Going Home for My Last Marathon
A run around Ojai, California, put me in the midpack but took me way back
On Monday, I walked around the day after running a marathon with a limp due to pain near the surface of my left hip, presumably caused by inflammation where the IT band attaches there. It felt bruised to the touch. Inwardly, I felt a bit bruised too, even though I met my goals running the Ventura Marathon. The melancholy undoubtedly stems from world events overshadowing this trip—the strong possibility of war escalating globally—but also from a heightened sense of chapters from my past being closed.
I chose to run this race largely to have a reason to run around my old neighborhood, where the marathon starts. While my family roots are in Telluride, Ojai is my hometown. I lived there from age 3 until I left for college. My grandpa moved to Ojai in the early 1940s after a life in Telluride and Denver, and he got a teaching job at the Thacher School, a boarding school on the East End of the Ojai Valley. Then my dad grew up and went to school there, and a generation later, he got a job there. Consequently, I grew up down the road from campus, and the school became a second home.
Since Dad had summers off during the academic year, our family traveled from Ojai to Telluride each June through August, where in those days a family could live cheaply. I often say that my parents were flawed and screwballs as role models, but I’m eternally grateful they raised me in two of this country’s most beautiful places.
I met my husband Morgan at Thacher when we both went to high school there, and then, after college and marriage, our two kids went to high school there. I served on the school’s board for nine years during my 40s, so for about a decade of adulthood, my life and parenting were tied closely to the East End of Ojai. Once again, that school became a second home as our kids blossomed there.
But after our son graduated from Thacher in 2019 and we moved to Colorado year-round, I haven’t had reason to return. How would it feel to be back?
The Ventura Marathon starts on McNell Road, about a half mile down from my old home. At this end of the valley, blocks are rural and long, containing acres of orange, avocado, and lemon orchards surrounding homes that now are astronomically priced.
We got to the race start at dawn by driving a backroad, avoiding a line of cars, and our detour took us to the top of Grand Avenue, where my childhood home sits and looks almost the same on the outside as when my parents sold it in the late 1980s. The day prior to the race, I had stood in front of the house to study every detail that remains familiar around the ranch home’s low-slung roofline, including the towering palm trees that I used to gaze at while sunbathing by the backyard pool. The landscape made me miss my parents because I could picture Dad sitting cross-legged on the brick walkway trimming ivy with his clippers while Mom moved a hose to water her rose bushes. As funky as that mid-century house was, cheaply fixed up and expanded over the decades, it was such fertile ground on which to grow up as a kid. I could play in acres of avocado trees and spend entire days in my own little world around a swimming pool and the quasi-tropical garden Mom nurtured.
We parked our rental car across from a stretch of dirt where my sister and I always broke into a trot while riding our horses around this block. Stepping outside the car, my feet crunched dried oak leaves. What is it about the trees and bushes here that stir something in me with their look and smell? The oak and olive trees bend over the roadway to make a shady canopy, the massive pepper trees with gnarled trunks shed tiny red berries, the avocado and orange trees droop with fruit, the cacti and yucca sprout spiky limbs from the roadside ditch, and palm trees wave down from the sky. These species are like extended family, and seeing them felt like a reunion.
At different points in my life here, I’ve been in my worst shape and my best shape. In 1989, age 20, I returned from college heavy and nonathletic (this was five years before I took up running), and our school hosted a 5K race around this block for an alumni gathering. My older sister, a non-runner, got in shape to run it, and I recall being truly amazed that she or any of my friends could run this whole big rectangle.
Twenty years later, while staying at my grandpa’s old house during a board meeting at the school, I celebrated my 40th birthday by waking up at dawn and challenging myself to run a 6-minute mile. I can’t imagine being that fast now, at age 52.
Living and training at 9000 feet in Colorado, I can barely break 8 minutes in a single mile now. I can’t fathom how 13 years ago, I set a marathon PR with a pace of around 7:06/mile. Today’s marathon goal pace of slightly under 9 minutes/mile used to be a slow recovery jog.
I felt unusually nervous about lining up to run a sea-level road marathon, without the excuse of trail terrain, altitude, and mountain slopes to account for slowness. Everyone had told me I’d be faster now, thanks to altitude-adapted lungs, but they don’t realize how slowly I run, with hiking mixed in, in Colorado’s winter conditions and in the mountains.
So why was I putting myself through this marathon? Aside from wanting a reason to revisit Southern California, I wanted to kickstart training for spring and summer ultras. To get in road-marathon shape involves more structured training early in the season, including weekly speed sessions. Starting in late November, I focused on road running and various forms of speed work to boost my ability to run well on flatter routes with few to no hiking breaks—quite different from summertime mountain running (which means hiking almost every uphill) at high altitude in the San Juans.
Beyond that, I felt the need to prove to myself that I still can run a marathon under four hours. For my very first marathon in 1995, I had that goal: to run the whole thing, averaging around 9 minutes per mile, and finish under 4:00. After 19 faster road marathons and more than 80 marathons and ultras on trail, my goal had come full circle back to that original one.
Plus, I like round numbers. I wanted to run a 20th road marathon.
The night before the race, I jotted down these goals:
Be a RUNNER, no walking breaks. Break 4.
Look around, be observant, soak it in.
Be proud of what I have trained for.
I GET TO do this. Run with gratitude.
As I stood in a crowd of some 700 runners waiting for the race to start, I looked over their heads to gaze at the orange trees and, in the distance, the mountain ridge that I used to ride my horse up until I became a runner, and then I’d get up there on two legs. In June of 2016, I traveled back here and spent a week in the high heat going up and down those mountains in preparation for the Western States 100.
I’m an ultrarunner, but am I still a marathoner? I had never felt the differences between the two branches of long-distance running so acutely.
Then the race started, and all I had to do was run. So simple. I know how to do this, I told myself.
I couldn’t fully focus on running, however, because every segment of every road had a memory that beckoned, so instead of watching the runners around me and thinking about pace, my mind’s eye raced through my whole life. I kept turning my head to catch a detail that triggered something from my past.
We ran past my preschool, where I melted into tears of anxiety around age 5 when it was my job to collect dimes for milk money and I didn’t know what to do with them, so I hid them. We ran past my best friend’s house, where I first mustered the courage to phone a boy. We ran past my elementary school, where I spent every recess spinning on the bars and where our family always picnicked and threw Frisbees for the dogs.
The course’s first 11 miles loop around the East End, each loop rising nearly 200 feet. The long ramp of a slight uphill slowed my pace to just over 9 minutes per mile, but then I’d run in the mid 8’s downhill. We breezed past Boccali’s pizza place, and I turned my head to stare at the house across the road, marveling at the nights I had snuck out to walk all the way in the dark here to drink and smoke, wasted and falling over while belting out Ruby Tuesday, with guys who didn’t go to our school. Thinking back on how I used to be, it feels more like a fluke than destiny that I became the runner I am.
At around mile 12—next to the tennis club where I worked the summer after my freshman year in college, my tie-dyed Deadhead phase, where I used to hassle the aloof actor Malcolm McDowell to give me his towel card—the route merged onto a bike path that leads all the way to Ventura. Settling into autopilot on the path, still aiming for and achieving miles in the high 8’s in terms of pace, I was able to focus on the present. I noticed my left hip “talking to me” with discomfort, and my lower back stiffening. Mentally, I felt some emotional exhaustion from that run down memory lane, and I welcomed these less-familiar miles on the path.
I put in Airpods and turned on a playlist to get through these miles, which helped immensely. Take it song by song, I told myself. I focused fully on the lyrics and periodically did a head-to-toe body scan, trying to release tension and pain.
These 10 miles to the edge of Ventura objectively were the easiest, trending downhill, but around mile 22, I felt done. My stride had shortened due to stiffness, and my pace slowed to the low 9s. Still, I kept my commitment to run, pausing only to walk a few steps to drink through water stops.
Morgan surprised me right after the mile 22 marker, sitting on the sidelines and taking my picture. At first I didn’t recognize him, because he wasn’t wearing the hat I had been keeping an eye out to see, and his all-white hair still makes me do a double take. In my mind, I will always visualize his darker hair.
I felt a rush of love for him—my constant companion and supporter since high school—and when I told him, “I’m struggling,” he just said, “You look great.”
Morgan’s presence at my side, after all these decades of change, boosted my mood significantly. His encouragement reminded me to encourage myself. I was doing just fine here in the midpack—not great, not like I used to run, but fine. Most important, I was doing it—I had the courage to train, to start, and now to finish.
I did the math in my head and made a pact to finish in 3:55, squeaking under the Boston Qualifying standard for my age. Not that I want to run Boston again, I just would like to break four hours by a good margin.
I ran through pain in those final miles. I tried my best to follow Brendan Leonard’s new-year’s advice to practice maximum enthusiasm—deliberately telling myself, “this is awesome! I’m doing it!”—but the positive self-talk felt forced. I didn’t feel good. My body has had enough, and I wanted to be done. Not just with this race, but with road marathoning. I’m ready for trails. I’m stoked for the adventure and escapism of summer mountain ultras, where averaging a 12 to 15 minute pace with hiking blended in is just fine. This trip to Ojai was a good way to end marathoning, one last blast from the past.
Still, I felt a flicker of magic in the final mile, when legs remember how to run to meet a time goal. I finished with a chip time of 3:54:52.
I’m deeply grateful for my time in Ojai—now, and then—and for a body still able to run a marathon without breaking down and stopping. The trip gave me a chance to say goodbye to this hometown. Now I’m eager to return to my new home, to look ahead instead of behind.
From Trail to Mountain Running: How running evolves in the San Juan Mountains
Colorado vs. California Running: How some seaside runs influenced my 2022 race plans
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