It was a perfect day for a perfect marathon as Aaron shattered his marathon PR by over 14 minutes at the Carlsbad, CA 2019 marathon.
Race Background and Training
Growing up in Baltimore, MD I consider myself an east coast guy. I’ve never once been to the West Coast in any capacity. Yet it was only a matter of time until I made my way out there due to my 50 marathons in 50 states challenge. In July 2018 we made the decision to travel out to Carlsbad, California for the Carlsbad 2019 Marathon.
Having run a marathon PR of 3:57:11 at the Mount Desert Island Marathon in October three months earlier, and my first 50K ultramarathon only three weeks prior, my goal for the Carlsbad Marathon was sort of up in the air. Sure I wanted to try and run a PR…but I wondered how realistic that goal might be having pushed my body pretty hard recently. Taking all of that into consideration, I made it my main goal to run the race by feel, stay positive, have a good time, and not get injured.
The three weeks between the 50K and the Carlsbad Marathon I mainly focused on easy recovery running, with 2-3 tempo runs tossed in and a couple of medium long runs of 12 and 16 miles. I did no sprints, mile repeats or speed work during this time to allow my muscles to actively recover as best they could.
The last two marathons I have run (Morgantown, WV and Mount Desert Island, ME) have been elevation heavy. Both featured hilly courses with close to 1,800 ft of elevation gain throughout and were really challenging to the legs. For the Carlsbad Marathon the course runs right along the Pacific Coast only a few hundred yards from the ocean. This would mean a nice, easy flat course to run, right? Not necessarily.
I would quickly learn upon arriving in California that the coastline there is surprisingly hilly. You can be standing on the beach looking out to the west over the Pacific Ocean, and turn around facing east and see mountains! After doing my pre-race research I learned the marathon course would include some rolling hills, but nothing compared to what I had run the past two marathons. However with an elevation gain of around 700-800 ft, the Carlsbad Marathon would definitely not fall into the pancake flat category.
Leaving on a Thursday morning, we flew from Dulles Airport in Virginia to San Diego, CA. This was the longest flight I’ve yet to be on…and boy did it feel long. Despite this it was really neat to look out the window and see snow covered Rocky Mountains and the Grand Canyon too! Upon landing in San Diego we were greeted with rain (ha!), but only for that initial evening.
Friday morning I did my last run before the marathon around the hotel area (an easy 6 miles), before spending the rest of the day at Seaworld, San Diego. We had a great time as a family viewing the wonderful exhibits, shows, and even meeting and feeding a walrus and adorable beluga whale up close!
After breakfast on Saturday we drove up to Carlsbad, CA where we visited The Shoppes at Carlsbad (a mall area where the marathon expo, start, and finish were located). The race expo was in a very large tent area full of vendors and setups to purchase race merchandise. Despite the size, the expo was incredibly easy to get to and picking up my race bib was a breeze. I was also given two pieces of high-quality race day swag: a long sleeve tech running shirt and a long sleeve marathon finisher shirt (I’m assuming they gave this out PRIOR to the race to ease up on logistics at the finish line area on race day).
After finishing up a little shopping and lunch at the mall, we headed to our Air BnB house in Carlsbad to settle in. We concluded that evening prior to the race watching an incredible sunset right on the Carlsbad beaches, and I enjoyed my pre-race dinner of chicken, rice, and salad before heading to bed early.
Race Day Morning
My race day morning routine followed the same marathon race day schedule I have become accustomed to. With a race start time of 6 a.m., I woke up at 3 a.m. for my traditional pre-race breakfast of a whole wheat bagel with almond butter, one banana, water and a cup of coffee. After digesting a bit, reading some sports, and assembling my running attire (including my lucky Year of the Pig coin), I drove on over to the race start area with an hour to go. Parking was very plentiful…so plentiful that I parked on the far side of the lot and used the vast open space to do my running warmup routine along with a short shake out run. The temperature was cool, around 50°, but I decided to go with short sleeves as I knew things would warm up quickly once the sun came up.
Making my way over to the starting line I did not notice many people around that area, when I noticed signs indicating different waves that would start the race at various times. I was never told what starting wave I would be in, so I made my way back to the information booth to double check. The booth volunteer kindly informed me that the marathon runners would all start in the same wave at 6:15 a.m. The wave markers were for the half marathon runners at 7:30 a.m…which would greatly out number the just under 1,000 marathon runners.
Heading back over to the starting line with 15 minutes to go, I was one of the first runners there. In a matter of minutes the music began playing, the race announcer began pumping up the crowd, and the area filled with more marathoners ready to get started. A talented trumpet player graced us with a beautiful rendition of The Star Spangled Banner and in a matter of minutes we were off and running to Queen’s “We Will Rock You”.
The first couple miles of the race led us down some back roads towards the coastline and through the town of Carlsbad. They were uneventful aside from the water stops at each mile. I will say upfront that one of the best parts of this race were the enthusiastic and jubilant volunteers. It was announced at the beginning of the race that cash prizes would be given to the water stops voted the best, so that may have had something to do with it. A few notable ones I remember were a cheering troop of boy scouts and another stop in which all the volunteers were dressed as superheroes. I made sure to say “thank you” to each and every volunteer and crowd supporter I passed. Without their time and efforts, this race would not be happening.
Around mile 3 we hit Carlsbad Blvd which runs right along the Pacific Coast. The scenery was absolutely beautiful. I could not help but think that for my last marathon I ran along the Atlantic coastline of Maine…and here I was on the compete opposite side of the country. Around this time the musical acts stationed every mile or so began to perform which I really enjoyed. The more things to look at and keep you occupied during a marathon, the better!
With the course still running along the coastline, I made the first turn (marathon runners would do two loops along the coast before heading back to the start) and glanced at my watch. To my surprise I was cruising around an 8:30 / mile pace which was going to put me at a finish time I never thought possible. With a third of the race to go part of me worried about bonking and losing energy, but with a fuel plan firmly in place from the last marathon (sip of hydration drink from my pack every mile, and a GU energy gel every 3.5 miles), I pushed that thought out of my head and pressed on.
I could tell the rolling hills were starting to get the best of some runners. As I ascended the hills a tip I read only a few weeks ago in a running magazine kept repeating itself in my mind (I wish I could remember the author but his/ her name escapes me). That tip was to “climb the rope” when running hills, or act like you are pulling yourself up the hill using an imaginary rope as you keep a quick cadence. It may not work for some, but since incorporating it into my training it has made the mental part of hills much easier.
Heading into the last half of the race, the course was much more crowded now that the marathon runners had merged with the half marathoners. Thankfully the race organizers did a great job of ensuring each set of runners stayed on their designated portion of road. This prevented marathoners at the front of the pack from being held up by some half-marathoners running a slower pace. With my pace still holding well under 8:40 / mile, I passed quite a few of the half marathoners which in turn gave me more motivation to keep it up.
With two miles to go in the race as we turned off the coastline to head back towards the finish area, it had gotten much warmer. I was starting to feel tired and my pace had slowed a bit to around 9:00 / mile. I kept pushing though as I knew I was going to PR this race…the question now was only by how much. Having provided my own hydration and fuel for the entire race, I took two cups of water at the last water stop and dumped them over my head for a quick cool down. I had passed the trash cans, and not wanting to litter the course, held onto the cups as I headed down the home stretch where the crowds were cheering on the finishers. I saw Christie and the girls cheering me on, and I was so excited as I knew I was going to crush my marathon PR. Crossing the finish line with one hand raised in the air (also holding the paper cups), I finished with an unexpected PR time of 3:43:56!
Post Race Reflections and Lessons Learned
It took me 8 marathon attempts to finally run under 4 hours. For this marathon (my 9th) my goal was simply to have fun and run by feel. Yet everything aligned with this race to allow me to run a faster time than I ever would have expected. This race was honestly perfect. A perfect course, perfect weather, wonderful crowd support, awesome organization…everything about it went right. All of those conditions allowed me to have fun and feel full of energy and life, which in turn yielded a marathon time I am so happy with.
While confident to begin with, this result has also given me some real evidence that I can and WILL qualify for the Boston Marathon someday. It may take a few years, but I’ll get there. It’s only a question of when, not if.
Official Race Results
Overall: 173 of 988
Male: 138 of 602
Male 35-39: 24 of 87
Photos from Race Day
This race is part of Aaron’s 50 Marathons in 50 States Challenge:
Click on a state to see a recap of that marathon.