Not “the Wall” but “the Parabola”

“Show up and blow up” as Ms. Toth said. Meltdown, might be more accurate in my case. After mile 20 my splits got progressively worse. Indeed the deceleration between splits got worse so “cubic” is more accurate than parabola I suppose.

Up to mile 20 I averaged a 6:50 pace (well, 6:48 to be precise), which was my intent. Mile 20 was 7:01, then 7:07, 7:24, 7:41, 8:11, 8:57 and 9:20 for the last mile. I wasn’t hungry, or cold. I had none of the traditional signs of hitting the wall, I just got slower and slower and slower with each mile. My legs hurt, but that wasn’t the problem.

I hunched in on myself. I was still passing people up to about mile 23, but that changed and hordes of people started passing me. I thought about resting, but I knew I’d never start up again if I did.

California International Marathon. I’d never been to Sacramento before. I rather liked the city. It looks much more like the kind of environment I grew up it. They were having a real fall. That was extremely nice. Maggie and Rusty and June (Rusty’s wife) and I all flew up on the same flight on Friday. Rusty and June were doing research into how a marathon was organized. Melissa G. and her husband drove over from Sacramento, and Tony (whom I hadn’t even realized was running CIM) came up on Saturday.

On Saturday we registered, and then Rusty drove us over the course so we could get a look at it (he and June were counting port-a-potties, aid stations and similar things). The course starts out in Folsom and wanders through moderately rural countryside for a while before entering the suburb of Fair Oaks, and then on into Sacramento itself. Coming in to Sacramento was quite lovely with tree lined streets still in (almost) full fall color.

The course loses 350ft or so over 26.2 miles so it is known as a fast course (indeed, all of us got PRs, but we all paid for it — the downhills trashed our quads). It isn’t a constant decline, of course, instead constant rolling hills with each decline a little longer than the incline that precedes it.

We were worried about the weather. No rain was forecast, but it was much colder than SB. The prediction was for 37 °F (~3°C) at 7 in the morning when we started rising to a high of 50 (10C) in the afternoon, with winds. The wind sounded worrying. The course runs basically west with a little bit of southing, but it meanders. The wind was from the southeast mostly cross, but sometimes we veered into it.

Because we were heading west, I decided against sunglasses. I had a pair of throw-away gloves, an ancient moth-eaten sweater, a garbage bag, an ear-band, a long-sleeve wicking shirt and shorts. I considered tights, but decided I didn’t need them.

(Maggie and I had done a short run the day before and I found my legs were warm enough without tights).

I set four alarms for 3:30am and woke up 2 minutes before any of them. A series of buses came and picked us up at our hotel a little after 5 and took us out to Folsom. We arrived around 6. We were allowed to stay on the buses as long as we wanted in order to keep warm, however I got out immediately and went to the port-a-potties — past experience has taught me that if I wait the lines become insane.

As I was waiting, I glanced over at the next line. Someone was staring at me. “George?” he said. “Mike?”. A guy I used to work with 15 years ago was there. He and his wife, Lori, do marathons from time to time, but it hadn’t occurred to me that he might be here too. He was hoping to run it in 4 hours or so, but was injured (and unsure he’d succeed). I was hoping to run in under 3, but had also been injured (and was unsure I’d succeed). Lori was going for a 4:30 or so.

I went back to the bus (now almost empty), took off the sweats I’d been wearing for warmth, smeared my legs with vaseline (as insulation, and then loaned my container to some others who were also redressing.

My plan was to run the first mile with the 3:10 pace group (7:15 min/mile), speed up a little on the next and then start running 6:50s and try to catch the 3 hour pace group (6:52 min/mile) around the half-way point, run with them until 19 or so and then try to speed up. I had my doubts about speeding out, but we would see.

Rusty told me to start out slowly to give myself a chance to warm up, I doubted my ability to do start slowly by myself which was why I was going to run with the pace group (I get so excited at the start of a race). I was supposed to do a mile or so before the race as additional warmup, but I couldn’t find anywhere to run. In one direction was huge mass of bodies lining up, in the other a constant stream of buses and cars dropping off runners.

So I placed myself where I thought 3:10 might be (the pace leader hadn’t shown up yet), A bit back from the 3:00 sign. When the 3:10 leader did show he was well in front of me, but by then it was so packed that I could not move up. I’d wait for the start. Anyway it would mean I’d run even more slowly, which was all to the good as a warm up.

I didn’t hear the start signal. But that didn’t matter, because no one around me could move for several seconds after it. We were still stationary when I’d worked out that the leaders had started. I guessed it too me 30~40 seconds just to reach the start line (thank goodness for chips!). We were sort of running then. I could see the 3:10 sign dancing some distance in front of me, but I still couldn’t get to it.

Amusingly enough the 3:15 sign was ahead of the 3:10 sign for the first half mile or so.

The first ¾ of a mile, or so, is a gentle downhill. Then we turned onto another road and slammed into our first hill. Only a short hill. Suddenly I heard someone calling splits, and realized I most have passed the first mile mark without noticing it. 7:28 by my watch. Nice and slow.

I started moving a little faster and eventually passed the pace group. I felt warm. I took off my ancient, mothy sweater and tossed it off the side of the road (the race expects this, they gather the dropped clothing after the run and donate it to charity — though I doubt anyone would want that sweater).

Somehow I completely missed the second mile marker. Mile 3 was a small sign on the right side of the road. At that point I tore off my garbage bag, wadded it up, and, just before the next aid station, I tossed it to the ground (they didn’t have a garbage can before the water, and I wanted water, which I could not snag with a wadded up bag in my hand).

Shortly after this my cap bounced off my head and onto the ground behind me. I had intended to keep it, but I wasn’t going to stop and turn back for it.

Mile 4 had a great huge flag attached to the mark, as did all subsequent mile marks. Easy to spot. My split for that mile was 6:39. A little too fast for this early in the run. I slowed. Mile 5 was 6:51. Perfect.

As were miles 6 and 7. Quite good pacing for me. I ate my first gel pack here. Then the next two miles were hillier and were both 6:55. Mile 10 was a long steady downhill: 6:34, and that got me moving a little faster: 6:46 and 6:36 for 11 and 12. And then I realized the large clump of people a minute or two in front must be the 3:00 pace group. I wondered if I’d catch them by the half. Didn’t seem likely.

Mile 13 was 6:37, and they were still well in front. I crossed under the half-marathon marker (which had a clock) and saw that I was right on target. Even a little fast. I crossed under at almost exactly 1:30:00, but that was gun time, and I’d been running for ~30 seconds less.

So I was right where I wanted to be, the pacer was just going too fast. (not much, I guess, but I was annoyed with him). I ate my second gel.

After the half marker we turned dead into the wind. I’d been feeling pretty good about going ~6:40, speculating that maybe I’d be able to continue at that pace. Nope. 6:57 for mile 15. I picked it up again to 6:40 for the next two, but it was hard.

Another gel. Then mile 18 was 7:01. Arg! can’t have that. So mile 19 was 6:45. Whew. That averages 6:53, that’s close enough to pace.

Up to now I’d averaged 6:48.

But mile 20 was 7:01 again, and when I tried to run faster I didn’t. 7:07. There was someone at this mile marker giving splits, and I was till a little ahead of 3:00 pace. I couldn’t do the exact math but figured if I could just hold a 7:00 pace for the next 5 miles I’d still have a chance of breaking 3 hours. Time for my last gel. Maybe that will perk me up?

No. 7:24. Well, at least I was till passing people. 7:41. Ug. 8:11. Now people were passing me. Every now and then there’d be someone in worse straits than I whom I could pass, but not many, and eventually none. People were cheering us on, telling us how well we were doing. Others were doing well. I was not. 8:57 for the penultimate mile I’m slowing by almost a minute per mile. That’s really bad. I feel awful. I keep thinking of stopping and walking. But I … just … can’t … give … up. All I can do is keep pushing to the best of my ability. All thoughts of breaking 3 hours have long past. Will I at least manage to break 3:04 (7 min pace)?

(Horrible thought: Will the 3:10 pace group pass me? Will Maggie pass me?)

My heart rate monitor has also failed me. I’ve been running at about 90% heart rate, but now it tells me 41%. It lies.

Maggie said later there was a bad wind in this stretch. I didn’t even notice. The wind was irrelevant, the problem was inside me.

Slowly, slowly onward. Suddenly I hear “Keep going Georgie.” I look up. It’s June, watching. That brings a smile. I think I say something. Sadly, even at my sluggish pace, I eventually pass her.

At mile 26, I hear Rusty. I can’t see find him.

Another .2 miles. Women to the left, men to the right (why? what would happen if I went through the wrong shoot? Would they disqualify me?). Plod. Plod. On. And there’s the finish line 3:08:??, chip time will probably be 3:07:?? (my watch reads 3:07:38)

Well. Ok. That is technically a PR. My best race before this was 3:13 at Big Sur. That is known as a hard course. This is known as an easy course. A ~6 minute improvement is pretty pathetic.

Well. Ok. Most people would be pleased. That would qualify anyone for Boston, it’s faster than the open men’s standard. It’s ~73% at my age. But I was expecting something closer to 2:52 just a few months ago. Then I was willing to accept 3 hours. This is a disappointment.

No one seems prepared to deal with me. I can’t find anyone to cut my chip off. Ah. There. Now I can’t find a mylar blanket. The woman who was passing them out has just turned away as I come up to her. Someone gives me a bottle of water. I can’t get the cap off. I have to take my gloves off. In doing so the mylar blanket comes off. A nice lady comes up and rewraps me and opens the water for me.

I can barely walk. My calves hurt. My quads hurt.

Where’s the food? I’m not hungry, but I know I need to eat.

Here’s a booth advertising cars. Why is that here? I think that’s … insulting to find at the end of a marathon. We’ve just been pushing our own bodies to the limit — and they want to demean that by selling cars? Feh!

Where is the food? I move further and further from the finish. (I should add, although I was in no position to appreciate this at the time, the finish is right at the state capital, down Capital Mall. A grand avenue with a grassed median leading from a beautiful bridge over to the capital building). The food is far too far away.

Finally I see someone serving soup. I take a cup. And a banana. There’s not really much here.

I grab my bag. (I realize I’ve lost one of my gloves)

Now where’s my hotel?

Oh. In exactly the opposite direction from the one I’ve been walking.

About 10 blocks from here.

Some of the slowest blocks I’ve ever walked.

I can barely hobble. The wind is bad. It blows my mylar blanket up around my neck so it’s more a scarf than a blanket. It’s cold. The sun has gone behind clouds. I have some warmer things in my bag, but that would mean: stopping, unwrapping the blanket (dealing with it somehow in the wind), bending over. It just seems impossible. Especially bending over.

Instead I keep walking.

Eventually the hotel.

The elevator.

I lean my head into the wall as the elevator goes up. It feels so nice to rest. But the elevator stops, and I have to walk some more. Then my door. The door key is in my bag. I have to bend over. I can’t find it. I dump the bag onto the floor. There it is. Open door. Go back and push the pile of clothes into the room. Close door. Draw bath. Gently, carefully, gratefully, ease myself into the water.


So what went wrong?

My guess is that I still had not gotten my endurance back after my earlier collapse. I need to rest.

Good night.


4 Responses to “Not “the Wall” but “the Parabola””

  1. Annie Says:

    Hey George,
    Thanks for sharing your experience, and congrats on a PR (even if you didn’t think the race went exactly as planned). Hope that you are resting up now after a long day.


  2. Depletion « George’s Meanderings Says:

    […] never done the depletion/carbo-load cycle before, but since I hit the wall around mile 20 in my last marathon I’m trying it […]

  3. Avenue of the Giants « George’s Meanderings Says:

    […] 16 is 7:00. This is not looking good. At least at Cal International collapse didn’t happen until I got to mile 20. And then things just got really bad quickly […]

  4. Kary Says:

    Thanks for sharing this with me George … I would like to talk with you about what you think happened … I see you mention carbo-loading … I’d like to hear more … and one more plug, are you sure you do not want to do this again in DEC? Michelle, Me 😉

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