Below is my first “real-time” race recap written shortly after I finished Fresno, California, in 2010, five years after my 2nd marathon. Fresno was only three years ago, but running that fast seems like an impossible feat now. Lesson – be grateful for what you have this moment! You could always be slower/more injured/more tired/busier than you are now, so appreciate your legs at any speed.
Also, this was written before I had 50 States as a goal, and when I was (briefly) chasing speed, so my recap of this race is quite different than it would be today.
When I finished the Fresno Marathon this past Sunday, I was both utterly relieved and bitterly disappointed. My training had gone almost flawlessly, I felt good on race morning, the weather was perfect (low 50s and overcast), and for the first 15 miles I was dead-on target for my 3:55 goal. But even with the best of starts, things can change, and I ended up facing the most difficult miles of my life.
Since June, I have run 430 miles in training for the Fresno Marathon, my third. Before training for my first marathon in 2004 (Marine Corps in DC), I couldn’t run more than a mile, and was not a runner by any means. I finished DC in around 5:30. Since it was my first, I just wanted to finish, and didn’t push myself to go hard or fast. By the next day I felt no soreness and realized I should have pushed harder and could have gone faster (Oprah finished the 1994 Marine Corps Marathon in 4:29).
The next year I ran NYC, and was plagued by knee injuries throughout training. After my knee locked up during a training run such that I couldn’t even bend it, I finally visited a specialist. The doctor said there was nothing to do but take Advil and not run (and if it got really bad, he said I should consider surgery). Although he did clear me to run the actual marathon, he said after that I should give up long-distance running. I finished NYC in around 5 hours, my knees and hips in agony.
After five years of running short distances, I signed up for Fresno, knocking wood all summer long that over the years my body had grown accustomed to running and that I’d avoid injury. I was wearing lightweight neutral shoes now (instead of the motion-control bricks I wore in 2005), was 10 pounds lighter, and not taking any Advil. And although I wasn’t doing regular speed drills in my training, I did set a time goal for the first time. After a good start in my training, I thought I might be able to finish in 4:30 or even 4:15. Because of some great long runs and a fast half marathon in Staten Island (under 1:55) a few weeks before the race, my goal became 3:55 or bust.
On Friday, I flew into SFO to meet up with my friend who was running the race with me. We drove down to Fresno (with a stop in garlic-y Gilroy to eat at Applebee’s and look at outlet stores), checked into the Springhill Suites, and tried to get some rest. The next day we drove the course, marveling at how flat it was (besides some gentle hills over the last 6 miles that I scoffed at while in the car, and which of course ended up feeling like mountains on foot). We strolled the expo (which was excellent), gathered all our free loot (long-sleeved technical shirt, technical hat, snacks, dry pasta, bottle opener, balsamic vinegar), and ate mounds of pasta and cake with the other runners. We joked about the one free beer we got at the finish – I really don’t like beer [Ed: Now I do!], but I was going to drink that dang beer at the finish! We even signed the shirt of another runner who said he was going to run this race every year for the rest of his life.
As my friend can attest, I was nervous. I knew I could finish, but I didn’t know if I could make my 3:55 goal. It was a stretch for me, and admitting it was my goal meant I could fail. When I taped the pace band to my wrist that morning, there was no turning back.
We took the courtesy shuttle early to the start that morning, as I wanted to get there in time to check my bag and visit the porta-potties, all of which takes at least 30 minutes of waiting in line for even the smallest of races in NYC. I was amazed to find no lines anywhere, and what seemed like an intimate gathering of runners. My fears of bottlenecks and surging crowds dropped away. This would be the least-congested race I’d ever run.
I tried to start out slow, not wanting to burn myself out too early. For many of the early miles I followed a woman with “Go, Judy, Go!” painted on her shirt. Since I ran my first marathon in DC with a woman named Judy, I thought this was an auspicious sign. Around the halfway point I finally reached her and said “I’ve been trying to catch you for the past 6 miles.” She laughed and said, “Go catch that other girl up there!” I slowly passed her and kept going, feeling great and on-target.
Then, I started slowing down. Just a bit at first, slowly eroding my 2 minutes of padding I had made during the first half. At mile 18, despite fueling and drinking well during the race, I was tired and wanted to stop. By mile 20, I was wiped out, and desperately trying to keep a pace that would bring me across the finish in under 4 hours. By mile 22, I just wanted to stop running. I was upset I wouldn’t be making my goal, and just wanted nothing more in the world than to stop running.
The last four miles of the race were by far the physically hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life. It wasn’t acute pain like I felt during the NYC Marathon, when I was chomping down on Tylenol like it was candy. And it wasn’t hunger, as I had eaten plenty of gels and Gatorade during the race. It was just a full-body fatigue, and swollen feet, and an almost irresistible urge to stop… and lie down.
I was playing songs in my head, I was talking to myself (and swearing at myself), I was slapping my legs and gritting my teeth – I was doing anything and everything I could to keep going – yet I kept slowing down, finding it difficult to move my legs at all. Just then I heard a voice behind me. “Thanks for letting me catch up to you, now let’s go finish this race.” It was Judy – she looked tired, too, but she was running faster than me, and something in her tone made me summon every last bit of strength I had to keep pace with her. “Atta girl!” she said. “I want this to be over,” I said. “It will be. We’re almost there. We’re just aiming for those tall trees over there,” she said. I focused on those trees and willed my legs to stay with Judy’s. I dropped behind at the next water station, then fought to catch up to her colorful shirt again. “Good girl!” she said when I pulled alongside her. In the last half mile, she said, “see that guy up there in the black shirt? Go catch up to him and tell him Judy’s right behind.” I caught up to that guy in the final “.2” of the marathon, and somehow ran across the finish line with all parts intact. My final net time? Just under 4:09.
I’ll admit I was incredibly disappointed at the finish (despite getting the nice medal and even nicer hooded sweatshirt), but the free ice cream sundae they served afterwards helped a lot. In the 48 hours since, I’ve started healing physically and mentally, and I’m ultimately grateful to have trained and run this race without major injury. By the way, Judy came in 1st in her age division.
So, I bust. But I did finish without injury, and I’m confident I will run at least one more marathon, and hopefully many more, in the years to come. I might never break 4 hours, or I might eventually qualify for Boston, but either way, I’ll keep running, even when I want nothing more than to stop.
Putting it in Perspective
My friend crushed her first marathon in 3:54. That means we both beat celebrities Oprah Winfrey (4:29), Alanis Morissette (4:28), Sean Combs (P.Diddy) (4:14), Katie Holmes (5:29), former professional tennis player Justin Gimelstob (4:09), former NY Giants wide receiver Amani Toomer (4:13), Hall of Fame wide receiver Lynn Swann (4:26), Today Show hosts Meredith Vieira (5:59) and Al Roker (7:09), Jared Fogle (aka Subway sandwich guy) (5:13), and former model Veronica Webb (4:59). Let’s not talk about the celebrities we didn’t beat…
Thinking of running Fresno?
A lot of people think it’s strange that of all the marathons in California, I chose to run Fresno. It had a lot to do with scheduling and finding a race at which my friend could join me. At the time, I didn’t really have a 50 States goal, so I wasn’t looking for the “best” race in the state. That said, we could have chosen a lot worse. Fresno was pretty delightful, as you can see in my ratings below.
All categories on a scale of 1-10, 10 being the best.
- Getting There (Transportation & Walkability) – 6/10 – I flew into SFO because of my friend, but SJO would have been a little better. You could fly in closer to Fresno, too, but I think no matter what you’d need to rent a car – the city is very suburban and spread out. On the plus side, the driving is very easy and you could tack on a trip to Yosemite if you’re feeling up for it.
- Staying There – 9/10 – The Springhill Suites was great and only around $100/night if I remember correctly. They had a free shuttle running from several “host” hotels to the starting line and back, and the drivers were local military guys, so they ran it well.
- Cost & Registration – 10/10 – This race is a great value. When I registered it was $75 which got you a long sleeved tech t-shirt, a tech hat, a hooded sweatshirt, a medal, lots of free goodies, and ice cream, a hot breakfast, and beer at the finish. It now costs $90 to run the full in 2013 and I don’t think you get the hat anymore, but that’s still a good deal.
- Organization – 8/10 – Everything pre- and post- race was well done (expo, pasta dinner, shuttles to and from, post-race food), but during the actual race itself water and gatorade were in identical cups and always mixed up (no set order at the stations), and the volunteers weren’t calling out what they had, so you had to ask each one before you found what you wanted. That alone dinged them 2 points in my book (what can I say, I’m very keen on hydration).
- Course – 7/10 – Nothing terribly scenic, but mostly flat, and even though it’s quite narrow in spots, only around 750 people ran the full marathon (course is now capped at 700), so it’s not very crowded. I would agree that it’s a small marathon with big marathon support.
- Crowd – 6/10 – Not a lot of spectators, but the people who run the race seemed friendlier than the average crowd, and overall it was a good vibe.
- Other Factors – 6/10 – Biggest thing this race has going for it is the value, and biggest downside is if you’re a 50-stater and you can’t afford to repeat states, it’s not a particularly exciting race to “spend” California on. If it were anywhere besides Fresno, California, I think it would be more popular.
- Overall Rating – 7.5/10 – I honestly don’t know what I would have given it immediately after the race, but in hindsight it was lovely.
Have you run Fresno? Of course you haven’t! But share your experiences in the comments!