The California International Marathon ("simm" to many of us, "C-I-M" to others) bills itself as "the fastest course in the west". As such, it attracts a bunch of runners who are slightly more "serious" than some races. You might catch a guy juggling here, or someone in a costume... but you are also going to be near a bunch of people intense and intent on BQing. Or just hauling ass in general.
The race caters to this crowd. It offers lots of pace groups around the BQ times. Not a lot of races will have a 3:35 pace group. CIM does. This year, CIM also had a 2:47 pacer. What? Well, that's the female cutoff for olympic trials. And at CIM, they get some fairly famous runners to act as pacers. This is cool, but not without some issues... which will become my theme in a bit.
The course itself is a point-to-point from Folsom down to the state capitol in Sacramento. This means catching a shuttle at 5a. Good times. "The fastest course in the west" is essentially a downhill course, but let's get something clear. "Essentially" is not "completely". There are lots of sneaky ups in CIM. They are brief, but they are there. I liked this because 26.2 of pure downhill is pure pain. The ups help. A lot. It turns out that this course is very similar to the Napa Valley Marathon course.
So. I knew CIM would be a bittersweet race for me. Originally, it was going to be my go-fast race for the season. That would have meant shooting for 3:30. I could have run with several of my friends from coolrunning. But due to some forced time off, it was not to be. Not even close.
I decided to utilize CIM as my monthly check-in race. As I'm ramping back up to where I want to be, I've been using one race each month to put in x miles at about 8:30/mile pace (or roughly a 3:43ish marathon). In Richmond, I wanted to do 16 miles at this pace by rabbiting the 3:45 pace group. I actually did 15. For CIM, I wanted to do 20 miles... now, I also knew that CIM rolled a bit, especially early on... so I was less concerned about perfect mile splits and more concerned about effort.
Race morning. Shuttle at 5a. Portapotties. Lots of people waiting in a long line to get into the nearby convenience store. I'm assuming they only allowed 2 or 3 people in at once. Not sure what people wanted an hour before the race. Coffee?
Race weather was perfect for most folks... 36ish degrees and no wind. It would be a blue sky day that would get to about 50-52ish. Of course, that's kind of cold for me... so I was in 3 shirts PLUS a throwaway shirt (ditched at M6), tights, and throwaway gloves (ditched at M19).
The national anthem was sung at 6:50a by two twins who were 6 or 7 years old. They got the words right and they hit the notes properly... and it was definitely kids singing the Star-Spangled Banner as opposed to child prodigies. But this was perfect and it left everyone with big grins as the twins belted out the last notes. We clapped and clapped. This, right here, made me feel good to be a United Statesian.
And that brings us to the pace groups with the famous pacers.
Pop quiz, hotshot.
1. You are a pace leader. What time do you show up at the line?
a. Thirty minutes ahead so that people can gather around you. Maybe you can meet folks and discuss pacing.
b. Five minutes before the gun, just to keep your potential group "excited".
2. How do you line up?
a. Sequentially, by pace.
b. Random groups spread across the start line.
3. What is your pacing strategy?
a. Even splits, knowing that folks utilizing a pacer are probably beginner or intermediate marathoners.
b. Slightly negative splits because it is a sound strategy
c. Positive splits because this worked for you in winning technically difficult ultras.
Some of the pace leaders showed up early, but a lot of people were waiting for the 3:40 person. That person (along with the 3:50 person...) showed up at 6:55a. Because the starting area was packed, they stood over by the curb. This caused a mass mixing/jostling of people as folks tried to get to 3:40 guy... both before and after the gun.
And the pace groups were all lined up wacky. 3:15 side by side with 3:30 and 3:35. 3:40 kind of behind that. 3:50. 3:45 further back. And then waaaaay back, 4:00.
Gun. And we were off. Sure enough, people were all over the place trying to find their group. Remember, lots of people are serious about this BQ thing at CIM.
First water stop. Race used Gu-2-o. Blah. That's alright, I told myself, at least it isn't ultima :-).
Now... I wanted to stick to my 8:30 pace... but I was actually running a bit too fast. My first 4 miles: 8:30, 8:00, 8:07, 8:03. Hmmm. But get this. I was running with the 3:50 pace group. If you do the math, you'll see that they were running way way fast. And sure enough, by M4, this group was still only about 100 feet behind the very large 3:40 pace group. And in front of the 3:45 pace group. The pace leader seemed excited to be in front of 3:45 and pointed out that his strategy would be to bank time. You know this as "going out too fast". That was his strategy. I won't name drop, but this was a very accomplished ultra runner leading this group.
I saw another Maniac pass me at M4, so I sped up just ever-so-slightly and ran with the 3:40 group for a bit. My stress level immediately went down. This was good! Although the 3:40 pace guy was late to the start, he turned out to be an amazing pacer. He was running consistently and telling his folks about what would be coming up on the course. Every mile, he asked people to relax their shoulders and raise their arms to stretch. This was where I realized that there were at least 100 people in this pack. Because at least 200 hands went up at every mile marker. That's a ton. He regrouped everyone after the scattering caused by water stations. He clustered everyone on the proper side for upcoming turns. NICE!
Llama spectator at M8.
I let the 3:40 folks go just before M13. Crossed M13 at 1:50.
Poison water M15. Most of the aid stations were fine and I got used to the Gu-2-o after a few cups. But the water I snagged at M15 was just wrong. Yeeks.
At M16, there was a dude playing Chariots of Fire on a recorder. I don't mean a tape recorder. I mean one of those little flute things we all had to play in 5th grade. It sounded like what you think it would sound like.
I was supposed to meet a friend at M17.5. She was at M18.5! Sneaky, sneaky.
M18.5 was also where the 3:45 group caught me. This means that they finally passed Mr. Wonderful 3:50. Sounded like 3:45 guy was intentionally running negative splits... which is why they hadn't been running near me for longer. And also why I was now running WITH them despite running slightly faster than 3:45 pace. They were speeding up. This group was not as big as the 3:40 group, but still plenty big.
M20 at 2:51. I made my goal, although my splits weren't terribly consistent and my first miles were clearly too fast. I still felt pretty good, so I thought I'd do another mile at this pace. That was some "smart" planning because I started slowing slightly in this mile. The 3:45 group inched away. M21 at 3:00, and that was that. My left foot was not feeling quite right. This same foot was bothering me tremendously during last week's Seattle Marathon... same foot I twisted back in August just before I stopped running. Hmmm.
Started talking to people and soaking in the scenery. At this point I noticed one of the really neat things about CIM. Tons of spectators. No, they aren't wall-to-wall like NYCM or Twin Cities... but for a medium-size race that's held mostly in suburbia, lots of people were out there hooting. That's really neat.
3:50 guy caught me around M24. He was talking to one person. Near as I could tell, his group had dwindled substantially from the start. That can happen when you go out at turbo speed.
As we got closer and closer to downtown, there were lots of bands and other musical distractions. Most were good. Only one made me run faster because I wanted to get away from it :-).
Around M26, we turned towards the capitol. The finish at CIM is kind of weird. Females finish on the left, males on the right. That's no big deal, except that between the two finishes, they have tons of spectators kind of like a highway divider or berm. So as a runner, it seemed like the females turned off, and then the males had to run an extra 100 feet or so before we turned. It probably wasn't really like that; maybe just an optical illusion.
First mat wasn't the end. They had a mat so that they could get the name of the person about to finish and announce the name. ROBERT LOPEZ, SEATTLE WASHINGTON.
Not 3:30. But I'm back under 4, I did my workout pretty much like I wanted to (close enough), I was able to get in an extra mile, and I utilized the pace group weirdness as a fun thing to observe rather than a painful distraction.
Fun time. Definitely a place to come for a PR.
To close, I'l just say that my observations about the pacers were/are my personal opinion. The 3:50 pacer is a very accomplished ultra runner with lots of hardware to his name. I would never ever tell this person how to run his race. It's just that pacing others is a different task.
The scenery isn't much to look at during this race, but that's not why people run it. Aside from a packed expo (tip: DO NOT come to this expo right when they first open at 3p on Friday), the organization of this event was top notch.
Ran into coolrunner hup afterwards. It is always fun to meet a coolrunner in person. Wish I would have had more time to chat, but I had to trudge back to my hotel and check out. Besides, I was stinky.
Incidentally, because this race starts in Folsom, I spent the first 2 hours or so looping Folsom Prison Blues in my head. I must have shot that guy in Reno about 1,000 times.