Surf City Marathon Race Report
Mark Jimenez is a very dear friend to my family and me. When I began my running journey, I turned to Mark for everything. He was the only person I knew (at the time) who had ever run a marathon. I bugged him so much that he decided to join me on my runs. This was easy since he lived in my neighborhood. Surf City 2011 is the first marathon Mark and I ran together.
This is Mark’s adventure…
When your best buddy in the whole world asks you to write a race summary for his blog, you just do it. That’s what friends are for. Even though Dewey moved to Virginia in 2014, I still can’t go on a run without thinking about my running buddy. We’ve done a lot of races together, and he was missed at Surf City this year.
February 7, 2016. It’s about 6:20am and I’m standing on the corner of Pacific Coast Highway (PCH) and Huntington Street in Huntington Beach, California for what will be my 7th Surf City Marathon in a row. The crowd is gathering for the Marathon start at 6:35am. People are finding their corrals and pace groups. I’m waiting for my friend Jason to show up, but most of all I’m feeling confident. I’ve had months of solid training, running 40+ miles a week and my weight is in control. I feel like today could be a PR kind of day.
I meet a fellow Pearl Izumi champion at the start line and she tells me how she has qualified for Boston and hopes to run a 3:10 there. I doubt I’ll ever be that fast, and I tell her I’d love a 3:30 for this race but anything under 3:39 will be a PR for me. Jason runs up just as they are about to sing the national anthem and I see him. He looks a little frazzled. Parking for the race was a bitch and I see the worry in his eyes as he comes running up. I’ve been there. In fact, Dewey beat me at the Marine Corps Marathon due in large part to me starting the race 30 minutes after the gun went off. Who knows what would have happened had we ran together? But I digress. I wave Jason over and try to make small talk to calm his nerves a bit. Jason is a natural runner, but this is just his 2nd marathon. I’m in double digits now.
While I’m confident this will be a PR day for me, I’m also cautious. I’ve been here before and failed. Twice, in fact. In 2012 I also had a banner training year. My weight was in control and I was running fast. Dewey and I started the race with the 3:30 pace group and we were still holding conversation with each other when disaster struck for me around mile 8 at an aide station. Some numbskull ran directly across my path to get water and I stepped on his foot, rolling my ankle pretty bad. I kept thinking as long as I ran on it that it would stay warm and I would be ok, but the pain was too much and I hobbled to an over 4-hour finisih.
In 2015 I had a great training year. Then on the way drive down to Cali from Vegas I started coughing. By the time we parked I had a fever. I tried to run with what I am sure was the flu but only made it 3 miles before an ambulance finished my race. No fun. Michael Jordan in game 6 of the NBA finals I am not.
So I’m confident, but cautious. I know that a lot can happen over 26.2 miles. Jason’s wife Kelly is there. She shows up just as we are about to start. She will do the half marathon pushing their jogging stroller with their one-year old Logan in it. It makes me happy to see Jason go over and give his son a kiss before the race starts. The only thing I want on my tombstone is “He was a good dad.” It makes me happy to see other people be good fathers. The world needs more good fathers.
The gun goes off and I think that it’s just for the elites, but the crowd keeps moving forward and before we know it I’m starting my watch and we are off. The sun is just starting to come up and I take a look to the West. It is a clear morning, not a cloud in the sky. That gives me another worry as we get started. Usually there is a marine layer that keeps the temperatures down for a good part of the race. On Saturday before the race the sky was so clear that I could clearly make out Catalina Island. In fact, I’d never seen Catalina so clear. It looked like I could swim there (new goal? Swim to Catalina?). I knew the weather report said it would be low 80s, but I was hoping for a marine layer to keep it cool in the morning. Heat is a great equalizer for me.
Whenever I start to worry about stuff like that, though, I’m reminded about something my Uncle Robert told me when I was a little kid. I was worried about a nuclear bomb going off and asking all kinds of questions about it. Finally he goes, “Look, if one goes off by you then you’ll be dead, so why worry about it?” The heat, I realized, was out of my control. I can’t worry about it, I’ll just have to handle it if it happens. I have gotten better in the heat the last year anyway, taking first in my age group in a 50k in May (in Las Vegas, HOT), and knocking out my first half ironman in summer.
The first couple of miles are great. You run North on PCH and the miles just peel away fast. Everybody is all smiles as you don’t really realize what you are in for yet. Running 26.2 miles always hurts, no matter how much you train, but it almost always starts out fun (unless you have the flu).
Mile three takes a turn to the northeast and off PCH. We pass an aide station and I think, “Well, I’ve already made it further than I have last year.” I’m well ahead of the 3:30 pace group and feeling fantastic and my favorite part of the race is coming up, the run through the park. I tell Jason that we are going to turn a corner and there will be a hill there, but it’s not as bad as it looks. We turn the corner and he laughs and says he hates me and I laugh. I know the park is coming up.
We don’t get trees like this in Las Vegas. It’s hard to say why I love this park so much. Maybe it’s the middle school band that plays for us as we run through, their notes very off-key but trying their hardest to give us motivation as we run by. I always make it a point to clap for them as I go by and yell thank you. Maybe it’s the giant birds I see, or the smell of the morning dew on the grass. Whatever it is, I love that park. I also know that if I’m fast enough I’ll catch a glimpse of the first place elite runners as they finish their loop of the park.
Sure enough, our timing is perfect. I see the first place male complete his loop. He has a police motorcycle escort as well as a cyclist with him to clear the path. I can’t help but smile. How awesome must that be, to be out in first and have an escort? A rumble goes through the average Joe runners like me as he passes and we all cheer him on. A few minutes later the first place female comes by with her own police and bike escort and I smile again. I am in awe of these people. The way they run is so beautiful and effortless. Their stride wastes zero energy. My stride is bouncy and I probably swing my arms and body too much. I’m sure I waste all kinds of energy as I run. These people waste zero energy and it is a true thing of beauty to watch them effortlessly glide through the morning. When Jason is on, he runs like that too. I can never run like that, but I greatly admire those who do.
At mile 8 I reach down for my 2nd gel (I take them at miles 4, 8, 12, 16, 20, and 23) and realize one has fallen off my belt. No problem, I know there are a couple of gels at aide stations along the way. We are exiting the park now and heading back to PCH. The sun is up but as we turn North and West it is still behind us. Jason and I head to the side of the road where we are still in some shade. It’s a long run down PCH to the turnaround, 4 miles or so, and while my music is playing in my ears I hardly hear it. I have the short-lived conversation with Jason as we talk about runners we pass or pass us. There is an older man who is hauling ass and keeping pace with us. I ask Jason how old he thinks that man is. 65 is the answer. I can’t help but think that I want to be like that man when I’m 65. Strong, straight-backed, and kicking ass at a marathon. Of course we point out the beautiful women we pass (or are passed by) as well. That’s half the fun of a marathon.
The sun is on my back and I’m feeling it heat up. The first twitches of pain start in my right knee, the one I wear a brace on. Let me get this out of the way now. I’m mentally weak. Some people, like Dewey, can muscle through anything. They are mentally tough. I am not, and I never know when something stupid like a little twinge in my knee is going to make me give up. I psych myself out sometimes. But I just keep going and tell myself, “Only 3 more miles until your next delicious gel.” This is a joke I tell myself, because I have yet to taste a delicious gel. They all taste like things I can’t write in a public blog, but they do give me a shot of energy so I look forward to that.
Once again I am lucky enough to see the first place runners as they make the turnaround and head back down PCH. Then the pace groups start and I know the turnaround must be soon. There goes the 3:05 pace group, and every 5 minutes to 3:25. I know I’m between 3:25 and 3:30, so the turnaround must be quick. Sure enough, there it is and we turn around and head south and east. Immediately I am hit by the rising sun and I feel it’s warmth. This worries me, but I’m still feeling good and I have a good pace so I just keep going. A Cliff Shot station is up ahead so I grab an extra gel to replace the one I drop and keep trucking. It’s a long way back down PCH to the next turnaround that will take us back north and west up the strand. Somewhere along this stretch Jason and I get separated. It was bound to happen, running 26.2 miles together is hard and I’ve never been able to do it with anybody before. I hardly notice it as this is where my mental game comes in, and my mental game is weak.
13.1 miles is done. I feel great, but by the time I get to 16 I’m suffering. It’s funny how fast that happens. I can run a half marathon (far and away my best event) without even thinking about it. Usually the suffering for me starts around mile 20, so I’m a little shocked that it has come this soon and I’m worried. You see, the 3:30 pace group hasn’t passed me yet, and while I’m sure they will I want to hold that off for as long as possible because I want that PR so bad. I have to push it so Dewey will have to work hard to beat it at his race.
The turnaround on the strand is the worst. We hate to run north and west for what seems like forever. It is mentally draining and the miles seem to slow down. At mile 18 I am hurting and I just want to quit. I pass a beach bathroom and I think, “nobody would know if I just hung out in there for a little bit and then turned around and came back.” But then I think, “I would know.” I don’t want to cheat. How do people cheat at races? How do they live with themselves? I keep going, but I’m slowing down. My average pace is now over 8:00 a mile and the 3:30 pace group has gone by me. Also, it’s heating up and with the heat comes the suffering.
Luckily I had the foresight to take some salt tablets with me and I had been taking them every hour. I only take them when it’s hot, but salt helps cramping and it is good for your heart to fight off heat stroke and such, especially when you are sweating a lot (for goodness sakes, don’t take them when you’re just laying around). I manage to keep an ok pace moving forward, but at this point I’m questioning if this will be a PR kind of day.
Around mile 20 there is a group of people who every year set up a bacon and beer station. They bbq bacon right there on the strand. And every year he smell of it makes me want to throw up as I run by. Don’t get me wrong, I love me some bacon, but as I’m hot and exhausted I just don’t want to eat. That’s the big challenge with these races. Your body needs fuel but you don’t want to eat. You have to force yourself to do it (especially on triathlons and ultra marathons), but bacon? God man, this is not the place for bacon. What’s more is that they always seem insulted when I turn down the greasy piece of bacon they are handing out as I run by. I appreciate the thought, but it’s just not for me.
I see some pace groups start to come back so I know the turn around is soon. It’s between miles 20 and 21. I’m really suffering. It’s hot and my mental game is weak. Even though my music is playing, my mind is in charge and I am a victim of my damning thoughts. God knows I have a lot of those. I think of those who have hurt me. The mental scars never really heal, and this kind of thinking only slows me down more. I laugh at myself for letting people in so easily, even after having been hurt so many times. I feel like I’m doomed to make the same mistakes, and I’m slowing down. A PR is almost certainly out of reach now as I play the poor-me game. I play the poor-me game so well. I’m a great victim, and I play the part to a T. Poor me, I think, as I suffer while I run. This is what you deserve for doing x, y, and z. You deserve this pain, I tell myself. I’m defeating myself. I know that at the turnaround the sun will be in my face again and any shot of a PR will be out the window.
There is an aide station right before the turnaround, so I hit it before and after the turnaround. And right as I hit mile 21, something happens. I start to think good things. I think about my kids, who are always waiting for me at the finish line. I think about how proud they are of me no matter how I do. They love me no matter what, and I love them no matter what. That puts a little pep in my step.
A few years ago I was taking the kids to see my grandma in Utah. We were stuck in traffic in the Virgin River Gorge and I had to pee so bad. I stopped the van and got out and pee’d right on the side of the hill. Little Amy stuck her head out the window, all of 5 years old, and said something like, “Daddy, you’re peeing on a mountain, just like a bear. You’re a brave bear daddy!” Ever since then she’s called me her brave bear. And at mile 21 I told myself, “Brave bears don’t quit.”
That thought kept going through my head. And then I had another thought, “Form is king.” Stupid little sayings that run through my mind, but they help. I read somewhere that lifting your chin up and keeping your head up while you run sends a message to yourself that you are a champion, that you are confident. So when I wasn’t thinking about how brave bears don’t quit I was thinking about running like a champion. Straight back, chin up, form is king.
My pace picked up and the 3:35 pace group hadn’t passed me yet. There was hope still for a PR! My pace started to pick up and while it hurt like a bitch, the running gods did me a solid and sent a slight breeze right in my face to cool me down a bit. Things were looking up. Mile 21 passed by, the 3:35 pace group passed me, mile 22 passed by, and then I started doing mental math.
Look Mark, I said to myself, you’ve got 4 miles left. All you have to do is keep a 10 minute pace and you PR. No big deal, you can do that! Brave bears don’t quit, Mark. Form is king, Mark! I looked down at my watch and started doing the math. Hope is a great motivator, and while it still hurt, I was picking up the pace. It was working!
Mile 24 passes. I look up and I see the pace groups still headed to the last turnaround. I see the 4:10 pace group the 4:20 pace group, and I think, “I used to be with those guys, and look at me now.” The positive thoughts are coming. My God my feet hurt and my knees hurt and the back of my left knee is killing me, but I’ve only got a couple miles to go! I know that soon I’ll cut off the strand and make the less than a mile run to the finish line.
Tom Petty famously said that the waiting is the hardest part, and usually for me miles 23-25 go very slowly. But on Sunday they went by quickly, in a blur. Going back to look at my pace they weren’t anything special. But my mental game was on and when I’m thinking about seeing those kids at the finish line the time is flying.
Mile 25. Wow! Only 1.2 to go. At this point there is a crowd of people cheering you on, and many of them are saying “You can do this! Only a mile to go!” That pisses me off. It’s easy for them to say only a mile to go, when actually it’s 1.2 to go. How can they forget the 0.2? That last almost quarter mile is hard, damnit! Hahaha
Finally we cut back onto PCH. The crowd is huge now and people are cheering you on. I am so pumped and full of endorphins and adrenaline. I wave my arms in the air and they cheer louder. I feel like everybody there is cheering for me. The street is lined with people but I am looking for my family who is waiting for me. I’m flying now, nothing can stop me. I don’t see the finish line yet, but I know it’s up there. I look at my watch and it reads 3:35, then 3:36.
“Holy shit,” I think, “I can finish this bad boy in 3:36.” I kick it into high gear and go. Then I spot them, my family. They see me as I see them and even though we are far away I can hear the cries of Daddy over the cheers of the crowd. I veer to the right to high five them, and the whole crowd sticks their hand out. I seem to high-five for 100 yards before I get to them. I am so happy, all this pain is paying off. There are no words to describe what is going on in my body. How can I be in so much pain but be so happy?
It’s over before it starts. 5 all-important high-fives later and I’m passed my family. I hand out a couple more high-fives to strangers and then I’m sprinting to the finish. There is a timing mat that reads my chip about 50 – 100 feet before the finish line. I’m hauling ass now and I hear the announcer say, “That is Mark finishing from Las Vegas” and I swear I feel like a rock star. I cross the finish line and I hear him say, “He finished in 3:37 and change,” and I am a little bummed because I wanted 3:36 something. I look at my watch and it says 3:37:04, but it’s still a PR by more than 2 minutes. Later I would find out that my official time was 3:37:00, but that doesn’t mater.
They funnel you down the chute at the finish line, but I’m not moving very quickly. What I am, though, is so happy. I’m overcome with endorphins. I’m sobbing tears of joy at my accomplishment. I want to share it with my kids. I wish I could grab them, but the chute is long and I have to walk a damn country mile before I can see them. A volunteer puts the medal on my head and I walk down the chute. They are handing out bananas, drinks, oranges, etc. I make sure to grab as much as I can so I can give it to the kids when I see them. All I need is a bottle of water.
Marathons always hurt, but there is not much in this world that compares to that feeling of joy and accomplishment as you cross the finish line. You hurt all over, but you feel like you could fly. The emotion is real. The thoughts are intense. In August of 2009 I weighted 240 pounds and I couldn’t go upstairs without losing my breath. Not even 10 years later and I’m running 3:37 in a marathon.
I am addicted to that feeling, and that is why I will keep on running and keep on striving. At 38 years old, I think I can still get better times for a few more years anyway. I know that someday I’ll have to realize that it won’t be physically possible to keep getting better, but that won’t dull the sense of accomplishment at crossing that finish line.
Set goals, achieve goals, and cross that damn finish line.
Follow Mark on Twitter @_26point2_ and at drj.ninja