Tuesday, May 7, 2013

I'm Number 841: The 2013 Orange County Marathon

A few months ago, I wrote a piece questioning the existence of a mythical "wall" that runners (allegedly) encounter when running a marathon.  I went on and on about how with proper training and nutrition, it's not that difficult to reduce or eliminate the effects of the hypothetical wall.  I based these bold statements not on my extensive six-month career as an endurance athlete during which I've run three official events and no marathons, but instead on a couple articles I read on the Internet.

What can I say, research is not my forte.

So it is with a bit of sheepishness and trepidation that I tell you that on May 5, 2013 at approximately mile 22 of the Orange County Marathon, I hit "the wall" like Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez's helmet hit the hind region of his own offensive lineman on the Historic Butt Fumble of 2012.

Hard, is what I'm saying.

But let's start at the beginning, shall we?

I focused on nutrition for the week leading up to the marathon, culminating in the traditional pasta dinner on Friday night.  Olive Garden, to be precise.  On Saturday, Theresa and I drove down to Newport Beach for the race expo.  We got there just in time to see the Kids Run the OC event.  It was great to see the kids going all-out, including an amazing little girl who ran the race with a walking cast on her leg.

Saturday was incredibly windy in the OC, which had me a little bit worried.  The forecast for Sunday was cloudy and cool, with the wind conditions relatively calm, but that was a little hard for me to believe while standing out there in a wind tunnel.  I try not to spend much time worrying about things out of my control, but the thought of running twenty-six miles in a stiff gale didn't put me at ease.

I checked in, picked up my race bib and shirt, and we browsed  the various booths.  I bought a couple event shirts, and got a medal rack from the Heavy Medalz booth to display Theresa's and my race bling.  As most runners will tell you, it's all about the medals. 

We spent the rest of Saturday relaxing at the hotel, and then met up with our friends who were running the half marathon on Sunday.  All three ladies -- Renee, Michelle, and Rebecca -- were getting ready for their first half marathons so it was going to be a huge day for all of us, and we were all sharing the same pre-race jitters.  Specifically, what should we eat to make sure we don't run into "gastro-intestinal disaster" during our races.

I had a salad, in case you were wondering.

I got to sleep reasonably early, and woke up on Sunday at the crack of dark.  The start time for the
marathon was 5:30, so I got up at 4:00.  I had a small breakfast that consisted of a Clif Bar and half a bottle of Gatorade, hit the restroom, and suited up.  ASICS Gel-Nimbuses, shorts, Brooks shirt, and disposable arm warmers (tube socks with the toes cut off), and a Boston Red Sox cap.  Theresa dropped me at the starting line at 5:00, and I did some light stretching.  And then it was "go" time.

The weather was perfect.  Overcast and cool, with very little wind.  The first six miles of the course were downhill, through an upscale beachfront neighborhood.  Even at this early hour, there were spectators lining the street offering encouragement and support.  I tried to hold my pace back to save energy for later, but with the downhills and adrenaline, I hit the 10K split in 54:50 (8:50/mi pace).  Faster than I'd planned on, but it was comfortable.  I was right with the 4-hour pace group and although I knew I'd never maintain that pace, it was good to be hanging with them at the 10K mark.

Mile seven featured the only real significant hill on the course, and it wasn't really that daunting.  About a quarter mile or so, and not real steep.  At the top of the hill we passed through a natural wildlife preserve, and that's when something very weird and surreal happened.  I was going along at a good pace, and off to the left I saw a coyote trot out from the woods.  He darted across the road and starting running on the sidewalk alongside me.  After about twenty-five yards, he cut left, re-crossed the street, and went right back where he came from.  What makes this weird is that my school's mascot is the coyote, and I'd dedicated the marathon to one of our Down Syndrome students.  I took the appearance of the coyote as a sign that our staff and students were with me on this adventure, and it was inspiring.

The next couple miles passed through a small park and then another residential area.  Families were out on their lawns holding various signs.  Some of my favorites:



Getting a "low five" from Saige.
"GO GO GO!"  (This one was funny because the lady holding it was standing in front of the porta-potties.  I don't know if that was intentional, but it made me laugh.)

In front of one home, I noticed a family with two young boys, maybe eight and ten years old, who were holding skateboards.  I decided to have a little fun with them.  As I approached, I looked at the younger boy and called out, "You, right there, I'll give you fifty bucks for the skateboard!"  The family chucked, but before the kid could say anything, I heard a runner behind me yell, "I'LL GIVE YOU SEVENTY-FIVE!"

Runner humor.

Up to this point I was running right through the water/Gatorade stations.  I was wearing my fuel belt, so I was relying on my own supplies for as long as I could.  I knew that if I ran out, I could always use the support stations later in the race.  Every two miles, I alternated between taking Gatorade or taking a GU energy gel and water.  It worked in training, no sense changing the strategy on race day.

Once we got to the half marathon split (I was right at the 2-hour mark and still staying with the 4-hour pace group), the course got kind of, well, boring isn't the right word but it's the first one that comes to mind.  A very long straight-away with a couple minor hills (freeway overpasses, mainly), a section through a performing arts center, a pass through a high school campus, and a stretch through a mall parking lot and we were at mile 18.  I felt my pace slowing, and the 4-hour pace group disappeared ahead of me.  Around mile 19, the 4:10 pace group passed me.  I wasn't really worried, because my goal all along had been 4:30, so I knew that if I got to mile 20 at the 3:15 mark or so I'd be able to hit my target.

At mile 20 or so, we made a turn onto a bike path that ran alongside a dry riverbed.  This is where the trouble really began.

It started out with a couple hotspots on my feet, which were undoubtedly becoming blisters.  One on the ball of my right foot, and one on each instep.  I also felt a cramp tightening in my right hamstring.  And right around mile 22, my legs basically told me they had better things to do than run a stupid marathon.

It wasn't pain, exactly, it was just a general unwillingness to keep running.  Not in my mind, not in my desire, but in my legs.  They just wanted to stop.  So we worked out a compromise.  I'd let them walk through the water stations while I rehydrated, but then they would have to promise to start running again when I asked them to.  They griped about it a little, but eventually we reached an agreement.  I'd hit mile 20 at 3:11, so I knew I had a pretty safe cushion that would allow me to do what I needed to do to survive while still reaching my goal.

So that's what we did.  We walked through the stations, had some water, and then started running
again.  Of course, the mile markers seemed to be getting farther apart.

Crossing the finish line.
At mile 23, we left the bike path and went into another neighborhood.  A family had set up a table with orange slices and small pretzels.  I grabbed a handful of pretzels, thanked the nice people, and popped a few of them (the pretzels) into my mouth.  I chewed.  And chewed.  And chewed.

I absolutely could not summon the saliva necessary to get them down.  With no remorse whatsoever, I hocked a pretzel-loogie onto Tanager Road.

Mile 24 -- walked through the water station, stopped by the porta-potty to take a quick whiz, and ran on.

At mile 25, I got a bit of a second (or sixth) wind and picked up the pace slightly, but let's be honest, we're talking about 12-minute miles now.  Two more turns would take me back to the Orange County Fairgrounds and the finish line.  Pain was no longer an option.  We're running the rest of this the best we can.

Right before marker 26, I saw my friend Matt, who despite telling me for weeks that he wouldn't be able to make it to the race, was right there with his five-year old daughter Saige.  Saige stepped off the curb and held out her hand for a low five.  This gave me one last burst around the final turn, where I then saw Renee, Michelle, Rebecca, and other friends cheering me on.  I didn't see Theresa with them (it turned out that she was directly across the street from them, but somehow I missed her), but I knew she was there somewhere.  Further along, my brother Bobby (who'd just PR'd the half-marathon) cheered me on with my niece Sammi and Bobby's girlfriend Amy.

Then the finish line was in sight.  As I approached, I couldn't help but think back on my training, my buddy Sam (the student I'd dedicated the race to), and about how -- just sixteen months ago -- I was a three-hundred pound couch potato who could barely walk up a flight of stairs without getting short of breath.

And now . . . this.

As I hit the line, I looked at my Garmin watch for the time.


As I write this on Monday evening, my calves are sore, my right hammy is untangling itself, and my feet feel like I just stuck them in a food processor.

And I feel fantastic.

Other race details:

Overall Place: 841 of 1884
Men: 596 of 1156
Age Group: 77 of 147


  1. Somehow, I feel particularly proud about your accomplishment. I don't know why. It's not like I had a single blessed thing to do with your success. Still, I'm beaming over here like a proud parent at the high school football game who just saw his son score the go-ahead TD.


    That's truly hilarious.

  2. Thanks, Jim. The official event photographer website has a really good shot of me running when I had the Sox hat facing forward. Once I download the photos (for a price, of course), I'll post it and/or email it to you for future generations to marvel over. And I'll be sending the hat later in the week.

    To balance the karma, I wore my Yankee hat at the expo.

  3. AWESOME, Chris! So proud of you!

    Thank you for sharing all the details. It's truly an experience, isn't it?

    Go Rangers!


    1. Thanks! And yes, "experience" is exactly the word. After the race I was kind of like Apollo Creed in the original "Rocky" movie, "Ain't gonna be no rematch." But now, today . . . yeah, I'll do another one. Maybe only one full marathon per year with several half marathons thrown in.

  4. Wow. The bit about the coyote? Surreal. So proud of you for pushing on when the going got tough. Great job!

  5. Amazing.

    And I agree with Suldog... hysterical signage.

  6. I'm so proud of you! LOVED your recap, I felt like I was right there with you. Loved the coyote...and the fact that you pushed through the wall. The one time I did a full marathon, I hit the wall but it was also mental and I wanted to quit (but didn't). Glad your mind was on board. And congrats for hitting your goal time! Do you have another one planned?

    1. I think I'm going to limit myself to one full marathon a year, with maybe six half marathons and a couple 10K's mixed in. I have a 10K in June, then a bunch of halves in the fall -- Rock and Roll LA, Rock and Roll Las Vegas, Long Beach, and Surf City. My next full will be the 2014 L.A. Marathon.

  7. Way to go Chris!!! What a great read!

  8. AWESOME JOB! you went from runner to marathoner in a matter 26.2 miles :) nice recap of the event as well.

  9. Congratulations!! So proud of you!!

  10. Congratulations!! I am smiling for you - you gutted out a great race. What a transformation you've gone through. Ride the marathon high for a while, you deserve it!