Posted by: Sue D. Gelber | December 6, 2012

Gone With the Wind: My Soul and the California International Marathon

The race report everyone wants to read:

What a memorable experience! The wind and rain at the start were crazy, but as a marathoner, I was determined to push through! I was far off my goal time, but I had a great race and was so grateful to be part of this fabulous running community! Every race is a gift! It was a wonderful learning experience! I’m still happy and perky and loving life! And here’s an inspiring quote for you, and maybe a picture of the sun coming through the clouds!

Here’s what really happened:

Screen shot 2012-12-06 at 8.03.32 AM

It was 5:15 AM when the yellow school bus filled with runners pulled up to the start in Folsom, CA, just outside of Sacramento. The driver killed the engine and the sounds of howling winds and sheets of rain hitting the metal roof grew louder. The doors opened, but no one wanted to get out.

I wrapped myself in plastic (rain poncho, garbage bags tied around my feet), waiting until the last possible minute to leave the shelter of the bus. The street leading to the start was already flooded with water flowing faster and deeper than Skidoo Creek in summertime.

As I walked up the road, I expected to see Jim Cantore standing there with a microphone “Reporting live from the center of the storm where conditions are brutal.”

Screen shot 2012-12-06 at 10.23.14 AM

Not only had I never run in weather like that, I’d never been outside in weather like that. Heck, I wouldn’t even drive in those conditions. Back in Chicago, the tornado sirens would be going off and we’d be seeking shelter in a basement, not standing outside wearing garbage bags like a bunch of idiots. (I’d hear later on the news that an inch of rain fell and there were gusts up to 50 mph. Glad I didn’t know that at the time, or I might never have gotten off the bus in the first place.)

I headed to the port-o-potties and, over the screaming winds, commiserated with other runners. Although we had listened to the weather reports, we agreed that we hadn’t anticipated it would be quite so bad. We all looked forward to getting inside the port-o-potties just to get shelter.

When my turn came and I got inside, I was pleased to be out of the wind, but discovered I was not out of the rain. The wind was blowing rain through the vents. I was getting rained on while inside a port-o-potty. A new and humiliating personal low.

I walked back down the street/river to the start line and searched for the pace groups. I paused for a moment to make my final decision. How was I going to run this race?

Conditions were going to be tough – 25 mph headwinds for the first several miles. The conventional wisdom in a marathon is that if you expend too much energy in the beginning, you’ll fall apart by the end. The advice given at the expo the day before was to slow down, adjust expectations, forget the PR in order to have enough energy to finish.

But slow down by how much? Someone at the expo course talk had asked that exact question, and one of the experts recited the scary math: a 10-mph headwind can slow your pace by 38 seconds per mile. (There was an audible collective groan from the audience at the time.) And these winds were much stronger than 10 mph. For me, that meant giving up completely on my 3:55 goal, and running with the 4:15 pace group instead, maybe even 4:20.

As I stood there, rain in my eyes, the wind whipping my yellow plastic poncho, I had to decide what to do. Go with the 3:55 group and hope for the best? Or forget my goal, go out more slowly and survive to run another day?

“I didn’t come here for a 4:15 marathon,” I thought to myself. “I came here for a 3:55 marathon.” If I wasn’t going to make my 3:55 goal, I didn’t care what my finish time was. 3:56 would mean no more to me than 4:56. Go big or go home. I took the garbage bags off my shoes, stepped into the river/street, and lined up behind the 3:55 pacer.

The numbers say it all. The first mile in a marathon is notorious for being too fast, and on this course, the first mile is a significant downhill, merely adding to the speed. Yet, even with the pace group, our first mile was 10 seconds SLOWER than the goal pace. We were headed right into the wind, and it wasn’t pretty. The garbage bags worn by runners smacked around in the gusts, adding to the violence of the sounds surrounding me: the wind roaring, the rain clattering. It was so windy that my poncho wasn’t even keeping me dry. I gave up, peeled it off, and tossed it to the side. Rain, come get me.

The course turned westward, giving us a bit of a respite, and, relieved, I fell in comfortably with the group. We made our way through the first few miles, and the pace seemed sustainable. Then around mile 6 we turned south again. Rick, the pace leader, was steady and strong, but he wasn’t a big guy, so he didn’t block much wind. Once again, the gales took their toll.

There was a lot of debris on the course, including some tree branches that we had to hop over, like doing hurdles at a track. A woman in front of me slipped on a slick man-hole cover. Another stepped in a puddle that turned out to be a hole, and she turned her ankle. I focused on the ground three feet in front of me, only glancing up to make sure I was still with the pace group.

I fell behind a few times, but when I did, I was determined to catch back up. I reminded myself why I came to California, why I spent all that time and money and energy. I had a goal. “I am not a quitter,” I told myself. “I am not a failure.” With that mantra, I always managed to rejoin the group. Until, that is, around mile 11.

Fair Oaks Boulevard was a river. Running through it reminded me of Washington crossing the Delaware, but without the boat. Or the crew rowing. Or the flag. Or the whole victory thing.

Screen shot 2012-12-06 at 10.21.44 AM

We came to the bottom of a hill where the road became more like a lake. The pace leader went to the right, but a small group of us went left, only to find ourselves wedged up against a fence. There was no avoiding it, we had to run through the de facto pond. My feet were completely submerged. Sure, they were already wet from the rain, but this was different. I felt the water seep into my shoes, filling every last air pocket.

Screen shot 2012-12-06 at 10.29.17 AM

We came out of that stretch only to find another flooded section of road. This time, I didn’t even try to avoid it. I sloshed right through the center, feeling the chill surround my flesh yet again.

As the road moved to slightly higher and drier ground, I saw that the pace leader was far ahead. “Catch up slowly,” I said to myself, knowing that if I sprinted I’d expend too much energy. “I am not a quitter. I am not a failure.” Repeat. Repeat. It took a while, but by mile 12 I was back with the group.


My legs, however, were not happy. My glutes were killing me, like I’d been running up stairs. I was as fatigued as I had been after my 20 miler a few weeks earlier, and yet I wasn’t even to the halfway point. What was going on? And how could I possibly run an even split when I was already so completely spent before mile 13?

I clung on to Rick, the pace leader, until the halfway point, but then I lost the group again at another street/river crossing. I tried to pick up my pace through mile 14, but my legs felt like lead, as if my feet were wrapped in concrete. Later I realized it was probably the eight pounds of water in my shoes, but at the time I just felt perplexed, defeated, ruined.

Screen shot 2012-12-06 at 10.32.17 AM

Maybe I am a failure, I thought. Maybe I am a quitter. Maybe I’m just a big, fat loser who has wasted time and energy and money on a goal that is nothing but selfish and stupid and probably unattainable.

That was mile 15.

By mile 16, I was working on a list of all the people to whom I owed apologies. To my friends, for isolating myself, avoiding socializing in favor of training, making my world smaller and smaller with each passing day. To my kids, for making them miserable the nights before my long runs, even though it was not their fault that I had to get up at 4:45 to hit the pavement. To my husband, for forcing him to take charge of everything on the weekends, because I was running all morning and then too spent to do anything productive for the rest of the day. All that money. All that time. All that suffering. All that planning. Only to accomplish absolutely nothing. I’m an idiot. In fact, I’m bad at pretty much everything I try to do. A total loser.

It’s hard to run while crying. It’s not the runny nose (besides, with so much water on my face, who could tell if I had a runny nose?). No, the problem is that the throat constricts, making it almost impossible to breathe. I found myself gasping for air, sounding like a barking seal every time I inhaled. I’ve never walked a marathon before, but I did for most of miles 17 and 18, trying to get my emotions under control and my breathing back to normal. I’d tell myself “It’s ok, you’re ok, just get to the finish.” I’d start to run again. But then the words “failure” and “idiot” and “loser” would pop in my head, hitting me harder than any gust of wind could. My throat would tighten, and I’d have to walk again.

Finally by mile 19, I figured that all that crying and walking was pointless. “Just get this over with.”

I started running. Of course, by then my muscles had tightened up. At mile 20 my calf was killing me. I wanted to DNF (for non runners, that means “Did Not Finish”). I considered stopping at the medical tent and getting on the sweep bus.

But for some reason, I kept going. By mile 23, my calf had loosened up. At that point, I just had to jog it in.

It wasn’t easy though. Every time a spectator yelled “Great job!” I wanted to shout back “What the hell do you know? This is not a great job, this is a crappy job. This is a spectacular failure and I’m a total loser. ‘Great job’ my ass.”

But instead I just said “Thanks,” and kept going. The spectators, after all, were as dedicated as any of the runners, and they were trying to be supportive. They had no way of knowing I was actually a complete idiot, knucklehead, doofus, (fill in your choice of insulting noun here).

The only thing that kept me running at that point was the thought of my poor parents at the finish line waiting for me. The rain had stopped, but I was now over a half-hour behind schedule. I imagined my mom worrying that I was dead along the side of the road. I picked up my pace just so I could get to them faster.

As I made the turn on 8th Street, I saw my dad waving. It’s a miracle that I didn’t cry, but I guess I’d already shed enough tears for one day. I stopped to give them both hugs. I apologized for taking so long. “We’re so proud of you,” they said. “Keep going, we’ll see you on the other side.”

I made the final turn towards the finish line. A minute later, a volunteer handed me a medal. I wanted to throw it in the garbage.

It wasn’t until later, when I heard how strong the wind gusts had been and I saw photos of the flooded course, like this one (click here) , and pictures of people running in the driving rain, like this one (click here), that I realized maybe I wasn’t a complete and utter failure after all. 30% of the registered runners didn’t even show up for the start. I guess by just attempting to run it, I was not a total loser. And in spite of all the walking, I still managed to finish in the top half of my age group.

Should I have switched to Tucson in the first place? Maybe. Should I have dropped out halfway and saved my legs for a January marathon instead? Probably. Should I have trained harder and done more? Of course. I had planned for ideal conditions, so when the wind arrived, I wasn’t prepared. Mother nature, quite simply, doesn’t always cooperate. Lesson learned.

I had a goal and failed to reach it. There’s no way around that. But at the very least this race was therapeutic. A lot of my inner demons came bubbling up to the surface on Fair Oaks Boulevard in Sacramento, California. I’m hoping that I left at least a few of them there to get washed away.


  1. Congratulations for finishing! One thing that struck me was your comment I had a goal and I failed to reach it. For marathons or any endurance sports you always need a best case, worst case and exceeding case scenarios because you can NEVER predict what will happen on that day. Sure you have a goal, but the goal needs to get adjusted as more facts are known. Chicago could have just as easily been hotter than hell, in which case runners would need to adjust their goal. That is the problem with endurance sports you invest so much time and energy and it all comes down to just one day. Good job fighting through all the negative thoughts, i’ve definitely been there and its not fun. I love that your parents were there. Somehow, it doesn’t matter how old you are seeing your parents makes everything better. Congrats and don’t be discouraged.

  2. Sue, I don’t know about your soul, but your writing has captured the juicy details. I can just imagine how your parents felt, too, seeing you bedraggled but a Finisher!

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