The race begins at 6:00 AM (PT) in almost total darkness. The kind of black air that makes you question each footfall. The curtain of night that I and 1,500 other runners loped through as we pulled away from the starting line of the 2012 Carlsbad Marathon mixed perfectly with the near silence that accompanied it. Only the familiar sound of rubber soles slapping pavement disturbed the stillness. The rain from the day before was gone, replaced by a perfect 40-degree temp and light coastal breezes.
I had added the Carlsbad Marathon to my 2012 racing calendar as a carrot. I need carrots to motivate me to run ridiculous distances that a 57-year-old man should probably not be running. I am not your typical marathon man. I have a poor diet, drink six to eight Diet Pepsis a day and would much rather sit on my couch than jog a 10-mile training run.
I also understand that what I want is rarely what I need…or more appropriately, what is good for me. So I run. And yes, in most people’s mind I run a lot. I really don’t do much else when it comes to fitness. I know I should, but a lazy man can only depart from his sedentary ways so much. Yeah, I definitely need carrots. And San Diego in mid-January was one succulent, sweet veggie.
The Carlsbad Marathon begins at the Westfield Plaza Camino Real shopping mall. The San Diego area has “light pollution” laws in place to limit the number of street lights and make the skies more visible for the star gazing of local observatories. Low-pressure sodium street lights are used sparingly on the major roads and highways. To a guy from the Midwest where we light every side street like it was Christmas, the sheer darkness in these populated areas was startling.
My 17-year-old son, Shannon, accompanied me on this trip for his first look at California and an ocean. As we walked along the main thoroughfare in Carlsbad, Cannon Road, the night before the marathon, we were dumbstruck by how dark it was in this Country Club Plaza-like dining and shopping area. Imagine The Plaza turning off their streetlights on a Saturday night with the only illumination coming from restaurant and store windows. Cars whizzing by us could barely see the pedestrians on the sidewalk. We seemed to be the only people bothered by this lack of light. The SoCal folks on foot moved about without a care.
It was through this blackness I trudged during the first few miles of the Carlsbad Marathon. Most big-city marathons begin with rousing rock music and huge crowds urging the marathoners on their 26.2-mile journey. Not so here in San Diego. Dark and quiet was the rule in that shopping mall parking lot.
Our prerace instructions were given over the PA by a local radio jock. He informed us that no music or bands would be allowed to play along the course until after 7:00 AM. We were also told not to throw anything in the form of litter along the route. It was repeated again in all-caps – ANYTHING! “This means do not throw your used Gu packets and water
cups into the street – anywhere!” instructed the voice. This was a “green” marathon he told us and we should just hold onto any trash until we ran past one of the many trash receptacles out on the course.
This sounded ridiculous to me. “We are not allowed to toss a paper cup on the street?” I mumbled to no one in particular. “I’m supposed to hold onto my spent sticky Gu packets?” Crazy. At the Chicago and Boston races, they have assigned huge groups of volunteers at every water station to rake up the hundreds of paper cups that hit the ground as the throngs of runners speed past.
I trailed a trim but tall lady early in the race who held onto her flat Gu packet for more than a mile before she jumped a curb and ran to toss it into a wire wastebasket on a street corner. She then jogged back to re-enter the race.
California is a different place. My son and I ran in a 5K race the morning before in a beautiful little town just ten minutes inland from Carlsbad called San Elijo. I am not in the habit of running a 5K the day before a marathon but I thought it would be fun for Shannon to race while we were in San Diego. The half marathon was already full when I went to register him last month. I could have just watched him run, but how many races do you get to run with your kid? As Shannon and I waited for the start of the 5K, an odd thing happened in San Diego. It started to rain.
“This is the first time I’ve had to use this umbrella in six years,” said one of the San Elijo residents. The rain wasn’t a Kansas thunderstorm but it built from a mist to a shower and culminated in a fat-dropped straight-falling rain.
The 5K was also designated as a “green race.” Pretty much everything in Southern California is prefaced with the term “green.” It can sometimes be a hindrance. The turns at intersections for the 5K had been marked in flour. Most races use chalk or paint or place a volunteer at the turns. Here in San Elijo they use white flour. Why not? It never rains. Except today. I shouted down two local cross country kids who were just ahead of me at the two-mile mark. They had missed the right turn and the quickly fading streak of wet flour that marked it. Shannon won the 5K race easily and even high-fived me on his way back after the turnaround. That high-five from my son was worth whatever energy I had to spend racing the day before the marathon. Shannon can run, and watching him do it with such ease is far more fun for me than anything I do on the course.
My expectations for this marathon were low. I wanted to use it as a long training run for my return to Boston in April. My PR for a marathon after the age of 55 is 3:31, which I ran at Chicago in 2010. My goal for 2012 is to break 3:30. That time is a sort of badge of honor for us runners who are creeping near and past the age of 60. This year I plan to run Boston in April, Chicago in October and New York in November. My best chance will likely be Chicago because of the flatness of the course. But running an eight-minute pace for 26.2 is a challenge on any course for old legs.
When I registered for Carlsbad last fall, I figured if the winter weather was harsh in Kansas City, I could at least get in five good days of training while in San Diego. But the weather this winter here in the Midwest has been spring-like through January. Most of my training runs this winter have consisted of wearing shorts and a long-sleeved tech shirt. 50-degree weather for my long weekend training runs is a winter luxury I do not remember experiencing. I showed up in San Diego still bearing some extra winter weight at 182 pounds, but I was marathon fit due to running 55- to 60-miles per week through December and January.
The first few miles of the Carlsbad course runs along Cannon Road. This is the same dark street Shannon and I dodged traffic on the night before after we dined on fat flanks of Mahi Mahi fish tacos and cups of thick steaming clam chowder at the quaint outdoor Harbor Fish Cafe. Just after mile two, the marathon opens onto Highway 101 or Carlsbad Boulevard. The soul-grabbing view of the Pacific Ocean along this stretch of the course is why man is moved to paint, to write, to live by the sea. It is the HD Nature Channel come to life.
The darkness of the morning gave the ocean an ominous look. The sound of the powerful waves rolling toward the shore was reassuring and constant. I strained to peer past the runners on my right to get a good view of this wondrous sea. While most runners ignored the water, I tilted back my nostrils and breathed in the salty air, trying to memorize the moment.
A trim but stocky white-haired gentleman with a utility belt laden with four bottles of water and likely his own marathon mix, jogged just a few paces ahead of me at the five-mile mark. While the leaders of a marathon receive the most attention for their head-to-head battles, there are hundreds, maybe thousands of other races being waged by individuals of every pace. I chose Batman’s grandfather here as my first competitor.
Just as I was getting comfortable with Batman’s pace, a 30-something bronzed Lifeguard-looking stud quickly slipped past me and strode alongside Batman. He lifted his right arm to pat Batman on his right shoulder. He leaned in close to offer some words of encouragement and applaud him for his coltish pace.
I smiled to myself as I watched the two converse. Marathoners all compete against each other but we all are aware of the training, sacrifice and effort it takes to race. Older runners, especially those clipping along at a pace to match those much younger, are held in high esteem. This younger runner was paying his respects to the 60-ish Batman.
I smiled because the Lifeguard passed me to get to Batman. He did not yet view me as so old that I deserved a pat on the shoulder.
“I ran just over 3:30 here last year,” I heard Batman tell the Lifeguard. “I am trying to get under 3:30 this year.”
I decided to stick just behind Batman as the Lifeguard pulled away with his quickening pace. If he was planning to run 3:30, maybe I could hang with him and use his course experience to do the same – or at least close to 3:30. I would be happy with anything under 3:40, which is the new Boston Qualifying time for my age group. Sure, I had already qualified and registered, but it is always good to have a goal for a marathon. Finishing under my BQ would be respectable. I tagged along behind Batman as I watched him take a long swig from one of his utility belt bottles.
Halfway between the five-mile and six-mile mark, the course turns inland, away from the coast. San Diego was built on a hilly piece of earth. While I would not call the Carlsbad Marathon hilly, it definitely is not flat. This part of the course especially takes the runners up and down some gradual hills and a few steeper inclines. It was along one of these short but steep downhill grades that I lost Batman.
I run the downhill portion of a race hard – well, hard for an old guy. As I watched Batman cautiously head down a right-curving ramp, I dropped both hands below my waist and motored past him smoothly. After following Batman for a couple of miles, I started to wonder if my strategy was sound. What if Batman was having an off day? What if his line about running close to 3:30 last year to Lifeguard was just the early stages of Alzheimer’s Disease? I was skeptical about leaving my designated pacer so early in the race, but I
decided to make the move. Every marathon produces different challenges at different times during the race. This time I chose to be bold rather than cautious. I took advantage of gravity’s gifts by leaning forward and recklessly tossing my feet forward as I lengthened my stride down the hill. I did not see Batman again.
The course has four turnaround points. For this reason, you see runners coming and going during much of the race. This creates somewhat of a security problem for the organizers. When you have a number of intersections where runners are heading in opposite directions, you run the risk of a less-honorable runner sneaking across the line and ducking into the stream of runners who are actually miles ahead of him in the race to the finish.
Timing mats were placed at all four of the turnaround points to record the time that a runner’s chip crosses that point. If a runner doesn’t show up digitally as having crossed any one of these mats, he has some explaining to do – especially if his finishing time is surprisingly fast.
Tim Fritson, a friend of mine who is a cross country coach at Liberty High School in Kansas City, was devastated when after successfully qualifying for Boston in his first marathon in Dallas last December, he was told his time would not be allowed because his chip didn’t register at two different locations on the rain-soaked course.
Tim had run 2:54 and the Dallas organizers were skeptical of his pace for a first-time marathoner. Tim eventually got Dallas to confirm his BQ but it took days of talking to other runners who remembered running with Tim and pouring over checkpoint photographs. Tim actually had gotten the names of some of the runners who he was pacing with during the Dallas race and remembered them. I found this to be a remarkable feat – almost as amazing as his sub-three-hour marathon debut. I don’t talk a lot during a marathon, let alone commit some of the runner’s names to memory! If an official approached me after a race and asked me for some names to save my honor, I am guessing that Batman and Lifeguard wouldn’t be of much help.
What is odd about the Carlsbad checkpoints is that they are placed at the turnarounds but not at the normal splits you would expect. My splits for Carlsbad were at the 9.4-mile mark, the 13.8-mile mark, the 18.0-mile mark and again at the 19.8-mile mark. You expect to see splits for your 5K, 10K and Half and maybe the 30K. Those splits were not available after the race, which surprised me considering this is not a poorly organized race.
A new GPS watch was strapped to my left wrist as I chugged along the California coast. I had only used the watch a couple of times on training runs in Kansas City and I was not at all familiar with its features. Just that morning I had discovered how to display my pace on the watch’s face. Or so I thought. When I checked my pace at around five miles, it showed it as 8:25/mile. This was more than disappointing — and as I found out later, not at all correct.
While an 8:30/mile pace would return me a respectable 3:45 marathon, I sure felt like I was running much faster over the first five miles – when I was still fresh. “If I’m running 8:25 now and feel like I’m pushing it,” I thought to myself. “How slow am I going to be running the last five miles?” I decided not to bother with my watch much this race.
I do not get too caught up in monitoring my pace during a marathon because I don’t think there is much I can do about it. I race at what feels like a comfortable but competitive pace and then I check the clock at the end to see how I have done. I did not look at my watch again until the halfway point. It read 1:41. That was a good time for me and similar to what I have run the first half of a marathon in the past. Maybe I wasn’t moving as slowly as my pace feature suggested.
At the 15-mile mark I was shaken by movement to my left. Fast movement! Kenyan-like movement! I turned my head to see the sleek, no-neck figure of what looked every bit like a Kenyan-built marathon machine glide past. He was in my peripheral vision for only a glance. I saw the bottom of his shoes now and how little of his foot touched the pavement. He had to be moving at close to a 5:00/mile pace.
“Where the hell did this guy come from,” I asked myself. “Did he sleep in an extra hour and was now in catch-up mode?” I locked my eyes on his form as he quickly disappeared into the horizon. His head barely moved on shoulders that sat directly beneath it. His dark ebony legs looked to start a few inches below his non-existent neck. He was magnificent to watch from mere yards away with his throttle opened to full race mode.
Again, I questioned why I was seeing a stallion like this back here in the middle of the pack. The only time I get to see any of the elite runners at a marathon is if they happen to be roaming around the start before the race. 15 miles in? I don’t see anyone who I can’t beat.
Just after No-Neck disappeared, I spied three more Kenyan-like specimens racing side-by-side but coming at me on the other side of the street. That’s when it dawned on me. I was at the point in the race where the marathon merged with the runners from the half marathon – which had started 90 minutes after the marathon!
Just ahead was the turnaround for the half-marathon runners. No-Neck wasn’t even leading the half! He was in no better than fourth place. “Just how freakin’ fast are these guys?” I mumbled. Before I reached the half’s turnaround, I was also passed by the two women who were leading the half and a handful more men who were serious about the sport.
The half marathon was full when I tried to register Shannon for the race. There were 7,000 spots in the half but only 1,500 allowed in the marathon. The Carlsbad race has a small-race feel because of their limited entries. The start of the marathon was almost quaint, with such a small field. I am sure the race organizers are concerned about the impact 25,000 runners might have on the environment and roads in and around Carlsbad. I felt
lucky to be wearing my official 2012 Carlsbad Marathon bib.
A bandit is a runner who does not register for the race but runs the course without an official racing bib. My son Shannon was a bandit in the half. He drove to the start with me at 5:00 AM and had two options; 1) Sit around in the mall parking lot for the next five hours or 2) Bandit the half and run one of the most gorgeous road races in North America.
As Shannon passed one of the water stations, a volunteer remembered him as the winner from the 5K race the day before in San Elijo. “Hey Kansas City!” she yelled as he sped by. Shannon turned and smiled, responding with a witty, “Yeah, it’s me!”
Shannon the Bandit said he minimized his footprint as an unofficial entrant by drinking only one water while on the course and ducking out of the race just before the finish. As bandits go, that’s pretty acceptable behavior. He still finished well before me. He even stopped mid-race to pick up some cash that fell out of the utility belt of a guy in front of him. Shannon stopped, scooped up the cash and caught up to the runner and hand him his money – a Robin Hood-like gesture from the bandit.
After 18 miles, the race changed. Where once there were no spectators in the early dawn, there were now hundreds of people, even thousands hugging the curbs and holding up signs. The street was divided for half marathoners and those running the full. The half participants, 7,000 strong, got most of the road. A thin bike lane was roped off on the right side for the 1,500 marathoners. I felt special as I and my mates cruised along in our privileged marathoners-only lane.
Our view of the Pacific was now to our left and from high on a ridge. A fence-post of palm trees dotted the median that separated the bobbing lanes of runners who were heading back toward the north and those slower runners who were still making their way south. I took in the vista and enjoyed the idea of being healthy enough and lucky enough run a San Diego marathon in January.
At the 25-mile mark I allowed myself another peek at my watch. 3:18 it read. WHAT? I looked again – this time slowing my pace to be sure I saw the numbers correctly. 3:18 it repeated. Not even 25 miles of running had dulled my senses enough to know that all I needed was a 10-minute final mile to easily break my 2012 goal of 3:30. It was just the juice I needed. I dropped the wrist that housed my new GPS watch and began to pump both arms in earnest.
The thought of breaking 3:30 here in Carlsbad in JANUARY was almost too much to comprehend. Did I screw up and miss part of the course? The numbers on my watch were that much of a surprise to me, so much so that I had a difficult time believing they were real.
I was struggling a bit with tired legs at the 24-mile mark and had lost contact with a young guy I was trying to keep within reach. A woman who I’d passed miles before, caught me at 24 and cruised by. But this new information that I was on track to break 3:30 was better than any packet of Gu or a shot of Gatorade. My mind switched from surviving the marathon to finishing it as quickly as I could.
At the 26-mile mark I cut the corner of the curve (like I always do) to shorten the distance from one corner to the next. “Run the apex,” I heard a spectator yell at a runner nearby. “It’s shorter!” As I passed over the center line of the street, my left toe caught the raised metal lane divider that is in place to alert motorists when they drift from their lane.
My left side slipped and my torso dived toward the pavement. I was going down! The human mind is a magical contraption. As I flailed my arms in an attempt to break my fall and regain my balance, I saw myself in my mind splayed out on the hard concrete, a mere two-tenths of a mile from the finish –all while the clock ticked away precious seconds from my finishing time. Somehow I managed to get my right leg forward enough to avert a face plant. Three more staggered steps and I had regained my upright status.
“Are you okay, man?” asked a concerned fellow runner to my right. I had also let out a banshee-like scream during my almost-fall that alerted everyone within earshot and likely scared a number of children in the crowd.
“Yeah, I’m good,” I lied. Every muscle in my body was screaming at me to stop. Distance running is all about rhythm. You find your pace and execute the course. A violent departure from that rhythm like a near fall results in a muscular seizure that probably feels a bit like an electrocution. It is difficult to describe how bad I hurt and in how many places.
Almost as quickly my body recovered and the rhythm of the race resumed. I turned left to view the finish and I saw the large electronic clock flashing 3:25:41…3:25:42… I got up on the balls of my feet and tried to imitate the grace of No-Neck as I chased those fleeting seconds. I bent my head as I crossed the finish line as if I was a sprinter. 3:25:52 would be my time.
I found Shannon in the parking lot and made him wait with me until they posted the results. I thought my time might get me some hardware for a top-three finish in my age group. As we gathered around the computer printouts, my name was fourth – one lousy place away from bringing home a trophy.
We made our way back to the car and sat in a two-hour traffic jam as we attempted to leave the Westfield Plaza mall. This is why living in San Diego is not perfect – lots of people and lots of cars. My legs stiffened a bit as we sat, but overall I felt good. I was still buzzed about my PR and not even a gridlock traffic jam was going to alter my mood.
Almost a week after I returned home, a package arrived in the mail from the Carlsbad Marathon. Inside was a third-place trophy for my age group. It seems they made an error in their initial results tabulations and my time managed to land me third, not fourth. Trophies shouldn’t mean much at my age – but this one does. I am going to keep this one to remind me that falling down is not an option.
By Greg Hall
[email protected] and Twitter / greghall24