile in 7:40. I figure my pace will naturally slow over the next mile because I should soon hit the course's one hill. We turn on Garfield and reach the incline. It is, as expected, not terribly steep...but it is definitely a hill.
Still, Los Angeles' course presented far more challenges than this. Training on the Palos Verdes Peninsula obviously helps. I don't think my pace will ever drop into the nine minute per mile range if this is the toughest hill I will see today.

When the 3:20 pace leader catches up, I decide to hang with him. I am pretty sure he needs to maintain a pace faster than 8 minutes per mile, but cannot do the math in my head to know by how much. A glance at my watch suggests I am running at a 7:45 per mile pace. I will keep this up until I feel like I am exerting effort to do so.

Somewhere between miles 4 and 5 on Edwards Street, we come to the descent. I am a little miffed because the course appears to double back on itself along this stretch and I mistakenly believed there was only one climb on the whole course. The hill does not seem very long, but it is perhaps a little steeper than the previous incline. Why I worry about this now is beyond me.

I down my first Cliff Shot as I approach the next aid station, grab water to chase it down, and enter the Huntington Beach Central Park. The lake catches me by surprise. I definitely do not know this area...which makes running through it all the more interesting. I come to a wall of trees, but can see runners on the other side. I notice one runner leave the course and cut between the trees. Lucky for them, I do not see any timing strips as I turner the corner that brings me back to their shortcut. Why anyone would cheat on a marathon is beyond me...especially those trying to qualify for Boston. If they cannot achieve what is necessary here, what makes them think they will have a good experience there?

At some point, the path becomes a dirt trail...unexpected and far too short. The course then crosses Goldenwest, continues back into the park (the park spans Goldenwest). I am disappointed to cross a timing mat at the six mile mark. I would have preferred to find it at the 10km split. I keep glancing at my watch until I reach 6.22 miles. I cross that milestone in 47:10. For some reason I feel my current pace should return a faster split. I know I have recorded a 10km split in the mid-43's during at least one training run. I must have been running really fast on that day. That said, I am still running way faster than I should.

This park has some nice looking restroom facilities. I have briefly considered stopping at more than one of these structures, but do not want to chance breaking my form. My running motion has been very fluid, my breathing very light and controlled. Without tunes to distract me, I have become very aware of everyone else's breathing rhythm. I must be in way better shape. Just then, I notice someone go off course to find a not-so-private tree. He had a chance for privacy. I guess he did not want to backtrack.

I complete my 7th mile and approach another water station. I start looking for my friend's son and daughter who are volunteering, but I am not 100% sure which station. I do not recognize my friend's children amongst the volunteers. I am fairly certain they are not at this station because they expected to also serve half marathoners...and the half marathon course does not come this far inland. I skip this station, figuring they will be at the next. Once again I cross Goldenwest, pass through the western half of the park, and emerge in a residential neighborhood. One more turn and I am back on Edwards, with its hill ahead.

I complete my eighth mile at the hour mark and begin what I hope is the last real climb on this course. My pace drops into the 9 minute per mile range briefly, but I quickly recover as the hill crests and turns on to Overlook Drive, a street atop the bluffs overlooking the Bolsa Chica Wetlands. It is actually quite foggy this morning, so I cannot fully appreciate the view. I notice some photographers along the course and try to position myself in front of their lenses. I also notice a skinny older gentleman wearing a green tank top has passed me. I am guessing he must be in his 70's. He pulls off his tank top to remove his undershirt and then replaces the tank top...all without missing a step. I find this odd because the tempe
rature is too cool to be removing articles of clothing.

As the road turns and descends towards Seaport Avenue, I pick up the pace. At the next aid station I grab Vitalyte for the first time this race (actually it is the first time I've ever had this brand of electrolyte beverage). Once again, I do not see my friend's kids amongst the volunteers. This particular station services the course in both directions, so it is possible they are facing the other way. I complete the 9th mile in 8 minutes flat, so the hill did not hurt my overall average by much. My thoughts soon turn towards my wife and friends. Their race should be starting shortly.

The course turns on to the northbound lanes of Pacific Coast Highway. I down another Cliff Shot as I approach the next aid station. I grab water, but do not see my friend's children. I decide to stop looking. I pass more porta-potties. If I can survive this long without going, I might as well hold it until after my half marathon split.

The course continues alongside the Bolsa Chica Wetlands. I am more familiar with this section of the course thanks to a couple of car club barbecues I have attended at Bolsa Chica State Beach. Running here reminds me of the first half marathon I ran (Silver Strand)...an easy flat course that appears to go on forever. A motorcycle cop soon approaches in the southbound lanes. He is followed by the current marathon leader. Some of us cheer him on the as he runs by.

A considerable amount of time passes before I see another heading in the opposite direction. I start wondering how much further the course extends to the northwest before it turn back to the southeast. It feels like an eternity since the last aid station. My pace is now hovering around 8 minutes per mile or slower. The older gentleman in the green tank top has extended his lead. I tell myself there must be a slight incline slowing me down...if only to convince myself that I will be able to pick up the pace once I reach the turnaround point. I see the 3:20 pace leader pass by in the opposite direction. How far behind him am I now? Does the turnaround correspond with the halfway point?

According to my GPS watch, I cross the timing mat located at the turning point in 1:34:49...and I still have nearly a mile to run until I reach the halfway mark. I start doing the math in my head. At my current pace, I should reach my half marathon split in around 1:42. Something about my estimation does not seem right. The fastest I have ever run a half marathon is 1:43:26...during a training run that included gravity assistance over the first four miles. For some reason, I decide to see how much under my PR I can go. Even with the extra effort, I complete my 13th mile in 7:59. I fear this will be the last in under 8 minutes.

According to my watch, I cross 13.11 miles at 1:41:30. Sadly, there is no timing mat in sight. I seriously wish all marathons would officially register halfway splits. Heck, all should register 5km and 10km splits as well. It would be like completing four races on one day. I grab Vitalyte at the next aid station. I seriously consider a pit stop, but, even though I have clearly peaked, I figure I should wait until I see my pace drop a bit more significantly before seeking relief.

Over a loudspeaker, I hear someone telling marathoners to move to the right to make way for a wheelchair. Apparently, this just affects the northbound runners...and suggests that the lead half marathoners may soon overtake them as well. I start wondering if any of the half marathoners will overtake me while I am still on Pacific Coast Highway.

As the two hour mark approaches, I notice the 3:30 pace group leader has nearly caught up with me. I try not to get discouraged, reminding myself that I would have to average 8 minutes per mile for the entire race to achieve such a goal. I down my third Cliff Shot with water and, as I pass Seapoint and the mile 15 marker, notice the pressure on my bladder has increased.

I scan the field of half marathoners running in the opposite direction on PCH hoping to find my wife and friends. There are a lot of runners filling the northbound lanes, so this is not exactly easy...but I soon see a familiar splash of pink and a white cap. "Go Valerie!" I exclaim. She acknowledges me too. How exciting! I hope her race is going well. (NOTE: She was probably a sixth of the way into her race at that time)

I see porta-potties ahead at the aid station just past Goldenwest. I cannot wait any longer. I immediately find a vacant one and try to be fast, but some things cannot be rushed. My pit stop lasts 45 seconds. To get back on course, I have to backtrack slightly to get around an aid station table and then get back up to speed. I may feel relief, but at what expense? The older gentleman I had been running with for many miles and the 3:30 pace leader are long gone.

The marathon course soon leaves the highway and turns back towards the north on the adjacent bike path. I am pleased that this is a paved surface since the one at Long Beach was concrete...really hard on the feet and joints. I should mention that I have not experienced any joint or feet problems thus far, not even a blister. The only real issue affecting my run has been...relieved. I complete my 16th mile in 9:08, but still have a comfortable buffer thanks to my unexpectedly fast first half.

That said, I can tell I am starting to slow down. I complete mile 17 in 8:27, mile 18 and 19 in 8:32, mile 20 in 8:41. Little drops are not enough to give my legs a significant boost, but, knowing that this stretch along the beach is an out-n-back, fear the subsequent little rises could slow me down...especially given their close proximity to the end. As long as I do not get much slower than this I should still achieve my PR, but I am starting to worry. I see the 3:30 pace leader heading in the opposite direction, but have no idea how much further north I must go. On a more positive note, I have finally overtaken the older gentleman in the green tank top.

I reach the final turnaround point. Two timing mats ensure that anyone who has tried to cut this stretch short will not earn an official finishing time. My split at this 20.9 mile marker is 2:49:02. I toggle my watch display to see that my overall average pace has dropped to around 8:06 per mile...still well ahead of my PR target of 8:15, but not by much. I toggle the display again to my Virtual Partner and see that I still have over three minutes I can bleed over the remaining 5.3 miles. In my head I figure that 30 seconds over the next 5 miles is only 2:30. If I hold my pace at 8:45 per mile, I should still finish well ahead of Long Beach.

I take my fourth Cliff Shot with water at the next aid station. I have one more in reserve which, if I stick to my schedule, I should not need until just before the finish line if at all. I complete mile 21 in 8:40, mile 22 in 8:38, but mile 23 drops to 8:43. Thanks in part to those little rises, I complete both miles 24 and 25 in 8:47. I feel like I have been pushing harder and harder, but going slower and slower. Some stranger coaches me to stand up straighter and use my arms to carry me to the finish. I adjust my posture and start pumping. I am starting to get really hungry. Maybe I should have eaten the other half of that bagel this morning. I decide to eat my last Cliff Shot with water from the mile 25 aid station and channel whatever energy I have left into one final kick.

My personal record is now far less of a factor than simply ending my misery. I am not hurting, just no longer enjoying the effort. The course diverts from the bike path and back to a cone lined stretch of Pacific Coast Highway, presumably to keep the marathoners separate from the half marathoners. I stop looking at my watch and start looking for the finish line.

Spectators line the sidewalks, but eventually spill into the street. Cones once used to define a lane for us marathoners now merely provide a barrier between the crowds and the rest of the highway. I must now intermingle with half marathoners as I attempt to sprint towards the end. As I enter the intersection of Huntington Street and PCH, I see the finish line. A sign points us marathoners to the lane coned off to the right and across two timing mats. The race clock reads 3:35:21 as I cross the latter. I do not need to see my chip time to know that I have achieved my goal. I beat my time at Los Angeles by over four minutes, a larger margin of improvement than between my previous marathons. I am obviously happy.

And hungry.

After I collect my finishing medal, I continue down the chute where I am handed a plastic blanket, a bottle of water, and a plastic bag full of edible goodies. I stop at the large boxes that immediately follow to use them as a table and open the bag. The offerings seem relatively light compared to what I am used to, but I do not complain. I tear into the fruit cup, consuming it quickly.

I glance at the time and assume that I have finished ahead of my wife and friends. Valerie thinks she will finish her half marathon in under 2:15, but, with no way to know exactly when her wave started, I can only roughly guess when she will join me. I watch people continue down the chute for the next fifteen minutes, but am unable to spot anyone I recognize. Picking out faces in the crowd is not easy because everyone dons the same plastic blanket. She might have an equally difficult time recognizing me.

I start wondering if she finished ahead of me or walked by while I was preoccupied with food. I look behind me and notice more food stations (explains why the food bag is so light). I decide to continue my search down the chute. I do not find Valerie or her friends, but do find a banana, an apple, and an electrolyte beverage. As we planned to meet near the food, I decide to go no further. I remain standing for fear Valerie might not see me if I sit down.

Forty-five minutes go by and there is no sign of Valerie or her friends. I figured by now everyone should be across the line, so I do a quick sweep of the area to see if I can find anyone. Not seeing anyone, I continue towards the end of the chute. I see lines for the finisher photos and hop into one hoping that maybe Valerie or her friends will walk by while I am in line. Still no one. As I have my photo taken, I overhear an announcement about proceeding through the intersection to a reunion area where you can meet up with your friends and start wondering if that is where I will find Valerie. I continue through the intersection towards the site of yesterday's expo and eventually find the family reunion area.

There are a few people standing here, but no one I recognize. I decide to take a quick look around the expo site before waiting here. The reunion area is so far off the beaten path, there is little chance I would find anyone that does not specifically look for it.

The crowd is dense, especially around the beer garden and the results tent. The line at the results is so long that I would not even chance waiting in it. Inside, I come across a guy wearing an Insomniac Games sweater. Hoping to meet up with John, Insomniac's COO (and someone whom I have been chatting with over Facebook since he came across my running blog), I introduce myself. Kevin, Insomniac's Animation Director, tells me that John picked up a running injury shortly after we met last weekend...and had to back out of the half marathon. It sucks to endure months of training only to get injured on the week of the event. I briefly consider asking if Kevin has a cellphone I can borrow, but realize that Valerie does not have her cell with her either. Trang has hers, but, now that I think about it, I would not know either of their numbers without my cell's contact list.

I return to the family reunion area and wait. Fifteen minutes go by. No one. I need to find a restroom, but hesitate to leave. I head over to the closest ones and decide against waiting when I see the lines. I wait for another fifteen minutes. This is intolerable! I head back to the restroom I used before the race and wait. Even though the sun has been poking through the marine layer, it is still cold by the beach...especially in the shade.

I return to the family reunion area and check my watch. It is 11:40 am. I have been on my feet since leaving my friend's house at 5:10 am. I finally decide to sit down. I do not want to move.

Noon arrives. I realize that my friend's family had noontime lunch plans and figure they must have returned home by now. I head back to the finishing chute to make one last sweep just to be sure no one is still waiting. The crowd has mostly dispersed,. They are not here. Race volunteers are offering extra food items to those who are still finishing and ask if I want anything. I gladly accept another banana, apple, and electrolyte beverage. Feeling abandoned, tired, frustrated, and hungry for real food, I decide I must walk back to my friend's house and hope that someone is there to let me inside.

The walk back is actually quite pleasant. The sun is out and the temperature is rising. I pass a lot of marathoners and half marathoners walking back to their cars or arriving at their homes along the route. I receive congratulatory comments from people driving down the street or standing in their yards.

As I ran half of this distance in the morning, the return trip seems a lot longer. My arms grow weary from carrying my goody bag. I continually sip from my post-race water to stay hydrated. My feet start to ache. I cannot wait to lie down. I enter my friend's neighborhood and walk up to the door. I knock, but there is no answer. I get a sinking feeling in my stomach.

Just then, the door opens. It is Valerie. The family's lunch plans are not here, so she has been waiting behind for me. Apparently, she successfully met up with all of the friends...I was the only no show. This is the last time I go to a race without a cellphone.

Results (official):

03.0 Mile: 22:34
06.0 Mile: 45:29
12.2 Mile: 1:34:49
20.9 Mile: 2:49:02
Total: 3:35:16 (new PR)

300 / 2433 overall finishers
247 / 1464 male finishers
59 / 245 male finishers age 35-39

Official Photos

Garmin Forerunner 405 Data

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I looked up the older gentleman in the green tank top. His name is Parks Williams (bib number 1706) and he is only 69 years old. He completed the marathon in what seemed like an impressive 3:46:51 until I realized that he finished 2nd in his age group. The 67 year old who beat him clobbered me as well with a blisteringly fast 3:19:43 (128th overall!!!).

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When I ran the Long Beach Marathon back in 2009, I learned about the "California Dreaming Series". Run Long Beach, San Francisco, and Huntington Beach (a.k.a. Surf City) in any order, any combination of full or half marathon, and you could earn an extra special medal. I thought about running Surf City as a half in 2010, but it fell the morning after I returned from a planned week-long snowboarding trip. Since I thought I had to run Surf City within a year of Long Beach, I gave no thought to attempting the series and did not bother signing up for San Francisco.

I had no idea that this particular race still qualified until I signed up for it last November. Nor did I realize before then that any chance to complete this series would end with this race (I just thought it was something I could always attempt as long as I did all three within a year of one another). I am bummed that I completed two of these three events as full marathons and cannot use either to earn a shot at the special medal. Oh well.

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