Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Race Report: Oakland Marathon 2018

So I wanted to wait until the race pics were available to publish this, but it sounds like they won't come out until maybe next Sunday and I didn't want to wait that long. (You can get them free & instantly if you give CSE all your Facebook information, which, sorry, no thanks.) So, please enjoy this photo-lacking account of my Oakland Marathon experience, and I'll go back & add pictures when I get them. Unless they suck. (But, if they suck REALLY bad, then I might still.)


Well, I'm super behind with weeklies, but that's partly because of more dumb injury stuff. :-/ Honestly, at this point I just want to finish Boston under my own power and depending on the day there have been a number of times when I was not sure that was realistic.

Which, hey! Brings us to the Oakland Marathon!

The Backstory

Sometime last fall, Jen shared a discount code for the Oakland Running Festival, which fell on the day of my last 23 mile long run before Boston. I really hate doing my 20+ runs on the same old loops in GG Park, so I decided it might be nice to run a nice easy marathon on that day instead. I could have done the half but didn't want to squeeze in *another* 10 miles before or after, and besides, I'd never run the full, which had a reputation for being both pretty and hilly, which I thought might be fun and also good training for Boston and Big Sur.

Since then, I've had one injury after another. Something gets better, and then something else completely different goes wrong, and that's resulted in some very inconsistent training and several missed long runs. Even so, in January and early February, I found myself running hard workouts with ease, with workout paces across the board feeling easier and easier. So that's something! But since then something else seems to have gone wrong because suddenly everything feels harder, much much too hard, in spite of running a lot less mileage than I should be.

It all came to a head two Fridays ago while I was running what should have been a pretty easy tempo run (3 miles warm up, 2 miles marathon pace, 1 mile half marathon pace, 3 miles cool down). Alas, the warm up miles were a slog and running marathon pace felt like running 10K pace. I was still managing it in the first mile, but in the second mile I was working very very hard to run a pace 0:40 too slow, and then while trying to keep this pace up a hill I strained my left hamstring so badly that in that moment I thought maybe I had ruptured it. It was excruciatingly painful and I couldn't put any weight on it at all. The next Monday a doctor confirmed there was no structural damage but I had no choice but to rest & let it heal; at that point I figured that if it felt back to normal by Sunday, I'd start the race and see how far I could get. (And hey, if it didn't, it didn't.)

But it did! By Friday my leg felt 100% normal and I had no qualms about at least starting the race & seeing how much of this 23 mile long run I could get done. (It still felt tight so I wouldn't have tried to race any distance, but easy jogging was fine.) Still, all my eggs were in the 'just be able to finish at Boston' bucket and I was just fine with quitting Oakland at any point if I thought finishing was a bad idea for my body.

The Race

I arrived right around six and found easy street parking on Grand Ave, less than a quarter mile from the start, & spent half an hour or so sitting in my nice warm car. Weather Underground predicted cloud cover & temps in the 40s until at least 11, for which I was grateful (I've run some HOT Oakland Half Marathons) but I was not super keen to take my warm ups off while it was still in the 30s. I finally headed over to the park a little after 6:30, hit the toilets, snapped some pictures, & waited til the last possible moment to strip down & drop off my bag.


Back when I signed up I'd planned to do this race as a "fast finish" long run, running the first 15-16 miles at a comfortable, easy pace, then speeding up to finish at half marathon pace. But that was when I assumed I'd be able to do most of my workouts and long runs and built up enough mileage and strength to support that kind of thing. Given my many many injuries and lack of solid workouts and long runs lately, I decided instead to play it by ear, to run easy and comfortably, and only try to speed up if I felt like I could do it without aggravating my body in any way.

And, the start was not propitious. The day before, I'd done an easy three mile shakeout run and felt pretty much like my old self except for a tight left hamstring, ie, "easy" actually felt easy, and I felt like I could probably run at that pace comfortably for a good long while. The start at Oakland couldn't have felt more different--from the first mile my legs felt like lead, and "easy" (say 9:30-9:45ish) didn't feel that easy at all. It's not that it felt cardiovascularly hard; in that sense, I felt like I was barely working. My breathing was so slow I might have been walking fast, but my legs would barely respond. At the same time, my heart was apparently racing. On easy or long runs at this pace my heart rate is usually 140-150 bpm, but it was in the 170s bordering on 180 for almost this entire race, which I just cannot explain. (For comparison, my marathon "race heart rate" is usually 180-185.) I never intended to run it very fast but to be honest I am not sure I could have run it much faster even if I'd tried.

All that said, I could run and nothing hurt, so I just took it one mile at a time & tried not to think too hard about how far was left.

It wasn't too long until we were winding through the industrial part of the Oakland port, which was pretty uninspiring to run through. Normally I don't care much about spectators and entertainment, but maybe the fact that the area was so dismal and I didn't have racing to distract me made me long for happy sounds a bit. I slogged on and the time passed; I'd been hoping maybe I would loosen up and feel better as I went, but when mile 8 felt like mile 20, I knew I was in for a long morning. Toward the middle of the race my easy-not-easy pace began to slow, and there were several miles in the 10:20-10:30 range where I really was not sure I could have run any faster in spite of the fact that it felt easy cardiovascularly.

One thing I can say for myself is that I handled the whole thing really well mentally; in spite of feeling terrible and really really really wanting to be doing anything else, I never felt demoralized or like I wanted to give up. I did fractions in my head as I often do ("One-fourth done; one-third done; one-half done" etc.) and also looked forward to specific mile markers ("16 miles means just counting down from 10." "At 17 I can start taking my gels." "20 means about an hour left.").

As often happens, it got steadily worse for a while and then at a certain point (mile 15ish, maybe?) it really didn't get any worse. It just kind of...kept going. Since this was a long run (23 assigned, not 26) and not a race and I really had no desire to bury myself, I walked all the aid stations, and also decided that once I hit 23 miles I could walk as much as I felt like. (I took about a .1 mile walk break after mile 23, another .1 walk break after mile 24, & after that decided that I'd just rather not stop again.)

Sometimes people ask my opinion regarding if they should use a race as a workout or a long run (ie not really race it), and the advice I always give is that it's probably fine if you're pretty sure you can hold yourself back from the race atmosphere & context & not get caught up in racing people or pushing yourself to do things you should not be doing in that workout/long run. It's so funny how even feeling as terrible as I did, as I got towards the end of the race I found myself fighting the desire to really push myself & see how fast I could finish the last 2+ miles or "Let's see if I can beat this pacer." Arrrrgh, no dude! Take it easy!

In the end I finished right around 4:30, which is the longest period of time I've ever run by something like 40 minutes. Weirdly, though, even as awful as I felt, it really didn't feel significantly longer than previous marathons. I sort of had the "Ugh, marathons are so long" thought around mile 6 when I'd already been running for an hour and still had 20 miles left and then just sort of let it go. Like. What else was I going to do about it besides just keep moving forward?

(Though, I do think it was sort of a subconscious strategic thing that I never let myself actually do the mental math re: the distance and the pace I was running plus walk breaks and stopping occasionally to stretch or fix a wayward sock. "Nope, sock fine, just don't have feeling in two of my toes anymore apparently; cooooool.")

The Aftermath

Hey, I found Jen!

Apparently she convinced three friends to run Oakland Half as their VERY FIRST HALF EVER, which is always pretty exciting.

Now the less fun aftermath. There were a number of weird things with the course. Of course you almost always start losing time against the mile markers due to GPS & tangent errors, but something got REALLY funky with them in this race. My watch was beeping pretty much right with them until maybe mile 4 or 5, then all in one mile suddenly I'd lost .14 miles, then .17. Several mile markers were missing altogether, and then mile marker didn't appear until 18.55 by my watch, similar to several others closer to the finish. Because of this I expected to clock a good bit more, 26.4 maybe, & had braced myself for that, but it was frustrating to pass 26.2, 26.3, and then even 26.4 and still not be able to see the finish. When I finished my watch read 26.66 which is by far the longest distance I have ever clocked in a marathon.

And, apparently, I was not the only one:

A number of people who did more detailed analysis than I did and speculated that for one thing the turnaround on the out-and-back on MLK in mile 18 was moved 3 blocks further than the course map specifies, which, indeed, would add a half mile to the total distance and also explain the mile marker showing up half a mile late. A glance at my Strava data seems to confirm this.

And indeed, on Monday morning, CSE admitted the error....Sort of.

I have to admit I'm not totally clear on what they're saying. Clearly the turnaround marker was in the wrong place and the course was long, but with people clocking upwards of 27 miles with GPS, it's not clear to me how they can possibly hope to get the course that was marked out certified as 26.25 miles. (Though seeing that most others got 26.8-27.2 miles with GPS did make me feel a bit better about my 26.66. Perhaps my relentless tangent-running paid off!)

I don't know about you but to me it comes across as sort of a non-apology-apology. Like. We get it, something came up, you did the best you could. It happens. Just admit it was problematic, make it clear that you hear the runners who are kind of pissed off and tell them what you'll do differently in the future. And in the immediate aftermath of the race, if they could have just acknowledged that there were questions ("Hey, thanks for checking in, we'll look into and get back to you") rather than trying to pretend there wasn't a problem when there so clearly was. Also yes, I think everyone gets that if you BQ'd on a certified course that was laid out long, you're fine, but odds are good there are some folks who would have just squeaked under who didn't because of the extra half mile.

In any case, I am just glad to find that yes, I have the endurance to finish a marathon without imploding. You could question the wisdom of running a marathon I don't really care about three weeks before a marathon I really, REALLY care about, but the truth is that I think I sort of needed the mental boost of seeing that, yes, my body IS currently capable of running 26 miles, even if I feel terrible from the very start. Hopefully over the next three weeks I'll rest up enough so that I don't feel so exhausted and maybe stand a chance of running Boston at sub-9:00 pace at the very least, but you can only control what you can control.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*LOGISTICAL STUFF~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

Location: Oakland, CA

Date: Late March (March 25, 2018 this year)

Price: The Oakland Running Festival includes several different events. From the website:

(For what it's worth, another slight increase since I ran the half in 2016.)

Deadlines/sellout factor: This year, there were still spaces in the half and full as of the expo on Saturday. Not sure about the 5K or relay. No race day registration.

Field Size: Again, not sure about the caps, but the results page lists the following numbers of finishers:

  • Marathon - 611 finishers (slightly down from 2016)
  • Half Marathon - 2483 (slightly down from 2016)
  • 5K - 3494 (significantly up from 2016)

The Expo:

As in past years that I ran, the expo was at the Marriott City Center right off 12th Street BART in Oakland. I don't love having to BART to Oakland the day before the race (it's a solid 2 hours once you walk to BART, take the BART, hit the expo, & get back home) but at least it's close to BART. As in past years it comprised pretty much what you'd expect--a few running clothes / gear purveyors, a few health / fitness booths, sign-up booths for other races, & a few community groups.

In past years you had to print out an email and show your ID, but this year, all you had to do was tell the volunteers at the bib table your number (emailed about seven times during the previous week). It wasn't too crowded & I was in & out in 10-15 minutes.

The Course:

I already wrote a post about the very surprising and unfortunate last-minute course change released about a month before the race; word is there were permit issues with the usual course, as opposed to feedback from previous years' runners about wanting fewer hills. Part of the reason I had signed up for this race was the hilly and interesting course that meandered all around Oakland and up into the hills. Alas the new course sort of just looped downtown area and the really unappealing industrial port area.

Yes, this year's course was flatter as promised, but it was also really boring with virtually no crowd support until you get back to downtown around maybe mile 14-15. Even then it was sparse, with many areas of downtown sort of empty-feeling (though there were a few standouts, like the Taiko drummers in Ogawa Plaza). It was also definitely NOT fast, including many hairpin turns (and a lot of turns in general) and a stretch of dirt through Shoreline Park with really sketchy footing. However, the volunteers and Oakland Police Officers controlling traffic were all great and I think nearly all of them said something encouraging to me as I ran by. There were also plenty of aid stations for my needs (and again, great volunteers).

One last thing I would say if you run the full is that with only ~600 people, you get really spread out fairly early in the race, so even mid-packers can find themselves running with very few people around them a lot of the time (though the relay runners help with this some). You do merge with the half marathon course at mile 16, but because that race starts two hours later, fast marathoners may never see any of them, and even running ~4:30 pace I only saw the very fastest half marathoners until the last few miles.


The usual Snow Park staging area is super-convenient to the 19th Street BART (although the trains don't run early enough on Sunday to get you to the marathon start) but because of the new course the start/finish & staging area were at Eastshore Park more or less at 580 and Grand, which made it not at all convenient to BART. On the other hand, if you get there early enough (and I am always early), there is plenty of super close street parking on Grand, quickly accessible off the freeway and free on Sundays. There are also plenty of reasonably priced garages in Oakland.

Gear check was basically right by the start & BYO bag which I think is great. It was cold so I opted to drop my stuff as late as possible and pretty much walked right up. (Now...trying to get my bag back after; THAT took nearly half an hour. A lot of races seem to struggle with having a great system for quickly finding bags by bib number.) Also a billion port-a-potties (YAY)!!

The start area vibe was a bit weird compared to past years. When I've run before, there's always been upbeat music, someone on a loud speaker keeping you updated, the National Anthem, an exciting countdown to the start, etc. But this year it was just the start gate. I didn't hear any announcements, and the race went off at 7:00am with basically no fanfare. (In fact, I didn't even realize when the race started!) Not really sure what was up with that.


This year the marathoners got a pretty nice cotton quarter zip light monogrammed sweatshirt, which was pretty nice, and a hefty medal as usual. I think as usual the half marathoners got a long sleeve tech t and the 5K runners got a regular tech t-shirt. Instead of a giant bag full of samples & coupons you won't use and fliers for races you won't run, you can log into your "virtual goody bag" online & see if there are any fliers or coupons you're interested in, which I appreciated because it didn't mean a bunch of unnecessary trash & recycling.

Overall Assessment:

I have really enjoyed the half marathon in the past, but MAN, I was not impressed with a) this year's new last-minute course, b) how CSE handled the course change, c) the haphazard placement of mile markers, or d) how they handled the very reasonable inquiries about the certification and accuracy of the new course. Things happen with courses, especially last-minute ones in a busy city. But be honest and straightforward with people, in as timely a manner as you can. And frankly there's no excuse for responding to questions from your customers in such a curt & dismissive way. I'm not totally crossing it off my list of good local races, but I will think very carefully about signing up again and about which distance I run.


  1. Wow, don't think I need to make the effort to ever run this one. My husband's first BQ was on a course that was accidentally 2 blocks longer than the certified map. The race handled it graciously by clearing things with USATF and BAA and all times were adjusted. Why couldn't they do that here? Seriously. Congrats on a restrained training run!

  2. The RD is well-known for being a dillhole (I and a friend had negative experiences with him a few years back), so I'm not surprised he refuses to acknowledge this error. And didn't he pop up on your blog a few years back when you said the half was too long? Some people never change.

    1. It’s actually a new RD since the 2017 race. The former one was a weirdo, don’t know anything about the new one.

  3. Like I mentioned before - great mental training. Boring ass course, not a ton of support (spectators etc.), running alone for large chunks, not feeling well...and you still got it done. Major kudos to you! Also, it’s odd that the start was so quiet, they definitely had everything set up for the half marathon. And the year I ran the full, I believe there was music and someone on a mic making announcements.