Thursday, May 16, 2013

Big Sur International Marathon

Feasting my eyes on the rugged coast line as I ran past Point Sur, up to Hurricane Point, and over the Bixby Bridge, every sacrifice in the last 5 months of training was instantly worth the opportunity to complete the Big Sur Marathon. Nine years ago, my experience running the Boston Marathon was quite different. Because I didn’t train, I nearly collapsed at the finish after 6+ hours of running and was taken to Beth Israel Deaconess in an ambulance to get crutches. I opted (unwisely) not to train because I was worried about injuring myself during training. I told myself then that if I ever ran another marathon, I would train properly. Also, if I ever ran another one, it would be Big Sur. While Boston is the ultimate city marathon with thousands of screaming fans, Big Sur is the opposite – called the “most scenic marathon in the US (and maybe the world)”, breathtaking views and the occasional musical band are your main company.
Fast forward to Sunday, April 28th 2013 when I completed the Big Sur Marathon in 4:49.38, 40 minutes faster than I expected. I decided to run this marathon late in 2012 after doing a Tough Mudder. Tough Mudder reminded me how much I enjoy racing. I like wearing a bib number and I enjoy the camaraderie of the racers. Most of us aren’t trying to win – we just want to have fun. We can also relate to each other – each of us made similar sacrifices in the training process and chose that particular race on that particular day, when there were so many other options. And, when we’re done, we can be exhausted and contented together. Oh, and the medals are pretty cool too J
I started training in January 2013 – giving myself 5 months or prep time. I ran 4x per week: Monday – short run (3 miles), Wednesday – medium run (5-10 miles), some Thursdays – short run (3 miles), Saturday – long run (10+ miles, maxing at 20 miles twice). I also included some weight training, focusing primarily on my back. The lower back muscles are heavily engaged to maintain posture while running. To keep myself on track for Big Sur, I signed up for the San Dieguito Half Marathon in February. This was a great tune up for the marathon as it was chilly and hilly, similar conditions to Big Sur.
I incorporated a lot of rest and cross-training into my training. I rarely ran on consecutive days. Also, I didn’t do long runs every Saturday. Some of my ‘long runs’ were actually hikes. I found a great 7 mile (roundtrip) trail in Santa Monica called Los Liones. Most of my long runs happened along the beach in Santa Monica because it was easy to fill up my 2L Camel Bak with so many water fountains. I also swam to get a good cardio workout to ease the impact on my joints.
Despite a lot of work travel in the first half of 2013, my training wasn’t affected. I was usually back in LA on Saturday for my long run. I also woke up at 5:30am on most days and ran in the morning as much as possible. This was especially important for Saturday long runs. First, I could beat the heat. Second, there’s a psychological boost to running early in the morning. After the early morning long run, I was exhausted but I could eat, nap, and then be productive in the late afternoon.
I also quit drinking for 2.5 months. This wasn’t strictly necessary, but it allowed me to stay mentally focused and prevented any Saturday morning hangovers that would have made it difficult to do my long run. My social life suffered a bit, but the marathon was more important to me.

The Race
I stayed at my parent’s house at 7th and Lincoln in downtown Carmel. Somehow, I convinced my mom to make mild food (that may have been more difficult than the actual Marathon) which I ate the day before. I forced myself to go to bed by 8:30pm on Saturday. This allowed me to wake up reasonably refreshed on 3:30am of race day to catch the 4am bus from Carmel Plaza to the start. Driving to the start is not allowed – all roads are closed to traffic. We traversed the race route in reverse to the Start. Along the way, I sat next to a recently retired man and veteran of 39 marathons. According to him, “I did one marathon and swore I would never do another one. Then I said maybe I’ll do another one and see if I can do better. Pretty soon, I was hooked. I ran 3-4 per year. Since I retired, I have run 9.” I have to agree. Running can be addictive.
We arrived at the start, which is near Pfeiffer State Park, around 5am. The scene was electric and upbeat. It was pitch dark and thousands of runners were either:
·         Huddling for warmth
·         Snacking on bagels and coffee
·         Waiting in line for port-o-potties
Some runners had come solo (like me), while others were in larger groups. There were quite a few Boston Marathon runners, who were running Boston to Big Sur. In this competition, runners’ Boston Marathon times are added to their Big Sur marathon times. I can’t imagine running 2 marathons within 2 weeks!
Did I mention it was cold? But fortunately, I was prepared with my sweats. To handle the 40 degree temperature, I had a sweatshirt, two shirts, skull cap, gloves, and running pants. Those of you who know me know that I am wary of caffeine and almost never drink regular coffee. But this morning, I made an exception. I had a mouthful of coffee to warm up and get motivated for the task ahead.
The Start
At 6:30am, I left the waiting area for the start. I aimed for the back, Wave 3, which was marathoners with expected finish times of 4:45 and up. Wave 2 was for 3:45 to 4:45 marathoners, Wave 1 was for 3:45 and below, and Elite Runners, folks who had a chance to win the race, were stationed at the very front. The race began promptly at 6:45am, but it wasn’t until 6:55am that I crossed the start line. And then, after 5 months of training, and an obscenely early morning wake-up that is usually only experienced for international flights, the race had begun!
Miles 1-5
Miles 1-5 are slightly downhill. Having watched Tom Rolander’s course video several times, I remembered his words of caution: “Don’t go out too fast! The early downhill miles are deceiving. Save your legs for the highlands. You will thank me!” I took it relatively easy on these miles. Along the way, we passed vacationers staying at the River Inn. They came out of their cozy rooms and cheered us on while covered in blankets and sipping on coffee or hot cocoa. Still, though they were warm and I was cold, I wouldn’t trade places with them because I will choose participant over spectator whenever possible.

By mile 4, I had passed the 4:45 pace group. I was feeling pretty good about my chances to run a sub 4:30 marathon at this point. Little did I know that the pace leader was simply pacing herself. She wanted all runners to warm up in the first 5 miles before she really kicked it into high gear.

Miles 5 – 9
We reached the flat lands and calm before the storm. According to Tom’s video, runners would have their fastest miles in this stretch. This wasn’t the case for me. After leaving the confines of the forest, the wind picked up dramatically in the flat lands and blew cold air straight in our faces. There is nothing as demoralizing as a cold head wind in a marathon. Still the scenery remained stunning with cows on our right and the ocean to our left. Towards the end of this stretch, we caught a view of Point Sur enshrouded in morning fog.

Miles 9 – 12
All uphill. That’s it. These are the toughest miles on the course as runners climb to Hurricane Point. The Teiko drums provided some inspiration at mile 10, but there is nothing to do but climb. While some runners opted to walk, I preferred a slow jog to maintain momentum. It was tough, but the cold wind of the previous miles felt worse. At Hurricane Point, I looked back on Point Sur, now fading in the distance, and marveled at how far we had come. The fog had lifted and I had a great view.
Miles 12 – 17
At Hurricane Point, we were treated to GU energy gel, a life saver in marathons. GU consists of:
·         100 calories of complex carbohydrates (potentially easier to digest than simple carbs)
·         Amino acid blend – combats muscle fatigue
·         Electrolytes – Sodium and potassium given that this is lost in strenuous activity
·         20mg Caffeine – wakes you up and lowers perceived effort
After this marathon, I became a full believer in the power of GU, which tasted like pure honey to a hungry runner. I asked a nearby runner if we would get another GU. He said yes, around mile 20. Fantastic! The thought of another GU would keep me going for another 8 miles.
What goes up, must come down. We had a full mile of steep downhill to get to Bixby Bridge. Here, my right ankle started to hurt. Though I was wearing my blue Super Feet orthotics, the inward movement of my right knee caused a tendon below my right ankle to stretch and pain a little. So, I popped an Advil.

About half a mile from the Bixby Bridge, I heard the famed grand piano. I wish I could remember what he was playing, but it sounded heavenly. The combination of GU, Advil, stunning sights, heavenly music, and the realization that I was halfway done brought me to the highest runner’s high.
Until this point, I had been snapping pictures often (Tom Rolander’s number 1 . But, I realized that taking pictures was tiring me. Also, my half marathon split was about 2:31, which put me on pace for a 5 hour marathon. Now, I wanted to finish in under 5 hours. I had to sacrifice some picture taking to do this.
Miles 18 – 26.2
The home stretch! I passed the famous “wall” at mile 20 fueled by another sumptuous GU packet. It was during this stretch that I relied most on my training. The first time I ran 20 miles in training, I shuffled through the last few miles at a slightly faster pace than walking. I was broken. The second time I ran 20 miles, about a month ago, I was tired but I knew I could do more. This time, I passed mile 20 and did not hit the wall. I knew I could finish strong. There were some gentle uphills during this stretch but they were not bad. Also, it was warmer and more comfortable at this time (10-11am) which made running easier.

There were some interesting attractions in the last few miles. Around mile 22 or 23, we came upon the famous strawberry lady. I ate a nice, cold strawberry. Also, the live music continued, with music by the Carmel Middle School band and a harp band.

Running my fastest pace of the course during these last few miles, I finished in 4:49.38. There is certainly room for improvement in my time, but not bad for a difficult course.
Final Thoughts
I loved my Big Sur experience – the scenery, the feeling of accomplishment, and having my entire family there to cheer me on. Where do I go from here? If another marathon, I would do several things differently in preparation:
·         More speed workouts (shorter and faster distances).
·         Bring gloves and hat to race
·         Re-examine shoes and arch support – I wore blue Superfeets and that mitigated some over-pronation, but the downhill on Mile 13 still did a number on my ankles.
Of course, I can do other things. I can run shorter distances like half marathons, 10Ks, 5Ks, etc. This might improve my speed. Also, it’s much easier to be in half marathon shape than marathon shape. In addition, I can explore trail running. Trail running races happen on hiking trails rather than the road. In addition to being scenic, they are also lighter on the knees than road running. They can be more hilly, however. Lastly, I can try another obstacle course. The Spartan Race is similar to Tough Mudder but is more of a race and doesn’t have the electricity or cold water torture obstacles. To train for the Spartan Race, which comes in 3, 8, and 11+ mile distances, I need to strengthen my upper body.
This marathon made me re-think the importance of speed. Although I’d like to be faster, I’m a fan of Born to Run which emphasizes the joy of running. I enjoy the journey of a long run and the sites along the way. Big Sur is so beautiful that the longer I can be out on the course, the more I can enjoy it (within reason, i.e. less than 6 hours). So, if running is enjoyable, then running more is better, and I should consider “ultra-marathons”. An ultra-marathon is anything greater than 26.2 miles.

For now, I’ll enjoy my Big Sur experience. I look forward to normal life with more socializing, drinking Sierra Nevada Pale Ale (my first beer after returning to light drinking) and sleeping-in!
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