Monday, February 6, 2012

Huntington Beach California: Surf City Half Marathon

I got this idea in my head that I wanted to run a destination race, never mind that I have never run a major race in my own town. I always run the smaller local races, which are small and more stripped down, by nature. These races are characterized by a very low prices tag, no frills, no finishing medals, no t-shirts, just the important stuff, just running. I love running these races but I had an itch to get out town and run a major race in another city. I started looking for ½ marathons in vacation cities and came across the Huntington Beach marathon in February. I enlisted my BFF running partner and we started making plans.

When I asked my husband if he had any objections to me flying to Huntington Beach with my BFF for the week-end, his first and only question was, “Do I have to go?” When he got the answer he hoped for, which was no, he was on board with the trip as well.

The week before the race, I started to get a sore throat that grew into a nasty cough. I had the age old question; cold, flu or allergies? I hoped allergies, but as the symptoms persisted, I had no choice but to accept the fact I had some sort of virus and that officially kicked off my regular routine of the worrying about what could go wrong in an upcoming race. How in the world can I run a 13.1 mile race successfully with a hacking cough? I registered (and paid) for the race, bought plane tickets, reserved a hotel room and a car. How could this be happening now?

It has also become a race tradition for me to have a totally crappy, slow, achy training run the week-end before a big race to totally destroy any confidence I might have. Then, almost without fail, I kick major ass at the actual race. So, the week-end before Huntington Beach I had a totally decent training run. I wasn’t the fastest, slightly slower than my desired race pace, but overall I felt good and strong. This also made me worry. Since I almost always have bad runs before my big race, what does it mean when I have a good run? What does that mean for race day? Now i'm being silly and superstitious, I know.

I was a good runner and followed all the classic rules. I generally eat low carbs, so I started to slightly increase my carb intake and taper my runs 3 or 4 days before the race. Tapering runs was easier than usual since this hacking cough was limiting my ability to run successfully anyways.

When the alarm went off on Saturday morning, my eyes sprung open like a child’s on Christmas morning. Although it was the ungodly hour of 4:45am, I was wide awake and ready to go. Jessica arrived at 5:15 and we were off to the airport.

We booked our flights on Virgin America Airlines. Their rate from DFW to LAX is $99 each way, every day, all day. I was thrilled with the cheap flight and was pleasantly surprised with the flying experience. They have TV’s in the seat backs where you can watch free satellite TV or pay for movies or internet. The planes are roomy (hello leg room!) and the flight attendants were actually friendly. I was impressed. It actually seemed like the travel experience was going as smooth as possible. Flight was easy and on time, the shuttle bus for the rental car was waiting as we arrived. There were no lines, no waiting, no hassle. I almost couldn’t believe it. Travel is just not usually this easy.

We rented a hotel room at a beach front Econo Lodge in Sunset Beach (5 miles from the start line in Huntington Beach). It was cheap and it was ocean front, so I didn’t have high expectations for the quality of the room. When we arrived, we were again pleasantly surprised by the large clean rooms, the in-room fridge, free internet, beach front balcony and comfortable beds. Everything was going as planned, better than planned, actually.

The first stop of the trip was to drive to Huntington Beach for a trial run to the parking situation and visiting the Surf City Marathon Expo to pick up our race bibs, our HB technical t-shirts and hopefully some free samples. Again luck was on our side, even with all the crowds, a person was pulling out of the very limited parking, right in the front, just as we were pulling up. I even successfully parallel parked into a tight spot with no problem. This was uncanny. Jessica lost her brother 7 years ago to the day. She said she felt like her brother was looking out for us this day. I thought that was a nice tribute to him.

Now that we had our bibs, it was time to unwind and relax before the race. We went on a 3 mile walk along the ocean and took it all in. The weather was gorgeous! We decided to eat Italian for dinner and maybe take in some healthy carbs the night before the race. We found a quaint little Italian restaurant close to our hotel called Baci Di Roma. Unfortunately, the service was bad, the food was mediocre (no whole wheat pasta, what?) and the price tag was hefty. After a long day of travel and gaining two extra hours in the day, we were exhausted and getting a little crabby, and it was only 7PM. I forced down my greasy chicken and ate a modest amount of the bland penne paste, real disappointed that my first real cheat meal in weeks was nothing to write home about (or should I say, blog about).

Then, besides the fact that I was tired and cranky, my shins started to hurt. I attributed it to the fact that on Friday, due to the unseasonably warm weather back in Dallas, I decided it was open-toe-shoe weather and broke out my super high wedge shoes for the first time in months. I think the angle of the shoe put pressure on my shins and now, today, the day before the race, I was in pain. Let’s just add this to the list of worries I was starting to build in my head.

Back in the hotel room we were passed out slightly after 8PM California time (but 10PM Dallas time, we rationalized).

We woke up before the alarm on race day and I was feeling good! My cough had just about disappeared, and I couldn’t believe it, I had no pain in my shins! Lucky Running shorts. Check. Garmin. Check. iPod. Check. Bib. Check. Nerves? Check.

There were more than 20,000 people expected in Huntington Beach this morning. I had the worst expectations for the parking situation. We left early and gave ourselves plenty of time (read:hours!) to arrive at the designated parking lot and wait for the shuttle bus to take us to the start line. It was quite chilly pre-race, but expected to warm up to over 70 degrees by mid race. I dressed in a throw-away sweatshirt to keep warm, that I ditched at the start line.

The line for the shuttles (which were local area school buses) was long, but I was impressed with the efficient, organized and quick process. As the bus approached closer to the beach, the traffic started to really back up. The entire bus broke out into cheers as the bus driver drove onto the oncoming traffic side of the road in order to pass a long line of cars and make the successful turn into beach area. Hooray for unsafe driving to get us there faster!

The shuttle drops us off and Jessica and I make plans for a meeting spot after the race. We settle into our wave on the street, down a 5 hour energy drink, and wait for the start!!

Me and Jessica pre-race (What sweat shirt behind my back?)

And we were off! I promised myself I wouldn’t put too much pressure on myself today. I was going to enjoy the weather, the scenery, the experience and not worry too much about time or pace. Right off the bat, I am feeling great and fast!

Running along Pacific Coast Highway was beautiful; there was a slight breeze in the air and the warm sun shining down. People holding signs along the first 1/2 mile said, “You’re NOT almost there!” and “Sweat Shirt donations taken here!” I was glad I dumped my pre-race sweatshirt before the race started, because it took less than ¼ mile before I was warm in my tank and shorts.

Jessica and I ran together for less than a mile before I spotted the 1:58 pacer. Remember what I said about not worrying about pace or time? Yeah, less than a mile in, that went out the window. I decided I would stay with the pacer in order to make my goal of a sub 2 hour half marathon. I shouted good luck to Jessica and I took off to finish this racing journey on my own. Man, I was feeling good. I was getting ahead of the pacer and I thought it would be a good idea to stay slightly ahead, so that if I got tired later I would be able to slow down a bit and still meet my overall time goal. The first 6-7 miles were a breeze, my pace was in the 8 minute mile range (fast for me) and it felt almost effortless. My confidence was building! The race turned off Pacific Coast highway into a local neighborhood for a couple of miles. This is when I became very aware of the runners around me. Sometimes deep into those local races back in Fort Worth, I feel like a lone runner on a journey all my own. Sometimes, I can’t even spot another racer in front of me. Here, I was surrounded by so many people, of all different ages, races, & fitness levels, all with the same goal as mine; to finish, to finish strong (whatever that may mean for that individual person). I felt a sense of comradely with these people which whom I have never spoke, never met and will probably never see again. We were all in this together; no matter our differences, our sneakers all hit the pavement the same way.

After the stint through the neighborhood, we were back on Pacific Coast Highway for a short while before the turn-around back to the finish line. I distracted myself for some time at this point trying to spot Jessica coming in the other direction, to no avail. I had day dreaming visions of high fiving her along the course (hallucinations? Nah, not at least until mile 12). I’m rocking and rolling at this point. My pace was still in the low 8’s, much faster than usual. I was running on adrenaline, ocean air and 5 hour energy!

At mile 9, it started catching up with me. I started to feel tired and my 1:58 pacer was nowhere to be found. I didn’t think she was in front of me and after a couple of quick glances behind me; I come to accept that I lost sight of her for good. Judging by my Garmin, I was still on track to finish less than 2 hours. I just had to keep the pace, which was becoming increasingly more difficult as the miles went on. As my brain started to think things like, “I can’t wait for this to be over,” I tried to combat those negative thoughts with reminders to myself to enjoy the experience, to savor every moment. After all, I flew all the way out here just to run this race and here I am, mid race, wishing it was over. I reminded myself to be thankful for these legs that can move me, this healthy body that can handle the stress of 13.1 miles and ability to travel & vacation for races! The positive self-talk worked just fine until about mile 10.5, and then it started to fall apart for me. I can’t guarantee this to be fact, but I would swear the last 3-4 miles were all on a slight incline. By the time I hit mile 11, while I was trying to convince myself the pain was all in my head, my body was arguing pretty convincingly that the pain, was in fact, my body. I had to take brief walk breaks at the end (I hate that!) but I worked to keep them as brief as possible.

My Garmin was telling me I had about ½ mile to go but I still could not see the Finish Line in the distance and I was beginning to lose patience. That last ½ mile felt like 10 miles in itself and my pace was suffering! I slowed way down as I swear the road incline became steeper with each step forward! I swear! I had less than 5 minutes to go and I had no choice but to walk again here at the very end. I knew by walking that I was possibly sacrificing my sub 2 hour half marathon, but at this point in time, I honestly I didn’t care. I was mentally and physically done! At the very last water stop, they were holding out cups of beer instead of water! What? Maybe that is what I needed for a last minute boost, but I passed on the alcohol during the race!

At the very end, the streets were lined with cheering people and this gave me one final boost of energy to finish strong across the finish line. As I crossed the finish line, I hit the stop on my Garmin and my unofficial time was an even 2 hours! It wasn’t the sub 2 hours that I wanted, but a 2 hour half marathon is still pretty good and a PR for me! I was very happy and now I still have a very attainable goal for next time! I horded water bottles from the volunteers and scarfed bananas as I navigated back to our designated meeting spot to wait for Jessica to finish.

My finishers medal

As I waited and reflected on the race, I realized that getting ahead of the pacer was my big mistake. I should have slowed down and stayed with her. I looked at a pacer as someone to keep up with, but I realize now that pacers should keep you from going too slow AND too fast. Had I stayed with the pacer, I probably could have finished in 1:58. However, none of this was bringing me down from my newly acquired runners high. I was reveling in my finish time, my new PR and feeling pretty good!!

When Jessica finished with her own PR, we celebrated by removing our shoes and taking some finishing pictures at the beach. After some relax time at the beach we head back to the shuttle service to bring us back to our rental car.

As we were checking out of the hotel Monday morning, the front desk clerk asked me how I did at the race and when I told him I finished in 2 hours he said, “Oh well, You’ll do better next time.” HA!

It was a great experience, against a beautiful beach backdrop, with some relaxing ocean time with my BFF thrown in for good measure. I couldn’t have asked for better destination race experience. I think I’m addicted. Where to next? Any suggestions?

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  1. I love it! The way you write I feel like I can live vicariously through you. Glad you had a great time.

  2. Thanks Leslie for your always encouraging support! You totally rock!


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