On February 1st, I ran the Surf City Marathon in Huntington Beach, CA. I also did this race in 2012 and 2013. I would have done it last year, but it was the same day as the Rock N Roll New Orleans Marathon.
I like this race for several reasons. In early February, it’s a treat to run alongside beaches and enjoy warm temperatures. I like the VIP treatment runners get at the Doubletree Club in Orange County, where I’ve stayed each time I’ve done this race. The race is always held on Super Bowl Sunday, and I enjoy watching the game on the west coast, where it starts in the mid-afternoon. I enjoy hearing surf music along the course. I know I can always count on seeing lots of friends here. Finally, the surf board finisher medals are cool.
This is one of the few races that will mail your race bib, so you don’t have to pick it up at the expo. It costs extra, but I still opted to have mine mailed in case I had trouble getting to the expo on time. The traffic driving to the expo can sometimes be maddeningly slow.
Although the Orange County airport is closer, I flew into LAX. I was able to get a non-stop flight with convenient times. Also, rental car rates in LA are cheaper than Orange Country. I arrived in LA in the early afternoon. I had a meal on the flight, so I didn’t need to stop and eat when I arrived.
You never know how long it’s going to take to drive from LA to Huntington Beach. You also never know how slow traffic will be near the expo, which is on the beach. The first time I did this race, I tried to drive up the Pacific Coast Highway from the Orange County airport. Traffic barely moved. Last time, I flew into LAX, and got to the expo in about the same amount of time, driving three times as far. This year, I also drove south from LA, heading straight to the expo before going to my hotel. I didn’t need to go to the expo, but I wanted to stop there if I had time. If traffic was bad, I could always make a last minute decision to go straight to the hotel. The expo was more or less on the way.
Getting from the rental car lot to the freeway was slow, because of construction. Once I was on the freeway, however, it was smooth sailing. Traffic along Beach Blvd. also wasn’t bad. The expo is in a large tent at one end of the beach parking lot for the beach. Parking for the expo was free. Stopping at the expo gave me a chance to pick up my T-shirt. I could have picked on race day otherwise. While I was there, I bumped into a few friends.
After the expo, I checked in at Doubletree, where I bumped into two more friends. Later, I had dinner with my friends Karen and Robert at Buca di Beppo. Pre-race dinner at Buca has become a tradition. Because of the two-hour time change, I was already sleepy when I got back from dinner. I was in bed by 8:30, but it felt like 10:30 to me. It didn’t help that I had been awake for 20 hours.
I slept well for about four hours. Then I woke up and couldn’t get back to sleep. My alarm was set for 4:15, but I gave up on sleeping at 4:00 and started getting ready for the race. I was tired when I got up, but when I mentally switched to “race mode,” I didn’t give it another thought.
The race started at 6:30. Doubletree provided a shuttle to the start that left at 5:30. They also started their breakfast service at 4:30. When I was done getting ready, I went downstairs to have a light breakfast of oatmeal and tea.
The overnight low was 57 degrees. The temperature was forecast to climb to 63 by 10:00. Most people would consider that to be on the warm side. To me, that’s ideal. I don’t like to be cold at the start of a race.
Although I was originally planning to check a gear bag, I made a last minute decision to wrap myself in an old Mylar blanket during the bus ride to the start. The bus dropped us off in front of the Hyatt at 6:10. That gave me just 20 minutes to make a bathroom stop and make my way to my start corral. I was glad I didn’t need to check a bag. That would have made the timing tight.
The race starts in the northbound lanes of Pacific Coast Highway, near Huntington Beach Pier.
As I lined up for the race, I saw my friends Cade and Keith, and Keith introduced me to his fiancée, Shokofeh. I didn’t line up with a pace group. Instead, I went out at a pace that felt reasonable and tried my best not to worry about the runners around me. That’s easier said than done. I lined up too far forward, and the faster runners around me pulled me out to a fast first mile.
The road is wide, giving us lots of room to run before reaching the first turn. My goal was 3:30, so I wanted to average eight minutes per mile. My first two miles were each 7:40. By the third mile, I settled down. I had to make a conscious effort to let faster runners go by, rather than run at their pace.
In the third mile, we made a right turn. We left the coast to begin a long loop through the city. This was the only part of the coast that wasn’t along the beach. In that mile, I settled into the right pace. I could see Keith and Shokofeh in the distance. They were always about a block ahead of me, but seemed to be going about the same pace. Keith is much faster than I am, but they were treating this race like a training run. After another turn, I could see the sun rise over the palm trees.
There’s only one big hill in the course. We went down the hill in the fourth mile and would go back up the same hill in the ninth mile. I picked up speed on the downhill, and continued at a faster pace, even after the hill. Before long, I caught up to Keith and Shokofeh, and ran with them for a few miles. That helped settle me down again, but I eventually pulled away. I was going about 10 seconds per mile faster than I did in my last race, but I didn’t have to work as hard. The pace felt sustainable.
Just before going up the hill, I saw my time for eight miles. I was speeding up again. I relaxed on the hill. I already had a cushion of two and a half minutes. It was OK to give some back. The ninth mile took me 8:06. That was my slowest mile so far, but only because I took the hill at an easy pace.
Just before the 10 mile mark, we made our way back to the Pacific Coast Highway. We turned right and began the next major section of the course, which was an out-and-back on the highway. As I made the turn, I saw some large waves breaking on the beach.
At the 10 mile mark, I saw that I had sped up again. I was keeping up with the runners around me, and they pulled me along at a pace that was faster than I planned. Since the pace felt sustainable, I didn’t worry too much about it. I was obviously running stronger this week than I did last week.
I didn’t notice any music in the first 10 miles. Now that we were on the highway, there were bands. The first one was playing surf music, as you would expect. As we continued running north, we eventually saw the lead runners returning in the southbound lanes. This is a race where you get lots of opportunities to see other runners.
Somewhere between 11 and 12 miles, I saw Cade on his way back. Then I started watching for the turnaround. It was between 12 and 13 miles. After making the turn, I started looking for friends who still outbound. Keith and Shokofeh were only about a minute behind me. Then I started to see lots of other friends in the northbound lanes.
The beach was on my right. Between the highway and the beach was a bike path. In time, I started seeing the lead runners going the other way on the bike path.
As I ran farther south, the pack of runners on the other side of the street got thicker and thicker. It got too difficult to recognize individual runners in the pack.
As I reached the 16 mile sign, I heard a pace leader talking to his group. I realized it was the 3:25 pace group. I had been running ahead of them, even though my goal was 3:30.
Just past 16 miles, we made a U-turn onto the bike path. The next nine miles would be another out-and-back, this time on the bike path. To my left was the beach, and beyond it the ocean. To my right, I could see runners going in both directions on either side of the highway.
I never noticed the 17 mile sign. I think it was at an aid station, so I was distracted. When I got to 18 miles, I saw that I had picked up my pace again. Then I realized that I no longer heard the 3:25 group behind me. I had temporarily pulled away from them.
Around 19 miles, I reached the “beer and bacon station.” This is an unofficial aid station next to the bike path. It’s there every year, and it’s one of the novelties of this race. With seven miles to go, I had a cushion of four and a half minutes. I decided I could afford to indulge, so I picked up one of the small cups of beer and a strip of bacon. When I finished the beer, I was still chewing the bacon. Fortunately, I only had to wait a few minutes before I reached the next official aid station, where I was able to get some water to follow the bacon.
When I slowed down at the beer and bacon station, the 3:25 group caught up to me. I surged to a faster pace to stay ahead of them. I started passing most of the other runners around me.
By now, I was seeing the faster runners coming back. At times, you could see runners at four different stages of the race all alongside each other on either the highway or the bike path. At first, the fast runners coming back on the bike path were spread out. Then I saw a group. It was the 3:05 pace group. Then I saw Cade. I guessed that he was about two minutes behind them. Before the race, he talked about running 3:18. Clearly, he was having a great race. I encouraged him to finish strong.
When I reached the 20 mile sign, I forgot to check my watch. By the time I looked, I was far enough past the mile marker that my time was no longer meaningful. Between 20 and 21 miles, I made the last turnaround.
After making the turn, I saw that the 3:25 group was right behind me. Keith and Shokefeh weren’t far behind. I found it hard to get back into my pace after the 180 degree turn. The 3:25 group caught me at the 21 mile mark, and I let them go. They were averaging 7:49 per mile. At this point, I was happy with eight minute miles or anything close. Anything under nine would be fast enough to break 3:30.
When I reached the beer and bacon station again, I had to cross over to the left side of the bike path, through the oncoming runners. I almost collided with one, as we each moved the same way to avoid running into each other. I had to come to a complete stop. After getting beer and bacon, I moved back to the right side and found a trash can to discard my empty cup. As I started running again, I felt a painful spot on the bottom of my big toe. Stopping so abruptly must have irritated my toe.
I worked hard to get back into my pace. When I reached the 23 mile mark, I saw that I didn’t lose too much time. To break 3:30, I just needed to run the last 3.2 miles in 31 minutes. I had that in the bag.
To my left, I could see runners still on the highway. To my right, I could see waves crashing on the beach. Straight ahead, I saw the sun shining over a line of palm trees. To some of my friends, this is just another race. I don’t get this type of scenery every day. I also don’t get such nice weather in the winter. It was getting warm and humid. At times, I felt sweaty. I didn’t mind. This is my type of weather for a race.
I saw at least a dozen other runners I know, who were still outbound on the bike path. I also saw a few friends who live in the area and came out to watch the race. I no longer needed to maintain my pace, but I tried to maintain my effort. The next two miles were 8:18 and 8:05.
In the last mile, we returned to the highway. The right lane was for the marathon. The other lanes were for runners in the half marathon. They started later, so many were still finishing. I could feel myself slowing down. My legs were heavy. I ran mile 26 in 8:41. It was my slowest mile of the race, but it was faster than the corresponding mile of last week’s race.
I finished in 3:25:54. As I moved through the finish area, I heard them announce Keith’s name. Keith and Shokofeh were about two minutes behind me. As I continued moving forward, I ate a variety of post-race food. There were two kinds of energy bars, fig bars, two kinds of chips, bananas, diced peaches and, of course, water. I ate everything except the peaches. I would have to wait until I had a spoon. Why do races give out fruit cups without spoons?
I had almost an hour before the first bus back to Doubletree. That gave me plenty of time to visit the beer garden and results tent. It also gave me time for a bathroom stop. At the beer garden, I bumped into Cade. He finished in 3:07 and change. At the results tent, I bumped into Shokofeh. She and Keith finished in 3:28 and change.
At 11:00, I caught the first shuttle back to Doubletree. When we got off the bus and walked into the lobby, the hotel staff was lined up to give us an ovation. They do that every year for each arriving bus. I think that’s a nice touch. It’s especially nice for runners who just finished their first marathon. They also gave each runner a water bottle and one of their signature cookies.
Later in the day, I went to a Super Bowl party. Most of the people there were Marathon Maniacs. Some I had seen during the race. Some I just met. Some I was seeing for the first time in years. You know it’s a good party when people are more interested in talking than watching the game. You know it’s a good game when it grabs everybody’s attention.
Last week’s race shook my confidence. This week’s race went a long way to restoring it. The part of my race schedule filled with relative flat road races has drawn to a close. Next, I move out of my comfort zone with a few trail races.