Monday, February 4, 2019

Race Report: 2019 Surf City Marathon

On February 3, I ran the Surf City Marathon in Huntington Beach, CA.  I keep coming back to this one for several reasons.  First, I know the temperature will be in a comfortable range.  There aren’t many winter destinations where I can say that.  Second, I know lots of runners in southern California, so I can count on seeing familiar faces throughout the race.  Third, it’s always held on Super Bowl Sunday, and I’ve come to enjoy watching the game after the race.  In the Pacific Time Zone, the game starts in the mid-afternoon, which I find convenient.  Finally, everything about this race is familiar.

I could count on reasonable temperatures, but I couldn’t count on dry weather.  A few days before the race, I learned that a storm system was bringing heavy rain in three waves.  The first wave came through the area on Thursday.  The second wave came through on Saturday.  The third wave wasn’t until Monday.  On the days in between, there was intermittent light rain.

I flew to LAX on Saturday morning.  The Orange County airport would have been closer, but there weren’t any non-stop flights that arrived early in the day, and I wanted to have time to drive to the expo.

On Friday, I was seeing news stories and Facebook posts from friends advising people in the LA area to avoid driving this weekend.  At this point, there wasn’t much I could do to change my plans.  I had to drive from Los Angeles to Huntington Beach on Saturday.

Saturday morning, while I was at the airport in Minneapolis, I got two ominous emails from Delta Airlines.  The first said my flight might be affected by weather.  The second said they were waiving the change fee if I wanted to cancel or reschedule my flight.  My flight was still scheduled to depart on time, so I stuck with it.

We took off on schedule.  With about an hour left in the flight, the pilot announced that there was a lot of wind and rain in LA, but we had been cleared to land.  Apparently, other flights weren’t that lucky.  There were periods when no flights were taking off or landing.  The rest of the flight was bumpy, but we were able to land on schedule.

I still had to drive the rest of the way in the rain.  When I left, it was only raining lightly, but shortly after I got onto the freeway, the heavy rain returned.  Traffic was slow, but I eventually got there.

About the time I exited from the freeway, the sky opened up.  I stopped briefly to eat lunch, while I waited out the worst of the rain.  Then I continued to the beach.

The race expo is under a large tent set up in one of the beach parking lots.  The next two parking lots are reserved for VIPs, and the one after that was already full.  I had to walk across four parking lots to get from my car to the expo.  By the time I got there, my clothes were soaked.

I picked up my race number and T-shirt, and I started looking for people I know.  Then I noticed my race bib said “half marathon” instead of “marathon.”  The person who checked me in made a mistake.  Fortunately, I noticed before I left.  It took a while, but I was able to get it straightened out.  Before leaving, I bumped into my friends Karen and Robert.  I usually see them at this race.

My clothes were just beginning to dry when I had to walk back through the rain to get to my car.  As I drove the rest of the way to my hotel, I felt like a wet rat.

I always stay at the Doubletree in Santa Ana.  They have a race package that includes shuttles to and from the race.  It also includes free parking, free wifi, and an early breakfast on the morning of the race.  It was the fifth time I’ve stayed there, so I felt at home.

At 5:30, I went to a group dinner at Buca di Beppo.  I’ve done this race five times, and this is at least the third time that I’ve had my pre-race meal at Buca.

I set my alarm for 4:15 AM, but that’s not as bad as it sounds.  In my own time zone, that would have been 6:15.  As usual, I was awake long before the alarm went off.

Breakfast started at 4:30, but I ate a light breakfast in my room instead.  I had one of those signature Doubletree cookies that they gave me at check-in.  Aside from a cup of tea, that was all the breakfast I needed.

It wasn’t raining when I got up, but I could see it had rained during the night.  The temperature was in the low 50s, and there were intermittent rain showers in the forecast.

The shuttle for marathon runners left at 5:30.  About half an hour later, they dropped us off in front of the Hyatt Regency, which is one of the large beach hotels near the start.  I went inside to use the bathroom before leaving the Hyatt to line up for the race.  I still had about 30 minutes before the 6:30 start.

When I left the Hyatt, it was drizzling.  I was wearing shorts and a T-shirt, plus gloves and a Tyvek jacket.  The jacket would be enough if we only had brief periods of light rain, but it wouldn’t be enough for all-day rain.  As insurance, I also had a plastic rain poncho folded up inside my fanny pack.  I didn’t want to use it unless I had to.  Once you unfold it to put it on, it’s hard to put it away again.

There’s a pedestrian bridge from the Hyatt to the beach parking lot.  I crossed the bridge and walked over to the tent where they had a gear check.  I opted not to use the gear check.  I was planning to keep my jacket with me in case I needed it during the race.

After about 10 minutes, the drizzle stopped, and I left the tent to line up for the race.  I bumped into a few runners I knew, including Jim, who I met at dinner Saturday evening.

My goal for this race was to break four hours.  I was doing that consistently in October and November.  Since then, I’ve had three straight races that were slow, for one reason or another.  With this race, I just wanted to get back on track.  Jim’s goal was also to break four hours.  We saw a 3:50 pace group and a 4:05 group, but no 4:00 group.  Jim decided to start with the 3:50 group.  I lined up behind them.  I wanted to start faster than a four hour pace, but not too much faster.

For the first mile, I was just behind the 3:50 group.  The pace felt easy enough, but I wanted to stay at least a few seconds behind them.  I ran the first mile in 8:40.

I was still wearing my Tyvek jacket.  For about a mile, it felt comfortable.  Then I started to get warm, to I took it off and tied it around my waist.  I kept my gloves on for a few more miles.

For the first three miles, we were running north along the Pacific Coast Highway.  It was still fairly dark when we started, but as it got light, I could see waves crashing on the beach.

Just before the three mile mark, we turned right and left the Pacific Coast Highway.  The next seven miles took us through the neighborhoods of Huntington Beach.

Up until now, I was only about 30 feet behind the 3:50 pace leaders.  I eased up a little and get them pull away from me.  This course is fairly flat, but there’s a hill that we descend around the four mile mark.  On the downhill, I began to catch up to the 3:50 group again.

Around 6 miles, we began a short loop through a park.  I could already see the lead runner coming back after completing this loop.  After that loop, which seemed familiar, we crossed a street and turned onto some other bike paths that didn’t seem familiar.  For a couple miles, I didn’t have a good feel for where I was.

The bike paths were narrow in comparison to the streets.  At times, it seemed like I had to slow down because of congestion in front of me.  As I checked my splits, I was surprised to see I actually sped up on this section.

We passed a high school band that was playing “Poker Face.”  Later, when we came within earshot again, I heard them playing, “Surfin’ USA.”  That seemed more appropriate for this race.

By the 8 mile mark, we were off the bike paths and back on the streets.  We ran back up the hill we had descended earlier.  At the base of the hill, I caught up to the 3:50 group.  I heard one of the pacers tell the group they had lots of time in the bank and could afford to go easy on the hill.  Going up the hill, I stayed with the group.  After cresting the hill, I got ahead of the group, as they continued to go easy.

I caught up to Jim, who had been running just in front of the 3:50 group.  We ran together for the next four or five miles.

At 10 miles, we turned back onto the Pacific Coast Highway and headed north again.  The next 6 miles were an out-and-back along the highway.  Before long, I started to see the lead runners already coming back.

Just past 12 miles, we turned around and started heading south.  I started to feel some drizzle.  I reached the halfway mark in 1:52:05.  That surprised me.  I was now running right alongside one of the 3:50 pacers, but we were on pace to break 3:45.

The drizzle turned into a light rain, and I felt more wind off the coast.  I started to get cold.  I could again see big waves crashing on the nearby beach.

I was tempted to put on my jacket, but I knew it wouldn’t be easy.  My arms were already wet, and that can make the sleeves cling to my arms.  I probably couldn’t put the jacket on without coming to a full stop, so I decided to wait.  I was waiting to see if the rain would stop.  I was cold, but for now I decided to tough it out.

When I’m cold, I have a subconscious tendency to speed up.  I left the 3:50 group behind.  The character of the race had changed.  I was no longer thinking about my pace or my overall time.  I just wanted to keep warm and finish the race.

Just past 16 miles, we left the Pacific Coast Highway to begin a longer out-and-back.  This one was on a bike path alongside the beach.  At first, I was passing other runners.  Then I started talking to a runner who was doing her first marathon.  By now, the rain had stopped, and I was starting to feel comfortable again.  For the next few miles, I ran with her at a more relaxed pace.

As we passed a parking lot filled with RVs, I realized we were coming to the beer and bacon station.  This is an unofficial aid station that we would pass twice.  As we went by, I grabbed a slice of bacon and a small cup of beer.  By now, I was feeling much more relaxed.

As we continued alongside the beach, I started to notice areas where sand from the beach had washed across the bike path.  There were also lots of wide puddles.  This was the aftermath of the heavy rains on Thursday and Saturday.

The turnaround was between 20 and 21 miles.  As I approached the turn, I once again heard the 3:50 group right behind me.

Running north along the beach, I could see the big waves, but I didn’t feel the wind.  It looked like a cross-wind, but it wasn’t.  After the turnaround, I felt the wind in my face.  I realized the last five miles were going to be at least partially into the wind.

I was no longer able to stay relaxed.  I picked up my effort to fight the wind.  Now I was much more focused.  I was fighting the wind and watching out for puddles.  I went right past the beer and bacon station without noticing it.

Along the bike path, I saw a few more runners I know.  Going out, I saw my friends Cade and Chavet already coming back.  On my way back, I saw Eddie and Jon.  I expected to see dozens of familiar faces, but the small raindrops on my glasses made it harder to recognize people.

In the second half of the race, I hardly ever looked at my watch.  I was running by feel.  At 24 miles, I finally looked at my watch. Two things were immediate apparent.  I was going to easily break 3:50, but the second half would be slower than the first half.

In the distance, I could see the Huntington Beach Pier.  I knew we would pass it just before finishing.  I was surprised how close it looked, knowing it was still about two miles away.

A mile later, the pier didn’t look like it was any closer.  That was annoying, but I pressed on.  It wasn’t until just before we left the bike path that it finally looked closer.

As I turned back onto the highway, I was immediately surrounded by runners from the half marathon.  They started an hour and 15 minutes after we did, so many of there were still on the course.  The half marathon is a much larger race, so all of the runners around me were now doing a different race than I was.  That made it hard to gauge my pace, but I pressed on.

As I passed the pier, I still couldn’t see the finish line banner.  Then I saw the 26 sign, so I had a better idea how much farther it was.

I finished the race in 3:48:02.  I ran positive splits by about four minutes.  I was a little disappointed that I didn’t pace myself better, but I was happy with my time.

As usual, the finisher medal for this race had a surfboard design.

After I finished, I briefly stopped to wait for the runners I had been running with earlier.  Then it started to drizzle.  I quickly got cold, so I finally had to put on my jacket.  I wanted to wait for them, but I had to keep moving, so I wouldn’t get too cold.  Now that I wasn’t running, 52 degrees with rain and wind felt much colder.

As I walked through the finish area, I picked up some post-race food.  I didn’t bother to get one of everything.  I mostly wanted to keep moving.  I stopped at the beer garden to get a post-race beer.  That was under a tent, so I was no longer getting wet.

Next, I stopped at the timing tables to look up my official result.  I always like to know my official time, but I was especially concerned with making sure my time was recorded properly, after the bib number mix-up on Saturday.

Doubletree provided buses back to the hotel after the race.  They left every half hour.  As I walked back to Hyatt Regency, I noticed the rain had stopped again, but I was still getting cold.  When I got to the pickup point, the next bus was already there.

On the way back to Doubletree, I noticed it was raining again.  We probably saw more rain on the ride back than we did during the race.  I think we got really lucky on the timing of today’s rain.  During the race, we only had rain for about 20 minutes.

When we got back to the hotel, the staff greeted us with a standing ovation.  They always do this.  They also gave water bottles and Doubletree cookies to anyone who wanted them.  I never turn down a Doubletree cookie.

Later, I had dinner in the hotel lounge, while watching the Super Bowl with two other runners.  It wasn’t the high scoring game everyone expected, but it was close until the last few minutes.  The runners I was with were knowledgeable about a variety of topics, and we had some good conversations.

Monday morning, I still had to drive back to LAX.  It was raining, but nothing like Saturday.  Not knowing how bad traffic would be on a rainy weekday morning, I allowed plenty of time. I got to the airport early, only to find out my flight was delayed, turning the trip home into an all-day adventure.

It’s nice to finally record another marathon finish time that’s under four hours.  I seem to be in about the same shape I was in last November.  My training has been spotty, so it’s nice to know I haven’t lost any ground.  This race helps me to establish a baseline for my fitness.  By September, I need to improve by about 15 minutes, so I can qualify for the 2020 Boston Marathon.

Race Statistics
Distance:  26.2 miles
Time:  3:48:02
Average Pace:  8:42
Lifetime Marathons/Ultras:  366

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