The 2016 Mountains2Beach Marathon was not quite the race I’d prepared to run. I’d run the race in 2015, and achieved a BQ time that was not enough to save me from the 2016 cut-off time (BQ -2:28). When I studied my 2015 performance, I thought about the factors that slowed me down toward the end of the race (heat, sun, lack of hydration), and I worked and planned to be prepared for those obstacles in 2016.
What I didn’t anticipate, however, was a course change. A change that, while on paper didn’t seem that different from the 2015 course in terms of elevation, ended up being enough to keep me feeling rather disoriented as the course wound its way down a highway (where’s the bike path?), from Ojai to Ventura. Last year’s peaceful bike path through the trees was replaced by a rolling highway, and cars held back by police officers (thank you!) at a number of intersections along the way. I saw a couple of drivers, clearly frustrated from having to wait, dart across the course with little separating the runners from their car. It was definitely not a time to “zone out.”
Actually, perhaps the biggest change was in the first 6-7 miles of the course. Last year, runners were leaving downtown Ojai by mile 2; this year, we spent more time wandering around Ojai, beginning the race with a not-insignificant elevation gain for the first 3 miles, then pretty much doubling back past the start line, and finally heading down the road. We didn’t join the bike path until mile 11; I’d driven the course the day before specifically to be more familiar with the course changes, however when we got to mile 11 and I saw the bike path, I assumed the rest of the course was the same as last year, save for the last 2 miles at the beach. I mean, the course map showed a squigly line from Ojai to Ventura, and the elevation chart showed a downhill profile that, at least from mile 11 on, seemed like last year’s course. But I’m not familiar with the area, so I completely missed the fact that about 1.5 miles in on the bike path the course left it – and never returned.
It’s not that I mind a rolling course; in fact, I totally love California International Marathon because of the rolling course. I just like knowing what to expect. In my brain, for months now, M2B was a downhill freight train. Turns out, not quite so much.
Around mile 15, a funny thing happened. Not funny. Tragic. Shitty. Frustrating. My left hamstring, which I confess had been a little tight after Revel Mt Charleston a couple of weeks ago, decided to go full cramp – OUCH! Like, stop and scurry to the side of the road and try to stretch it out kind of OUCH. Here’s a confession: I have been fortunate in that I have not been injured during a race. Between December 2014 and August 2015 I ran 3 marathons, BQ times in each, without any problems during training or the race. I know, I’ve been damn lucky.
After a brief stop to stretch, I tried to resume my pace. I lasted about 2-3 miles, each mile getting slower and slower. My hamstring was not feeling better; in fact with each step it felt like a painful balloon threatening to pop. The reality of the situation hit me hard and fast; this race was not happening. A BQ was not happening. I looked at my Garmin, where I could see that I was still within 30 seconds of my target, and I glided to the right side of the road, slowing down to a walk. I could have settled into a major pity-party right there and then, however my hamstring was KILLING me with each step, keeping me very much in the moment. I was at mile 17, on some random highway. I had 9 more miles to get to the finish line. I texted my husband; he was waiting at mile 23, ready to pace me to a strong, on pace finish. I was afraid he would think I was just having some sort of stressed-out breakdown, that he’d try to convince me to “suck it up.” But I’d never felt anything like what I was feeling with my hamstring before. Ever. When I tried to run fast, it stabbed with a sharpness that was unsettling.
Had there been a van waiting to pick me up at any point, I’m about 99% certain I would have gotten in. I wasn’t concerned at all about a DNF. I was concerned about not being able to run for weeks or months – who knows how long? But I didn’t see any van. It was miles before I would see a medical tent too. So I walked. But walking didn’t last long at all (maybe a minute). Not because the pain went away; because my brain started calculating how damn long it would potentially take me to walk 9 miles. OMG. I couldn’t fathom the thought. I settled into what had to look like a very uncomfortable “wog,” dragging my left leg along.
The other thing that really kept me going, however, were my friends who became my cheer squad that day, chasing me down the mountain with signs, cowbells, smiles, laughter; they were amazing! They cheered me on from no less than 5 different spots on the course; earlier in the race I breezed by with my arms raised, bolstered by their voices! After I was hurt (and I didn’t tell them, but I think they figured it out), I hobbled by and found real strength and energy in their supportive words.
As I approached mile 23, anticipating seeing my husband, my left foot, which was dragging, caught some torn up asphalt and I tripped and splatted into the road. Somehow I managed to bang up my right knee, right shoulder, left side of my forehead AND left side of my ribcage. I looked up from the ground to see a handful of volunteers: “Ma’am, are you okay?”
Um. NOPE. I was dazed. I was bleeding. I couldn’t breathe (my ribcage was killing me). Holy. Cow. When is this race going to be over?? I pulled myself to my feet, grabbed some water to wash off my wounds, and moved on.
I finally reached my husband who, while understood I was super slow from a hamstring blow up, wasn’t aware of the fall until he saw my bloody knee and shoulder. A pained expression washed over his face. Seeing that, I began to choke up, only the physical act of choking up was excruciating – of course it was, because why should I get to cry? So we continued on; I got slower and slower as I became breathless with each step, not being able to take deep breaths, or even normal breaths. But I kept moving forward; along the final mile, my cheering friends once again greeted me, along with some more friends who I didn’t know would be there – what an amazing surprise! As horrible as I felt, as in pain as I was, I was so damn happy over the course of that last mile, and I credit that 100% to my husband and my friends.
I approached the finish; I wouldn’t be “stuffing it in.” Nope. No more falling. No more hurting. I hobbled in but, seeing the photographer at the finish line, I threw up my hands and smiled. Why? Because I was so, so happy that I managed to finish that race!
Ironically, it wasn’t even my worst marathon time; like, not even by a long shot. 4:18:09 isn’t a BQ but in any other circumstance I would be so pleased with that time. So I’ll take it.
I stopped at the medical tent; the medical voluteer listened to my lungs to make sure I hadn’t done serious damage. He cleaned up my knee and gave me ice for, well, everything. I had a friend who was running her 2nd marathon that day and, with all the love and support I’d just received, I definitely wanted to pay it forward, so we waited along the final stretch and cheered runners in until we saw her. While waiting, I sucked down a double margarita (my amazing friends brought it to me at the finish), shed some quiet tears, and reflected. I don’t know where my Boston dream goes from here.