Last year on my way to Musselman, I got an email from Active.com that read “Congratulations! Your registration for the Big Sur International Marathon is confirmed.”
Up to this point in my life my running race resume consisted of the following races:
Big Brother Big Sister 5K in Flagstaff, AZ – August 2003
Baltimore 10-miler – June 2010
Shamrock Half Marathon – March 2011
Running a marathon was not on my radar, not on my mind, there is no way in hell I signed up for Big Sur. So my brain processed this email as a promotional message and I started trying to figure out what I’d clicked on about CA that would have had me on this Active mailing list.
After a while, it occurred to me that “Congratulations, Your registration is confirmed…” was not how you’d start a promotional email, and with trepidation, I read the email again. I was pretty much in shock.
There were two people I could think of who would do this to me, because I know of two people who have done that marathon and loved it: my best friend in AZ says it is her favorite (of 16 out of 50 – she’s one of those “one in every state” people), and Eric who ran it on the modified course in 2010 and wanted to do the traditional course. At the time I received the confirmation email, Eric was still in Afghanistan, and since it was still a good window between time zones I was able to confirm that he was the culprit. Throughout my training I told him I was going to spend 26.2 miles swearing at him!
Some people have asked me why I agreed to do it. I didn’t really ever consider that I wouldn’t. I think when someone who cares for you indicates that they have more confidence in you than you do in yourself; you can tell them they are nuts, or you can take on the challenge and see who’s right.
I replaced my weekly track workouts with hill repeats, and talked to Coach Ryan about how to adjust the long runs to match the Big Sur date. Early in my training Keri Hadley pointed out that I needed to change my attitude about hills, and instead of saying “Fuck! A hill!” I needed to say “YAY! A hill!!”; so that’s what I did. I was ready to run up hills!
Eric had taken care of all the logistics. We flew to San Francisco International, and drove down to Monterey the same day. We stayed at the hotel housing the Expo, the Portola Hotel. This was a great choice because it was close to lots of restaurants and the multi-use trail by the ocean, and we could go down and up to the expo as we needed to do pickup, register for the bus, or pick-up last minute items.
We arrived on Friday and picked up packets while we waited for our room to be ready. We spent Saturday doing an easy run, and lounging around. We ate at the pre-race dinner which was amazing and delicious! We also went to listen to Jeff Galloway talk. He is very charismatic, and it was entertaining and encouraging to listen to someone bolstering up all the first-time Big Sur marathon runners. As a result of this talk, I decided to change my planned 6min/1min run walk strategy to 3/1, and do a 30sec/30sec interval up the hill to Hurricane Point (which is what he said his wife was planning to do).
Big Sur is point-to-point, so they shuttle you from places around Carmel and Monterey up to the race start in Big Sur. We boarded at the Marriott across the street from the Portola. The hotel gave us box breakfasts of bagels with cream cheese and peanut butter, granola bar, apple, and banana. Even though we knew there would be food at the start, we got the boxes so that we could slowly eat on the long drive (it was SO LONG! 26.2 miles long!) to the start.
Sitting on a very long shuttle bus ride to the start of a marathon you didn’t sign yourself up for, is a very freeing feeling! When this is not a goal you set yourself, it is not a self-imposed expectation. I felt no stress. I calmly drank my tea and ate my food. I started noticing how much the school-bus engine was working over and over again to climb up hills. It seemed like we were always climbing UP. I realized that we were going to have to run DOWN these hills, and that even though Coach Alexis had given me some downhill running advice, I had not really practiced running down.
Big Sur Lesson Learned #1: Practice Running Down Hill
My race plan was pretty simple: Get to mile 22 before noon! That is the point where they will pull you off the course because they need to open up the road. After talking to Coach Ryan, I decided to aim to finish in 5:30 hours. I absolutely cannot do math when I run, so I created two pace bands; one with a 1 second negative split to finish in 5:30, and one with even splits to make it to mile 22 by noon. I picked up a 5 hour band from the pace team just to have that as a marker if I was going fast.
At the start we made our way to the portapotties, and then found a place to sit. I had planned to avoid the drop-bag melee by putting into my bag only clothes I’d need at the finish, and keeping all my warm stuff until right at the start, when I would take it off and leave it as a donation. So there wasn’t anyone in line when I went to give my bag to the nice people organizing them, and I was nice and toasty in my warm clothes.
Galloway and the other announcers were keeping us entertained with all their chatter. They called up the 18 people who have run the marathon every year to have a photo taken. It was very cool to watch them all gather up together saying hi, and catching up.
The race starts in 3 waves, and they line you up on the road in reverse order, so since I was in the slowest group I went up first, and left Eric behind to see him again at the end. There was a ton of room at the start. Everyone was asking “Is this your first time running Big Sur?” “How many marathons have you done?” and I was not the only person around me who answered “first time, first marathon.”
The energy of this race is very calm. More like a group of friends getting together to do something fun than a Race to the Finish for Money! Right as we got going, people started pointing out the rivers, trees, and slowed to a walk for their “rest” interval. I tried to keep my pace down, and take my walk breaks from the start. It was pretty chilly, but I was fine with shorts, compression socks, gloves, and a T-shirt covering my sleeveless running shirt.
The first part of the run is through the Redwoods of Big Sur. Eric and I took a vacation to the area about four years ago, so I was familiar with the landmarks. As we passed the entertainment, aid stations, and people cheering, it was very exciting to be starting this adventure.
Each aid station had the same format: medical table with sunblock, Vaseline, etc; cups of Gatorade; cups of water; and a BYOB. That’s right, bring your own bottle filling station! People with pitchers of Gatorade and water to refill your bottle. This was my go-to table at each aid station.
I felt really good, and was warming up quickly, so I lost the T-shirt, and then the gloves. Once we ran out of the forest into the more rolling grassland, I realized it was actually pretty warm and still. I stopped at the aid station to put sunblock on my face and neck. This aid station was surrounded by paddocks of cows staring at us. People were stopping to look at the cows. I was seriously scratching my head. They were staring at the cows staring back at them. Hmmm… city folk!
Another marker of the Big Sur marathon… most people had cameras and were running with someone. I guess I should clarify, that this was a marker for the 5-6 hour gang. Perhaps up in the 3:30 area everyone was serious… but here at the back, there was lots of chatting and stopping for photos. I found this to be true throughout the day. Most of the photographers stopped at every milepost marker for a photo (Big Sur has humorous wooden milepost markers)… also at the performers, sitting at the piano, or having a go at the drums.
The other thing I noticed was the relay runners. They had about 6 mile stretches. Once we passed the first hand-off, I started passing people fully dressed carrying drop bags. This was going on for miles. I couldn’t figure out what these people were doing, so I finally asked someone. Many of the relay runners pass the baton to the next runner, take their bag from the bus, and keep going! They are just enjoying the day and the scenery knowing they can stop at any relay change point for a shuttle in.
At this point, my mental energy switched from noticing and looking to coping. Right after that aid station where I put on sunblock we hit a wall of air! I think it was around mile 9 or 10. I couldn’t believe how strong it was. It was the sound of riding your bike downhill with air rushing past your ears. I immediately fell in behind a big guy and tried to run as close to his feet as possible. I kept hearing Coach Ryan on the bike saying “closer … closer …”
My watch beeped for my walk interval so I stopped running… and THREE people crashed into me! That was pretty funny. I did my walk, and then found someone else to draft off of.
Once we started climbing hills again the roadway stopped being level. It is completely banked one way or another, a lot! Running on the middle line didn’t help, and so I was mostly running on the dirt to the side of the road where the angle was less.
I was getting worried that we were going to be running in this wind the whole way. Looking forward was a bank of fog. I started swearing at Damon and kicking myself for not asking him to defer his Big Sur experience so that he wouldn’t bring his weather karma to my first marathon… sigh…
The wind and water vapor cooled me down and I was freezing. I wished I had my gloves and shirt. I started trouble-shooting this situation, and it occurred to me that there were all these relays starting along the way, and once the people warmed up they were probably dropping layers. I figured I’d pick up a shirt after the next relay exchange.
The only thing I knew about this course, because I refused to look at a profile or talk about the exact hilliness to expect, was that there is a two-mile climb around the half-way mark. This is marked by the Taiko drummers. At around 11 something I started to hear the drums.
We took a right turn, and the wind stopped! Yay! Past an aid station and relay exchange. Without the wind it was very warm, but I figured I may hit another patch of foggy wind around the next corner, so I picked up a long-sleeve shirt, and yay, it was my size. I tied it around my waist.
Running past the Taiko drummers after the wind, and the with the fog building, and that daunting hill . right . there was very moving. The energy from their drums and their infectious smiles was overwhelming and I started to cry. I couldn’t believe I was actually doing this! That this was my experience of the day!
Big Sur Lesson Learned #2: it is very hard to run uphill crying.
I stopped, caught my breath, and switched to my 30sec/30sec interval. I counted my way up that hill out loud… Close to the top, the wind and fog came back, and the next thing I knew I was running downhill. I did not notice any mile markers, so I didn’t know where we were. I asked the woman next to me if Hurricane Point included a downhill before we went back up. She informed me that we were done!
…and pointed behind us to the sign. The fog was so thick, and my focus on counting and that white line underfoot so strong, that I completely missed all the signs! I had made it up and over hurricane point! I was so excited, I high-fived her!
I don’t remember getting up that hill. I was very focused. The fog was thick, so seeing your progress was difficult. I was very happy to be going down, but the first thing I noticed was that I was tired, and then my knee started to hurt. I have a history of knee issues, and I had been doing my strengthening exercises up to the marathon, so I was confused. My knee had not hurt on any of my training runs… my training runs with no downhills… sigh… and this is where the payback came for not training with downhills. The pain was very severe, and I had to walk down the hills. I tried focusing on firing those supporting muscles, but everything I had worked on with my knees before was for running up hills.
I had no problem running up.
I am sure, I was the one person at Big Sur running UP the hills and walking down.
From this point of the race on, I don’t really remember many details of time and space. It just is all like a dream of moments.
- Another bout of wind, and realizing that my running pace was the same as my walking pace
- Frustration from the pain in my knee
- Needing to pee a RIDICULOUS amount of times, and having to fight portapotty doors to open, or close against the wind.
- Noticing how many people passed me, and noticing the people I passed
- Listening to conversations about training in Florida, Colorado, people who talked about running Boston two weeks before, and people talking about how they run the race every year
- And another bout of wind, and being glad I had that sweatshirt (which I wore pretty much to the end).
- Being disappointed that the strawberries were gone by the time we got to the stand
- Getting sick and tired of not having any level road way! I seriously think the entirety of Highway 1 is banked one way or the other for the miles between Big Sur and Carmel.
You mark half-way on the downhill, and at the bottom you cross Bixby Bridge. As you approach the bridge, you can hear the amplified sounds of the grand piano on the other side. This was another entertainment marker I knew of. On race day, my immediate reaction was “who wants to listen to classical piano while running a marathon?!” I didn’t find it very motivating, but was glad he was close to portapotties.
There are four people I remember, who’s interactions with me helped me get through. In the second bout of wind, I just couldn’t take it anymore. A guy next to me yelled out loud “This is fucking bullshit!” I needed some positive energy.
Coming away from the aid station I was next to a man who had been running the whole time with a woman. I asked him if he had any idea about the terrain and when the wind could be blocked. He started thinking about it, and thought that once we got closer to Carmel there would be trees. He told me how the woman he was running with was having a hard time with the wind, but that she walked faster than he did, so he caught up to her when she ran. I asked if I could hang out with them for a while because I was feeling lonely in my efforts of fighting the wind alone. I told her my story about this involuntarily being my first marathon and she started talking to me about something. I have no idea what it was because the wind blew her words away.
I finished ahead of them; they caught up to me and Eric at the finisher photo area. I introduced him to them, and they laughed that this was the guy who signed me up for Big Sur.
The other people were a couple of women. The one was slow like me, the other was the frickin’ Energizer bunny! Who probably could have run the thing in 2 hours! I saw them the first time just before Hurricane Point. The Bunny was running back and forth in front of her friend coaxing her on. She ran behind us, and around us, and back up in front of us. I said to the friend – what is going on with her? To which the friend replied that her friend was just running the marathon to keep her company. I pointed out that the Bunny may end up running TWO marathons at that rate.
I saw them again at about 23, when they passed me (Hurricane point must have been tough for the friend). The Bunny was still running back and forth and around. I said to her “I hate you!” (with a smile!!), and her friend said “I hate her too!” I told the friend she was really lucky, and I wish I had had someone to keep me moving forward like that. They pulled away from me as they ran downhill. I had to walk. Sigh. Seeing that woman buzzing around us, pretty much jumping and skipping down the road was hysterical and I caught some of her infectious energy to keep going.
I kept waiting for “the wall” but didn’t really hit one. I think that the intervals gave me short goals, and the miles seemed to go by pretty quickly. For a while I was confused that the aid stations were every half a mile (they were 2 miles apart). The only part that was mentally difficult was 24–25. At that point, I realized I still had one more mile, and I just didn’t know if I could do it.
I did; and the next thing I knew, I heard the cheering crowd and came around the bend to see the finish line. As soon as I got close I started crying. I really couldn’t believe that I had done it. I had my hand in front of my face because there were all those race photographers there, and I didn’t want a race photo crying…
As you cross the line, you are greeted by blazer-wearing members of the race committee, and they shake your hand and tell you by name “Congratulations, Lisa, you did it!”
Hard to stop crying after that!
All the way in I was looking everywhere for Eric. After I got my medal and walked to the end of the shoot he was coming toward me. He put his arms around me and I just couldn’t stand anymore. Good thing he’s strong! ;-)
Lesson Learned #3: The hardest part of a marathon is where you have to walk from the finish line, past all the stuff, through corrals, and people, and twisty turny routes to get your drop bag, and find your way to transportation that will take you home!
I thought a lot while I ran about my body and what I was doing to it. I accepted that I’m not young anymore and my body needs extra attention and work to be able to perform feats of athletic endurance! I gave up my competitiveness and instead embraced my success. I realized that being outside and having such amazing smells and sights next to you all day was what it was all about. All of the moments we spend outside during training, the thought we put into rest and food, the motivation to get up early, trouble-shoot the process of taking on a personal physical challenge … all of this lets us learn more about ourselves and add something to the way we live our lives.
If you have any thought about running Big Sur, do it.
There is not a single part of that course that doesn’t have something interesting to look at or experience. Train downhill! practice running on slanted roads; figure out what you need to run uphill for 2 miles, take a warm layer to tie around your waist, and go do it.
Running Big Sur as my first marathon was an amazing experience; and I thanked Eric for giving it to me.