There once was a Christmas that almost wasn’t … almost wasn’t … almost wasn’t.

Getting There

If I haven’t made it clear before, I have a general aversion to traveling to a race.  I’m all for true “destination races” to exotic locales1 that you can turn in to a vacation, but I find long drives or flights just to do a certain race to be ridiculous from an inconvenience stance, a green stance, and a leg comfort stance.  I’m not going to judge those who fly all over the place every weekend to run every race in the world2, but, in general, that’s not me.

So when it sounds like I drove 973 miles to run a half marathon, let it be noted for the record that this is not the case.  My wife and I change plans often, and did so several times in rapid succession starting in mid-October.  The short version is that the plan to spend the winter in Portland, Oregon was revised when snow first fell in Bend, but that wasn’t until after booking flights for the holidays that terminated in PDX.  So when we returned from a few weeks with family, it was to Portland, with our rig in Bend, and a reservation six days away in Southern California.

I had learned of the Santa to the Sea Half Marathon while looking for races near Santa Paula, where Ceridwen had found a nice looking park, but the chances of getting to SoCal in time seemed slim at best, especially considering the fact that there was supposedly no race day registration.  Over the course of last week we revised the plan to try a Saturday 5k just south of Redding and maybe shoot for the Los Angeles 13.1 in January.  This was still the plan when we got to Redding, but Friday morning Ceridwen had worked out that if we left that afternoon and got up real early on Saturday, we might be able to make it to Oxnard in time before registration closed.  So we went for it.  And I’m so glad we did, because it was an awesome event.  And it was undoubtedly raining in Redding.

The Race

You can learn most of this from the event web site, but the brief summary is that the Santa to the Sea is a half marathon route through Oxnard, California that starts at a giant concrete Santa Claus statue on the side of route 101 and ends at the marina.  Id est, from Santa to the sea.  Clever, eh?

The race raises money for underprivileged kids in Oxnard, and, probably in part as a result of their charitable intentions, has great sponsor support.  Race registration included a nice technical tee (50% recycled, too) and finishers medals not only for the half, but for the 5k as well.  This comes at a price though: in addition to the race registration fee, all participants are required to bring a toy, valued at $10 or more, to the start line.  For the half, we piled the gifts at the base of the Santa statue, like some sort of ancient offering to the gods.

The Santa Claus statue actually started it’s life elsewhere, in Carpenteria, California, where a juice stand owner paid an “artistic motorist” $500 to create it in 1948.  Santa stayed there for over 50 years and several owners before the most recent owner decided he didn’t want Santa there.  So Santa was moved to Oxnard in 2003, where a water company had some land to plop him down on right along the highway for all to see.

And this is where the buses brought us at 5:30 in the morning.  They weren’t supposed to start running until 6, but apparently organizers got a lot more registrations than anticipated, so they told people to come early and they’d start the buses as soon as they could.  I was on the first bus, dropped off my toy, and hung out for over two hours waiting for the sun to come up over the mountains and take some of the chill out of the air.  (Put away your violins, kids; if I were running somewhere cold I’d’ve been bundled up.)  In hindsight, I was actually waiting to run for significantly longer than it took me to run.

More people means more demand for everything.  Fortunately, they had things pretty well in hand.  The course was wide enough to handle the larger crowd.  The port-a-pottie to participant ratio at the start line wasn’t sufficient3, but they managed to get five more delivered while we were waiting to start, which certainly took the edge off.  There was still a line, though, but as soon as the guys had loaded one off the truck it had an occupant and a line.

Everyone seemed in good spirits, and many people dressed up.  There was an official finish line costume contest, but most people just went for simple Santa hat or similar non-intrusive costume, as I did4.  There were plenty of people who went all-out though, ranging from naughty Mrs. Clauses to a girl covered in gingerbread men sporting the phrase “Run run as fast as you can…”5  My personal favorite, however, was the toy soldier costume, which, as it turns out, was sported by two people; one in the half and one in the 5k.

Volunteers and/or police cars were at every corner – and with 13 miles of Oxnard, arguably an L.A. suburb, as the course, there were many corners.  After the initial 100 yard dash and right turn over the 101 overpass, it was an open course, but the whole thing was lined with orange cones with signs every block reminding motorists to stay to the left of the cones and runners to stay to the right of the cones.  I’m sure a few runners disobeyed this, especially early on when we were still congested, but fortunately I don’t think any drivers did.

The elevation profile is pretty negligible.  My Garmin said we started at 50 feet, climbed to 175 or so over the first four miles, then descended back to sea level, but it also claims that we ducked to 75 feet below sea level three times along the course.  I don’t remember any tunnels.  In real life, it was essentially flat save for the two highway overpasses.

If I had to pick on the race organizers to improve anything, I’d try to come up with a way to enforce the toy donation thing.  While the pile of donations was indeed impressive, it didn’t seem to be one-to-one with the number of runners.  There’s a built in checkpoint as we get off the bus, so, well, an army of elves can demand an offering or something, right.  They also apparently ran out of medals, which is probably due to getting way more people than anticipated, but they’re apparently ordering more and delivering them to everyone who didn’t get one, so that’s pretty awesome.

The finish line corral was wide and easy and there was no problem getting food and water from yet more great volunteers.  I honestly don’t know how they would have pulled this off if there weren’t so many people willing to give their time for the event.  There was never any situation where a volunteer was clearly absent.

All in all, it was an awesome event from start to finish.  If I were a permanent resident of the area, I’d totally do it every year.  And I’d bring a sweatshirt or something to check at the start line instead of assuming the sun would warm me up “soon.”

My Race

Did I mention that I didn’t train for this?  It seemed unlikely that we’d even make it, so I never started any sort of formal plan.  I wasn’t exactly sitting around on my ass all day, but I hadn’t put in the long miles for a while.  In fact, as I hit mile three or four, it occurred to me that I hadn’t run farther than seven miles since Tough Mudder – and those miles were slow, wet, muddy, and broken up by silly obstacles.  13.1 continuous miles suddenly seemed like something I’d never done before.

All the same, off I went, with a rough intention of trying out my marathon target pace in the half.  Realizing that I’d never run a half at this pace suddenly made my frustrations at my marathon performance seem totally unwarranted.  My first few miles were faster than target, in part because I never start slowly enough and in part because waiting around the start line with nobody to talk to resulted in an unusually high water intake and not enough time to stand in line for the porta-potty again.  So after a couple of sub-7 miles I slowed it up and, appropriately relieved, tried to stick near that elusive 7:20 pace.  I did okay overall, but couldn’t really hold it steady.  I think I just got distracted talking to people or zoning out and enjoying the views.

Yeah, I hung my finisher medal on the tree. And yeah, I'm Jewish.

When all is said and done, my finish time was 1:37:10 chip time.  Which is a PR by 35 seconds over the 2008 3M Half Marathon I did in Austin.  It took almost three years to shave off 35 seconds, but the only half marathon I’d done in between was the Mount Diablo Trail Adventure half marathon.  Not too bad at all.  Plus, taking the 7:27 average pace from my Garmin (1:37:17), I realized that my math skills need work.  A 7:20 pace would be a 3:12:08 marathon, but a 7:27 pace would still be a 3:15:11 marathon, a Boston Qualifying time for me (with 48 seconds to spare) now that I’d be 35 for the next one I can enter.  Wow, neat!

The 2011 plan I came up with while running this race was to run more halves until I could reliably do my target marathon pace before signing up for another marathon.  The revised plan is to run more halfs until I can reliably do a 1:32:28 half – the McMillan time projection for a 3:15 marathon time.  A nice, delicate balance between setting myself up for disappointment and never running a marathon again.  By focusing on halves I can still reasonably work on my 5k and 10k times.  Perhaps the fates will be with me and I’ll hit my 19 minute 5k, the 1:32 half, and then get drawn for NYC and BQ there, all in 2011.

Or perhaps not.  The point is that this was a wicked fun race and had gotten me excited about training again.  In fact, my wife and I just discovered that there’s a 5k this Saturday in Santa Barbara.  And registered for it.  So we’re going.  Wheee!

Post Script

I suck at stretching.  I just don’t have the patience to do it.  I know I need to, and I go through the motions, but 80% of the time, I’m not stretching sufficiently.  Yet time and time again I manage to race without injury.  Luck, anti-karma, whatever it is, I take it for granted.  At Santa to the Sea I once again managed an injury free race.  Then, just when I thought I was done cooling down, an intense pain shot me in the back of the leg as I set my foot on the car bumper to untie my laces.  That’s right: 13 miles of running and I hurt myself walking to the car.  I limped most of the afternoon and can still feel slight hints of the strain (or sprain?) as I finally get this all written up, more than three days later.  The yoga mat rolled up next to my desk chair is mocking me for my tomfoolery.

Show 5 footnotes

  1. Great Wall of China, Tromsø, Negril, Cayman Islands, and so on…
  2. Okay, I might judge a little, but not harshly, and usually not out loud.
  3. Not that it is at any race, but there’s a difference between typical needs to limit costs and simply getting way more people than you expect.
  4. I originally intended to annoy everyone with jingle bell suspenders and maybe reindeer antlers, but did have time to hit the craft stores.
  5. You know damn well that if she had run in a full-on gingerbread man costume that she’d be a shoe in for the contest…