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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.