The Laguna Hills Half Marathon course is one of my favorite road half marathon courses in Southern California, primarily because it is never completely flat for more than a mile. I also enjoy this event because it takes place on a Monday (Memorial Day) and the race atmosphere seems more relaxed. Although the race is very well organized and hosts about 3300 runners, it still maintains a “chill,” let’s just have fun vibe. It served as the perfect holiday weekend finale.
One can never really predict how the legs will feel after a longer distance race, but mine felt fine the day after Mountains 2 Beach. The normal amount of fatigue was present, but was not as noticeable as in 2014. I woke up excited to run 13.1 more miles on a hillier course – especially after 26.2 miles on a mostly downhill course. Though I do not normally drink coffee before a race, I enjoyed a large one while en route to pick up a friend. I grabbed a granola bar as well, but did not end up eating it as the coffee filled my stomach up quickly.
We arrived at the start line, pinned our bibs on, attached the timing chip to our shoes (old school method with the twisties), and waited in line for a porta potty. The start area was sparsely populated at the front, and although I’d reiterated numerous times that I was “going to run easy,” I could tell my friend wanted to run hard. He is much faster than I am, so I felt like that annoyingly slow friend while running alongside him. Our first mile was nothing spectacular: 7:45, but it felt faster than I’d planned given the fatigue in my legs. I felt like a lazy dog on a leash that was being pulled, but didn’t want to budge, and he finally took off after about 5K. I was happy that he was off to chase a faster time, and I was left to run at my own pace.
The race starts at the Laguna Hills Mall and leads runners through the Laguna Woods Village Retirement Community for almost two miles. Despite the earlier hour and higher average age of the residents, there was a surprisingly large amount of silver-haired spectators out cheering for participants. Since the 5K, 10K and half marathon runners all start together, the first 1-3 miles are very congested. Not to mention, there are a lot of youth and non-experienced runners who are still learning race etiquette. At one point, a younger male runner zipped across from one side to the other, perpendicular to the runners, in an attempt to visit the water station. Thankfully, we avoided a major collision.
Signs begin to direct the 5K and 10K runners toward the finish (5K) or to start a second loop (10K) at mile 3 for the half marathon runners. I came upon Davis, who looked to be about 8 years old, and watched him run as fast as his little body would let him toward the 5K finish line. There were a few people cheering him on during the race – it was evident that he was running hard and with passion. He received encouragement from 90% of the people whom he passed, and this warmed my heart. I enjoy seeing younger athletes learn about their own physical and mental capabilities, how to persevere, and how to dig deep and overcome obstacles. Life is essentially a huge obstacle course and learning how to navigate them early on is invaluable. I looked up Davis’ time later and he is 9 years old an ran the 5K in 23:05!
Shortly after passing mile 3, which is also near the finish line area, I spotted Walter on the course. We are members of the same running club, but I don’t know him well in person. However, I’m friends with him on Facebook and know his story through his posts. Perhaps the theme of this day and race was persevering through tough situations, because Walter’s recent experiences required doing just that. A little over one year ago, Walter started to build a new life for himself. The years prior were filled with bad experiences, poor decisions, time in jail, and stints in rehabilitation centers. He started to run only recently and is becoming fit and fast very quickly. Though Walter can never reverse past decisions and actions, he has decided to use them to construct a new, better version of himself. Walter and Davis are on opposite sides of the life spectrum, but they’re both learning about managing the little voice which urges them to stay inside of the comfort zone. Davis’ only hardship on Monday may have been overcoming the pain that a fast race brings and ignoring his young central governor, but again, the ability to persevere is an invaluable one. It may have taken Walter many more years to discover his true emotional strength, but he is doing it now. What ties these two together is that they are both learning, struggling and strengthening through running.
Walter and I chatted for a 30 seconds and then I continued on, maintaining a comfortably fast effort. There are a few long, but gradual inclines and declines between miles 3 and 6, and I felt great! My legs welcomed the hills and the residual fatigue from Sunday was surprisingly not affecting me at this point. My least-favorite section of the course was ahead, but had also heard that the race organizers had modified it, so I was curious to see how it would change. Starting at approximately mile 6, runners descend for 1.75ish miles into Wood Canyon, make a u-turn, and then come right back up. The incline is not severe, it just seems long. This section was similar last year, a long downhill out followed by a long uphill back, but it seemed longer this year. However, I do like cheering for the frontrunners as they are making their back out of the canyon. At this point, I was the 7th female back and feeling very good. I turned the effort up slightly while ascending out of the canyon and passed 2 females. I knew there was a chance that I’d be passed again on the flatter sections, but I was really enjoying all of the climbs, so I just pressed on.
After completing this out-and-back, runners head toward the riverbed and run a few miles on a bike path. I saw a family with signs, presumably there to cheer their runner on, on the riverbed and then heard them cheer for their mommy right after I passed. This meant that one of the females I had passed in Wood Canyon was hot on my heels. I knew that the last 3 miles were flat and boring, so I controlled my effort to make sure I had something left at the end. I started to feel tired right after the #10 mile marker, but knew I could continue at a decent clip for the last 3 miles. I passed a fair amount of runners between miles 10 and 12, including 2 more females. It soon became a game of Pass the Ponytail – I would settle into a tempo effort, then spot a ponytail and challenge myself to make a move. I picked my pace up significantly during the last 3 miles and the fatigue in my legs became more apparent.
At mile 12.6 or so, I spotted one last ponytail. I did not wear a Garmin, but I would estimate my pace to be 6:35 or 6:40 at this point and felt very ready to finish. She still looked very strong and I know that there is always the possibility of being re-passed at the finish line, but I went for it. Right before the finish line, there is a tunnel, a very short and steep hill, and then a left turn into the festival area. I heard her family members yelling her name after the short hill and knew she was right behind me. I ended up being the second female to cross the finish line, in a time of 1:32:31 (that’s a palindrome!). I am extremely happy with that time given the weekend’s schedule. Last year, my split for the two races was 3:05/1:36.
My friend ended up running a very quick 1:25, and that is with the first 2 miles being 7:30+ minutes/mile. The awards ceremony wasn’t until much later, so we visited the beer garden. It wasn’t a standard one-cup of beer serving style, but rather a small-cup sampling arrangement. Six or seven beer vendors were present and participants were given 4 tickets and a small cup. We were able to sample four different types of beer, which I’ve never done before. I don’t remember the names of the beer that I sampled, but 3/4 of them tasted good, while the other one tasted like crushed flowers. The awards ceremony was nothing more than a few seconds of recognition on stage, after which we boarded the shuttle bus to go back to the start area.
Overall, this was a great race experience. The Laguna Hills Half Marathon was small, but well organized. The course is interesting and challenging, plus the weather this year was perfection. I thought that the unique style of the beer serving interesting and better than the traditional one-cup style. I plan on running it again next year!