Sunday, February 4, 2024

Race Report: 2024 Surf City Marathon

On February 4, I ran the Surf City Marathon in Huntington Beach, CA.  I do this race almost every year.  It’s one of the few races I can do in the winter and know it won’t be freezing cold.

I flew to California on Saturday.  In the past, I’ve sometimes been able to get a direct flight to the Orange County airport.  This year, I had to change planes in Salt Lake City, but I still arrived in the early afternoon.

A few days before my trip, I read about an “atmospheric river” that was bringing heavy rains to the San Francisco area.  By the next day, the same weather pattern was bringing heavy rain as far south as San Diego.  On Thursday, the Pacific Coast Highway was flooded in Huntington Beach.

By Saturday, that storm had passed and things were drying out.  That’s good, because the expo is in a parking lot next to the beach.  Packet pickup and most of the vendors were under large canopies, but some of the vendors were in smaller booths in the parking lot.

After packet pickup, I checked into my hotel.  I stayed at the Doubletree Club in Santa Ana.  This hotel always has a race package that includes race day shuttles, free parking, an early breakfast before the race, and a late checkout.  I didn’t need the late checkout, but I did need transportation to and from the race.  I had a rental car, but I’ve always avoided the hassle of race morning traffic and parking.

After checking into my room, I did a workout in the fitness room.  Then I checked in with Michelle and picked up the wrist band I would need to board the shuttle in the morning.  Michelle is the Director of Sales at Doubletree.  She’s the one who handles everything associated with the race.  She makes sure all the runners are treated like VIPs.  That’s one of the reasons I keep coming back to this hotel.

For dinner, I found a pizzeria in Irvine where I could get a taco pizza.  Then I organized my running clothes and started obsessively checking the forecast.  A second rain storm was expected to arrive on Sunday.  The heaviest rain wouldn’t come until Monday, but I was expecting rain throughout the race.

I did my best to stay on central time.  I went to bed when I would’ve gone to sleep at home, and that made it easier to get up early on Sunday.

Sunday was race day.  When I woke up, I immediately checked the weather forecast.  It wasn’t raining yet, and it looked like the rain might hold off until after the race started.

I was conflicted about what to wear.  The temperature was in the 50s, but I wore tights on the assumption that it would start raining during the race and there might be a cold wind.  I was more willing to risk being overdressed than to risk being underdressed.

The hotel had a continental breakfast that started at 4:30.  I was dressed and downstairs right when breakfast started, so I could get something to eat but also have some time to digest it before the race.

Our bus to the start left the hotel at 5:30.  It took about half an hour to get there.  The race started at 6:30, so I had about half an hour to get ready.  We were dropped off in front of the Hyatt, which is near the start corrals.  I went inside the hotel to use the bathroom.  There’s a pedestrian bridge from the Hyatt to the beach parking lot.  I hurried across the bridge.  Then I started looking for people I know.  Other than the other runners who were on the bus from Doubletree, I didn’t see anyone I knew.  Several of my friends were at the race, but most of them were doing the half marathon, which didn’t start until 7:45.

I used my last race to see what kind of shape I’m in.  I was ready to going all out for a fast time in this race, but I didn’t know how much rain or wind might slow me down.  It seemed like the rain might hold off, and I wasn’t feeling any wind before the race, so I decided to go for it.

The time I need for a Boston qualifier is 3:50.  I ran in the 3:40s several times last fall, but I had yet to do that this year.  Breaking 3:50 seemed like a good place to start.  There was a 3:50 pace group, so I lined up right behind them.

For the first minute or two of the race, I ran right behind the 3:50 group, and the pace felt comfortable.  After a few minutes, however, the pace started to feel tiring.  I suspected they were starting too fast, but I wouldn’t know for sure until I saw my time for the first mile.  I allowed myself to fall behind the group a little, but I tried to stay close to them.

I finished the first mile in 8:09.  That was much too fast.  To be on pace for a 3:50 finish, we needed to average 8:47 per mile.  I was 38 seconds too fast, and I wasn’t even keeping up with the group.  They finished the first mile about three seconds ahead of me.

In the second mile, I tried to run at a pace that felt right.  I fell a little farther behind the pace group, but I was still influenced by their pace.  I was making a half-hearted effort to stay close to them.  That resulted in another fast mile.  It wasn’t as fast as the first mile, but it was still too fast.  This time, I was about 20 seconds faster than my target pace.

After two miles, I was already about a minute ahead of schedule.  I paid less attention to the 3:50 pace group and more attention to how the pace felt.  In that mile, my pace felt more like it would be sustainable for the whole race.

The first few miles were on the Pacific Coast Highway.  Later in the race, we would run several additional miles on the PCH.  The highway has two traffic lanes in each direction, with a median that’s about a lane wide.  Along the PCH, aid station were usually set up in the median.  That meant, I had to move to my left to grab a cub of Gatorade.  The first time I did that, it was right before making the right turn onto Seapoint Street, so the aid station made it difficult to run the shortest path going around the turn.

After turning onto Seapoint Street, we were running away from the coast.  The next seven miles were on an inland loop that would take us to Huntington Beach’s Central Park.

The mile three sign was shortly after that first turn.  When I got there, I was pleased to see I ran a more reasonable pace.  It was still a little faster than my target pace, but it felt sustainable.

In mile four, I continued to relax.  I was trying to ignore the 3:50 group, even though I could still see them.  I relaxed a little too much.  That mile was several seconds too slow.

Overall, I was still well ahead of schedule for a 3:50 finish, but I didn’t want to settle into a slow pace this early in the race.  Now I had the challenge of picking up my effort just enough to get back on the right pace, but without starting to go too fast again.

One of the reasons I often start with a pace group is so I can let them establish the right pace in the early miles.  After a few miles at the right pace, I’m usually good at staying on the same pace.  Where I need help is setting the right pace in the first few miles.  In this race, the 3:50 group didn’t do me any favors.  Their pace was way off base.  I expended extra energy in the first two miles, and I was still on my own to establish the right pace.

The fifth mile ends with a steep downhill section.  In this mile, I couldn’t help but run too fast.  Still, I was surprised how much I sped up.  I ran that mile in 8:05, which was even faster than my first mile.

Through the first five miles, I had one mile that was a little slow, one that was a little fast, one that was much too fast, and two that were crazy fast.  In mile six, I settled into a pace that was a little bit fast, but felt reasonable.  After that, I consistently kept my pace in the 8:30s and 8:40s.

For the next mile or two, we ran through Central Park.  Instead of running on streets, we were mostly running on paved bike paths.  The path wasn’t wide enough for a large group to run together.  I was running by myself, so I didn’t have any difficulty, but I could see the 3:50 pace group spreading out more.  I started to catch up to them, even though I was slowing down.  They slowed down going around the various turns in the park, but as soon as they were back on city streets, they started to speed away from me again.

The eight mile mark is right at the base of a hill.  This was the same hill that we ran down in mile five.  Now we had to go back up.  This is the only hill in the race that I find to be difficult.  After eight miles, I estimated that I was already two minutes ahead of schedule.  I could afford to give some of that back, so I didn’t make any effort to sustain the same pace going up the hill.  I ran at a pace that wasn’t too tiring, even though I could tell I was slowing down.

By the time I reached the top of the hill, I had lost sight of the 3:50 group.  It would be about two miles before I saw them again.

As I approached the nine mile mark, I was curious to know how much I slowed down.  I expected that mile to be slower than nine minutes, but I was hoping it wouldn’t be too much slower.  I was pleasantly surprised to see that I ran it in 8:44.  That was my second slowest mile so far, but it was still three seconds faster than my target pace.

The next mile brought as back out to the PCH on Seapoint Street.  It was in this mile that I got careless.  The front of my right foot caught something sticking up from the pavement, and I immediately tumbled into the street.  I didn’t see what I tripped on, but I knew what it was.

Where there were lines dividing the traffic lanes, there were round reflectors that protruded about half an inch above the pavement.  It’s easy to trip on one if you’re not paying attention.

Whenever I run this race, I try to stay within a lane.  I try to avoid running right on the line between lanes, so I won’t hit a reflector.  Early in the race, I was paying attention to this.  Going through Central Park, I didn’t need to worry about it.  When I got back onto I city streets, I forgot to pay attention to the lanes.

I took the impact on my right side.  The tights I was wearing kept me from getting bad scrapes on my right knee.  My right elbow was bleeding.  That’s the same elbow that got banged up pretty badly when I fell in a race last October.  That elbow was swollen for several weeks.  It’s only been in the last week or two that I could put weight on it again.  I wondered if this was going to put me back to square one.

I got back on my feet quickly, but I had to move over to the side of the road to tie one of my shoes.  As I resumed running, I wasn’t going as fast as before.  Physically, I was OK, but the fall shook me up.  I needed a minute before I was ready to put any effort into resuming my previous pace.

After about a minute, I noticed I was keeping up with the runners around me.  Then I started to pass a few of them.  When I turned back onto the PCH, I knew I was getting close to the 10 mile mark.

I began to accelerate.  I realized I was taking a more rapid cadence.  When I got to the 10 mile sign, I saw that I had run that mile in 8:34, in spite of the time I lost when I fell.

I spotted the 3:50 group in the distance.  They were pretty far ahead of me, but I had to wonder if I would start to catch up to them.  I had run faster than my target pace in every mile but one.  They were going faster, but sooner or later the pace leaders would have to settle into the right pace.  They might even start giving time back.

On the opposite side of the highway, I could see the faster runners starting to come back.  Then I started to see some of the faster pace groups coming back. 

At the beginning of the race, the wind was calm, but the hourly forecast showed the wind picking up throughout the morning.  Now that we were close to the beach, we were more exposed to the wind.  This is where I expected to notice the wind.  I wasn’t feeling it yet, but when I saw some flags, I made note of the wind direction.  It appeared that the wind was blowing across the highway and toward the coast.  If that was the case, we could expect a cross-wind for the rest of the race, which consisted of two long out-and-back back sections by the coast.  The first out-and-back was on the highway.  That would be followed by a longer out-and-back on a paved bike path alongside the beach.

As I continued heading out on the PCH, I eventually saw the 3:30 pace group coming back on the other side.  At this point in the race, they should’ve been about 10 minutes ahead of me.  That meant I was only five minutes away from the turnaround.

After the turnaround, I immediately noticed the wind.  Did the wind suddenly get stronger, or had I misjudged the wind direction?  It wasn’t too strong, but it seemed like there was some wind resistance in this direction.  If there was, that would be bad news, because at least two third of the remaining miles were going to be in this direction.

I picked up my effort, so the wind wouldn’t slow me down.  I continued to log mile splits in the 8:30s and 8:40s.  Amazingly, the 3:50 group was still far enough in front of me that I could barely see them.

At the halfway mark, I was almost two minutes ahead of schedule for a 3:50 finish.  At my current pace, I would come close to 3:46.  I chose not to try for negative splits.  My goal was to run the second half on pace for 3:50, but not necessarily as fast as my first half.

We went slightly uphill as we crossed a bridge over the channel to an inlet.  After the bridge, we continued going uphill, as we approached the intersection with Seapoint Street.

This is second biggest hill on the course, but it’s not as challenging as the one in mile nine.  Instead of conserving my effort, I picked up my effort enough to keep running the same pace going up the hill.

After going through that intersection, I came to an aid station where they were playing “Gangnam Style” by Psy.  They were playing the same song when I ran by in the other direction about two miles into the race.  I could also hear it when I made the turn from Seapoint onto the PCH in mile 10.  Was that a coincidence, or were they playing the same song over and over?  It’s one of my favorite songs to hear during a race, so I’m not complaining.

I can never remember exactly when we leave the PCH to turn onto the bike path.  I was seeing the faster runners on the bike path.  After passing the 15 mile sign, I wondered if I was getting close.  I could see the Huntington Beach pier in the distance, and I knew we turned before we got there.

I thought I was getting close until I saw a running on the bike path who I know is much faster than me.  Then I knew I still had a way to go yet.

At mile 16, I still had a short distance to go.  Then I saw a sign saying “Course Split Ahead.”  I looked at the bike path again, and I saw the 3:50 group on their way out for the second out-and-back.

After making the U-turn onto the bike path, I looked ahead to see if I could see the 3:50 group.  They were too far ahead for me to see them around the various bends and undulations of the bike path.

I no longer noticed the wind.  Either it had suddenly died down, or it was at my back now.  Whenever I had seen a flag, it seemed to be blowing straight out toward the coast.  That was inconsistent with what I was feeling.

I saw a spectator holding a sign that read, “You Look Hot When You’re Sweaty.”  It occurred to me that I felt sweaty for the first time in the race.  I had been wearing gloves since the start of the race, but now it was time to take them off.  By now, I was getting more confident that it wouldn’t rain during the race.  I might have a headwind in the last five miles, but if I got cold hands with five miles to go, I could tough it out.

In my first mile on the bike path, I sped up to 8:25.  That was my fastest mile since mile two.  Was it the change in direction (and the resulting change in the wind), or was I trying a little too hard to catch up to the 3:50 group?

There’s was no question I was catching up to the 3:50 group.  When they were on the highway, they were running side-by-side.  On a bike path with two-way traffic, they were forced to spread out into a long line.  I eventually caught up to the last runner in this line.  Then I passed a couple of them.  I gradually caught up with more of the group.

Most of the aid stations had water and Gatorade, but I came to one on the bike path that just had water.  I skipped that one.  So far, I had only skipped one other aid station.  That was in mile nine, when there were two aid stations in the same mile.

When I caught up to the leaders of the 3:50 group, I wasn’t sure what I would do next.  I would’ve bene content to stay with the group if they were still running at an 8:47 pace or faster, but I had to wonder if they were slowing down now.  I wouldn’t know until I stayed with them for a mile.  Without trying, I moved ahead of them.  I was still running with the same effort, and they weren’t keeping up.  I gradually left them behind.

We eventually passed a parking area for RVs.  Several of them had flags mounted on them.  From the flags, it appeared that the wind was blowing across the bike path at a 45-degree angle.  It was blowing toward the coast, but it was also partially at our backs.  For the first time, the direction of the flags was consistent with what I was feeling.  I still had two miles before the next turnaround.  Those two miles would be easy, but it would be tougher coming back.

There are a few places along the bike path where you have a clear view of runners on both sides of the highway.  You can see two-way traffic on the highway and two-way traffic on the bike path.  It’s weird to see four groups of runners at different points on the course all in the same glance.

As I came within sight of the 20 mile mark, I saw the 3:30 pace group going the other way.  By now, I expected them to be about 15 minutes ahead of me.  I didn’t remember exactly how far it was to the turnaround, but now I realized it would be much closer to 21 than 20.

After the turnaround, the first thing I noticed was where the 3:50 group was.  I was leading them now by the same distance I had been trailing them four miles earlier.

Next, I noticed the wind.  Right after changing direction, I noticed wind resistance.  I would have a headwind for the rest of the race.  On the bright side, there still wasn’t any sign of rain.  Above me, I could see clouds.  Looking farther in any direction, I could see patches of blue sky.

Short after the 21 mile mark, I was passed by a group of four runners.  They were running side-by-side and talking to each other.  They passed me easily, yet they didn’t seem to be putting any effort into it.  For the next few minutes, I challenged myself to keep up with them.  Then I had to let them go.

I picked up my effort as I fought the wind resistance.  My previous four miles were all in the 8:30s.  Mile 22 was also in the 8:30s, but I was working harder now.  Then I felt the wind getting stronger.  With just over four miles to go, it was getting increasingly difficult to keep up the pace.

I passed the RVs with the flags again.  Now they were blowing straight toward me.  There wasn’t any question the wind was getting stronger.  The remaining miles would challenge me.

In mile 23, I slowed to 8:54.  That was my slowest mile so far.  If was only seven seconds slower than my goal pace, but worried that I would continue to slow down.  The wind kept getting stronger.

I passed the aid station with just water again.  I skipped it again.  In the last few miles, I would pass at least one more aid station, but I no longer wanted to stop for anything.  If I slowed down for even a few seconds, I might not get back on pace again.

Somewhere in the next mile, I saw the Huntington Beach pier in the distance.  I knew it was farther away than it looked.  It was at least two miles away, and the finish line was beyond it.

I ran mile 24 in 8:52.  That was a pleasant surprise.  It was still slower than my target pace, but only by five seconds.  I was giving back time, but not in large chunks.  It was more of a slow leak.

The wind kept getting stronger, but I was determined to fight to keep from slowing down.  In mile 25, I brought my pace back down to 8:41.  That gave me hope, but I was getting increasingly tired.

Halfway through the next mile, I left the bike path to merge in with runners on the highway who were finishing the half marathon.  I had at least a few more blocks to get to Main Street and the pier.  Then it would be a few more blocks after that to get to the finish line.  I fought to keep up a fast pace, but the runners around me were all doing the half marathon.  They were going at a slower pace, so I had to be careful not to slow to their pace.

When I passed the pier, I still couldn’t see the finish line, but I knew I was getting close.  My spirits were lifted when I saw than I ran mile 26 in 8:31.  I tried to pour it on in my approach to the finish line, but I was just hanging on.

I finished in 3:46:36.  Remarkably, I was only 16 seconds slower in the second half, even though my two fastest miles were early in the race.

After crossing the finish line, I received another surfboard medal.  I have nine of these now.

There were volunteers handing out water bottles, but I didn’t take one.  I wasn’t that thirsty, and I knew there would be better beverages as I kept moving through the finish area.

I picked up a few post-race snacks and ate them as quickly as I could, so I wouldn’t have too much to carry.  It was tough eating a granola bar with no beverage to wash it down, but I eventually reached the tent with chocolate milk.  Then I was glad I didn’t fill up on water.

My last two stops in the finish area were the beer tent and the results tent.  I didn’t win an age group award, but I had to check.  Then I walked over to the Hyatt.

The first bus back to Doubletree was going to leave at 11:30.  When I reached the lobby of the Hyatt, it was only 10:55.  My hands were getting cold, so I put on my gloves, even though I was indoors.  I waited in the lobby for about 15 minutes.  Then I went outside to see if the bus was already there.  It was.

Waiting on the bus, I felt warmer.  The bus left promptly at 11:30, and we were back at Doubletree by noon.  By the time we got there, my hands were no longer white.

When we entered the lobby of Doubletree, the hotel staff was lined up inside.  They cheered, clapped, and banged on pots and pans.  They do this every year, and they do it for each bus that comes back.  They also gave each of us a bottle of water and one of their signature Doubletree cookies.

The ovation we get when we return to the hotel is another reason I keep coming back to the same hotel.  It never gets old.  It may seem like a small thing, but it makes you feel like a conquering hero, when would otherwise feel cold, tired and depleted.  I talked to a few other runners who always stay at this hotel for the same reason.

By the time I got back to my room, my elbow was swollen.  Believe it or not, this is only half as bad as the swelling after my fall in October.  It remains to be seen how long it will be before I can put weight on it.

Race statistics:
Distance:  26.2 miles
Time:  3:46:36
Average Pace:  8:39
First Half:  1:53:10
Second Half:  1:53:26
Lifetime Marathons/Ultras:  505
Boston Qualifiers:  161

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