“Someone is breaking into the room,” was my first semi-conscious thought as a loud rumble woke me from my pre-race sleep. I sat up and surveyed the room, trying to transition my brain into awake mode long enough to figure out what was happening. Then it dawned on me. Earthquake.
I went to college in the Bay Area, so I’ve felt my fair share of small shakers. And even on Friday, while enjoying drinks on Mission Street in San Francisco with an old college friend, we laughed about the chances of “the big one” ripping through the earth during our short stay. My friend assured us that they had just had a small one recently, so we’d likely escape without incident.
But here we were, at 3:20 am, more than an hour before our alarms would go off, completely awake at this point, as the earth continued to shake. This was definitely a significant one, and it seemed to last much longer than anything I’d ever felt before. While we found out the magnitude (6.0, the largest since the last Big One of 1989) and location (very close to us) thanks to some super speedy Facebook detectives, we didn’t realize how much damage it had caused to the area until hours later.
What we did know is that we weren’t going back to sleep. We laid in bed for an hour, but the whole experience had released so much adrenaline and the possibilities of after shocks were so high, that there was no way we’d be able to relax enough again to doze off.
So, when my alarm went off at 4:30, we climbed out of bed, exhausted before the day even began.
The Santa Rosa Marathon is held in Sonoma County, about an hour’s drive from San Francisco. With less than 1,700 marathon spots available, it is a pretty small race run mostly on country roads. Yet, somehow the race organizers have been able to market it as one of the top places to qualify for Boston, having been ranked nationally for the high percentage of qualifiers each year. Combine that with its late August date (two weeks before Boston registration opens) and the fact that it is one of the few races that doesn’t sell out immediately (this year it didn’t sell out at all), and you get a popular “last chance” race. And the promises of a ridiculous amount of schwag all for the insanely cheap price of $135 make this a hard race to overlook (EDITED to clarify that I’m not being facetious here…this is the cheapest marathon I’ve run, and it came with far more “stuff”).
For all of these reasons, we chose this race back in January or February as our goal race of the year and spent the last 4 months training to beat our Chicago times from two years ago.
We flew into San Francisco on Friday and after a rather stressful day spent mostly in traffic (but also hanging out with some of my old college friends) we drove up to Santa Rosa. Instead of staying at a hotel, we had rented a vacation studio cottage through vrbo.com which ended up being a fantastic choice, mostly because of the private hot tub.
Because this is a Wine Country race, much of it revolved around…wait for it…WINE.
The expo was held at a winery called DeLoach. Without the bells and whistles of a Kara Goucher speaking engagement or a large Brooks Running carnival themed display, this expo was small, organized with plenty of super perky and helpful volunteers, and relaxing. Our artsy bibs were passed out in the middle of grape vines and race shirts were handed out in a winery guest house.
Oh, and each half or full runner received a bottle of wine from the hosting winery titled, “Runner’s Red” that could be picked up in the barrel room. Runners were also treated to a complimentary wine tasting.
After the expo, we made the mistake(?) of driving the rural country part of the course. For the most part, we had been led to believe that this course was flat. The website does describe each hill with detail, but I guess something like that is hard to visualize until you actually see it. When we saw significant rolling hills through a big chunk of miles 8-20, we got nervous. We had not been training for this type of incline variation. BUT, I guess better to find that out then (with plenty of hours to have panic attacks) then to discover this during the race without the time or energy to mentally prepare.
We stopped by a couple of other wineries in the area (I highly recommend Hook and Ladder), and then went to Trader Joe’s to buy some food for dinner. Because we had a vacation cottage, we decided to use the kitchen to cook some gluten free pasta which we had been eating before our long runs. After dinner we met up with San Francisco Road Warrior Angela who is a fantastic and speedy running blogger. She was also signed up to run the marathon the next day.
We were in bed by 10 which was later than I wanted, but I’ve raced on less sleep before, so I wasn’t too worried.
Earthquake (see above).
Pre-race fuel included about half a glass of Nuun and a Larabar (I really don’t like Larabars, but they are small and jam-packed with calories so there is less to force down pre-run) before leaving the cottage at 5:00 am. TIP: park at the mall, but use the second parking garage. Mall parking is close to the start and about $3, so the race encourages runners to use it. There are actually 2 parking garages. One has a long, slow moving line to get in. The other does not. The second one (literally next to the first) is completely visible, so we just kept going with no wait in the long line.
Santa Rosa starts at 6:00 am, so when we got there at about 5:15, it was still completely dark outside. They had lights, but we actually had to search for the bag check because we couldn’t see anything. There was an hour gap between the marathon start time and the half start time, so it wasn’t overcrowded. Both the porta lines and bag check went fast, and I was able to get two rounds through the portas without any issue (which is far more than you needed to know I’m sure). Also, menfolk, please learn to aim at the urinal thing in the dark. YUCK.
As a small race, Santa Rosa doesn’t have corrals, so people just line up wherever. We got there about 6 minutes before start time and I positioned myself right behind the 3:30 pacers. Thanks to Jen and her recent fiascos I was wondering what song would play at the start, but the speakers remained silent. I could have used some pep in my step to get me going, but I had to rely on my own internal singing (I feel the earth. move. under my feet).
The horn sounded, and we were off! The first 2.5 miles went through downtown Santa Rosa. It was still dark, but there were plenty of lights, so the course was very visible. My only issue was that some of the pavers used on the streets felt like running on cobblestones. Nothing detrimental, but it wasn’t easy to run on. Lanes are also marked with reflector bumps that I kept stumbling over.
My goal to stay with the 3:30 pacers. But when I ran mile 2 in 7:53, about 30 seconds faster than I wanted to be running at that point, I realized that I would be using too much energy to keep up (truthfully, I think they went out too fast considering 3:30 equals an 8 minute mile average pace). So, I had to let go and trust my own instincts. My decision was solidified when one of the pacers fell flat on his face. I’m kind of surprised that he got up and kept running because he fell pretty hard.
At mile 2.5 we entered the closed “Greenway” trail which continued until about mile 8.5. The trail is closed to traffic and slightly below the city. While the marathon isn’t an “out and back” course, most of this section is reused on the last 6 miles of the marathon. It was narrow, so it was a little congested, but not too bad. It was mostly just boring. It does run next to a creek with large trees, but it all looks the same after awhile. We also ran over the signature bridges of the marathon which were nice, but not really noteworthy. Because it was a bit more isolated, there was no crowd support, but at that point in the race, I didn’t need it (well, I always need it, but I didn’t NEED, need it).
At about mile 8.5, we crossed the first set of course timing mats, and re-emerged into society. Some spectators started to pop up including a few men riding their bikes to every mile marker with cowbells. I’m not sure if the people they were supporting were running near me (or maybe they were just following me….), but I saw these people several times. Other course highlights included Thing 1 and Thing 1 (grown men), a teenage banana, a teenage penguin (both boys), a dancing jazzerciser (female), and lots of younger teenage girls dressed in tutus. There were also a fair number of folksy ukuleleists, banjoists and guitar players who have probably been strumming since the 60’s. But, even though the people who came out were awesome, the crowd support was sparse. I didn’t realize just how much I count on the energy of others to push me during these races. It is a mental battle that I now recognize and will work on for the future since probably 95% of all races don’t involve 26 miles of cheering people.
One thing I was a bit worried about was the aid station situation. I think every race I’ve done before, and definitely every marathon, has had aid stations every mile. Santa Rosa has them every two miles, AND I completely missed the first one. I took a cup of water and a cup of Gatorade at every station, and while I normally only take a few sips before throwing the cup away while never stopping, I was trying to take in twice as much here, which was impossible to do while running. Aid station miles were about 10-15 seconds slower because of this.
A highlight of the race is getting to run through the barrel room of the expo-hosting winery somewhere around mile 10.5. It really was a neat experience, and the group around me started howling, creating loud echoes which made it more fun.
From the winery on, the course got interesting. It seemed like from the winery to mile 15, the rolling hills did not end. The small but steep inclines caused several of the runners I had been with the entire time to start falling back, and I could tell that I was slowing down. The road was also pretty slanted, leaving the middle next to the yellow lane lines/reflector bumps as the only flat place to run. Also, because this is Wine Country, wine growers will often shoot blanks or fireworks into the air to scare off birds. I had read about this somewhere so I wasn’t caught off guard, but I can imagine that unexpectedly hearing several explosions during a marathon can be unsettling. TIP: Be prepared to hear gunshots near the vineyards.
Despite my wine-ing about the course, I have to admit that it was truly magnificent. The weather was PERFECT with overcast skies that didn’t burn off until well after I crossed the finish line, and we ran next to gorgeous vineyards and storybook farms.
Miles 15-17 were along a main road (highway?) and were flat. I was passing runners left and right, and I felt like I was keeping a good pace, but I looked down and realized that I had slowed down, but I’m not sure why? At some point I started getting the weird weak feeling you get before you pass out (sorry to say I know what this feels like), but extra Gatorade at the next aid station took care of that.
Miles 17-20 entered into the second set of large rolling hills. By this point, I was starting to experience the first signs of fatigue, and these hills took much more energy than they had the first go-round. It always is a relief to hit that 20 mile marker though.
Shortly after mile 20, we reentered the Greenway to backtrack where we had run earlier. This trail is also used for the half marathon course which mentally wasn’t helpful. The marathoners had thinned out, so I was surrounded mostly by walking half marathoners and for some reason my brain had to work extra hard to keep running when most people around me were walking. I stopped paying attention to my pace and focused all of my efforts on spotting runners ahead of me with the intention of catching up to them. I repeated and repeated my mantras. I reminded myself of how hard I had pushed during training and how I shouldn’t let all of that work go to waste.
But in the end, it wasn’t enough to keep the paces down. Truthfully, this is the best I’ve ever felt during a marathon. Nothing hurt, my stomach was completely settled. My muscles weren’t really tired, and I was focused enough to not completely lose it mentally, plus the weather was perfect.
I simply didn’t want it enough.
It didn’t help that there were about 4 more little steep hills during mile 25, and of course this is where the photographers were. In my head I was saying “this hill is your bitch” and “you have 1 mile to go, so don’t be a wuss (except that’s not quite the word I used) now.” (Mile 25 Amy is so elegant). I was still pushing to finish with a Boston Qualifying time, and I was pretty sure I could do it, but I wasn’t really leaving myself any wiggle room. I was annoyed that we hadn’t exited the Greenway yet.
At last, we exited the Greenway at mile 26, and the course did 1-2 more turns in Downtown Santa Rosa before I spotted the finish line. I managed to pass a few more people and sprinted toward the place of happiness and rest. The clock was reading 3:34:47 as I approached it, and even though I knew I had started about 30 seconds after gun time, I pushed to make sure I crossed with my BQ officially.
Net time, 3:34:21. 26 seconds slower than my Chicago PR time, and 39 seconds faster than my Boston Qualifying Time. While I am happy with my time and with my general performance, I worked really hard to PR at this race, and it didn’t happen.
A nice volunteer handed me a medal which is easily the biggest race medal in existence with two spinners. I spotted Aaron right away. For the last month he’s been trying to fix some sort of hip issue that popped up out of nowhere and basically caused him to sit out or not push very hard for much of the last bit of training. He was disappointed in his time, but was more concerned about his leg that had been destroyed from the race.
At the finish line, they handed out space blankets, but they weren’t race specific and it wasn’t cold, so I passed. They also passed out cups (smaller than the course cups) of water which was not awesome. I wanted to drink water endlessly, but the volunteers were working hard just to keep the table stocked, so I wasn’t really able to get more than 1 refill. They also had watermelon which I normally hate, but it tasted fantastic that morning.
Once you exited the finishers chute, we faced a long line for what I think turned out to be a hoodie. Santa Rosa typically hands out fancy jackets instead of race shirts at the expo, but something happened somewhere and they weren’t available, so we got race shirts instead. After the race, they were handing out the hoodie or whatever. The line was ridiculous, so we skipped out. When we went back a couple of hours later (to the beer festival… more on that in a bit), they were out of all but extra large, so we didn’t get one. They also had pancakes for finishers, but I didn’t see that area until we came back a little while later.
This year, the marathon also co-hosted a small inaugural beer festival post-race. Runners got half price tickets to the full festival, or free beer tickets for a couple of tastes. We obviously went with the full festival option (also comes with a growler). Since we finished the race well before 10 am and the festival didn’t start until 11, we went back to our cottage to feast on a fast food cheeseburger (SO INCREDIBLY AMAZING), shower up, and catch up on all the earthquake updates. Turns out we were pretty lucky to have power and unaffected roads for the race.
The beer festival was fun! We got to try lots of local beer, the pours were generous, and it was a relaxing way to wind down and numb some of the soreness.
At that was the end of Marathon #3, Boston Qualifier #2.
For the first time ever, I didn’t get sick post marathon. I was sore, but not nearly to the extent that I have been before (I even ran for a bit on Wednesday with no issues which has never happened earlier than 2 weeks post-race). I feel like this is progress, but I also feel like it means I didn’t push myself hard enough.
I do want to emphasize that our overall experience with the Santa Rosa Marathon was positive. The race organizers really care about their runners, and aside from some small negatives (the lack of sufficient amounts of water at the start and finish lines for example), everything was well organized, especially considering the last minute panic that must have occurred after the earthquake. That being said, because this is a destination race for us, I don’t know if I would go out of my way to run it again.
We did some wine tasting on Monday, and got to visit with Jen and Cathryn and her ridiculously cute kid with a ridiculously cute English accent before flying home on Tuesday. All three of the bloggers I met this week were so fantastic. I love that the internet can connect us to people to the point that when we meet for the first time, it feels like we’ve been friends all along.
So, what’s next? Boston registration opens in a couple of weeks. Last year, my qualifying time would have been a minute too slow to actually get into the race, so I’m not holding my breath. The trip is also really expensive, especially considering it would be a trip all about me and accommodating my needs. I’ve run Boston. I would absolutely love to do it again, but if that money could fund a significant chunk of a vacation to a new place (the world is so big!) where both of us can do stuff that doesn’t involve 6-7 solo hours waiting, then I think it should. I still have some time to ponder it though.
Amy Race Details:
Finish time: 3:34:21 (8:10 average pace)
Fuel: Larabar pre-race, GU (with caffiene) at 50 minute intervals (50, 1:40, 2:30)
Hydration: Half glass of Nuun pre-race, water and Gatorade at every aid station (located every 2 miles…ish)
Gear: Brooks Adrenaline shoes, CEP calf sleeves, Lululemon Pacesetter skirt, Lululemon cool racerback, Bic Band, LOTS of Body Glide and sunscreen (you can get sun damage even when it is overcast!).
Favorite Moment: Running through the DeLoach wine barrel room
Least Favorite Moment: The small/steep climbs during the last mile
Biggest Piece of Advice For Anyone Considering This Race: Incorporate steep rolling hills into the end of your long training runs.