California (2011 Holiday Half Marathon)

Hollywood Love

For one reason or another I ended up in Los Angeles this weekend and lo and behold, there was a half marathon in a nearby town.  In fact, there were two: the Holiday Half Marathon in Pomona and the Santa to the Sea Half Marathon in Oxnard.  Because of my running compulsion, I had to sign up for one of them.  After several people scrutinized both websites at my behest, they all collectively decided that the Pomona race would be the better option, and I concurred.

Providing this race’s base of operations was international music sensation Dan Head.  Dan and I met in college when he joined my fraternity.  As a Spanish speaker with a penchant for Latin music and fútbol, we stood out from our more white bread, apple pie, football peers.  But it wasn’t until after I graduated that we hung out a little more, even if it wasn’t a routine thing.  He was in a band with three other like-minded miscreants called Lolita, a smooth Latin-jazz ensemble and for a while, I went to every show.  We even collaborated on a song of mine, which combined heavy metal with a Latin flair.  Say what you will, but I enjoyed putting it together.

The day before the race, I got together with Dan, my cousin Andy (who is studying at Loyola Marymount) and my college friend Erin (who is now an MD!) to watch El Clásico at Dillon’s Pub in Hollywood.  I had never been to Hollywood before and found myself enjoying the bright colors, kitsch emporiums and costumed street performers.  Regrettably, Real Madrid’s 3-1 loss to FC Barcelona was a thorn in Dan’s side for the rest of the day, but we still made a fun afternoon out of it.  I don’t always drink a beer before a half marathon, but this time I figured, I’m not out to PR, so why not throw one down in the company of good friends and family?  That night, I got dinner with Erin in Santa Monica Place at a delicious place called Pizza Antica.  It was fun to see her because I happened to catch her during vacation, a reprieve from the last four years of her life, which have seemed like a never-ending series of 30-hour workdays.

Left to right: Andy, Erin, Me, Dan

I woke up on Sunday at 5:30 AM, ready to make the hour-long drive to Pomona.  The more races I do, the more I appreciate those that let you pick up your packet and bib the same day as the race.  Very few large events do this because it’s easier for them to cut that process out of race-day logistics (the majority actually do let you pick up your stuff hours before the race, but they just don’t advertise it).  I made it to the Fairplex So Cal around 6:30 and entered the kind of lot you’d find at a theme park.  As I entered the Fairplex, I was surprised by what I saw.  There were tiny towns with model train sets, a roller coaster in the distance, large buildings that looked like they probably housed shows or exhibitions.  Was this a theme park and I just didn’t know it?

Fairplex So Cal

I would have deliberated on this further, but I was on a mission: get my bib and timing chip, and get back to the car as fast as possible to warm up.  Though temperatures in the low 40’s are ideal for running, they’re not the best for standing around doing nothing and I was dressed inappropriately lightly for the December weather.  A big consolation, besides knowing I’d have near-ideal conditions during the race, was that it was much, much worse in Chicago.  Roughly forty minutes later, I was at the starting corral, making small talk with strangers and ready to go.

The course starts off in the middle of the event’s expo area before jutting off into a side road that wraps around the parking lot.  After that, runners enter the Pomona Speedway for another mile, each step over very soft asphalt that somehow makes it feel like you’re running faster.  Or maybe that was just me.  For the first time in a half marathon, I decided to join a pace group.  There was a spirited runner dressed as an elf holding a “1:40” sign just a few paces ahead of me at the start.  I figured I wasn’t going to PR, but I would still try and run a fast race anyway.  I always make the mistake of going too fast at first, so if I stuck to a 1:40 pace group, I’d stay consistent and then try to speed up later in the race.

I was with them for the first 2 miles before I decided, screw this, I’m speeding up.  So much for restraint.

Once out of the speedway, the course runs alongside Brackett Field, a small local airport, and then replaces the grays of the parking lot and speedway with the greener hues of the Frank G. Bonelli Regional County Park.  For the next nine miles, the race was a dependable series of slow uphills and fast descents along a beautifully scenic route.  I hadn’t studied the elevation chart beforehand so I didn’t really know what to expect.  My mistake.

Holiday Half Marathon Start & Finish

After a gradual climb at mile 4, I found myself on the shores of the Puddingstone Reservoir.  The lake shone orange with the morning sun to my left, my silhouette cast hundreds of feet downward on a slope of dry rock to my right.  We hadn’t climbed that much, but you couldn’t help but feel strong at the top of that hill.  A little later, we’d be back in the park, winding through campgrounds and picnics, tackling each rolling hill as it would emerge.  My strategy had so far worked out: keep your head up, take shorter steps on the uphills, and cruise down the other side.  By mile 7 I was still feeling strong, running at record pace, hoping I’d be able to keep it up.

But I was more than hoping, I almost needed a fast time.  Over the summer, I only ran two half marathons and neither was a walk in the park.  In June’s Fairfield race, I lost all energy around mile 7 due to high humidity and hubris, and then July’s XTERRA Trail Race was the hardest race I’ve ever run, landing me a 2:34 finish.  After that, I ran only marathons, which are completely different beasts.  It feels strange to write this, almost as if it were a confession, but I missed being fast.  Part of me was worried that I was losing my kick, that I had somehow started to decline prematurely.  So as I logged each mile at a 7:25 pace, my Flying Pig PR at my heels, I felt validated and comforted.

At mile 10, with the hills (mostly) behind us, the course revisited the delightfully flat speedway.  As I did everything possible to avoid breaking down, a bright red biplane descended overhead.  It was a fun distraction from the sound of feet hitting pavement and labored breathing.  I realized then that despite the effort, I didn’t feel like I was suffering.  Usually towards the end of a marathon, even if I’m going at a good pace, all sorts of demons start to haunt me.  I feel regret at having signed up, fear of a laughable time, disappointment at my training.  I always exorcise them by crossing the finish line, but that doesn’t mean they don’t pay me a visit.  But here, at the half marathon distance, I wasn’t feeling anything heavy on my shoulders.  This was definitely my distance, the one where I can feel challenged and rewarded without the march into madness.

Holiday Half Medal & Bib

By the time I regained focus, it was mile 12 and the course was headed back towards the expo and finish line.  I kept on glancing at my watch, very confident that a new record was in the making.  My legs were aching and keeping the pace had me gnashing my teeth, but it was going to happen: this afterthought of a race was going to be my new record.  I was running at least a minute faster than my PR and I was beaming with confidence about this until I got to mile 13.

The last 0.1-mile stretch looked much too far.  Dammit, I thought.  They measured the course poorly and it’s going to cost me a PR.  My comfortable lead was about to be reduced to mere seconds.  My legs were wrecked and I couldn’t find any extra energy reserves to speed them up.  So I did what any desperate runner does: I turned to my arms, swinging them wildly in hopes that they’d bring my legs up as if on puppet strings.  I saw Dan Head on one side of the finishing chute as I pushed forward under the finishing banner, the clock counting down the seconds, my margin of victory vanishing quickly, the possibility of coming painfully close becoming real …

But my final push was enough.  I finished in 1:37:18, earning my fastest time at the half marathon distance by only six seconds.  I would find out later that the final 0.1-mile stretch was long because it had to make up for the rest of the course being a bit short.  But hey, a PR is a PR, no matter by how much.  With a new benchmark proudly in the books and a fun snowflake medal to wear, I joined Mr. Head and his friend Jacqui for lunch at Full of Life, a delicious sandwich place in Claremont.  It was a great end to both a 33-hour weekend in LA and the 2011 racing circuit.  It seems that I PR in every race I run in California (3 for 3 so far) and with that track record, it’s inevitable that I’ll return.  Next time though, it might be a date with the full 26.2-mile beast and its horde of demons.  Time will tell if I’m up for the challenge …

State 7: California (2010 Disneyland Half Marathon)

Like many kids, I was obsessed with Disney movies and theme parks when I was young.  However, unlike most people, I never really outgrew them.  I went to Disney World for Spring Break my senior year of college, I think “Toy Story 3” is so far the best movie of the year, and I think my biggest reason for having kids is to live vicariously through their inevitable obsession with the mouse.

So it shouldn’t be at all surprising that my heart stopped beating when I found out about the Disney Endurance Series.  Racing … through Disney parks?  Yes, please.  It was with this puerile enthusiasm that, not long after the marathon, I started coordinating a Labor Day plan to visit LA and run the fifth annual Disneyland Half Marathon.

But first, let’s rewind a bit.

Last year, Steph, my roommates and I took a weeklong vacation to Newport Beach, California.  It was the second time we do it, thanks to Marriott’s attempts to sell Paul a timeshare.  We would get an impossibly cheap deal on a villa in exchange for Paul attending the hard sell.  While there, we reunited with our dear hedonist friend, Gerald Tang.  Liquors were combined, games were played, fun times were definitively had, sudden nakedness optional.

Prior to arriving, I had convinced Jason to run a 10K with me on the second day of the trip.  The both of us were therefore holding back on drinking.  Gerald, though, went out with his friends until 4 in the morning and somehow still got up to run a 48-minute 10K.  Like a machine.  Eight months later, with this impressive display of raw athleticism still fresh in my mind, I decided to ask him if he wanted to run the Disney half with me, an event that was still ten months away.  Like a true beast, he agreed without preconditions.

Before the race, there was plenty to do in LA, including watching Northwestern’s opening game against Vanderbilt (a 23-21 victory – go ‘Cats!) at Barney’s Beanery with a motley group of alumni.  After eating my sixth meal of the day and topping off the day’s copious caloric intake with some late-night gelato, it was time to get my brief pre-race sleep.

The Disneyland Half Marathon began at 6:00 AM with a wave start.  For some reason, I had been placed in Corral A, which should never be the case.  To be placed in the same group as the eventual winners is a clerical mistake.  So I stayed in Corral B with Gerald only to find out that A was for anyone wanting a competitive time, or faster than 2 hours.  So once we were running, it was definitely a game of negotiating our way through some slower crowds.  Fortunately, the roads were wide enough to do this.

The course runs around the perimeter of the park for the first mile and a half before ushering runners inside via a secret side entrance.  Once inside, I was a kid again.  Characters such as Sebastian, Genie, Woody and Mike Wazowski lined the course, themed music being consistently piped through the park’s secret network of speakers.  It was impossible to wipe the stupid grin off my face for the two miles that came after – especially when you’re running next to Space Mountain to the tune of Star Wars’ Imperial March.

Once out of the park, the course runs down Ball Road, detouring to Cerritos Avenue before reuniting with Ball and back to Cerritos until the Honda Center.  Right before mile 5, I looked ahead of me to find Gerald running … ahead of me?  How did that happen?  I couldn’t help but think, if he beats me, I’ll never hear the end of it.  I caught up with him, gave him a motivational thumbs-up, and continued on the streets of Anaheim.  There was very little to see for the next three miles – just open highways, some dips, a few hills, but nothing as awe-inspiring as a Disney park.  The on-course entertainment was par for any world-class course, but since entertainers rarely make or break a race for me I largely ignored them and focused instead on my pacing.

At mile 9, the course enters Angels Stadium.  I did not have high expectations for this, namely because I don’t like baseball and certainly don’t care about the Angels.  However, the crowd of spectators who had shown up to cheer was huge.  It was difficult to not enjoy their enthusiasm – certainly not when you spy yourself on the jumbotron.

Me, Gerald

At this point, I was still feeling great, and hopes of a PR were high.  Temperatures had stayed in the low 60’s all morning and a thick fog had obscured any debilitating sunlight.  With Mickey, Goofy and Donald waiting for me at the finish line, I decided to kill it to the tune of a sub-7-minute final split, crossing the finish line at the Disneyland Hotel in 1:38:40, a new personal best by almost two minutes.  But the most shocking feat of the day belonged to Gerald.  Not only did he finish the race without a single injury, but he managed to clock in at 1:42:57 without any serious training.  It is not without evidence that I suspect that he’s a Chinese-engineered spy robot.

Gerald, Chris, Erin, Me

After the glee of earning a PR had worn off, we drove back to Marina del Rey to meet up with Erin, Chris, Val and Gerald’s friend Mandi for some celebratory food and drinks.  It was a splendid West Coast Getaway weekend, full of old friends, great food and lots of loud conversations about orthopedic surgery.  I’m glad I got to enjoy some quality time with these kids since it’s tough to know when we’ll see each other again these days.  But one thing is certain: my circuit of ten half marathons comes to a (hopefully) triumphant end next weekend with the Chicago Half Marathon. Until then!