Looks can be deceiving

Don’t judge a book by its cover.

I could go on with these painful cliches, but the fact of the matter is, they’re true. How many times in life have you lined up next to someone at a race, looked him/her over and decided there’s no way he/she can beat you–and he/she does? How many times have you looked at a relationship, admired it for its apparent solid ground, and then learned otherwise? I know I’ve made silly assumptions only to learn I am incredibly off base many times over in life and undoubtedly will be many times more.

Yes, a nice net downhill–but note the uphills in there, too.

Which brings me to the California International Marathon that I’m running on Sunday. It has a reputation for being a fast marathon. Many people (and ok, me included) choose it because it promises a fast course and perfect weather. But I just reread friend and elite runner/triathlete Joanna Zeiger’s account of CIM from last year and was reminded that, in reality, races are only as fast as you run them. I think I agree.

Joanna qualified for the Olympic trials at CIM last year (her second time doing so) and will be returning this year again, gunning for a 2:40. She must like the course, which I find encouraging. But in her race report from 2011, Joanna talks about the fact that CIM is anything but a flat course. Yes, it has a net downhill, but in order to achieve that net downhill, you have to run some rollers all the way throughout the course.

When many of us hear talk of a fast course, we automatically assume flat. Clearly, that assumption is way off base at CIM. I’d bet that the predictable marathon-friendly weather, coupled with a point-to-point course with few turns, are really what make it a favorite for those shooting for PRs.

I think that with any race, our judgment on whether or not it was a fast course often has more to do with how we performed that day. I consider the Richmond Marathon a fast course, but that’s where my PR is. Does that skew my thinking? Perhaps. Whatever the case might be, it’s important with CIM and others  you bear in mind, the course will still only be as fast as you run it.

Ever judged a race book by its cover and come up wrong? What do you think makes a race course fast? 

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  1. says

    LOL, heck yeah!! Hello, Aspen Valley – all downhill and I crashed and burned the whole way.
    Big Sur – monster hills and it was easily my best race.
    What is it about that magical race day mojo? Who knows, but if I could bottle it I would be a billionaire … and an Olympic qualifier! 😉
    Kathy R recently posted..So Long Thanksgiving … Hello TucsonMy Profile

  2. says

    Biorythems… if there are such things! I find that some days are just fast and weather it’s got to do with the 2 months before when everyone was training hard, or just the weather on the day, just some days are fast!

    Yes some races have have fast times, and it might the that they are flat / down hill, or even at the right time of the year.

    We have a race on Boxing day (26 dec) That race isn’t fast, not because of the route (although that might play a part)but because we’ve all eaten to much the day before… and it’s more a social thing that a race the clock.

    So go out and race the clock…
    Coach Dion recently posted..WINELANDS MARATHONMy Profile

  3. says

    Flat can be fast, but it can also be painful. New River 50K was completely flat, so I was grinding on that same muscle group the whole way. By mile 20, I was begging for a hill! I signed up for NR 50K because friends told me it was a fast, flat course. I did wind up with a PR, but it hurt, both mentally and physically!
    Gene recently posted..Crooked Road 24 Hour Race ReportMy Profile

  4. says

    I definitely wouldn’t have thought there would be all those rollers. But, few turns should help out the fast factor!
    For me, a fast course means feeling good on that day regardless of turns, hills, or rollers. Oh, and I love people watching and scenery to pass the time!
    Safe travels and good luck!
    Abby @ Change of Pace recently posted..Cross training crazyMy Profile

  5. says

    I question the large number of screaming downhill courses that seem to be taking over our PR-crazy world, but CIM isn’t one of them. It’s an oldie but goodie and friends I know who’ve run it say it’s hard on their Louisiana-trained bodies (hello, we consider potholes to be hills here). But on the bright side I think mild hills are much more comfortable post-race than a totally flat course: after hilly races I’ve felt almost like I didn’t race, but after flat courses my joints feel pounded. So maybe you can have the best of both worlds here – fast course and great recovery!
    Gracie (Complicated Day) recently posted..Paris: San ChapelleMy Profile

  6. says

    So true. You never know what will happen in those 26.2. Praying, that the heavens open up and you have bionic legs and a olympic heart that day. No matter what happens you are an inspiration to so many… I’m confident that you will knock this thing out of the park. hug hug! xoxo
    LisaM@RunWiki recently posted..10 Holiday Gift Ideas for RunnersMy Profile

  7. says

    It’s more about how you feel and what your body is willing to give you on race day.
    I’ve done a race and though holy hill!! Only to talk to my running buddies after the race and they don’t recall any hills.
    I’ve had a great race, thinking the weather was amazing and the course perfect only to hear others complain of the rolling terrain and heat. Uh? I hadn’t even noticed.
    So many things go in to a perfect race. I think the best thing to do is not over think what someone says about a race and go with what the day brings.
    Good luck this weekend!
    Missy recently posted..Thank youMy Profile

  8. says

    This is such a great post! And like many others, it’s easy to think flat = fast OR to judge a race based on a silly picture we see online. A LOT goes into running a fast/perfectly executed race – like hard work and training – but also great weather and a great attitude.

    I think you’re going to run a SPEEDY race!! Good Luck, Amanda. Rock it at CIM!
    melody @ {will run for margaritas} recently posted..mother & runner {how to be both}My Profile

  9. says

    My experience has been that elevation plays a bigger role later on in a race, when you’re already tired. I ran the Healdsburg Half in October. I loved the rolling hills until I hit the mother of them in mile 10. My pace slowed by 30 seconds and I felt like I was going to die. The great thing about CIM is that it rolls but the last 6 are flat. I’d also keep it reigned in during those first 2 miles — a friend of mine let those downhills take over her pacing last year. She ended up running the first half at 1:30 and the second at 2:30.
    Jen recently posted..Marathon Musings II: Whatever the WeatherMy Profile

  10. says

    I am always amazed at every race I’ve run so far, that folks who you would think aren’t going to be fast hold a very solid pace and are actually fast. It is always humbling! :) I too tend to think of fast courses to be flat, we have many Boston Qualifiers out here in the Midwest, but I agree – it is all in the eye of the beholder. Good luck at the CIM!
    Christina recently posted..Runner’s Radar: hiking, Cyber Monday, MommyhoodMy Profile

  11. says

    All I know is that there are no hills the approx 5 miles after going over the river(“hill” going over the bridge). That’s all I care about. And the weather, oh and my leg, and the outfit…can’t forget the outfit. Other than that…
    Fueled by Spite recently posted..Waters TestedMy Profile

  12. says

    I ran CIM last year & finished with almost a 9-minute PR… on just 7 weeks of training. It’s a great race, but you are right — it’s not even close to being flat. In fact, the 300 feet of elevation loss over 26 miles is hardly noticeable too. I’d venture to call this race hilly, but I think you’re assessment is right because of the point-to-point nature and great weather. For me, having constant hills the entire way forced me to change up my muscle groups, so even though I feel I ran all-out, I didn’t feel *so* fatigued at the end as I would on a flat course.

    CIM is a PR race. But it’s hilly and it’s still a long way to run. Hope to meet you there!
    Alyssa recently posted..Stepping My Tiny Toe Back Into TrainingMy Profile

  13. says

    Eventually I need to try to run CIM, just seems like a perfect course. Yes, it appears that there are rollers, but in the end you are going downhill more than uphill, and the course is almost flat. I think as long as you don’t run the opening downhill miles too fast and burn up your quads you’ll be fine. And in the end, I think that having some up and down hills on a course is beneficial since it uses different muscles – as opposed to a perfectly flat course that uses all the same muscles over the race, making it difficult. So I hope I can do CIM to try to set a PR sometime. Considering the only marathon I’ve done is on the difficult SF marathon course lol.
    Nelly recently posted..Eugene, Stanford-Oregon, 10K race recapMy Profile

  14. says

    I often find races they say are fast and flat are not. Depending on what time of the year (weather conditions like headwinds) can turn an otherwise fast/flat race into a tough one. I don’t mind some hills. I seem to run my fastest races on courses with more elevation changes…go figure.
    Robin recently posted..Christmas 2012My Profile

  15. says

    YES x 10000000. My fastest two marathons? NYC and Boston. I don’t remember them being that bad – I guess b/c I was running the way I wanted to. And I’ve learned that a good, fast course for one person may not work (or be fast) for someone else. Some people are amazing at uphills. Personally, I like some small hills – it gives me something to push up – I get discouraged when I can look into the distance and see the course go on for miles.
    Looking forward to hearing how you view CIM =)
    Michele @ Nycrunningmama recently posted..How to Run Back to Back MarathonsMy Profile

  16. says

    I’ve been reading all along about those rollers on a lot of CIM race reports (there are tons if you Google it!) so I hope my efforts to put some hills in my long runs have helped. I’m more worried about the 50% chance of rain forecast. I ran in exactly NO rain this training cycle–we don’t get a lot of it around here anyway and this was a particularly dry year. Now I’m boning up no how to run in the rain!
    Terzah recently posted..One Week to GoMy Profile

  17. says

    If you’re strong on hills and the course is hilly….well, if the running shoe fits! I personally don’t feel “heartbreak” when I run Heartbreak Hill for example. But I also do a lot of hill running. I have a friend who runs at the beach all summer, so no hills. To her, the hills she comes home to in the Fall are brutal cuz she’s not used to them.

    I’ve run some of my best times on the roads of Vermont….definitely rollers! So I vote w/ the runner vs. the actual course.
    Lisa recently posted..LongevityMy Profile

  18. says

    So true! I ran St. George in 2011 and was ready to PR after hearing how great the downhill course was. Well in 85 degree heat my body did not care if it was uphill, downhill or flat, it was just darn hot. I ended up in the medical tent despite what I thought was proper hydrating and fueling the entire way. Needless to say, no PR there! Best of luck at CIM.
    Beth @ Miles and Trials recently posted..Decision HelpMy Profile

  19. says

    Race courses really are only fast for each individual runner. CIM is a net downhill, but its california.. it has a ton of rolling hills. You being from your neck of the woods probably won’t have any issues with that.. But someone in say… Orlando FL who is used to very flat terrain would probably struggle. 3M is supposed to be one of the fastest half marathons because its a net downhill. However, I know a lot of people who HATe running downhill because its so tough on the legs.

    It really comes down to the individual, and that is why i love running so much.
    Charlotte recently posted..A Yogi Love StoryMy Profile

  20. says

    That is a great thought process on a fast course. You are correct in that your idea of fast is going to be skewed by your time at the event. That being said I think IMTX is faster than IMAZ and I finished 6 minutes faster at IMAZ.

    I also love a point-2-point course with no turns. Karen and I ran the Arbuckle 2 Ardmore Half-Mary this year and it is literally straight down a highway. I loved it and can’t wait to do it again. You have a HUGE downhill to start then it is rollers and the mother of all headwinds but it is a fun race. Literally a SHOTGUN start.
    Jason @ Cook Train Eat Race recently posted..Ironman Arizona In PicturesMy Profile

  21. says

    It definitely depends on the runner. I was told by some that Santa Barbara is a fast course. Hah! I strongly disagree. But some people really kill it on rolling hills. Not me. I think I would love CIM because I can really cruise on downhills, and I just let go and fly. I am thinking I might run it next year!

    I can’t wait to read how it goes!!
    Kate @ Run with Kate recently posted..Sisterhood and Positive ThoughtsMy Profile

  22. says

    I’ll also add that a big storm is rolling into the bay area from Wed to Sat, not sure if it will clear out by Sunday or not. My guess is that you will get some rain during the race. Bummer since it really hasn’t rained much at all this fall yet and it decides to rain on CIM weekend.
    Nelly recently posted..Eugene, Stanford-Oregon, 10K race recapMy Profile

  23. says

    So true! That elevation map reminds me of Steamtown, which has the same reputation. And of course, courses that have a lot of downhill in the first half (like Boston!) trash your quads and make uphills late in the race torture!

    Still, I think elevation change is good in a marathon. While my PR is at Shamrock which of course is flat as a pancake, the flatness really hurt my legs because there’s no change-up in muscle use.

    Good luck at CIM!
    Alison @ racingtales recently posted..Holiday Steals and Deals for Runners and TriathletesMy Profile

  24. says

    great post! I have definitely judged a race by it’s cover. I chose to run my first half because of the stretch of downhill is had. I was not disappointed 😉

    I think you are right though, and your friend too – you are only as fast as you run! and in order to bank time on those downs you’ve gotta keep a steady goal pace for the rest of the course :)
    Ali Mc recently posted..Three Things Thursday…on a WednesdayMy Profile

  25. says

    So excited for you! I 100% agree with your hesitance regarding the “speed” of this course. It’s a roller. The rolls feel good, but it’s a roller. You go up and down a lot. Last year, there was a big hill (long and steady, probably at least 0.5 mi long) at mile 15. I hadn’t mentally prepared for that, so when it came up, I was mentally deflated a little. Good luck and you’ll do so great!
    Efo recently posted..32 hours spent driving, for 48 hours with family.My Profile

  26. says

    I have definitely learned that lesson (and keep learning it) both in running and in life. One of my best friends is a girl I was certain I had nothing in common with. :)
    I do think a few rollers with mostly downhill is a bit faster than all flat. My legs prefer a little variety, but too much rolling can really tire them out, too. Curious to hear your opinion of it afterwards!
    Laura recently posted..7 Tips for Muscle Soreness and a 20 miler doneMy Profile

  27. says

    I totally misjudged Richmond. Touted as flat and fast, it definitely had some rolling hills. Not monster hills, but if you’re expecting flat–as in towpath flat, like I was–than any sort of hill can throw you off your game. Good luck on Sunday! Will be cheering for you!
    Ama_Runs recently posted..Stone Mill 50 Race ReportMy Profile

  28. says

    When I first started running, I thought races that were mostly downhill – like Ogden or Canyonlands – were the best things ever, but then I learned that those are just deceptive in their brutality. I’d rather run a course with lots of smaller ups-and-downs than one with a net decline.

    I will say that I misjudged the two-mile incline leading up to Hurricane Point on Big Sur. I’d read so much about it that I totally psyched myself out, but then I ran it and it was not nearly as difficult as I thought it would be. What people SHOULD have been talking about was the fact that the course is nothing but hills from mile 20 on. That’s what nearly broke me into a billion pieces, not the two-mile incline in the middle of the race.
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