Posted by: pointlenana | December 6, 2016

CIM – December 4, 2016

Eight years ago I qualified for Boston with a ~3:28 marathon.  18 months after that I started Boston aiming for a 3:20 finish and limped in at 3:29.  Ever since then I’ve wanted to break 3:20.  For a few years I stumbled around training-wise and by 2011 I had worked my way up to a new PR of ~3:26 in a monsoon at the California International Marathon (CIM).  I finally figured out how to train properly and set reasonable goals in a marathon (with the help of some friends on Runners World Online) and in March of 2013 I got down to 3:21:23 at the Napa Marathon.  By then I had a bad case of trail ultritis and it got less and less appealing to focus on marathon training.  But the 3:20 goal was still there lurking, and I’d try occasionally.  I was in great shape for another attempt, at CIM in the fall of 2014 but injured myself by overtraining and DNS’d the race.  I think I was in shape for a ~3:18 at Boston this spring but race day was warm – I went for a 3:20 on a day when a lot of people missed their goals by 20-30 minutes and was happy with my 3:26+.

This past weekend I made my latest attempt.  It wasn’t the perfect setup.  After being in great marathon shape this spring, my focus had shifted to crazy-long “races” and I ran the Tahoe 200 in the middle of September.  In theory that left me about 11 weeks to recover, train, and taper for the race.  In reality I only ended up with about 6 weeks of real training – it took 3 weeks to feel good after Tahoe, I was really sick for a week, and I lost a week to taper/recovery by running an ill-advised-but-fun trail 100k three weeks ago (I managed to slice my face open in a fall during the race and – not for that reason – DNF’d at mile 47).  Looking at my heart rate and pacing during training runs, I could see that I wasn’t as fit as in the spring, but by squinting I could see that 3:20 might be possible if I ran a perfect race in perfect conditions.  The midpoint of my expectations was 3:24 – probably I’d aim for 3:20 and fall apart late in the race but not too badly.  Again, not the optimal setup but I don’t get many chances given my (more important!) ultra race schedule and the weather at CIM is often good, so it was worth a try.

I had one goal and 3 consolation prize backups:

  • Goal:  Break 3:20
  • Bittersweet backup goal A: New PR (under 3:21:23).  It’s hard to argue with a new PR, especially as I become ancient, but I knew that landing in the 83 second window between PR and sub-3:20 would eat at me.
  • Pointless trip/backup goal B: Under 3:26:14 – my second best marathon time, which I ran in that monsoon at CIM in 2011.  Certainly not bad, but not enough to justify the expense of the trip.  I could probably pull off a ~3:25 locally with a lot less hassle.
  • Rice-A-Roni (The San Francisco Treat) backup goal C:  3:35 or less – a safe Boston qualifier for my upcoming age group.  Hard to argue with a BQ – people work really hard for those – but aiming for 3:20 and fading to 3:35 would be the equivalent of being on a game show with the opportunity to win a lot of money and instead leaving with a case of Rice-A-Roni.

In addition to my training, I hit the sauna several times in the past 3 weeks.  I noticed that my heart rate was a little lower after my heat training for the hot races this past summer.  I didn’t expect to get a big benefit, but a even a tiny benefit (with almost no risk of injury) might make the difference if I was on the edge.

The typical pacing advice for marathons, and especially CIM, is to run conservatively in the beginning so you can hang on or maybe speed up at the end.  CIM is net downhill and has a few speedy downhills.  It’s easy to overdo it and either use too much energy going up and down or wear out quads and find they stop working late in the race.  Pacing conservatively makes sense for most people.  But I’ve done a lot of downhill running recently and felt my quads could hold up, so I decided to push a little on the downhills vs. recovering, at least in the early miles.  I also felt it was more likely that I could pick up a few seconds on downhills than I could speed up much at the end.  This wasn’t going to be a race where I’d have a positive fitness/time surprise – the surprise would be if I could hold the goal pace all the way to the end.

I didn’t really know how fit I was – no recent races to judge by – so I decided to run mostly by heart rate.  At Napa a few years ago I noticed that my heart rate increased from 133 in the opening mile to 159 at the end, basically increasing by one beat per minute per mile.  I’m older now, so I decided to aim for that pattern starting at 132bpm.  I’d also track my time by checking mile splits at each mile marker – aiming for 7:38 and tracking my cumulative delta as the race progressed (e.g. if I ran 7:41, 7:39, 7:32 then I’d be +3 then +4 then -2).  Again, that worked for me at Napa.  Both the heart rate reading and the marker-to-marker splits are pretty accurate and steady enough to be helpful, vs. instantaneous pace readings or even automatic GPS laps which are noisier.

With that long setup, on to race weekend.

Saturday morning I went to the Western States lottery.  I didn’t expect to get in, and didn’t, but an ultra-famous person came in late and sat down next to me.  I also saw a friend from Seattle (DaveL) who used a phrase I hadn’t heard before – “PR or ER” – which stuck in my head until the race started.


Not the most awesome selfie, but somehow fitting for Gordy Ainsleigh, the original Western States runner.

Sunday morning, conditions were perfect – about 40 degrees, no wind.  Everything went smoothly – new food went in, old food came out, I met Runners World friends as planned for the bus ride, my bus did not get lost on the way to the start (like it did my two previous times at CIM).  With no wind blowing, it was comfortable waiting outside the buses and I hung out with my Tahoe pacer friend Scott.  At 6:40 I started taking off my many layers (finishing with an old white button-down that I thought I could start the race in if needed and then take off more easily than a sweatshirt).  At 7am we were off.

Here are my splits for the race – with more commentary (lots!) below.

Mile Time HR Actual HR Target Comment
1 7:48 133 bpm 132 Big downhill – but slow!
2 133
3 15:08 138 bpm 134 Forgot to press the lap button at the mile 2 marker – 7:34 average pace for the two miles
4 7:24 137 bpm 135 Downhill
5 7:39 138 bpm 136
6 7:39 138 bpm 137
7 7:34 139 bpm 138
8 7:43 139 bpm 139 A bit slow, but heart rate is finally right.
9 7:39 143 bpm 140
10 7:36 142 bpm 141
11 7:38 142 bpm 142
12 7:44 143 bpm 143
13 7:37 142 bpm 144
14 7:38 144 bpm 145 Estimated – pressed the lap button about 10 seconds late
15 7:35 146 bpm 146 Estimated
16 7:32 147 bpm 147
17 7:29 147 bpm 148 Last big downhill on the course
18 7:35 147 bpm 149
19 7:33 149 bpm 150
20 7:38 150 bpm 151
21 7:36 150 bpm 152
22 7:41 150 bpm 153
23 7:43 151 bpm 154
24 7:38 153 bpm 155
25 7:32 154 bpm 156 Thanks Robin!
26 7:38 156 bpm 157
26.2 1:37 158 bpm 158 7:15 pace for last .2 miles

I was very surprised to see the 7:48 split for the opening mile when I looked after the race.  I was running just behind the 3:03 pacer for part of that mile, and after about 3/4 of a mile my friend Jim (goal: 3:13) passed me.  So I was surprised to find out I went slower than my goal pace even if I was out in front with faster people.  I think what happened is I started on the left where there’s less congestion and the pacers (and Jim?) started on the right – it looked like I was going fast but in reality the pacers were going slowly.

I saw my friend Robin 3 times along the course – we exchanged high-fives at mile 4, waved to each other at mile 13 (I thought she’d be at 12, thought I had missed her, and was happy to see her a little further on), and she ran with me for a bit in mile 25 (as she said, I was in The Dark Place then, and I’m sure I wasn’t great company – more on that below).

At mile 8 I noticed a women spectating and as I passed I said “You’re Jenn Shelton!”  (Rebel trail runner.)  She smiled and nodded as I went past, and 10 seconds later I realized I was suddenly running way too fast.  It was odd to see a famous trail runner (not named Tim Twietmeyer) at a road marathon.

The middle miles were all pretty uneventful.  My splits seemed ok, my heart rate was basically on track, and the miles passed.  I didn’t know the exact time, but I appeared to go through the half about on 3:20 pace (actual time: 1:39:57 – 3 seconds ahead of schedule).  I mostly ignored the spectators, but I did try to thank volunteers at least a couple times at each water station.

Speaking of water, I purposely drank a little less than usual in this race.  It’s ok to get somewhat dehydrated and the people who win usually are the most dehydrated.  I drank a small bottle of Gatorade in the first 10k, so I started well-hydrated, and probably had 25oz of fluid through the whole race.  Almost all was water, although I did have one tiny cup of Nuun mid-race when my body felt a bit crampy.  I was hoping the taste of salt would convince my Central Governor that nothing needed to cramp.  Real or placebo, the twinges went away for a while after the taste of Nuun.

Around mile 15 I started worrying about whether my heart rate plan would hold up as I got close to my lactate threshold.  I knew I was not in my best-ever shape and if I went too anaerobic too early I might kill my race.  I decided to let it work up to 150bpm (during mile 19 according to my plan) and keep it there if possible until mile 23 or 24.

Normally I listen to random music (if I have music) but I made an ordered playlist this time hoping it would help.  I hit the jackpot around mile 20 (at the start of The 10k of Regret) when Break The Walls by Fitz and The Tantrums came on.  There’s a lyric I hadn’t heard before – “Let the beast out, what did you come for”.  The beast was either out already or too tired to make an appearance, but for the rest of the race, every time I started negotiating down (“You don’t need to break 3:20, a new PR would be fine”) I thought “what did you come for”.  Japandroids’ “Adrenaline Nightshift” was also great, as I went up and over the bridge around mile 22 – the last legit (but small) hill on the course.

I was pleasantly surprised to hold my heart rate around 150 for a few miles and still see mile splits roughly on my 7:38 target – the rolling hills were flattening out and it was a little less work to hold my pace.  The 7:41 split for mile 22 didn’t bother me – close enough and the mile had the final bridge/hill  – but 7:43 for (relatively flat) mile 23 woke me up.  Missing my target pace by just 5 seconds in each of the last miles might be the difference between success and just missing.  Plus, a little fade tends to turn into a bigger fade, which would definitely do me in.  Going into mile 24 I stopped thinking about pace or heart rate or much of anything and just tried to run as smoothly and quickly as I could, hoping the finish line came before my body gave up.  I had a moment of panic when I had a calf spasm – “NOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!” – but I stayed relaxed and it went away.

The one song that didn’t work was The Dead’s “Not Fade Away/Going Down The Road Feeling Bad”.  Normally I love running to that song, and not fading away was fine, but going down the road at the mile 24 marker, I was definitely feeling bad.  Fortunately that was the moment when Robin jumped in to run with me.  Hearing her updates on runner friends helped distract me.  It was little overwhelming though – the fatigue, the spectator noise, trying to talk with her, and the now-too-loud music in my ears.  I was vaguely aware that there was probably a way to turn the music down or even off, but I couldn’t remember how and couldn’t imagine devoting any effort to doing that.  Eventually I blurted out “I don’t think I can talk now”.

Robin dropped off at the mile 25 marker – “1.2 miles to go – go get it!”  Glancing at my watch I was pretty sure I was going to run a PR unless disaster struck.    But… “what did you come for”.  So I focused on the false finish arch in the distance (about a third of a mile from the real finish, which is two turns beyond the arch) and tried to keep pushing.  I hit the 26 mile marker as Dick Dale and Stevie Ray Vaughn started their version of Pipeline, and I pushed a little more.  As I rounded the last bend, the official clock said 3:19:56 and I continued forward towards the finish as it ticked past 3:20.  I knew I had a margin between that official gun time and my chip time, but I had forgotten to note the delta at the start.  3:20:01…3:20:05…3:20:10… Finally I was across the line.  I looked at my watch – which wasn’t displaying seconds (too many data fields on the screen).  3:19:something.  I was pretty sure I had made it – but “what if it’s 59 seconds and I was a little off in pressing the buttons?”  About 10 minutes later I realized I could look at the history and know for sure.  3:19:46, which turned out to be my official time.  Success.

A few more things I like about that time.  First, I ran a small negative split – 1:39:57 for the first half and 1:39:49 for the second half.  I’m pretty sure that’s the first negative split I’ve run in an all-out marathon.  Second, I plugged that time into various age-grading calculators and (depending upon the calculator) it is equivalent to a 2:52-2:57 marathon for someone whose body doesn’t have as much experience as mine does.  Running an actual sub-3 doesn’t seem likely at this point, so I’ll go with running the equivalent of one at 54 years.  Finally, I can’t know with certainty that I had exactly the right plan for my race and executed it perfectly, but I’m going to roll with that theory.

Most of the people I know there had a great day.  Jim ran a 3:10. Cristina ran 3:11 about 8 weeks after running just a little faster at flat Chicago.  Pacer Scott from the Tahoe 200 ran a blazing fast 3:13 – a PR by 10 minutes.  Katie ran a 3:41 just 5 months after popping a kid out and with a rigorous 10-20 miles/week training schedule.  Ace Ewing – the CA Triple Crown guy who did everything he could to talk me out of dropping from SB100 – ran a jaw-dropping 3:02.


Jim, 18 hours before he got his new PR 3:10+ at 61 years young-and-getting-faster.  Plus, he’s an official Jack Kelly Good Sport.

After the race I was waiting for friends in a restaurant, and Jenn Shelton and her friend walked in.  They were waiting for friends too, so we ended up talking for a while.  She hurt herself recently, I asked about that and we got into a conversation about rehabbing injuries.  I told her I’m the world’s most compliant PT patient, and that I might be her polar-opposite personality-wise.  After the obligatory fanboy picture, I gave them a couple beers I couldn’t bring home on the flight (sorry Scott – they were meant for  you).


Jenn Shelton, pretending to be enjoying herself.


I did eventually stop talking to Jenn Shelton, and find my Runners World friends.  (They were about to send out a search party for me.)  4 racers, 4 successful races.  Scott looks almost as happy as he did when he finished pacing me at Tahoe.  Meeting these folks would have made the trip worthwhile even if I had a bad race, but I’m glad I didn’t have to rationalize it that way…


  1. congrats mark, good to see you break that 3:20 barrier! the hr data is interesting. i’ve never wore one for a marathon, but my strategy is to start at a pace where my hr has been in the low 150s (around 80% HRR) in the early stages of an MP training run, assuming that it will be a little lower for the first few miles of the actual marathon. my guess is that it climbs up to my LT threshold (mid-160s) in the latter stages, and if i haven’t cramped up, closer to 170 at the finish. but that’s all speculation!

    anyhow, well done, enjoyed the RR, and hope to see you at Black Canyon!

  2. […] Coach Mark Cliggett’s race report […]

  3. […] Janet and I volunteered at Western States, Shalane Flanagan at the airport after San Diego 100, and Jenn Shelton during/after CIM last year.  This time I was walking through Seatac after arriving back from Virginia, looked at someone in […]

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