Beautiful and brutal: Big Sur International Marathon Race Report

It’s taken me a long time to get around to writing this. A lot of that is due to, well, LIFE. Adulting. We’ve been traveling a lot, trying to rest a lot, trying to make lives for ourselves in our new home a lot.

So, there’s that. But I think at least a portion of the delay was the fact that I’m still wrapping my head around this race. I went in with no “real” goal – but all runners know how we feel about that. ‘Oh, I’m not racing this, I’m just running it for fun.’ But that voice in our head is still whispering, but I bet I could run X:XX time…

Training did not go even remotely as we hoped. It probably – definitely – went better than it could have. And I don’t 100% regret committing to a marathon when we had just moved. It kept us honest, and got our butts out the door. It forced us to seek out new routes, new running friends, and keep up with group runs. It was good for our whole selves, not just our running selves.

But it was hard. New climate, new scenery, new HILLS. New stresses, new strains, new routines. A lot of this felt unfamiliar and bizarre, even as we did something familiar and normally comforting, or challenging in a positive way. I broke down early in an attempted 20-miler and bagged it at 10. Some workouts were stellar; but many more than usual were absolute garbage. It was rough. It was far less than ideal. But we had “no goal.” That helped. We wanted to train hard, but with more freedom to dial back more than may typically be necessary –  because we were dealing with more than typical.

I knew I could finish the race. Maybe walking a lot, or maybe I would surprise myself. But I could finish. I just don’t think I was prepared for the beautiful brutality this particular marathon had to offer…

Packed lots of books – and this was of course necessary reading for this trip

Pre-race

Given the time zone situation, we were able to work a half-day on Thursday and fly into San Francisco by the early evening (super-long flights notwithstanding).

I love six hour flights yay

We crashed in a hotel by the airport, trying to get as much sleep as possible since Shannon was getting a sore throat and feared coming down with a cold so close to the race. The next morning (Friday), we headed back to the airport to grab our rental car and make the two-ish hour drive down the coast to Monterey.

monterey sign

Once in the Monterey area – which is lovely and charming, with perfectly cool, dry, breezy weather and a gorgeous coast – we got checked into our hotel: we stayed at one of the host hotels, the Best Western Victoria Inn Monterey. I was honestly surprised at how nice it was. “Best Western” always sounded on the cheap side to me (and it was pretty affordable, which is why we went with it) but it was a very clean, very nice room. We got settled, and shortly thereafter were able to meet with Danielle (my old training partner from Pittsburgh!) and her hubby, Jose, gorging ourselves on crepes, because #carboloading. We then were able to walk over to the expo, picking up bibs, bus tickets, and getting our shop on for a bit.

Found it!

FInding our names on the poster

So, about that elevation profile…

 

Danielle and Jose then headed up to San Francisco to see the Golden Gate Bridge, and Shannon and I spent a relaxing afternoon and evening exploring Monterey in the walkable portion near our hotel: in particular, Cannery Row.

We grabbed dinner at the Fish Hopper, splurging a little (money and calorie-wise) but still making smart choices since we were indulging in delicious seafood. Shannon’s throat soreness was still bad, so at the end of the meal I ordered him some tea…and a shot of bourbon to put in it.

Coconut crusted prawns, sesame crusted ahi, tons of veggies. So much nomz.

Aaaaand then we made less smart choices, after some walking around to work off dinner, by getting giant ice creams at Ghiradelli. Worth it.

ice cream

Saturday morning we got up decently early so we could join the Runner’s World group shakeout run with Bart Yasso! I saw a few editors I recognized from various articles, videos, and of course twitter, and got to meet Bart for the second time. We even got to chat a little bit – we talked about cats, of course. Oh, and running. A little. 🙂

bart

We spent the rest of the day pretty much lounging (and eating, of course), staying off our feet and trying to get some extra rest, given our very…very…VERY early wake-up call.

Race Day

There’s early. There’s ungodly early. And then there’s “did I even sleep yet?” early. This was the lattermost – we woke up at 2:30 am (I think – it’s been awhile) and quickly got dressed and lubed up, made sure we had all our stuff, including ample throwaway clothes, and headed to the busses. It was a VERY long ride to the start – I think close to an hour – and it was in pitch lack darkness on windy roads. So you could see hints of the beauty of the course, but it was largely a mystery. I ate the breakfast I made and packed for us – English muffin with Justin’s almond butter and banana slices.

We arrived at the start with about 90 minutes (I think) until go time. We wandered the rows of portopotties (blessing them a couple times each), which had hilarious signson them, as if they were houses being advertised: finished basement; pool inside; and the like. It was hilarious. Eventually, we popped a squat on the curb – joined by Danielle – and chatted and killed time and tried to stay warm.

sleepy bundled 3

After a final potty break, we realized we needed to hustle over to the start! We Gu’d up and head over, stripping off our layers at the last possible minute (the warmth of other people in the starting area helped a little). A drone buzzed ahead. The National Anthem was sung beautifully. And then, we were off!

ermahgerd start start line pre-race selfie329522_193171137_XLarge

 

 

The Race

The race started out in the redwoods, and a long, coasting downhill. The road wound, pitching upwards occasionally, but almost imperceptibly. Throughout the race, there were scattered pockets of spectators, but for the most part, it was a serene, solitary experience. I’d equate it (and this is for someone who wasn’t even remotely racing the event) to a jogging tour of Highway One from Big Sur to Carmel. I steadfastly ignored my watch, all the while clicking off sub-9 minute miles for the first handful.

I knew going in that this race was hilly. And I think training in Athens, GA, was a huge asset for my readiness for the course. That being said…I wasn’t ready for this course. Maybe I just wasn’t mentally ready. Because it is BRUTAL. And honestly, Hurricane Point wasn’t the problem.

Around mile 5 or 6, we had lost the shade and stared down a long, straight, slow grinding climb. Cows lowed on the sidelines, and I joked with Shannon that they were saying “gooooooo” instead of “mooooo.” But as the hill – the slope so gentle you’d barely notice it in a car, but which starts to drive nails into your legs after a while – kept going. I also began to realize that I was overdressed in my arm warmers, because despite the cool temperatures, after the first few miles there was very little sun protection: we were very exposed along the coast.

The reward of that hill, though, that took us away from the trees: the sea. The crashing, salt-wafting majesty of the sea. The wind and the sight took my breath away. We had previously discussed not stopping for photos, but threw this idea right away: we had zero time goal, and it was too beautiful not to stop for a couple snaps.

The hills really never ended on this course. I think I had gotten distracted by the huge SPIKE on the elevation chart that was the two-mile climb to Hurricane Point, and the way back down, that the rest seemed like uneventful little rollers. They are not. Do not discount them. Honestly, there are no flat parts of this course: if you’re not going up a hill, it’s because you’re going down the other side. It’s a quad-thrasher. But the beauty….I was almost tripping myself sometimes, straining my neck, trying to get another look, just one more peak of the gorgeousness all around me. The waves crashing on beaches below. The jagged, rugged cliffs. The sky and sea so endless and disappearing into one another in the distance.

When we got to mile 10, we were mentally prepared. Every mile had a unique, charming sign associated with it. This was a cutout of a bellhop-type figure standing near an old-style elevator, asking, “Going up?” We knew we had a two-mile grind ahead of us. I already wasn’t feeling mentally great, but I had been visualizing these two miles for months now, and Shannon promised to get me to the top if I helped pull him down the other side.

The first of those two miles is the worst: it’s incredibly steep, and you slow to a pace that feels more like walking, even as you try to pick up your feet. I focused on my breathing, my arm swing, lifting my knees. I tried to stay as relaxed as possible. As mile 11 clicked, it leveled off just enough to be a bit more comfortable, but it just. kept. going.

I kept telling myself to relax, to keep running, not to stop to walk just yet – I might have to do that later. The top would be worth it. The view would be amazing.

Boy, was I right. The view was sweeping and grand. I wish I had a photo for you, but at the same moment we were hit with the spectacular view, we were hit by a huge gust of wind. We’d pick up a food to run, and it would hit the other ankle – that’s how strong the wind was. So we kept trucking, controlled but flying down the other, super-steep side. I wondered what shape my quads would be in after this. Every step brought us closer to the midway point and the amazing Bixby Bridge, the pianist waiting for us.

bixby1 bixby2

 

 

After that bit of awe wore off, I again felt pretty run down. I had stopped a few miles early for the quickest pee break I could manage, and a couple miles after halfway, Shannon had to stop for a break (what’s hilarious to me is that Strava detects stops in the data and subtracts it from the total time, even as the watch keeps running – it knows you stopped moving, like to take photos or use the porto. Our time with that was… well, I’ll mention that later). We got going again, and the hills and sun and wind kept coming. I tried to refocus my mind on the positive: I was running Big Sur! It was SO BEAUTIFUL. I was really strong, and even if I wasn’t having a great race, I wasn’t trying to race fast, I was just happy to be out here. It only kinda worked. The beauty of the course occasionally distracted me enough. Other times, I still got into my own head.

The mile 20 sign was upon us (of course it was a brick wall) and I felt about the same, but it became clear very quickly that Shannon – who had seemed like he was feeling good and strong for most of the race to this point – was deteriorating rapidly. We had been doing everything we could for his head cold: we slept a TON (the night before the race notwithstanding), tons of fluids, and dosed him with Nyquil each night (NOT before the race) to ensure his sleep was restful.

Now it was exploding. He was coughing so much he was having trouble breathing. That, combined with the 20-mile wall? Suddenly, the guy who really did pull me through the first 20 miles needed some help. As with our first marathon in Philly, I largely forgot (or was able to set aside) the extreme amount of marathon pain setting into my legs and soldier on and focus on getting him to the finish line with me. Several times he told me to go ahead. I refused. This one, we were running together. This one, we were finishing together.

The hills rolled on. Around mile 23, there was the strawberry aid station of legend – I got a delicious, juicy strawberry that was absolute ambrosia at that point. We took walk breaks. We ran when we could. We wove across the road because, while we’d been told that it was best to stay in the middle because of the road camber, the camber shifted a lot, so you had to find that sweet, flat spot that wouldn’t anger your hips and knees.

I distracted Shannon as best I could: pointing out a beautiful sight here or there, the fact that there was a Tesla parked along the sidelines at one point, how close we were, and that run, walk, or crawl, we were going to make it.

There was one last, cruel hill in the 25/26 mile range before we were able to coast down, across a little bridge, and the finish line was at last in sight. The sun beat down on us as we tried to kick a little bit, but mostly just tried to keep it together.

We crossed the finish hand-in-hand, and promptly fell apart.

329522_193784757_XLarge

Finish time: 4:26:11

Here’s the funny thing: Strava took out our stops – the bathroom stops and the photos – and came up with a 4:17 finish time. That’s right. Our Philly Marathon time, basically. I find this rather remarkable.

Post-race

As usual after a marathon, everything hurt. Everything was cramping. Every step was agony. My feet were destroyed (though less so, I think, than typical since I ran in Hokas – especially since I knew I’d be out there a while and the road camber was weird). My quads were shattered. I was sweaty and exhausted. Shannon was a mess for a good 30 minutes. I helped him to and through the food and water tent, and we sat for a few minutes, updating people on our finish (parents, mostly) before heading to the buses. During the bus-ride, he managed to recoup a bit, and we limped to the car and headed back to the hotel to get cleaned up.

We lounged around for a long while, snacking on things but otherwise waiting for our appetites to really come back after forcing in the initial calories immediately post-race. By early evening, we were ready for some burgers. After some googling, we wound up at a diner that was walkable from our hotel, and gorged on burgers and beer, while listening to a group of retirees participate in a ukulele lesson. It was completely adorable.

burger

Asked for a burger with peanut butter and bacon. Yep.

 

The rest of the trip was totally relaxing. We woke up Monday morning feeling…not that horrible, actually. I recall swinging my legs over the side of the bed and stepping down  to the ground tentatively, fearing the worst. Yes, I was quite sore, but I think I was worse (and for longer) after Air Force in September (where I ran my PR of 3:52 and raced my guts out – well, OK, mild exaggeration. I was a bit of a quitter that day but aren’t we all a little after mile 22 :-/). Maybe it was because we hadn’t “raced” this one. Maybe I was better about re-fueling and re-hydrating. The world may never know.

We took our tired legs for some more exploring: we checked out the aquarium, and fed the leftover English muffins I had bought at the local Trader Joe’s to some very happy seagulls. Around mid-afternoon, we drove back up to San Francisco and ventured into the Oakland area to have a delightful dinner and night over at our friend Amanda’s. She’s a very cool tech geek with a very cool tech job and a very cool (and handsome) cat.

Tuesday morning, after a leisurely wake-up and shower, we headed to the airport to drop off the rental car and make our way back home! Shannon’s head cold 200% blew up on the plane that day – I felt awful for him. Being sick at 35,000 feet is the actual worst. I myself started feeling it on the drive back from the airport that night, and by the next day at work I was more and more miserable by the hour (I ended up taking Friday off work because I felt so bad). I guess when you’re not training “hard” for a marathon, instead of getting sick during peak week, you get sick during or right after the race.

It’s been now nearly three months since the race. I remember actively thinking sometime during the last 10K – “marathons suck, they are the worst, why do I run these? I am never running another marathon again, they’re stupid.”

What did I do a week and a half later?

Oops, I did it again

The purpose of this race was two-fold: 1.) to have a spectacular experience at a bucket list race (CHECK); 2.) to get another 26.2 under my belt, with the goal of running two this year for the first time ever, and doing so in a way that wasn’t going to destroy me (CHECK).

The marathon and I have been on a bit of a journey together already – but it’s just getting started. It’s a tenuous, tough relationship – and I’m not always in love with it. But there’s this need, this passion, this fire burning. I want to master it. I want to face the beast and wrestle it to the ground.

Yes, I want to qualify for Boston.

But I’ll get to that in a later post…. 🙂

Posted by

I'm a 29-year-old writer and runner. This is my running blog.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s