From Bonking to Clanging the BQ Bell at the California International Marathon

On Sunday Dec. 3, I ran the California International Marathon (CIM) in Sacramento with one goal: to get a Boston Qualifier (BQ)—my third attempt after a couple of disappointing races. In 2015, I missed a BQ by about 4 minutes at CIM, and in May 2017 by about 6 minutes at Eugene; both times because I hit the wall at mile 20 and faded during the last 10k. Something had to change as I seemed to be getting slower, not faster.

To add to the challenge, this time I wanted to BQ by at least 5 minutes because that’s what it takes anymore for a good chance of actually getting a Boston bib. Why? Because over recent years, more people have registered for Boston than its allotted spots. Using a rolling registration schedule, the Boston Athletic Association (B.A.A.) accepts the fastest qualifiers according to their age group and gender until the field fills; once it does, a cutoff time is determined. For instance in 2014, qualifiers who were 1 minute, 38 seconds (1:38) or faster than the qualifying time for their age group and gender were accepted. That year, I was 2 minutes, 22 seconds faster than my qualifying standard, so I squeaked in by just 44 seconds—the first and only time I’ve run Boston. However, that time wouldn’t have cut it last year with a cutoff of BQ minus 3:23. It keeps getting tougher, but that’s okay. It’s a fair process and if anything, I think it makes us more determined.

After my last marathon, I took some time to analyze everything about the race and my training. My overall insight was that if I wanted a different result, I needed to train differently. Maybe that’s kind of a “duh,” but I honestly thought I was training really hard. I wasn’t. Or at least, I wasn’t training hard enough to get the results I wanted.

After researching a number of plans, I decided to go with Hansons Marathon Method (HMM) and to hire a coach, pro-runner Katie Kellner, through Hansons Coaching Services. I knew what I was getting into—running 6 days a week with regular strength/speed runs and running more miles than I ever had in my life at age 49, soon to be 50, and with a busier-than-usual writing and family schedule. I wondered if my body and mind could handle it. 

All summer, I worked with Katie to gradually build a comfortable base of about 45 miles a week so that when I started hitting 55 to 62 miles a week in October, I’d be ready. I also began working with a local personal trainer, "Rick the Trainer" in Hood River who is also an endurance runner, to build core and functional strength. Further, I revamped my approach to fueling, both for training and racing. Perhaps one of the best things I did early in my training was to purchase a Vitamix which I used daily, if not twice a day. For me, making a wide variety of smoothies and smoothie bowls (topped with delicious homemade granola from Run Fast Eat Slow) was the most convenient way to ensure I'd get the nutrients, especially an abundance of phytochemicals, I needed to stay healthy.

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Over 24 weeks of training, I never missed a day except for a 3-day break when my Achilles tendon got sore and my coach and I thought it prudent to take a few days off, which along with icing and a couple of Graston sessions with my chiropractor, did the trick. By late November, taper time, I felt like a racehorse (albeit an older one!) ready to rock that course. 

My strategy was to run the first 20 miles conservatively through the rolling hills at my practiced marathon pace (8:55) and then speed up as much as I could during the last 10K, which is flat. While it required some patience, the pacing plan worked well. I felt strong and relaxed throughout the race, even when I dropped my pace to 7:30 for the last half mile (this is fast for me). I felt like I had lots of gears, which I attribute to the weekly interval work--all those mile repeats! The dreaded wall never appeared and I ended up qualifying by more than 6 minutes while negatively splitting the course with fuel in the tank at the finish. (My finish time was 3:53:49. BQ standard for my age group, 50 to 54, is 4 hours.)

I also consumed more fuel both before and during the race than in the past, which I'm sure helped to avoid the bonk. At 4 a.m. I ate a bowl of cereal with almond milk (I used to run without eating breakfast to prevent stomach upset, but with 3 hours' lead time, it doesn't bother me). Thirty minutes before the race, I slowly sipped 8 ounces of Nuun Performance (electrolytes and carbs). During the race, I drank both water and Nuun Performance at every aid station until the last 5K, after which I didn't need anything more. I think I had a cup in both hands at most stations. Hats off to CIM for serving Nuun on the course! Additionally, I took GU Roctaine (gel) at miles 5, 10, and 15 and GU Espresso gel at miles 19 and 22 (I safety-pinned 4 gels to the elastic waistband of my shorts and stashed one in my pocket). 

On CIM itself, it’s a fantastic point-to-point, net-downhill course that runs from the Folsom Dam to downtown Sacramento, although the "downhill" is not as easy as you might think—there’s still plenty of uphill, though nothing too steep. Plus, it's an easy course to go out too fast on, which I learned the hard way the first time I ran it. If you plan to run it, train on hills. It’s also one of the most well-organized and community-supported marathons out there. 

Here are a few pics from the race. We had ideal running conditions—low 40s at the start and mid 50s at the finish, light winds, no rain, low humidity and lots of delicious sunshine. Oh, and the intense energy from a supermoon! Every once in a while, the stars align. Sunday was one of those days. 

Feeling good around mile 20

Feeling good around mile 20

Finishing

Ringing the BQ Bell

Saturday shakeout run on the American River Trail just across the street from our hotel, Larkspur Landing, in Folsom. The Larkspur is a good place to stay because the rooms have kitchens so you can cook the pre-race meal you're used to. For me, that's white basmati rice, sweet potatoes, beets and chicken breast. And there's a Whole Foods close by. And an Italian ice cream place, Rita's, which has the best custard-style gelato.

Saturday shakeout run on the American River Trail just across the street from our hotel, Larkspur Landing, in Folsom. The Larkspur is a good place to stay because the rooms have kitchens so you can cook the pre-race meal you're used to. For me, that's white basmati rice, sweet potatoes, beets and chicken breast. And there's a Whole Foods close by. And an Italian ice cream place, Rita's, which has the best custard-style gelato.

Perhaps the best big greasy post-race burger ever at Marley and Moo in Old Folsom.

Perhaps the best big greasy post-race burger ever at Marley and Moo in Old Folsom.