I am chugging along anticipating the Hayes Street Hill, an infamous hill with an 11% gain. A group on the corner has just thrown up a fit of cheers for a runner dressed as a gigantic red crab. Has he taken a hiatus? Because the crowd screams in paroxysms of joy, “The crab is BACK! He’s back!!!” One of the mysteries of Bay to Breakers, no doubt. I look up to enjoy the scene. My race is going well to start, and I want to savor as much of the San Francisco vibe as I possibly can. To run here, to run THIS race, to be with best friends, is a dream. To my left on the porch of an old Victorian, a man in FULL Darth Vader regalia is leaning against the railing, watching the race and eating his lunch with a plastic spork. I am in love with this city. In love.

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Bay to Breakers 2015 crew, just outside of the Dutch Windmill post-race: Marguerite, me, Dylan, and Steve

I am not entirely sure when we decided to be the outliers and racing nerds who take this race seriously—probably some time after we all saw that the entry form asked for an anticipated race pace and before discussions of “Seven Deadly Sins” and “physics of the universe” and “superhero” and “birds” costumes gave way to wanting to wear our favorite racing gear.

We are who we are. I am not sure any of the four of us here were capable of doing less than our best, and that’s one reason why I love us. For us, it seems, “fun” is finding the best in ourselves and supporting it in the others. Even though I considered “fun running” it for two seconds, as soon as I broached the topic Coach-Husband Bill essentially said, “Whaddya talkin’ bout, Crazy?” only with much more eloquence of language. A phone call with Steve only reaffirmed this point, and so my dreams of becoming a troupe of running Muppets or vaginas (no, for real…look it up) suddenly gave way to making a more official racing goal for this event.

We all came in somewhere behind the Kenyans and before the sharks with no arm rotation, old naked men, guys bouncing balls (sounds like I am describing the naked men again, but this truly was its own category), Wonder Women chained together, and drunks…and for us that was just about right.

As most extraordinary memories do, this weekend quickly took on a life of its own. First, Bill and I had our first major travel while kid-less for the weekend. (That experience, I think, requires its own entry later). Our explorations around the city on Saturday morning took us to old San Francisco history and one of my favorite movie sites (also its own entry).

By Saturday afternoon, we met up with my friends and some of their family members and friends. We figured we might as well make the most of the weekend together and so about a week ago, we added another “locked room game” to our weekend plans:

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We were planning to work our legs on Sunday morning, so why not our brains on Saturday afternoon? Mens sana in corpore sano. Right?

Held in Japantown, this room game had its first ever run on Saturday, and I think we were the fourth team to attempt it. The puzzles were completely different. Unlike the first room game we played last year—which would have required a logical leap to which none of us were close at the ending bell—we knew what to do in this room yet simply ran out of time to execute. We got caught in the middle on a long clue, and we used too big a portion of our time trying to decipher it. Eventually we did, but recovering time after that point was nearly impossible. Overall, I did think the puzzles were more well planned out in this version. There were stages that HAD to be completed in order to earn passkeys/clues into later stages from the hosts. In the previous room, there was less of a sense of “stages” and no sense of advancing levels; this room felt more like a video game in that sense. I loved it.

Then, a dinner in the Mission district:

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Marguerite told us about a favorite place of hers called Pi Bar that has the best pizza this side of New York City. She was absolutely correct. We must have sampled most of the menu: polenta fries, spinach and Caesar salads, a huge pizza, a side of more spinach (or was it anchovies, Steve?), baked ziti and vegetables, and more bread. We fueled up the vegetarian way. I swear by a highly, though not exclusively, vegetarian diet. Pi was delicious! They also open at 3:14 every afternoon. Their daily specials are $6.28. Could we be any nerdier? No?

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The crew

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Bill and I after dinner

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Marguerite and I have been friends since middle school; Steve became a friend in 9th grade. We’re getting fairly old now, so we’ve been friends for well over half our lives.

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Before the race with Marguerite and Dylan

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TVHS ’98, RE-PRE-SENT!

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At a certain point, we all went about our pre-race routine. I had finished my jog and was in the middle of taking off my cast-offs to finish my speed strides when I saw Steve. One last hug and then: countdown time!

I should mention here that the warm up marked one of the best parts of the race experience for me. Even moreso than at Long Beach, there were some very high-level, invited, flown-in, elite Kenyan runners here, among other invitees. In some ways, as whackadoo as this race is, at the front it was probably the most professional race I’ve been part of with the highest caliber collection of pros. Butte to Butte, of course, has all the Oregon runners, a few of whom are U of O level and about to turn pro; but B2B drew some talent. These elites and I were all seeded in the same corral (I had to submit an additional verification form after my initial race registration, in which I claimed a certain time) though of course they are faster. I had the chance to LEARN, LEARN, LEARN from the Kenyans’ pre-race warm ups and prep. In fact, at one point, we were all warming up to the side of our corral “together”—and by “together,” I mean, I went over and studied the heck out of everything they did and added a few elements to my own warm ups which I performed alongside them. I consider myself a student of my sport, and Sunday gave me a golden opportunity to be this eager student.

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My corral

I found myself fairly mellow in my corral, surprisingly. Maybe it was the announcement of the guy who had glued 995 googley eyes to his shirt to break the record for running with the most googley eyes. One of my racing habits is to put my mind into some kind of deliberate narrative/story/mindset/mantra beforehand. (At the Hot Chocolate 15K it was the idea of running with pure joy; at Big Sur, it was Cannery Row, family, and the energy of the waves/universe; at Long Beach it was the “prove yourself” story; there’s always something different, a dimension of my journey). Even with all of my history in San Francisco, even with a memory of having volunteered through my college philanthropic group at B2B years ago, even with all of the potential musical/cultural history of the area on which I could have drawn…even with all of that, by the night before the race, I still had connected with nothing solid. I woke up still trying to know that spark deep down inside of me: connecting to that authentic fire, whatever it is for the race, is truly one of the secrets to racing well. Given the training (a big order that takes my full commitment every single day), a race is, I believe, truly run from the neck up. Trust the physical training, if you’ve really done it; on race day, it is the head that matters most. Can your head inhabit an authentic, passionate space? Narratives and mantras that do not spark with that authenticity will not, in my experience, work out. When we run, we have to run with all that we are. It is ourselves we lay down on the line. To run exposed and vulnerable is the only way.

I wasn’t quite connecting with myself on race morning, and I knew I had to strip my mind of overthinking and complexity.

I also knew that I have been heading toward a point for a few months where, being forthright, I needed to stop being a wuss. I have been putting off having the kind of race where I could really fail. My data sets during training have indicated that I could have some better performances; despite this, I have continued to set more conservative goals (still progressive, but conservative) and to run conservatively while meeting those goals. They were still risky…but not risky enough. No one wants a race in which the bear jumps on too soon. I was so afraid of the bear at the Carlsbad 5000 that I let myself stay in the 19s. It was a PR, but I considered my response to lingering fear to be a defeat. Even my coach does not know how disappointed I was in myself or how I have been thinking for awhile that a race would come in which I would force myself to throw down.  The whole point of this journey is to root out fear and make myself, body and mind, stronger and stronger.

So. As I was dressing for this race, I knew it was just time. I adopted a simple mantra alone in our hotel bathroom at 4:30 AM: GUTS. It didn’t need to be more complicated than that, didn’t need to be the waves on the beach, or harnessing the beauty of nature, or anything else. Guts. Guts, guts, guts. I was going to risk everything—even not finishing or having to walk—and push as far as I could. No risk, no reward. So why not risk it absolutely all? I re-watched the footage of Prefontaine in Munich in 1972 just to understand what I was doing; the bear got him that day, and the bear rarely took Pre. Pre defines someone with guts, who risked it all every time he raced. Inspiring.

My hope for this 12K (roughly 7.5 miles) even as late as the day before was to finish in 50:00, if I could. I only ever share these goals with my coach beforehand. There is simply no way to know a new course well enough to be totally informed; 50:00 represented a conservative goal. I knew the Hayes Street hill would be gnarly, but I also know that I am a hill runner; I look at all hills in a race as to being to my overall advantage in many ways. And although Hayes Street is certainly a mother of a hill, I felt prepared to run it. After 4-5 MILES of ascension during Hot Chocolate and another several miles of cambered rolling ascension during Big Sur, Hayes Street seemed doable.

It did slow me down by about a minute on my pace when I got to it (clocking in for that hilly mile at 7:14 min/mile), though it turned out that I was the 3rd woman up it in my division. They offer a $2500 purse to anyone who gets up it first. I knew THAT wouldn’t be me, but I also thanked my stars that I train on miles of Temecula hills daily and have been doing hill sprints/charges weekly for much of the year. Hayes Street does intimidate when you first see it from the bottom, and I did have an “OH shiznitz!” moment. Still, I knew that once I was past it, I’d have the chance to get back into my pace as a reward.

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So in the corral waiting to start, I kept chanting to myself, “guts, guts, guts.” Then the horn. I went out quickly—a little too quickly—at a sub 5:30 pace for the first quarter-mile. I knew I had to reign that in a bit and started doing 5:55. Two guys next to me also checked their systems and said they thought they should back off to 6:00. That was about right, so I drafted off of them a bit and went a bit slower. My first mile split was 6:08, and I settled in, clicking off a 6:09 next. Hayes Street threw me off, but other than that I did sub-6:30s for the race, with many bursts at sub-6:00 pace, and some ridiculous burst at sub-5:00 pace at one point (all according to my watch). My average stride length was in the mid-170s; I am forgetting now what my cadence data said.

I finished the 12K (7.5 miles) in 48:11. For most of Sunday, the results said I was the 2nd place woman in my division; I am actually 3rd place. I was the 22nd woman out of 16,076. 232nd out of 29,970. In general, I don’t pay much attention to placements, less so in races with fewer participants. It’s a data and stats thing. And since my perspective is that I am always only ever racing myself, and since no one controls who shows up (how we rank changes drastically if we’re racing Olympians, right?), I really only look at my data to determine how well a race goes. However, a placement in a race like this—where many of the 21 women before me were the Kenyans—has a bit more meaning. Looking at placement history over several races is significant, not so much for one race.

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That said, during the race I found myself not focused at all on what others were doing. I knew early on that to be successful here I had to keep my mind focused on my own race only. I only “compete” in a race to the extent that at a certain point, I try to motivate myself to keep my pace through the pain by making other runners in front of me a target to pass, if I can, like a video game. I don’t really want to beat them, or not; I just want to do what I need to do to keep my pace going. When I train, I often target trees or fire hydrants. Every pass is a bit of a victory in my rankings, but it is more about letting the atmosphere of the race push me forward in ways that running alone at 4:30 in the morning often can’t.

There was not much jockeying at this race, though. Since I focused so much on running at nearly-but-not-quite a 5K pace for a 12K, I knew that thinking about other runners at all would throw me completely off. By the 5 mile marker, I knew I was doing it—going to go sub-50:00—and because I was starting to get excited and anticipatory, I had to give myself a stern talk. I was close to bringing on the bear, and it wasn’t yet time. “Keep it together. You are doing it. Continue this pace until the last 800 m. If you keep this under control, you will have a breakthrough today. Do not kick yet.”

Although I do not eat or drink during a race of this length, I do perform full system checks en route at almost every mile. My legs felt great, thanks to the perfect coaching of my husband. Everything felt strong. In fact, I got focused on my breathing at one point, but then drew on my swimming to get over that hurdle. I know how to ventilate, I told myself. I performed a breathing exercise, knew the lungs were in order, and went back to concentrating on keeping the mind where it needed to be. I checked my form a few times, as well. After my system checks, I would remind myself, “Run the mile you are in. Enjoy the vibe and spectators.”

Only in San Francisco do spectators dress up to watch a race! At Golden Gate Park, a man had climbed a tree and waved a pine bough at us. Some families watched from the upper windows of their Victorians, and at one point, I waved to some. The cowbells and cheering kept us all going. Bay to Breakers has to be one of the more festive, happy races I’ve ever done. Constant interest points, never felt drudging. Bay to Breakers has been run since 1912. I loved every moment.

And only in San Francisco would we round the corner into the last 800 m to the thump of Duran Duran’s “White Lines.” I turned RIGHT to the lyric “And don’t ever come down…Freebase!!” which is the best part of the song, I have always thought. I actually sang along, and then I knew it was time to KIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIICK.

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My coach is the reason for this performance. I simply do what he says to do in training. Intervals and double days most of the week may sometimes feel taxing, but every time I race I uncover more of the treasures he has laid down for me. So speedwork is never just about speedwork and merely getting faster. He’s trained my MIND, in addition to my body. When he asks me to do some fast 200s on miles 10, 11, an 12 of a 13.2 mile training day, it’s not just about breaking down my legs. I drew not only on the confidence that kind of training gives (if I can go that fast on a half-marathon-plus training day, I can do it now), but also on the mental toughness that forces into a person. I get it now. My husband knows exactly what he is doing.

And when I needed to go down that chute half a mile out, Bill was with me in my mind. It’s just an 800 m interval sprint, I thought. I’ve done plenty of those on more leg mileage than this… let’s goooooooo!

The BEAR jumped on the last 50 m. Really jumped. I closed my eyes a moment and then put what was left into getting to the finish although I could feel my stride choking and stuttering like a jalopy on fumes. I knew then that I had run with guts. I’d been flirting with the bear the whole time. Here he was, right where he should have been. There was nothing more I could have given. The BEAR meant I gave it all. I had beat my goal by almost two minutes. I had nothing else. No holding back. I had run with guts. I did not let myself down.

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Those moments when you tell yourself you are going to do something, and then you absolutely follow through? Yes. I cried and felt emotional. There is no feeling in the world like achieving something you have told yourself you were going to achieve. 

This was a breakthrough race for me. It was probably the race of my life, so far, in terms of speed and mental tenacity. Other races have their stories and their importance in the journey, but this…this I needed. I am hoping I can remember these lessons here and go to the next level in my training now as a result.

And since so many people were involved in accommodating that race on my schedule (Bill took off work on Friday, my parents watched the kiddos, the kiddos spent nights away from us), I figured I needed to have a good performance and make it count! After I came in, we lingered a bit and watched some more of the race. I enjoyed the costumes quite a bit, especially the man who had a large pair of cardboard scissors and a patch over his eye. So many random, creative ideas, too. Loved it.

The funniest part, though? After all of that… Well, that morning at the finish the parking was beyond insane. Bill parked, and understandably, thought he was on one street when really he was on another—but we didn’t know which one. SO. After a 7.5 mile race at leg-murder speed, I then ended up running another 1.5 or so looking for our car. Up and down the neighborhood outside of Golden Gate Park. We agreed that I should start running it, because it would be a faster search process by many orders of magnitude. I was still running when Bill used a Google app to pinpoint the last place the car had stopped. Heck yes. Between panicking and being hopeful and then despairing (we walked before I started running—the whole thing was maybe about half an hour to 40 minutes of searching), I actually knew we were making a hilarious memory.

All the way across the city…and then I found myself running aimlessly hunting for a needle in a haystack! Ha ha ha!

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