My Surf City Marathon Experience

A review of Surf City Marathon Weekend from last year can be found HERE. Once again organizers did a superb job and I was happy to be back. For this post, I am not going to review (again) the attributes of the race weekend (not much new to say). Today, I’m going to focus on what was different about this destination race – namely that I ran the full Marathon for the first time after several years of doing the Half and my experience chasing a time goal.

The Surf City Marathon this year was my Boston Qualifying time goal race. This wouldn’t just be the winter getaway weekend it had been in the past. Last Friday morning, I was at O’Hare with Kurt boarding an early flight to LAX with a lofty ambition: to finish in under 4:05. 

Beachfront Path. Huntington Beach, California. February 2020.

Upon checking in at the Hyatt Regency Resort (where we always stay) Friday afternoon, we immediately dressed in running clothes, the first departure from our usual routine. Because I was running the full Marathon instead of the Half, I didn’t want to leave my shakeout run until the morning. Saturday was a rest day. We headed north along the beach for about a mile and a half, flipped around and finished three back near the hotel and race expo. The Expo has always been a Friday afternoon tradition, but this year I was being given a blue Marathon bib, rather than the orange one Kurt received. He was still doing the Half. That’s when it sunk in that I was going these extra miles alone.

The weekend weather was fabulously perfect for everything we had planned. Saturday I was to stay off my feet. With a daytime high over 80 degrees and blue skies and sunshine, we lounged on the beach. The predicted temp for race morning however was low 50s with cloud cover. I could not have ordered a better weekend.

Surf City USA. Huntington Beach, California. February 2020.

It was agreed that since my race start was 75 minutes earlier, I would set my own alarm and head out alone. While I missed the companionship and camaraderie of our usual joint race mornings, I had a goal and was grateful for the meditative alone time to get my head on straight.

I made coffee in the room, dressed quietly, ate a Clif Bar, and slipped out. The Hyatt is an official race hotel and provided complimentary water and bananas in the lobby. I sat alone in a chair in the lounge, finished my banana, hydrated, and closed my eyes for a few minutes and visualized myself successfully navigating the course. The best part about having done the Half so many times is that most of the course was fairly familiar. And the race website had a really good description of it that I read numerous times.

I didn’t leave the hotel until 6:10. The race start was at 6:30 just about a 5 minute walk away. With only 2200 scheduled to start, waves were self-policed and divided between over and under a four-hour predicted finish time. I moved in front of the 4:05 pacers, but well behind the 3:50 guys. I never did see the 4:00 group. It was still dark.

Alone in a crowd at the start. Pacific Coast Highway. Huntington Beach, California. February 2020.

After a 24-minute moment of silence for the victims of the helicopter crash that killed Kobe Bryant (all Orange County, CA residents, two specifically from Huntington Beach), and the National Anthem, we were off. I had divided the course essentially into 5 parts in my mind (4 -6 mile segments and a final 2.2 mile sprint to the finish….just run one at a time; don’t think too much about the whole. 26.2 miles. Knowing that you’re going to be running for four hours can be pretty daunting, especially from the perspective of mile one.

The first segment was along the Pacific Coast Highway and right on Seaport and up into the course’s only real elevation. After mile four, the marathon course included a loop through Huntington Central Park which was new to me. It was beautiful and a nice contrast to the beachfront course of which I was most familiar. My objective at this point was to maintain a pace no faster than 9:10 per mile. Doing some math in my head, I figured I was averaging 9:05 though 6 miles; a little fast (my official 10k split time was 57:04, 9:06 pace).

The second segment brought me back onto the course shared with the half and comfortable to me.  I tried to slow the pace. I needed to save something for later in the race. I was through segment two as I neared the first turn-around on the PCH and believed I was now at my desired 9:10 average pace (my official half marathon split was 1:59:41, 9:08 pace). 

My plan from here was to gradually increase my pace with the hope that I’d have enough energy to increase the pace to sub 9:00 miles by the 4th (and final long) segment. When I hit the turn-around in Bolsa Chica however we were suddenly hit with a stronger than expected headwind which, added to a slight gradual incline, had me working a little harder without much to show.  

Then we got to that point at about 15.5 miles: less than a mile to the finish – had I been running the Half – where the marathon course makes a U-turn onto the beachfront path for another 5 miles in the opposite direction. Being free of the headwind though gave me a burst of energy and for miles 17 and 18 I was back at a 9:02 pace.

The course description explains that the beach path is not part of the closed course and therefore runners should be wary of pedestrians and bicyclists. I get this, but seriously? It seems a little antagonistic to be riding your bike or walking your dog through a marathon, no? There’s no other place for you to go? Would it just kill you to postpone your outing for a couple hours? 

Maybe this is where some negativity distracted me, although I was very conscious of the breathtaking view: big waves of the Pacific hitting the beach to the west. As I presumed in last year’s review, the Marathon course has better scenery.

I was also very aware that I was alone most of the time. Running the Half you always feel like there are a lot of people around you. And of course in this race, I had grown accustomed to having Kurt at my side. At other marathons – especially Chicago last fall – the course is packed with fellow runners and lots of cheerleaders. 

I finally reached the northern most point on the course just before the 21 mile mark. I was beginning to struggle to hold the pace. Miles 19, 20, and 21 clocked in at 9:10, 9:22 and 9:30 (my official 20 mile split was 3:08:09, I had fallen to a 9:13 average pace). Then as I was conscious of being half way through the final 6-mile segment, the headwind was back. I was feeling fatigued although I still didn’t have any problem moving and pushing forward. You got this. Keep going. My pace had slowed considerably but I was moving and hadn’t exactly hit a wall.

Just as I was nearing the 24-mile marker and trying to figure out how I was going to find the energy for that “2.2 mile sprint to the finish”, the 4:05 pace group came from behind me. “We’re going to be finishing between 4:04 and 4:05,” one pacer was telling them. I can still do this! “I’m sticking with you guys” I announced. And I did for over a mile. I surprised myself cutting :90 off the previous mile’s pace. Then I lost them in the crowd as the marathoners merged back onto the PCH and into a mass that now included the mid-pack of the Half Marathon. As I could see the finish line banner in the distance, my watch clicked over 4:05. I still had roughly 2/10ths of a mile to go. I looked to my right and there he was. Kurt. With a smile that said “I’m so proud of you” and encouraging words. Waiting for me to finish as he said he’d be. I suddenly didn’t care that I hadn’t made this goal, it suddenly didn’t seem all that important.

Here I was an (almost) 55 year-old empty nesting mom, who can run 26.2 miles without stopping at an average pace faster than most people can run a single mile. My official time was 4:07:34. On top of being my personal best (this was an age-graded personal record), I have this incredible man waiting for me when I finish. Next year I’ll be back – running the Half with him.

Finishers. Huntington Beach, California. February 2020.

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