Monday, April 28, 2008

Big Sur Marathon

On Sunday we took part in, and completed, the Big Sur International Marathon. This was our second marathon, and, what a difference 9 months makes.

Anyone who knows anything about this marathon knows two things:
1) it is often considered the most beautiful marathon in the country.
2) it is one of the hardest marathons in the country.

These two factors seem to be appealing to us, though it might take some soul searching to figure out our attraction to more and more difficult goals of completion rather than picking something easier and doing better. This is the kind of thing that is drawing us closer to the ultra marathoning world and further away from the flat course optimum speed marathons.

I think the reason for this is probably a combination of not being naturally fast, our desire to run our races together, and our past life hiking these same trails that we now run. We seem to be in it for the challenge of completion and the beauty of the journey. Perhaps speed will come, (and I'll come back to that in another post), but for this marathon, again, completing it was the goal, enjoying the course was paramount, and a sense that we did well and ran strong for our current abilities in the face of adversity important.

However, I was also asked several times about what time I wanted to run. Since Big Sur is said to be 20 minutes or more slower than other marathons I said if I could PR (against my other injury plagued first marathon), or break 5 hours, then that would be complete success. With the six hour time limit and the prospect of more hill running than I'd ever done, I imagined a scenario where I could only walk uphill, limp downhill and generally walk aimlessly for hours until I was either pulled from the course for taking more than 6 hours or preemptively leaped into the Pacific Ocean. I hoped that wouldn't be the case, but couldn't discount it completely as I truly wasn't certain my body was ready for this.

Finally the time had arrived. My parents were visiting from Australia and my parents-in-law took on Kelly early Saturday morning while we packed up and drove south the 2 hours to Monterey. Our pack list filled all the space of a notepad page, imagining hot or cold race conditions, cold start with warm finish (note: buy throwaway gloves at expo), cold waiting for bus (what if they have run out of TP? camera?) , post race needs (what if we need to stitch our own arm back on?), if we had our car nearby, or not, what to bring to eat (what? 8 packets of Gu??), what to buy down there (pasta place reservation?) etc. We had a surprisingly complicated checklist for what should require a pair of shoes and some sunscreen.


Down at the expo we picked up our race numbers and chips and then shopped for a while. I came away with $80 of Big Sur branded (mostly Asics) gear, so really hoped I'd finish, and also a signed copy of Bart Yasso's new book. He's the chief running officer at Runner's World and maybe the nicest most interesting guy in running. He also has a quoted as saying that if he could run one marathon he'd make it Big Sur. How can you not like the guy?

I asked him about running the course and he said to negative split it, that although the second half in hilly, it's a net downhill and to save yourself in the first half and use the energy to work the downhills in the second half.

Later in the day we saw Jeff Galloway talk. Now here's my problem: I'm a runner. I'm a sucky runner, but still a runner. That means, I run. I don't walk. Walking is not the challenge running is. On the other hand, I'd rather make it through an event strong than 'run' hard the first half and then implode at mile 18. So, we listened to him answer questions about his walk running, the strategy of dropping the walk run ratio down to 1:1 or 1:2 on the hills, and other Galloway wisdom and by the end we both thought for this race it could be worth a shot. For this kind of course, where the ups and down were going to make energy conservation critical, we thought it couldn't hurt. We'd keep our planned pace, but we'd do some walking.


So we formed a race plan over our spaghetti and marinara that evening, largely formed off advice we picked up at the expo:
  1. We'd use 4:1 run/walk ratio. This was very different from any walk/running we'd done before (mostly either walk through the aid stations only, or walk 1 min every mile). When the time hit a 5 min mark, we'd walk a minute then run again. We'd do that until Hurricane Point (a 2 mile climb starting at mile 10) where we'd do 2:1 (run 2 min, walk 1) to get to the top. If the going got tough later on we'd do 2:1 and then 1:1 until we completed the course.
  2. We'd run 11 min/mile average pace until the hill. After that we'd do the best we could for the last half.
  3. If Jeff Galloway ran by us (pacing for a 5 hour finish), we'd run with him.
  4. Eat a Gu shot 15 minutes before the race and every 45 mins on course
  5. Run down hills with caution, don't brake, shuffle. Save the quads!
  6. Drink a cup of water at every aid station.


We spent the night in Salinas, CA, about 30 minutes of iceburg lettuce fields east of Monterey. Set alarm for 2:45am, woke up at 2:30 and made coffee. Yes, 2:30am. It was vomit inducing. I put on my race t-shirt and shorts. Stuffed an iPod shuffle deep into a pocket in case the going got tough. Added 8 Gus. Yum. Over that I layered a long sleave shirt. Over that stuff, a pair of fuzzy pants and a fleece. We grabbed our stuff and headed back to Monterey. Outside it was warm, already. I knew I wouldn't need my fleece.

We parked in a garage and boarded the school buses for the start line. It took more than an hour to wind their way down the coast in the dark. Half the people on the bus were talking loudly to each other, nervously telling strangers about their lives, while the other half stayed quiet, silently knowing what lay ahead, that perhaps by the time that made it back to the finish line hours later they might be changed forever. That makes some people disappear into themselves while others cover it up with apparent mindlessness.

The area where we started was filled with people already. It was good people watching. There were people doing push ups. There was much personal grooming. That a large number of people still run in cotton socks was an interesting fact. After a final trip to the port-a-potties we headed to our start spot on the road. A lone bagpiper played nearby. Once in position, it wasn't long before the national anthem was sung and the doves released. I'm not kidding. The gun fired and (3 minutes later) we were off. This is the point when you wonder how you got yourself into this again. Too late though, there's only one way back home. Start running.

For the first couple of miles it was hard to settle into anything, and walk breaking was difficult for fear of being run down. But we did it. Patty took charge of calling '5 seconds'. In 5 seconds we'd try to find some road shoulder to walk on. Way before 60 seconds we were itching to start running. But we held steady. Slow now will get us there faster later. Don't worry about the people running by. Stay on the plan.

We ran through redwoods towards the coast. Some kids were out now to watch us and the sun was out. It was already in the mid-60s and I'd started in just shorts and a t-shirt and never even begun to feel cold. I had a moment of thinking that was a little bad, but perhaps that should have worried me more. It was going to be hot. For now, it was perfect running, looking at the trees and the little streams and campgrounds or two nestled down in between trees. And the running was easy too, so life was good. But hold steady. Our pace settled into an 11:01-11:03 average. Perfectly on plan.

By mile 6 we'd cleared the trees and headed straight towards the coast and the Big Sur lighthouse perched atop a piece of marooned coastline. From there we curved north and started up along the coast. The road climbed slowly past cow fields with the Pacific ocean behind them. Cresting the hill we headed down to sea level and then onto the big climb: Hurricane Point. This hill was approximately 600ft up over 2 miles. It's work, but it's very doable and never gets too steep. Both of us felt strong the whole way up. At the top we stopped and posed for pictures (in hurricane force wind), the view was spectacular. People headed up the hill behind us, a trail of runners stretching along the coast in front of us.

Then started our way down. Easy on the quads. Easy. Easy. Easy. At the bottom was the famed bridge that is seen in many photos of the area. It was also 13.1 miles, halfway there. As we ran across the bridge a man was playing a baby grand piano.

Behind Patty the ocean was a deep deep blue. "This is Californian living," said Patty, "this is why you moved here." It was magical. And it was living.

We continued on. The next major hill I came too was the first sign of fatigue onset. It wasn't too bad, but the climb up the Big Bad Boy had taken something out of me that I wasn't going to get back before the end of the race. It was only going to get worse. The course became a fairly steady stream of climbing and dropping with little which you'd consider flat. Where there were hills, which is to say, everywhere, they had no name, but were still the equal of any heart break hill elsewhere. It was hard running. By mile 18 I was getting tired and my legs and I were having conversations. Our pace average had taken a hit on the big hill (with one mile in there taking 13 minutes), partially recovered on the following downhill (ran some nice sub-10 sections in there) and stabilized at about a 11:12 pace. All in all, the race to mile 20 was pretty good. Why don't they make races 20 miles long?

I remember at the San Francisco marathon a pace group leader giving the following assessment of running a marathon: run the first 10 with your head (be smart, don't go too hard), run the second 10 with your legs (it will get harder, use you legs to hold the pace), and run the last 6.2 with your heart. Not long after mile 20 I knew where she was coming from.

Around me the scenery was only more spectacular. Cliff sides we ran along were covered with flowers and dropped spectacularly into intimate little coves that you'd never see from a car. Sea gulls would soar by us against clear blue sky, while a we ran by a musician playing the harp. This is 80 or 90% of the experience of running Big Sur. The beauty of Big Sur far outweighs the challenge. And the two experiences become separate. While your legs can be saying lets stop. We're done. Your mind can be saying "Hell no, this is living. Let's keep going. This is fun."

By mile 23 I was hurting on the uphills. I was tired, there wasn't too much glycogen left, but largely it was this: I was very dehydrated. My HR was high and I unable to keep it down on the hills. Patty, we need to do 1 minute run, 1 minute walk, okay? What? My HR is 195! You know, like, as though I was sprinting the final 400 yards of a 5k, only we're doing a 12 min/mile up a hill and there's still 2 miles to go. I don't want to blow up here. So we walk-ran up the last few hills and cruised down the final downhills. They still felt good.

Soon we crossed the Carmel bridge and headed into the finish line. People cheered. It was amazing. A life moment. Our chip time was 4 hours, 57 minutes. A 10 minute PR for the two of us.

One of the organizers shook my hand as he placed the hand crafted medal around my neck. "How was it?" he asked with such sincerity. "It was hard" I said. But I felt like it wasn't a very good answer to his question. It was a momentous spiritual journey that I'll never forget. And it was hard.


Well, I'm still digesting this. The race itself was a perfect race for me. We beat our expectations on all levels. Our second half was less than three minutes slower than the first half (and some of that was picture taking). Not quite Bart's negative split, but I'll take it.

But there were things to learn from it, as always. Here are some initial thoughts:

. Hydration was the big issue. By the time we finished it was in the high 80s. Under those conditions I know I need a lot of water. It seems likely I need more water than I can reasonably take in at an aid station. I either need to practice that, or I need to run with a bottle like I do in training. And then I need to think about sodium intake.

. The 100 calories (1 gel) every 45 minutes worked well.

. My knee is still a problem, but my PT and I are working on that. After the race I had someone at the medical tent tape ice onto it. It was borderline annoying during the race approaching 'pain' in the final few miles. Ugly afterwards. Back to those exercises.

. This was the brave experiment of this marathon, and I think it works. It doesn't sit right with me, but at this time and this place it made for a much better (and faster marathon). Being a slave to a watch is not fun either, but being in control of the outcome of your race is. Like they say: walk before you're forced to.

. Good technique down hills worked really well. The final hill we ran down was our fastest. After 5 hours our quads were still going strong (not as good today!) Something to take forward. We can always be stronger running up hills, but all our trail running certainly helped. We'll get stronger.

All in all, we had a fantastic time. I haven't even mentioned how well organized this is too. Everything was perfect for every aspect of this event. Like the half we ran last November this is a class act.

done. running.

1 comment:

MK said...

Yeah, 2 Marathons Down...a lifetime left to run!

I think I am drawn to the hard races too...because I too am slow. I am hoping that I can be fast, I'll let you know how that works out.

Beautiful pictures!!! Now I know everything about Big Sur they say is true.

Thanks for your race report!