I love it when a plan comes together.
– Colonel John “Hannibal” Smith, The A-Team
This is probably normal for most of these folks, I thought wryly as Katie and I made our way under a slate gray sky toward the start line for the 2015 Mountains 2 Beach Marathon. They’re hard-wired for 6:00am track workouts and 5:00am long runs.
With the official start time of 6:00am just minutes away, restless runners milled around what I had to believe was Ojai’s downtown district. The muted light of a cloud-covered sunrise gently caressed the Spanish-influenced Post Office Bell Tower, whose four-story stature dominated the Ojai “skyline”.
The familiar bounce of “Happy” – these days the go-to musical stimulant of race organizers – diffused at low volume over the gathering throng. At the same time my own stimulant of choice, the 5-Hour Energy coursing through my bloodstream, kicked in bringing with it a moment of clarity: this was damn early to be running a marathon. Unlike most runners I’m predisposed to the Dark Side, meaning I’m a night owl and the majority of my training happens later in the day. Though if two runDisney races in the past six months had prepared me for anything, it was an early start.
Circadian rhythms aside, the common bond between me and so many of my fellow early risers in Ojai was what you might call our “race-on” d’être, our reason for being fully lucid at this ridiculous hour on a Sunday:
From the mountains…
Pharrell Williams faded out in preparation for the national anthem, of particular significance on this Memorial Day weekend. Per my usual modus operandi we’d arrived 15 minutes earlier, and as “The Star-Spangled Banner” drew to a close I squeezed into the restless start corral and scooz-me-thankoo’ed my way toward the sub-4:00 pacers grouped near the front.
I reached my mark with perfect timing, just as the starter’s countdown reached zero and the stampede of lithe human cattle charged forward – away from our final destination in Ventura. The first mile+ would be a nice flat out-and-back along East Ojai St (seemingly Ojai’s “main drag”), during which I’d focus on settling in and not flying off the start line like a Walmart shopper on Black Friday. My target was roughly an 8:00/mile pace for the first three miles.
This would be my first PR attempt of the year, and unlike my only other 2015 marathon, I wouldn’t be making 19 photo stops along the way. All my training for the past four months – the regular 60+ mile weeks, including a 31-day stretch in March/April during which I totaled 285.5 miles – had been focused toward this day, and toward securing a no-doubt-about-it Boston Qualifier time after two admittedly disappointing 2014 attempts in Berlin and at the California International Marathon (CIM).
Without rehashing The Rime of the Boston Qualifer from my Berlin post, I’ll say that with an official age-group qualifying time of 3:25, I needed to escape the near-miss purgatory in which I found myself after a 3:24:14 in Berlin and a 3:24:15 in Sacramento. With that in mind, my goal for the morning would be a sub-3:23, and the closer I could get to 3:20 the better.
Falling in step with the herd of happy runners (Pharrell had done his job!), I felt far removed from my most recent PR in Berlin. Ojai is very much a laid-back hippie/artsy mountain town, lying as it does just south of the group of peaks known as the Transverse Ranges. It’s a Shangri-La kind of place that attracts groups of bikers looking for a convenient rest stop between long stretches of open road, and where “LIVE BAIT” signs dominate convenience store windows.
Thanks in part to the 6:00am start time, the morning’s weather looked to be cooperative. Granted the SoCal sun would quickly have its way with the overmatched clouds, but starting temperatures hovered in the mid-50s, and the route from mountains to beach promised frequent shade. As a bonus, the ocean headwind would be a non-factor early in the day. Weather is always the single biggest variable with the potential to spoil the best-laid plans on race day. So this was a good sign.
Further helping my cause would be the course itself. Mountains 2 Beach is one of California’s most celebrated Boston Qualifying races, meaning every year a high percentage of its finishers qualify for Boston. This quickly becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, since runners on the cusp of qualifying for Boston tend to seek out races that offer the highest odds of success, which in turn leads to a high percentage of BQ finish times and enables the race to market itself as “BQ friendly” to the next year’s flock of BQ hopefuls.
Before I’d run a single step through Ojai, I was a big fan of Mountains 2 Beach. Granted it was already on my short list of must-run SoCal races, but even so, everything leading up to race day appealed to me – from the just-right number of pre-race emails, to the tiny low-key outdoor expo at Ventura High School, to the much-appreciated lack of in-your-face social media (including no Twitter handle).
Adding to my M2B crush was the discovery that the pacers would be running at two minutes under their official Boston Qualifying time (e.g. a 3:23 pacer for runners with a 3:25 qualifying time). This was a smart and mindful tip o’ the cap to the realities of BQ’ing in the year 2015. Be still, my beating heart…
As my Garmin chimed the end of mile 3, my average pace stood at a comfortable 7:52/mile, a successful start that required riding the brakes for the last ¾ mile of downhill. At mile 3 we reached the Ojai Valley Trail on which the bulk (nearly 15 miles) of the race would be run. I was ready to stretch my legs, and I carefully passed the bloated 3:23 pace group that spanned the narrow trail. Now all I had to do was keep them behind me for the next 23 miles…
Luckily those few seconds would be the only crowded moment on the course, and the only time all morning I’d have to work to circumnavigate anyone.
The race itself reinforced my warm fuzzy feeling that this was a marathon for runners by runners, with none of the distractions that typically qualify as on-course entertainment: no bands, no balloons, no cheerleaders, no extraneous nothin’. Even the few spectators along the Ojai Valley Trail (where Katie would make five appearances in a 7-mile stretch) knew the score, as evidenced by one succinctly worded sign just after mile 4:
SAN DIEGO 200
Notably, M2B is the only race I’ve run where the bystanders may have been faster than the runners, as the number of spectators sporting Boston Marathon shirts and jackets on this day would make Ojai & Ventura feel like Boston West.
It turned out our first visit to the Ojai Valley Trail would be more of a sneak peek, since just before mile 5 the course looped back for a 4-mile tour through the residential neighborhoods of Mira Monte, Meiners Oaks and Ojai. This peaceful stretch contained the only advertised “uphill” on the course, a gradual 160-foot rise between miles 5 and 7 with two sharp jags thrown in that hardly registered on my Garmin, and which were immediately followed by equivalent descents.
… to the prairies…
As the sun burned off a few residual stubborn clouds, we completed our residential loop and rejoined the Ojai Valley Trail for the 13-mile, 700-foot descent that defines Mountains 2 Beach. The déjà vu feeling of having recently passed this way was confirmed by the updated spectator sign that awaited us:
SAN DIEGO 200
BOSTON 22 17
Though I’m not much of a downhill runner, the upcoming descent would be gradual enough that I intended to take full advantage, to find out just how fast I could get to Ventura. I also knew that by the time I reached Ventura at mile 22, I’d be facing 4+ miles of largely exposed beachfront running, with the sun already high in the sky. So I intended to do as much damage as possible (to both the course and my quads) over the next 13 miles.
On that note, I’d recommend a minor edit to the course description on the M2B website, based on my personal experience:
Over the 26.2 miles you will see beautiful mountain peaks, the Ventura River Basin tops of your shoes and the backs of other runners, the gorgeous Ventura Promenade, and the world renowned Ventura Coast line.
In reality, the paved trail from Ojai to Ventura follows a pleasant but relatively nondescript tree-lined route past sun-charred grasslands and fenced-off industrial yards, punctuated by a smattering of commercial zones and the occasional playground or RV park. The highlight of the 13 miles was the quaint arched wooden footbridge over lethargic San Antonio Creek, which apparently connects with the Ventura “River” (a term I use generously, in the face of California’s ongoing drought).
My preparations for M2B had included a training first: pre-race reconnaissance. I’d actually run 20 miles of the course back in March, including the entire stretch along the Ojai Valley-turned-Ventura River Trail to get a feel for the descent. So having been here and seen the sights before, I was content to keep my head down and power forward with the 3:13 pacer far ahead and the 3:23 pacer (hopefully) at my back.
One key change to my training cycle this time around had been a focus on fine-tuning my race-day nutrition, to help me push through the inevitable Wall and minimize the post-mile 20 lethargy I’d experienced at Berlin and CIM. My M2B strategy would be to carry six unwrapped Clif Shot Bloks in each pocket and munch one religiously every 15 minutes – perfect timing for a sub-3:30 marathon, and a rate of intake I knew my stomach could handle.
On that note, a brief digression: I don’t understand why so many runners favor gels over Shot Bloks. Isn’t a marathon hard enough without fighting your food? Consider:
- Gels are more difficult to access and dispense, like trying to squeeze (and eat) the last of the toothpaste from the tube while you’re running. I realize there are gel dispensers you can buy to avoid this step, but rarely do I see non-ultrarunners carrying one. On the other hand, pop a Shot Blok in your mouth and it smoothly dissolves over the course of a minute or two, without your looking like you belong in an Oatmeal cartoon.
- Gels are messy, have the consistency of gritty paste and leave your fingers stuck together… which is great if you’re trying to relive those nostalgic “toddler years” mid-race.
- Gels inevitably require water to choke down, unless you’re a camel (despite consuming 12 Shot Bloks, I needed only two gulps of water during the race).
- Gels require more packaging since calorically speaking, two gels = one package of Shot Bloks.
So if you can offer up a legit defense of gels over Shot Bloks, I’d appreciate your enlightening me in the Comments below. Otherwise, I’ll assume that running 26.2 miles by itself isn’t enough of a challenge for you.
Just before my next Katie sighting at mile 16, I fell in step with a group of three fellows (two may have been brothers) who clearly knew other and were cruising along at a 7:30-7:35/mile pace. For the next 5 miles theirs would become my ideal “Goldilocks” pace: not too slow, not too fast, but juuust right. It was nice to let someone else worry about pacing for a while.
At one point in mile 18 the smell of horse or cow done-it wafted across the trail, prompting the chattiest of my three running companions to remark cheerfully, “I can smell Boston!” I was about to suggest the smell might come from a unicorn, when another runner whom we were passing at the time retorted matter-of-factly, “I can smell shit.”
Like a bulky sweatshirt, the sense of humor is one of the first items to be cast aside during a marathon.
With me lagging slightly behind to avoid the chatty fellow’s stabs at conversation, our foursome remained in lock-step until about mile 20. At that point Chatty dropped off the pace and the other two began to pull away to varying extents, until by mile 23 we were strung out in a line of three, each trailing the fellow ahead of him by about 20 seconds.
… to the oceans, white with foam
Not surprisingly, the persistent downhill had a similar effect as all my stops and starts at January’s Disney World Marathon: by the time we reached sea level at the Ventura Promenade in mile 23, my upper quads (i.e. the muscles that lift my legs) were pretty much shot. I saved one last smile for my final Katie sighting in mile 23, then put my head down and motivated myself forward by imagining the 3:23 pacer gaining ground behind me. Nothing like a healthy dose of self-imposed fear to liven up the final stages of a marathon.
With my quads in imminent shutdown mode, my stomach – damn their proximity, they must have been talking! – began its own discomforting protest, and I tried to ignore its belly-aching while willing myself forward one stride at a time. Clearly a sub-3:20 finish was a goal for another day – right now it was time to salvage every precious second I could.
In trying to describe the end stages of a marathon to a non-runner, and explain how much longer the last four miles seem relative to the first four, I’d borrow the analogy Einstein used to describe relativity:
Put your hand on a hot stove for a minute, and it seems like an hour. Sit with a pretty girl for an hour, and it seems like a minute. That’s relativity.
Einstein’s “pretty girl” is the first four miles of the marathon; his “hot stove” is the last four.
Likewise, one truth always strikes me as I grit my teeth through the brutal finalé of every marathon. You can be the most chiseled triathlete or the doughiest first-timer; you can sport a buzzcut-with-visor-&-Oakleys or the most wildly uncoiffed mane; you can boast a tapestry of Ironman tattoos or perfect blemish-free skin. At mile 24 of a marathon, none of it matters. Because by that point, EVERYONE is suffering. And we’re all in it together.
The marathon is all about equal opportunity discomfort, and aside from death it may be the next great leveler. No doubt ultramarathoners feel the same about their distance of choice.
Finally, though, I heard them – surf angels singing on high as I reached the final right turn back onto the Ventura Promenade and the mile+ home stretch. In the distance the finish line beckoned impatiently. By now the direct sun was starting to take its toll, and I was amazed at how completely unable I was to pick up my pace. No más, pleaded my quads. I imagined I could hear the thundering footfalls of the 3:23 pacer charging up behind me.
The sight of several medics securing another runner to a stretcher, which I let myself view only in my peripheral vision, did nothing to ease my mind. Though talk about happy endings – without its owner, his bib and timing chip still managed to finish 2:43 behind me:
Somehow I summoned one final surge past another struggling runner before jubilantly crossing the finish line to the familiar sound of the race announcer butchering my last name over the PA. And “Shwopokowsky” never sounded so good. I’d beaten the 3:23 pacer to the finish, and my Garmin looked mighty handsome sporting its shiny new PR time of 3:22:07, nearly three minutes inside my official Boston Qualifying time. Granted nothing’s certain until Boston registration opens in September, but just to be safe I’ve cleared my schedule for Patriots’ Day 2016.
For now, though, it was time to celebrate. I thanked the friendly volunteer who hung the medal around my neck (what’s up with finishers who grab the medal and carry it?), then turned back toward the finish to soak in the moment and several more just like it. Never before had I heard so many exuberant whoops and joyous shouts in a finish chute, as newly minted Boston Qualifiers laid bare their raw and exhausted emotions with friends & family.
Those, of course, were the lucky ones – I also witnessed two runners cross the finish line and immediately collapse into the arms of their fellow runners, who lent a shoulder and escorted their seemingly incoherent mates (hopefully) to the nearby medical tent.
Boston excepted, Mountains 2 Beach is a finish line like no other.
Then I located Katie – never far away, to be sure – and wrapped her in a huge n’ sweaty hug, as we confirmed that neither of us had plans for next April 18. Turns out she’d scored her own PR at M2B, showing up at EIGHT separate locations along the course. Sure, one of them had been a Starbucks across from the Ojai Valley Trail where she could comfortably view the course and watch me pass, but still… the Quicksilver kid in the new Avengers movie had nothing on her. She was everywhere.
I thanked Gil the 3:23 pacer (who’d finished in 3:22:47) for keeping me motivated, and learned he’s also the VP of my brother’s running club down in Long Beach. Then we caught up with Race Director Ben Dewitt and congratulated/thanked him for producing a brilliant race that his finishers (passed-out guy on the stretcher maybe excluded?) clearly enjoyed. And I made sure to ring the Boston Qualifiers gong he’d set up for the occasion, a much more satisfying exercise than the BQ bell I’d rung after my 3:24:15 at CIM.
My biggest enemy at M2B turned out to be not so much the long downhill itself – had the finish line awaited at the end of the Ventura River Trail, I might have had a legitimate shot at 3:20. Rather, trouble arose when my used-up quads transitioned from 13+ miles of faster downhill to 4+ miles of flat. Though I understood in theory the perils of downhill running, still I underestimated its cumulative effect on my cadence over those last 4 miles. My legs simply refused to turn over anymore.
Can I top a 3:22:07? I think I can. Maybe on a flat or slightly downhill course in cooler weather – which now that I think of it, is a perfect description of CIM in December. And which would also enable me to qualify for Boston 2017. I sense another plan coming together…
Katie returned from feeding the parking meter to find me sprawled out on the warm beach, reveling in my best Personal Best yet. The crash of aggressive surf taking out its frustrations on the shoreline filled one ear, while the squeals and whoops of excited finishers filled the other. At that moment, I could easily have fallen fast asleep right there on the sand.
And the only sound missing was “Happy”.
BOTTOM LINE: Mountains 2 Beach is an all-around awesome race, and one of the gems of the California marathoning scene in only its 5th year. Based on the laughter and smiles at the post-race festival, Boston hopefuls and non-hopefuls alike enjoy this event. With its fast and spectator-friendly course, first-rate production and laser-like focus on helping its runners qualify for Boston, M2B very much strikes me as CIM with warmer temperatures and better scenery.
The race perfectly complements its low-key venue. The outdoor expo at Ventura High School was easy and quick to navigate, though late arrivals on Saturday should expect a bit of a wait to collect their number. Apparently there was a pre-race pasta dinner available for $10 at Ventura High, though given my experience in Alabama I figured the night before a PR & BQ attempt would be a bad time to poke the bear.
Whereas many races give lip service to their runners while bending over backwards for their sponsors, Mountains 2 Beach in every way feels like a race organized by runners, for runners. Admittedly I’m pleased I could support the title sponsor (Berkeley company Clif Bar) with my choice of race-day nutrition.
And reinforcing the “by runners, for runners” vibe of the weekend, the decision to have pacers run at two minutes under their official Boston Qualifying times was a genius call.
In case you can’t tell, I’d highly recommend this race… unless your own choice of races hinges on a strong social media presence. Then you’re out of luck. #justrun
PRODUCTION: I loved the “show up, run fast” mindset at Mountains 2 Beach. If you favor low-frills yet extremely well-produced events that finish alongside the Pacific Ocean, this is your kind of race. If, on the other hand, you prefer screaming spectators and raucous on-course entertainment, you’re likely to be Ojai-ly disappointed.
Despite the fact that I tend to ignore aid stations and only grabbed two quick sips of water at M2B, there seemed to be plenty of aid stations serving both water and Fluid, the electrolyte drink of choice. The name “Fluid” made me smile, sounding as it does like the ambivalent beverage equivalent of Soylent Green (though I doubt Fluid is people).
Luckily my innards behaved, since bathrooms along the course were few and far between. If there were porta-potties I didn’t notice them, and the only facilities I remember were the public units in Foster Park near mile 16.
The cozy post-race festival in Promenade Park included more sponsor tents than the pre-race expo plus a beer garden, Boston Qualifiers gong, massage tent, medical tent and stage featuring a live band, all conveniently encircling an open grassy area where runners basked in the SoCal sun and their post-race glow. All in all, a very nice arrangement.
SWAG: The race tee was a simple gray Greenlayer technical tee that, like other Greenlayer apparel I own, doesn’t fit particularly well. The finisher’s medal, though, makes up for its less swaggy cousin with its attractive part-metal, part-stained glass design. And I’d swear I can hear the ocean when I hold it up to my ear.
May 24, 2015
26.26 miles from Ojai to Ventura, CA
Finish time & pace: 3:22:07 (first time running the Mountains 2 Beach Marathon), 7:42/mile
Finish place: 244 overall, 51/157 in M(40-44) age group
Number of finishers: 1,602 (802 men, 800 women)
Race weather: cool & cloudy at the start (temp 55°F), warm & sunny at the finish
Elevation change (Garmin Connect): 243ft ascent, 977ft descent