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Sunday, March 16, 2014

Westside 'til I Die...of Heatstroke (Los Angeles Marathon, March 9th,2014).

I know, I know, 75 percent of you are still smothered in a frosty haze, literally nauseous at the sight of your treadmill, would give your left kidney for one sunshine-filled morning run.  Just the title of this post ignites a jealous anger in your icicle-clad heart, wishing you could peel your gloved-hand off of your frozen Nuun-filled Nathan handheld and knock me to North Dakota.  But let us be honest here, it never really was winter in Southern California, and in fact, last weekend's Los Angeles Marathon was held in conditions many only experience in those final days of August.  To sum it up: it was hot.

In October I registered for this race as a convenient way to tour the large metropolitan city a mere 45 minute drive to my North.  I hadn't been in decades and knew it would be an awesome way to see all the landmarks.  Check out the course here.  My alarm set for 2:45 AM marked this as the earliest I have ever had to rise before a race.

I have amazing running friends.  Wait, let me rephrase that; I have amazing friends.  One of my best friends, Natalia (we met in line at a race packet pick-up, a true friendship from the start) could not run the race, but still wanted to be there, so she graciously opted to pick me up at 4 in the morning on race day (post daylight savings time change, so it felt more like 3 in the morning).  From there we picked up another of my best friends, Dede, and made the rare trafficless drive up North to Dodger Stadium where the race was to begin.  Natalia dropped us off at 5 AM and we settled in for the 2.5 hour wait until the 7:25 AM start.  The LA Marathon recently changed the route to the now famous "Stadium to the Sea" course and wow, what an awesome venue to begin a race in.  The stadium bathrooms were open, as well as the actual stadium chairs for participants to rest in, during those pre-dawn hours.  We met up with our other good friend from San Jose, Josam, mingled with other runners, checked out the DJ and dancers and shivered in the dewy Pacific air.  Then, we made our way to our corrals with just a few minutes until 7, when the corral gates were to be closed.

Initially, I registered for this race as a Boston Marathon training race, since I knew Boston would fall just seven weeks after this one, however, a few weeks out from LA, I changed my mind.  Why not race it to see what I could do?  I felt in decent shape, despite a month off of hard training in February due to starting a new job.  I am extremely competitive with myself, and a little notion to requalify for Boston 2015 began to take seed in my brain.  Going into the race on Sunday, I knew that was my ultimate goal, no matter what: I would requalify for Boston, with a time of sub 3:40 (my age group in 2015 will be 35-39).  And furthermore, isn't racing in itself a learning experience? I glanced up at the gorgeous swirling pink Los Angeles sunrise, closed my eyes, inhaled deeply and centered myself in the present.  "Enjoy this moment" I told myself, "I am so lucky to be here, on this day, with these like-minded people.  Learn from this, it will indeed hurt, but only for a short while."

The start began, first for the elite women, then 17+ minutes later, for the elite men and everyone else.  The LA Marathon has an interesting tradition of taking an average of the elite female PR times and an average of the male times and spacing the start equally, so as to create a game of tag.  The first person to cross the finish would win an additional $50,000.  Far from the elite field, the remainder of us crossed the start ramps, and we set off downhill, past the stadium, en route to the sea.

My initial plan was to follow the 3:25 pacer.  "Why not?" I told myself.  I had never run with a pace group before and thought this might be a fun place to try.  A 3:25 would be a two-minute PR for me, but I know I am capable of that time with perfect conditions.  The course was completely covered in rolling hills, though accumulated a net loss of 400 feet.  Those rolling hills took some strength and in fact mile 4-5 was mostly uphill, cresting to the sound of the Japanese Taiko Drumline, pounding to the increased pace of our hearts.  I could not help but to smile as they lured us up the last stretch.

Legs still feeling strong in the first half of the race.

I made it to about mile 12 with the pace group before the heat of the rising sun started to knock me back to reality.  What is it about the sun?  We wish for it, we worship it, yet on race day, we loathe its presence and find ourselves pierced with negative feelings of self-doubt the higher it rises in the sky.  Up until mile 12 I felt fantastic.  Physically and emotionally, I felt strong.  I felt invincible.  But those negative feelings can hit you faster than an elite Ethiopian's pace, slamming you away from your goals, breaking your stride as well as your heart.  Additionally, I could feel my electrolyte levels depleting with cramping legs and a foggy brain.  I popped two Hammer salt capsules, pushed some water and then began to grab cups of Gatorade along the route.  I would have given MY left kidney for an icy cold Coca-Cola. 

The thought of more than half the race remaining caused me to panic a bit.  "There is NO way I can do this" I thought to myself, over and over.  The miles felt like an eternity, even though hoardes of happy spectators screamed at us to continue pushing.  I was so impressed with the crowds at this race, they were neverending, each sign better than the previous.  I think my favorite sign read in bold blue glitter: "F the Time Change!", my sentiments precisely.  We ran through Hollywood but I was so consumed with my feelings of failure that I failed to see all the sights.  This angered me further.

At mile 18 I truly thought about quitting.  "I'll find a medical station.  I desperately need electrolytes before I faint.  I MUST not continue this torture!" I told myself.  While I realize these types of overdramatic feeling are totally normal in a marathon, this was by far the most extreme I have ever wanted to quit a 26.2 mile race.  Just quit, throwing away the months of training I had completed in preparation, like a strewn, smashed Gatorade cup on race day.  But I pushed on, the thought of how angry I'd feel in six hours, tomorrow, next week, next year if I stopped.  I felt like I was running through honey.  I felt like I was no longer running, instead I was plodding.  I thought of my friend "Endorphin Dude" Tony's famous "waddle to the finish" description.  I told myself just exactly that: "Waddle to the finish Kat.  You can at the very least do that."  The finish had cold drinks.  I needed that.

At mile 20 we hit Rodeo Drive, another location I had never been before but wanted to see.  I forced myself to be present in that mile, looking at each window of leather bags, adorned wedding gowns, Jimmy Choos, and diamonds galore.  No celebrities were spotted, but I was much happier to see volunteers with their open arms of water cups and Gatorade.  No $1000 heels for this girl; I happily choose my Hokas any day.

Despite feeling drained and electrolyte-depleted, I believe my fueling was as planned.  Spaced through the race I downed four GUs and a few orange slices along the course.  That is one more GU that I typically consume, and I learned from previous races that I need one more to keep me going.  Where I fell short at the LA Marathon though, is the early wake time caused me to eat my typical pre-race oatmeal/chia combo at 4 AM and then nothing until the race started at 7:25.  I had no coffee like I normally do pre-run too as I feared GI upset.  I will totally admit I'm a caffeine addict, and I had none prior to the start of this race.  Not smart yet a learning experience. 

Miles 19-23 were a gradual climb and similarly a gradual increase in my feelings of complete defeat.  All around me people were falling out, walking, and stumbling.  This told me I was not alone in my internal struggles; we were all in this fierce battle with the heat.  I stopped again to use the porta-potty, maybe more to gather my thoughts for a second alone than anything else, stretched at the curb, and then finally, we crested the steep hill at the VA Hospital to meet an awesome abundance of uniformed volunteers, a tunnel painted with hundreds of military squadron flags and more ice cold water to dump on my head for temporary relief.  My thoughts turned to what my squadron flags looked like, in my previous military life.  My struggles with the heat were so miniscule, in the grand scheme of things, could that have been a small trickle of hope?  Could I dig deep and kick it to the end of this race?
This MarathonFoto picture sums up my mindset of defeat as we crested the VA hill.

Keeping with the 3:25 pace group gave me a great pace to play with in that final half of the race.  Even with the two bathroom stops, walking a few hills, and stopping at every single aid station to drink Gatorade and dump cups of water on my head, I was somehow still managing to average around an 8:30 pace for the second half.  I had been told that the final three miles of this marathon were straight downhill though and I used that to my advantage, averaging a 7:20 pace for those final three (point two!).  But it was not easy.  I felt like crying.  I felt like stopping and walking.  I felt like my legs were constructed of jello.  But I pushed on, lured by those imaginary cold drinks calling for me at the finish line.  I knew my finish time would be okay as long as I didn't let up in this last stretch, but I was delirious.  I recall turning my head to read a sign along the course and felt dizzy.  Not good.  But I was oh so close to the end so I pushed on. 

Then we turned left onto Ocean Avenue.  I could see the bold orange finish line balloon in the distance but a glace at my Garmin told me it was nearly a half mile away.  It was pure grit to finish that last stretch.  My legs were turning yet the orange haven ahead didn't seem to get any closer.  So close!  It was pure ecstasy to cross that finish line.  Yes, I've completed a 100 mile race, but this was a different feeling of relief.  I fought so damn hard for every mile of this marathon when I easily could have succumbed to the heat and walked more or quit. Nevertheless, I accomplished my goal of qualifying for Boston 2015 by over five minutes (a time I feel will secure me a spot with the BAA's rolling registration).

An instantaneous wave of lightheadedness and weakness overtook me and I stumbled a bit through the finishers' chute.  I glanced at my Garmin (it said 26.6!) as a medical volunteer recognized my symptoms and lead me to a nearby shaded medical tent, where I collapsed on the concrete to rest, assuring the kind professional that I would be fine after a few moments to relax.  I chatted with a few other finishers doing the exact same thing, their race sentiments exactly like mine, and then I made my way to find Natalia.  En route, out of nowhere, a young volunteer handed me an icy cold wet hand towel and I wanted to grab him and plant a huge kiss on his cheek (sorry husband).  Heaven in all its cheap terry glory.  Heaven around my neck.  Relief. 

Marathon amnesia: walking an additional mile just to get to the beer garden.

I found Natalia among the thousands of fans thanks to her fantastic bright pink signs she had made and we waddled our way (well I waddled) to the beer garden (I was like a hound dog following a scent, I NEEDED that frosty beer).  Per usual, I found someone wearing Hokas under the tent and we immediately bonded over our love of the cush.  Turns out he was an LA Marathon legacy runner (has done all 24 marathons since the debut race), was well over 60 years old and ran a 3:30 despite the heat.  I was impressed.  After I downed the beer we walked under the famous Santa Monica Pier sign and onto the beach so I could dip my legs into the refreshingly cold Pacific Ocean.  I wish I could have lingered in that water for hours as it felt perfect, but we had families to get home to so we decided it was time to go.

This is a race I will absolutely be doing again next year.  It was the most well-organized event I have ever done, despite the necessary increased security so common in all races post April of last year and a field of over 20,000 runners.  Though my head was consumed by negative thoughts, the thousands of support crew and fans along the route are what kept my legs moving.  Natalia somehow managed to navigate the marathon traffic and was present at THREE different mile markers, her signs forcing me to forget my troubles and smile, even if but for just a few seconds.  She is why I kept my mind strong.  Sure, runners work for months and months to train for marathons, but it is the circumstances on race day that dictate our result.  Without her help and undying positive motivation, I surely would have fallen victim to heat stroke.  Not even sure how I can thank her, but I know that because she too is a runner, she understands how appreciated she is and someday I will be there to be her rock too.  Thank you to my dear husband too; without your permission to escape for this race while you settled on Dad duty all weekend I am certain our freshly blooming rose bushes would be pruned for a Barbie garden, my secret dark chocolate stash would vanish, and I would have returned home to a literal mountain of Legos and Matchbox cars to climb.

Natalia's infectious smile kept me strong!

Looking back on this day, I am so proud of myself for battling the dark negativity that overtook my confidence.  I achieved my goal.  I did not quit, though I wanted to several times, and I am quite surprised with my finish time.  Maybe the thoughts in my head were worse than reality?  Of course I never choose to feel those lows during a race, but it is the lows that define the post-race highs.  True elation is achieved when you have overcome mental and physical obstacles that seem impossible.


  1. You look super fabulous after the race, I tend to look like a swollen chipmunk x10. Great job on pushing through. I am hoping to run LA Marathon next year and hopefully the heat wont be so bad, I do not like running in heat, its one of my biggest downfalls. I hope I see you out there. Congrats on the Boston Qualifying, such a rock star!!!!!!

  2. Well written, Kat! Your words put me right there, cheering you on from the sidelines. You are the spirit of the marathon. I will recall your words and experience the next time I have to dig deep and rise to my own occasion. Thank you for sharing!

  3. As usual, this was a great read. I literally leaned forward as I read your description of that final push. How inspiring!