When I originally signed up for the La Jolla Half, I was riding the wave off a successful 2014 Carlsbad Half Marathon. After a relatively solid prep for that race, I was overall very happy with my performance, and I knew that I wanted to jump into a few more running events during the 2014 year. I just wasn’t sure which ones. My friend Peter, fellow LJSO violinist and someone who loves beer even more than I do (you’re shocked, I know – but it’s true), mentioned that he would be running The “Triple Crown” series of Carlsbad – La Jolla – America’s Finest City Half Marathons, and I was hooked. On top of that, uber hiking parter C was schedule to run her first marathon in Big Sur during the same weekend as the La Jolla Half – it’s like it was meant to be. I felt excited about another race on the horizon, even if the course profile was slightly intimidating.
Then life happens.
And then life changes, which naturally leads to shit happening.
Reflecting back – a lot of stuff happened between my running the Carlsbad and La Jolla Halves, respectively. It’s amazing how much can change in a few short weeks. We found out about the possibility of N’s deployment. I got sick – first with bronchitis and then a sinus infection. I turned 33 (we celebrate these suckers!). And then once getting confirmation of deployment #5, I voted myself up to Bainbridge Island and ran – a lot. And then back home, I kersplatted (I still have the scars on my hand), followed shortly thereafter by a persnickety IUD that refused to stay put. And then there’s daily life stressors of varying degrees that, over time, just tend to wear us down.
Keeping this in mind – I wasn’t sure what to expect. My training had NOT gone the way I wanted and I felt that I lacked the speed and power (i.e. running hills in prep for a hilly race) training blocks that I had sketched out for myself coming off of Carlsbad. The lack of running was frustrating – both physically and emotionally; but if I’ve learned anything from the past and from my lupus, it’s that I roll with the punches and do the best that I can with what I’ve got…. too many variables to control for 100% of the time, anyway. Instead, I allowed myself to get healthy and/or heal when needed, took the pressure off and listened to my body, ran hard when I felt like it, and pulled back when I didn’t. I also continued to hike with both N & C, even if it meant a sacrificed long run or a training-plan readjustment….spending time on the trails and camping with people I love is a higher priority than getting in a specific run workout (that I could just move around anyway). So that’s how it was for me on this build – a much more laid back and flexible approach.
I would be remiss if I failed to mention Beth Shutt’s post about a challenging series of events that lead up to her seventh Ironman. Things did not go as planned. Beth writes,
… it’s a good reminder for me (and perhaps someone else reading) that things don’t have to go perfectly. I very easily get caught up in the mindset that I MUST CONTROL ALL THE THINGS. And that ALL THE THINGS must be 100% spot on to have the race I want to have. But these past few weeks I have learned that this just isn’t the case. We can do what we can do but the truth is, things don’t always go smoothly… And it’s okay. It does not mean that you can’t pull it together and execute on race day as best as possible and it CERTAINLY does not mean that you can’t still have a stellar race. I’ve been racing for a while now and I probably should have a real good grasp on this concept by this point. But I didn’t and I’m glad to have had this experience so I could mature a little as an athlete.
Beth’s most excellent post resonated, and I kept her words in the back of my mind leading up to my race.
I decided to approach my race as a challenge, where the race itself was the reward for surviving tough times, and the on-course suffering would pale in comparison to my real life stressors. In other words – the race would be the easy part. I was also angry about some of what has happened – and I knew that I could funnel that anger into a very productive (and cathartic) race. Finally, I completely erased all time goals – the focus would be to run by feel.
So I did.
My alarm went off with a Lady Gaga-like tune at approximately 4:20 am. By 4:30 I was sipping coffee and eating my standard pre-race breakfast of oatmeal. I was out the door by 5:10 am and, having left early enough – managed to beat the bulk of the crap traffic leading to the Del Mar Fairgrounds. I was parked by 5:35, which left me with… exactly 1 hour and 55 minutes until race time. Luckily I distracted myself with journaling, using the porta-potty that was 1/4 mile away, taking some fun pictures, another porta-potty trip, and chatting with some of the people who parked next to my car.
I debated briefly about whether or not to check a gear bag near the starting line: in the end I decided against it. The La Jolla Half is a point-to-point race, running south along the hilly Coastal Highway through Torrey Pines from the Del Mar Racetrack and ending downtown La Jolla at The Cove. It would only be one more line to stand in, and I didn’t want to worry about not getting in a decent warm-up. Besides – I figured that nearly as soon as I crossed the finish line, I could cool down briefly and take one of the race-supplied shuttles back to my car.
Warm-up felt fine – I did a few strides, jogged around, and did my best to keep myself warm in the upper-50 temps (sorry to everyone else who does not live in SoCal). After a few dynamic stretches (THANK YOU Julia), and one more potty break behind the bushes (seriously – WHY do people stand in porta-potty lines, when THERE ARE PERFECTLY GOOD BUSHES THAT ARE PARTIALLY HIDDEN FROM SIGHT???), and I was ready to go. There was an awesome rendition of the Star Spangled Banner, and after snapping a few pictures, I readied myself for the race start.
I entered into my Wave 1 corral and worked my way up to the starting line as close as I could before the crowd got too dense, going on the left end of the corral. I knew there was a left turn shortly after starting, and I didn’t want to take a long line. I noticed the 1:40 and 1:35 pace groups and figured that I should start ahead of them. I was still inching forward when the starting gun was fired (appropriate at the racetrack), and we were off! So much for being 100% ready (there is no such thing).
But we were running!
The first few miles of the race were pretty mellow. I didn’t take off at an uncontrollable pace. I didn’t think about strategy or place. I didn’t think about what I would be doing or what sort of pace I should be holding in an hour.
I DID start my watch as I crossed the start, figuring that even though I wasn’t sticking to a certain pace, it would be interesting to see where I was at throughout race. If things were miserable, I would just disregard. I DID get a good line on my turn and made an effort to not bump and jostle with people for position. I did feel a bit of contact, but nothing that wasn’t standard for a race start. And I DID give myself positive bits of feedback about effort; it’s amazing…. maybe it’s the years of racing – but I have this uncanny knack of turning everything when I’m racing, both positive and negative into a positive. I blame the wonderful Jen Harrison for this.
Ah, but if only I could apply this principle to the rest of my life. Oh well.
The first series of hills started somewhere around mile 2.5 or 3, running up into Del Mar. I kept the pace relaxed and did my best to stick with a few of the guys who seemed to not be breathing super hard. My own effort was steady; it never felt easy. But it DID feel sustainable. I focused on trusting my endurance and letting the chips fall. I could see two girls ahead and something about the way they were running together made me think that they were friends and working together. I figured that when I passed them at some point in the future, I would have to toss in a surge – but that was just a fleeting thought. Cresting the hill’s top back onto the Coastal Highway as we exited Del Mar’s quaint neighborhoods shortly after mile 4 was a great feeling. The two guys from the 1:30 pace group had just passed me, and while I thought about trying to stick with them for a moment, I made a better call (for me) – to just let them go.
The quads felt okay cruising down the big Del Mar hill towards Torrey Pines – I focused on good downhill form and upped my pace, figuring the get a jump on the BIG MONSTER 2-mile long Torrey Pines hill that would start somewhere around mile 5.5. It was nice to not have the heart-in-throat breathing and I caught my breath. I still saw the two girls ahead, and shortly in front of them was another woman. I figured I would pass them all at some point – but it wasn’t yet a focus. The race was still early and I was enjoying the beautiful views of the beach and surf.
Just before starting the long climb, I passed the spot where in March of 2008, I broke my back in a bike crash. Life is funny like that – an area that had once haunted me and reminded me of how hard my recovery and comeback was – was now just a chapter from my past and didn’t really affect me. I learned a lot of good shit from that experience, hard shit. But came out with knowledge and tools that I would later use during my lupus diagnosis. Funny how life works. I gave it a fleeting thought, noted the beauty of the preserve, and turned my focus onto the climb itself.
It was easy to see runners snaking their way up the hill ahead, and I knew it would be hard. So I reminded myself of ALL the insane hiking that I do, keeping pace with an uber-fast partner C, who was running her OWN Marathon on the Big Sur coastal highway…. the thousands of feet per hike that we gain, and the fact that my glutes are just fucking conditioned to climb. At the base of the climb, someone said, “5th woman” to one of the three girls within sight (and hearing) just ahead of me.
It was as though a light flip was switched.
I didn’t change my focus or goal – instead the goal shifted to systematically passing as many women ahead of me as I could. I didn’t go into the race with the intention of even placing in my age group; rather I wanted to just fucking run hard.
The first pass came relatively quickly and then during the first 3/4 section of the hill I worked my way past the pair of girls who I had seen running shoulder-to-shoulder earlier. I could feel the competitor within stirring, and I controlled my breathing with each pass while listening to their own breaths. Everyone seemed to be breathing pretty heavy (normal on a hill) – but with each pass I bid a cheerful, “good job!” and quieted my own breath. I didn’t want them – even for a moment – to feel like they could hook onto my shoulder or keep me within sight. I wanted them to think this was easy for me and not even think about matching my pace, so I did my best to hide my own discomfort. And then move my ass up the hill.
Towards the top of the steeper section, I was about to pass the final girl that was within my sights and the two of us ran by an official from the race who was operating a video pointing towards us and commenting, “….and now we’ve got the 2nd and 3rd place woman…” I made the pass and never looked back. I knew that all the girls (now behind) me were fast and would be able to see me at some points, so my focus was to open up as much space between me and them while the course was still hilly. The hill seemed endless, but I kept up the positive self-talk, opened as much of a gap as I could, and made it to the top top top just before mile 7.5.
The Torrey Pines mesa is notoriously rolling, and I thought about my Thursday hilly runs that I had actually done – the focus was to not just ‘attack the hill’, but to attack through the hill. Drive up and over the top and continue with the same ferocity to the other side. I didn’t let up. I focused on the back of the 1:30 bright yellow pace setter shirt in the distance and made it my mission to make the girls behind me suffer for a spot on the podium. If they wanted it – they would have to get past me. In the back of my head, although I didn’t put pressure on myself to beat a specific time, I decided that I wanted sub 1:30, and I believed I would make it happen.
I spent a lot of this part of the race running hard – the focus and intensity were stronger and I worked the hills, while going back and forth with a few guys who were around me. I felt strong. I knew that one or two of the girls behind could probably see me, but I focused on my own race. I passed one of the two 1:30 pace setters (they had split up) and thought about getting part of my gel down. After running uphill hard, I could feel a bit of reflux in my stomach and while I wasn’t hungry and had been really good about getting water at each aid station – I stopped taking in as much water as I had before.
At the aid station between miles 9 and 10, I got down most of my Vanilla PowerGel. I knew the La Jolla Shores downhill was just ahead and figured that I would have time to start digesting with a lower heart rate, before hitting the flats and final climb up into downtown La Jolla. Running down the hill was painful – I knew my lateral quads would pay for my 5:30 mile pace. They still are. I distracted myself by looking at the pier and thinking about the big sharks that all hang out near the La Jolla trench. There are some things about triathlon (ahem – open water swimming) that I DO NOT miss.
Somewhere near the base of this hill, one of the women who I had passed 3 miles earlier came up and made her pass. Instinctively I hung on her shoulder and didn’t let a gap open – somehow I knew we were running for 2nd. I was already mentally preparing for our final climb – maybe a mile or two ahead, and figured that if I hung on to her pace, I could pass her on the uphill like I had done before. We went back and forth for a mile or so before turning and twisting through neighborhoods south of La Jolla Shores. It was during one of these twists and turns that a small gap opened. I fought hard, but just couldn’t keep her pace. There was no disguising my breathing and while I didn’t feel like I was slowing down, I just didn’t have that next gear to shift into like she did.
The final climb of the race was my desperate attempt to catch and re-pass her. I could feel the fatigue and while the hill itself was nothing like the previous ones, this 3/4 mile segment made me hurt unlike the others. At one point, it felt like my toe was jamming the pavement, a testament to pitch, but mostly my fatigue. Looking back over my splits – my pace varied more so than it had during any of the the other ups. Wheels coming off?
Cresting the top of the final climb, I knew I would have to dig deep and push the final 1/2 mile or so towards the finish. I ran hard, disregarding the quad pain and doing my best to not cramp in front of spectators. The downhill absolutely murdered my lateral quads, but the focus was on the finish. I was also running scared as I didn’t want anyone else to pass at the last second. I noted the pelican and seal poop smell, thought about BIG SHARKS lurking in the waters below – and once I entered the final 200 meter finishing chute, I ran as hard as I could. It’s amazing how you find that extra gear at the very end. I could hear the announcer shouting my name. The grass in the final stretch was a welcome relief compared to the hard pavement, and with a fist punch into the air and big smile, I crossed the finish line as the third overall woman.
And then my good feeling was gone.
I took a few steps and bent over. My legs were killing me and I could hear the announcer but had no idea what he was saying. Someone placed a medal around my neck and I had the good sense to turn off my watch and Strava. I was unsure of my final time – the clock had read 1:30-something, but rounding the final 200-meter stretch, I had spied a high 1:28 on my watch. I figured that making my way up to the race start had taken a while – maybe a minute? I had a fleeting thought of gun time vs chip time for awards, but I think that was only for the race winner.
In the end, I ran a 1:29:29, ten second faster than I did for Carlsbad and on one of the most challenging race courses that I’ve ever been on. I’ve had some time to think about this, and concluded that a few different factors really helped me out. First – I went in with no expectation and instead trusted myself to run my own race. I didn’t care about results or time before, so therefore there was no pressure. And I had decided to run my own race without concern for sticking with a pace group – pace groups are great, but in the future I’ll trust myself and my own ability to race off of feel. In the middle of the race it was different, as the competitor within me emerged and afterI had made my passes. Though not my intention, I was fighting for a podium spot, but it was never a negative thing… Would I have run the way that I did without knowing my place overall? It’s tough to say.
What I DO know – is that I WANTED to run hard, I WANTED to suffer, and I WANTED to see what I could do. That never changes, even if the approach going in is varied, or this approach changes mid-race. I think I will always be intense and a competitive person deep down – and during a race, perhaps this part of me emerges in full.
As for my training – who knows? It was definitely not what I had wanted going into the race, but I learned that I can still have fun, work hard, and run fast even in spite of life obstacles. I don’t think I would change anything – I got to hike and travel and do things with people that I love. I ran a lot of long, slow miles when I needed to and didn’t do much speed specific work. I also let myself heal and get healthy when it was necessary and thus also spent a lot of time not running.
Post-race, my stomach was pretty upset. There was beer at the finish line and for the first time, I was only able to take one or two sips before feeling even sicker. The thought of food made me feel nauseated, so I just couldn’t get anything down except for a little bit of chocolate milk. As N was in Yuma for work, I was on my own. I congratulated a few of the runners around me, thanked the ones who I remembered during the race and waited around for the awards ceremony, while cursing my lack of checked-gear bag. I felt like mess – and the sun was making my skin prickle and burn uncomfortably. Fuck you lupus. One of the race merchants gave me a long sleeved shirt from the sales rack while another covered me with spray-on sunscreen. I thanked them profusely and hung out in the shade while chatting briefly with N. Even though I was surrounded by thousands of people, it was a little lonely.
Immediately after accepting my award, I hopped on the shuttle bus and sat next to a very nice runner from England named Edward who upon asking him how his race went, remarked that, “the hills were not preferable.” That stuck out and made me smile. After getting dropped off at the start, I made my way back to my car, talked to my parents, and decided to pick up some yummy food and a celebratory beer from Sprouts – can’t beat Fin du Monde. Yes, the stomach was upset – but there is always room for this favorite. Besides, there was plenty of Pepto at home. Later Charisa, who finished third at her own triathlon earlier in the day, and I hit Las Olas for drinks and dinner. The walk to and from downtown along the coastal highway was good for my legs and heart. And reflux.
So… there you have it. My uber long (because that’s just how I write these suckers) race report. Thanks for reading – funny, it always takes me longer to write than it does to race. But I hardly ever race, and I can’t remember the last time I was on the podium, so it’s all good…. there was a celebratory piece of sheet cake (of course!) with a Pepto chaser (of course!). Okay – oh well. And with that, I’m done.
There were so many WONDERFUL volunteers and race support, and these events would not be possible without them. Thank you to everyone who makes races like this possible. The event was so well run, volunteers were awesome, and people who came out to cheer really made it a special day – I definitely want to run it next year. I would especially like to thank the three volunteers who gave me clothes to cover up my skin and extra sunscreen – InMotionFit specifically, gave me a long sleeved shirt that was on sale from the previous years’ Triple Crown without charging me because I had no money with me…. that made a HUGE difference with my skin and helped reduce sun exposure. And stress. Thank you.
Alright – Thanks for reading and sticking around!
PS – Final splits and course profile, courtesy of Strava. Not that I really cared during – but taking a look after the fact is sort of neat.