Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Hey, it's Saturday, I think I'll run a marathon tomorrow in Santa Cruz!

Yes, that's exactly how my brain was working that day - with a little help from my wife.

As usual, I was in mid-training between marathons. The LA Marathon was back in March and I was adding mileage in prep for the SF Marathon on June 16th. I needed a good 12-16 miles according to the training schedule and was planning to run that at Sawyer Camp. I woke up that morning and mentioned to Reesa that my good friend John Rymer was running the Surfer's Path Marathon the following day and her response: "Why don't you run it with him?" She should never say such things to me.

At first my response was, "No way! I'm not in marathon shape!" But the more I thought about it, I actually was pretty close. Two weeks prior was The Golden Gate Relay and I had put in about 20 miles (over two days). And Surfer's Path is a relatively flat course. Plus it would be fun to surprise John and run it with him. After a few hours of contemplation, I had rationalized my way into the affirmative. Next thing I knew, Reesa and I were in the car with the kids heading to Capitola to register and pick up my bib.

It was a gorgeous weekend in Capitola. By the time we arrived, around 1pm, it was about 78 degrees, not a cloud in the sky and only a light breeze was blowing. An absolutely perfect day to go to the beach (which we did). The race day forecast called for low 60s in the morning, rising to only the mid 70s by the finish of the race, which was perfect marathoning weather. OK, let's do this thing!

The Surfer's Path Marathon was just in its second year and is a combination of two popular but shorter events: Wharf to Wharf, a 6 mile sprint from the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk to the Capitola boardwalk; and the Santa Cruz Half Marathon. I had done both these events many times and did the half marathon in this event last year, so I knew the course really well. It's a coastal run with great views of the water nearly the entire way. It definitely isn't flat, as the coastal trails here go up and down constantly so I knew hills would have to be my friends for this to go well. But perhaps hills is overstating it, as nearly everything in this race is between 0 and 100 feet above sea level.

I arrived about 40 minutes prior to the start of the race and noticed it was substantially larger than the inaugural year. In 2012 there were less than 1,000 people registered and not even 150 for the marathon. I finished 9th overall in the Capitola Half Marathon that year; third in my age group - is every endurance runner in my age group? This year there were about 1,500 runners in total and about twice as many prepared to go 26.2 miles. It was a brisk morning, just as I had expected. I wasn't sure how quickly it would warm up so I kept a long sleeve shirt on just in case.

After a few minutes I saw John walking toward the start from the main parking lot. I walked up casually and said, "Wow, you're running this too?" fully knowing he had registered well ahead of me. We had a good laugh and prepared to take off together for the run. It was a pretty casual start which I like - prevents the mental hurdle of getting caught up in the crowd and weaving an extra mile or two into the start. Instead I was able to take off at a leisurely sub-8 min/mile pace as the course moved from the boardwalk up the first hill towards Capitola. 

Knowing what you are in for is a great feeling in a marathon. The course was a double out and back so you could easily plan out the run knowing when hills were coming and when you would get a nice downhill. I let my body dictate the pace as we weaved up the roads toward Capitola, which is a very cute, small beachside town. At the turnaround, we ran down the beachfront street with good views of the water and a string of fun little restaurants and bars, then down the main street which is lined with cute shops and art galleries. Most of the way back to Santa Cruz was downhill so I was able to hold a comfortable pace, crossing the halfway point in 1:40 minutes.

The second half of the race is just as gorgeous but stays on the coast for much longer. Once you leave the boardwalk you stay on West Cliff Drive for about 4 miles winding along the cliff's edge where you can see crashing waves and surfers galore to your left and pricey, envy-inducing homes to your right. When the road comes to Natural Bridges State Beach you turn away from the beach and start heading for UC Santa Cruz. You never enter the campus but instead skirt around it and head into farm country for the big turn around. It's not a straight shot to a turn but a winding, climbing path of dirt trails that snake you through farms and coastal hills. If it weren't for the mile markers you never would have known when you had hit the turnaround.

The interesting part about this section of the course was the solitude. With less than 300 marathoners in total I was alone most of the time, only occasionally seeing a runner I was chasing down or had chased me down. One runner in particular was about 200 yards ahead of me the full first half. I started pulling him in around mile 16 and just as I passed him, I saw his right calf tighten up and he pulled up with cramps (first time I'd actually seen a cramp hit a runner). What made this runner particularly memorable was the fact that I saw him later in the farm trails - ahead of me. Nope, never saw him pass me. Whatever...he's only cheating himself.

About 21 miles in it was back to West Cliff Drive for the flat run to the finish. I was feeling good throughout the race, having kept my nutrition and hydration consistent and the pace manageable. But there's very few runners who don't feel the miles accumulating once you're in the 20s. This feeling hit me at 24 as I noticed my pace slowing significantly. A wave of exhaustion started to hit me so I had to mentally push it back. Look at that gorgeous coastline, James. How can you be tired with two miles to go looking at such an incredible sight? The self-talk worked and by mile 25 my pace had returned.

The finish to this race is downhill and dumps you right on the beach with your toes in the sand. I hit the line at 3:36, a fast finish for me and one hell of a fun training run. Real exhaustion hit after I crossed the line. I stumbled over to the aid station to get some water and a banana to replenish. After a few more minutes I decided to walk back up the hill to look for John who typically finishes about ten minutes above four hours. Not this time. By the time I reached the top of the hill and started to stretch, there he was, moving fast and looking great. He hit the line at 3:52 for his first sub-4 finish in at least a year. Well done, sir!

We celebrated a great race with burgers and beers at 99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall. It was a good choice as according to the Guinness Pub Finder app, they had the best pour in town - and I concur.

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