We arrived at the coastline just before sunrise. We were in Ventura, California, right in between the Ventura Pier and Surfer’s Point Park. The town itself reminds me of a quieter version of Huntington Beach. The Downtown Area where we had ate/drank the night before looked like Main Street but without the partying.
We all made our way to the starting line and corral. It was a gorgeous sunrise. The Sky was all kinds of cool colors and the waves were sparkling. The Surfers and Paddle boarders were out living the beach life.
From a surfer’s perspective, they’re in front of a sunrise. From the shore, they’re a cool part of it.
Today, I’m a volunteer on the Pacing Team. In a marathon, a Pacer is a runner who carries a projected finish time on a banner. The purpose is to provide runners with a sense of time as they go. For example, let’s say that you needed to run a 3 hour finish to qualify for the Boston Marathon. You could run with the Pacer who is carrying the 3 hour flag. If he passes you, you’ll know that you are going too slow.
I’m like a moving clock with a very specific trajectory.
The expectation that was given to me was that I have a 60 second margin for error. I can be 60 seconds early, but not one second late.
To help me, I have garmin and pace band with all the half mile times written on it.
Surfer’s Point Marathon
As soon as I pass the starting line, I activate both my Garmin and my stopwatch.
We’re right on the beach trail as we head North up the coast and turn inland at the first half mile. At this point, it’s impossible for me to know our pace. I have nothing to measure it against yet.
Once my Garmin reads .5 miles, I compare it to my pace band and see that I am reasonably within pace.
Keep it up.
I let my group know that we are right on pace. When we crossed the first mile, I update them again. Example: “We’re on pace by within 10 seconds. We crossed 1 mile into the race at 11:05, the requirement for a 4:55 finish time is 11:15. The next update is 1.5 mile at approximately 17:02 minutes.”
I updated us at Mile 2 and was finding it easy to keep the pace. I explained my trajectory, my expectations, and my confidence in my abilities. Then, I introduced myself.
There were three of us in the group. Myself, a man named Camillo, and a woman we’ll call Alice.
Camillo was a Puerto Rican born native of Calabasas. His wife was the runner of the two, but she was only running the half. For a reason I probably forgot, she had made Camillo sign up for the full marathon. THIS WAS HIS FIRST EVER. In fact, he had only ever gone on two twenty mile runs. He signed up anyway thinking that another 6.2 miles couldn’t hurt too bad. I agree and respected that.
Now Alice, she was just one extraordinary tough cookie. Currently in her 70’s, she has run 160 marathons since 1989. She’s completed a marathon on all 7 continents including Antartica. Her favorite was Paris, France. Due to health issues, this was her first run in a while. Her goal was to finish under 4:55 and qualify for her 3rd Boston Marathon. The more we learned about her, the more we were blown away.
I always kept my mind on our pace, and I updated them every half mile. We were generally always within 20 seconds or less of our trajectory time.
The course was straight forward, with the beach to the left, we ran 4.5 miles up the trail and then a highway. We hit a turnaround and turn back. Eventually we’ll pass the starting line and do an out and back loop which will take us to the half marathon finish line. Full Marathoners will complete a 2nd lap.
Put simply, run a big 8 twice.
We would stop at every aid station, and I would wait for them to be ready before we all took off. I also gave them options to walk the uphills as long as we made up for it.
For me, its really tricky business staring at my watch for what will be five hours when I m done. Also, because I m updating them every half mile, there’s a bit more pressure to be as accurate as possible. I’m definitely glad that I wrote in the half mile times on my pace band. This let’s me adjust our pace before we get too off track.
On our way back to town, Alice informed us that she would be dropping from our group in a few miles. In fact, she would be dropping from the race. It was a bummer, but I knew she knew what she was doing.
Camillo and I passed the starting line area at about mile 8 and headed into the out and back loop. The loop was all uphill on one side. It beat him up a bit, but he stayed on our trajectory. I slowed us down so he could recover. We picked it back up on the downhill and got back on pace.
The guy was still in a good mood. He was having a great time joking and everything. He insisted that he wanted to finish the marathon with me and that we were runnning buddies from start to finish. There was a problem though. He had to go to the bathroom but he wasn’t sure if he could catch back up. He was going to run ahead and find a porta-potty. He asked that whenever I pass one, to yell his name so he could know to catch up. If he didn’t hear me yell, he would wait for me. I agreed.
I don’t think he runs as fast as he thinks he does though because I never lost sight of him. We passed the half marathon point and began our second loop. I was right on schedule.
Mile 13.1 to 26.2
It was hot now and I was tired of looking at my stupid watch. All this garmin stuff is not how I travel. uh oh, I gotta use the restroom too. I spotted Camillo at a porta-potty, I handed him the flag and said I’d catch up. When we met up again, I updated him on our trajectory.
He was starting to burn out. I could hear it in his breathing. On our way to the turnaround, I kept slowing us down so that he could recover. Then I would pick it back up and bring us up to pace.
On our way back to the town, he shouted and asked if I had seen Man On Fire with Denzel Washington!?!?!?
“Yea, which part?
“YOU’RE EITHER PREPARED OR NOT PREPARED, US, WE’RE PREPARED!!!!”
I didn’t know what scene he was talking about. But no one rains on my moments, so I won’t rain on his. Mile 18 was the invisible line he had crossed when his first marathon changed from something obscure to a realistic possibility.
He had wanted us to finish together, but a mile later, he could no longer keep up. Still, having already won the battle in his head, he would continue at his own pace.
I had slowed down nearly a minute and needed to get back on trajectory. I passed a few people, including a woman who would soon climb Mt Kilamanjaro.
Somewhere around mile 20, someone started yelling at me from behind.
“No! You’re not supposed to be in front of me, you’ll ruin my hopes of finishing under 5 hours.”
“Run with me then! You’ll finish on time!” I replied
So we ran together and I encouraged her as much as I could. There was something about her that was immediately familiar so I treated her like a friend. I kept her as close to my trajectory as possible as we got to know each other.
She was an Air Force Veteran from Oregon. She was running her first marathon in support of the Wounded Warrior Project.
As we passed the town and headed into the out and back loop, she told me that she had been planning on quitting before I came along. Not cutting her any slack, I said, “Geez… Get it together!” I think she appreciated my attitude.
We made it all the way to mile 23 together, but it was all uphill for another mile and I couldn’t slow down anymore. She asked that before we split up, I help her do the math for how fast she has to run the remainder of the race to be under 5 hours.
Now it was just me. I was behind schedule, it was an uphill mile, and my ribs hurt. Still, I knew I’d be fine. Mile 24 would be all downhill and I tried to get back on pace. I came across Alice. She was still in the race, exciting and asking how far Camillo was. I wasn’t sure.
At the coast, I passed a man with a metal prothestic leg.
I was nearing the end of the race and I needed to make my trajectory exact. I decided that I would finish 30 seconds ahead of schedule. This would buy me 30 seconds of leeway in either direction in case my chip time was off.
As I mentioned before, my expectation as a pacer is that I can finish only 60 seconds early and not one second late. For me, this means 4:54:00 to 4:55:00.
It was a bit harder than I thought it would be.
Shortly before the Finish Line, a few old ladies yelled out, “how far back is the soldier???”
“Uh what soldier?” (I had seen lots of Wounded Warrior Shirts)
“The one with the new metal leg!”
The race was actually 26.3 instead of the traditional 26.2. According to my garmin, I crossed the Finish at 4:54:50. I was within 10 seconds of my target. The official chip times show me at 4:55:06, six seconds late. I’m unsure of why there could be a 16 second discrepancy.
I hung out for a bit and had 2 beers and 4 tacos. The Air Force girl finished slightly later than her goal. She was still teasing me for leaving her.
The crowd went nuts behind me, and I turned to see the Wounded Warrior with a metal leg crossing the finish line. The cheers went on for a good while. I suspect that I had caught a glimpse of a much bigger story.
People are awesome.
It was time for me to go. As I left the corral, I saw Camillo cross the finish line. He was a marathoner now.
My girlfriend was waiting for me at the same spot on the beach where we stood earlier. I couldn’t help but laugh at all the limping runners. We looked like bambi on ice.
I fell asleep and woke up in Malibu at the Duck N’ Dive for a burger, more beers and then home.
I was added to the pacing team by Ultra-Athlete Vanessa Kline. I had run a few miles with her at the Kodiak 100 where she finished 2nd Place Women’s Overall.
You can follow her on Facebook.
She’s always offering promo codes, discounts, and opportunities for pacers.
See you at the starting line.