Wednesday, May 07, 2008

4/27/08 Big Sur International Marathon

Big Sur is a really cool (in terms of both temperature and neato-ness) place on the Northern California coast, a couple hours south of San Francisco. I guess I don't know if that technically counts as Northern California, but I think so. It is the start of the creatively named Big Sur Marathon - one of *the* destination marathons in the US. Widely considered to be a fantastically challenging course, you don't sign up for Big Sur to break records or BQ. You sign up for the challenge and the beauty. It is a 26.2 mile point-to-point that winds up the coastline to the Carmel/Monterey area. The course rolls the whole way. Some hills are steep. Some hills are long. A couple of them are steep and long.

You will pay dearly to get into Big Sur. The race is spendy, and it sells out very early. You will also get up at 3am to catch a shuttle to the start, where you will wait for a couple hours in a small area with thousands of your closest friends. Probably shivering. And during the run, you will likely have to play snakey-snake with groups of walkers who are spread across the road. The road itself is cambered badly... aka "slanty". This is great for traction in your car. Not so much for running.

Sound fun? The views are worth it. Trust me. And the "I did it" factor after finishing these hills is also worth it. Along the way, you also get to pass a dude playing a grand piano in the middle of nowhere. Not something you see everyday. Nor in every race. Worth it.

At least once. I have now done this race twice... and unfortunately... really, the ONLY unfortunate thing associated with Big Sur... it has gotten way too crowded. Twice might be enough for me. But boy was it worth it.

I ran this race for the first time in 2006. My goal then was "beat 4" and I just did - 3:57. I confirmed that Big Sur is indeed a tough course... but I also thought it was a little overrated in that department. It is hilly, but the hills aren't that evil. The famous hill on this course is known as "Hurricane Point" because Hurricane Point is towards the top (but not AT the top) of this hill. Officially, the hill starts at M10 and crests at M12. Many people consider this to be The Biggest Hill Ever. It's tough. But it is also a psychological test. From an elevation perspective, the course gains a bit over 500 feet in two miles. That's hard, but it isn't THAT hard. It seems bigger than it really is, though, because of the geography. The road hugs the hill as it winds up the coastline... and runners can see most of the way up the hill from the bottom. This makes it seem monumental - quite an optical effect.

Plus, there's one more tricky aspect that gets kind of lost in the elevation chart. Officially, the hill might start at M10. There's another hill... not nearly as steep but twice as long - from M5 to M9.5. There's a nice downhill from M9.5 to the beginning of the Hurricane Point hill, but this is only half a mile in the middle of these challenging ups. So unofficially, this feels like one massive hill from M5 all the way to M12. With the steepest bit at the end. Wahoo! All in all, this section gives Big Sur its reputation.

Four other things add to the challenge:

  1. The first 5 miles are downhill. It is very easy to go out way too fast.

  2. The last 5 miles are very roly poly. These hills are much shorter than the famous section, but at M23, they are killers.

  3. Big Sur's weather penalty: otherwise known as 'youneverknow'. This is a coastal race in spring. It could be cold, it could be hot. It almost always has a nasty headwind.

  4. Those friendly walk-5-wide bands of walkers. Big Sur also has a 21 miler and a 10.6 miler that start along the marathon course. Additionally, there's a 9 miler that does a loop from the event finish location. What this means is that just when the pack is breaking up from the marathon start, runners have to contend with walkers who started at M5. Then more who started at M15.6. And then the last few miles are insanely crowded.

The scenery makes Big Sur seem like it would be a nice, relaxing, secluded run. Spending several hours dodging walkers damages that illusion.

So... yes, Big Sur is hard. I don't consider it to be the hardest race, though. Crater Lake has the hardest course. Estes Park is a close second. All three races are gorgeous.

Big Sur makes for a very long day. As I mentioned, you have to board the shuttles out to the start at 4:15a. For me, this meant getting up at 3:15a. After the race, you have to take another shuttle back to the hotels. And if you don't time it properly, you have to wait for the "Big Sur Caravan" of cars leaving Carmel to head down south. While the race course is still open, this caravan becomes very large and is only released by the highway patrol at sparse intervals. So when they say "go", the Carmel area essentially shuts down for 30 minutes while the next caravan moves out. And then, if you are lucky, you can catch the shuttle back.

How did this year go? I've had a rough spring training-wise. Lots of sickness and more weeks in the 40 mpw range (as opposed to 60-70) than I'd like. I set two goals for Big Sur... I wanted to beat my 3:57 from two years ago, and if I could push it, I wanted to run 'about 3:45'. The hilly course meant that I'd skip trying to run evenly.

As I was milling around the starting area (for two hours), I noticed that it was really warm. I had crawled off the bus ready for arctic conditions: pants, 4 shirts, a coat, a ski cap, and gloves with hand warmers. By the time I ditched my drop bag, I was down to a singlet and shorts... and I wasn't the least bit chilly. I never expected this at Big Sur.

Starting this race is an exercise in patience. They begin asking runners to stage themselves about 30 minutes before the start. They then spend the next 29 minutes imploring those who have already staged to "step back 10 steps" so that more and more people can get to the start. Of course, the problem with everyone stepping back as a group is that this ensures that the late arrivals do not stage properly - they just sort of wind up at the front (a theme which would repeat for the post-race shuttle, but I'll come back to that).

Anyway, after lots of Get Back talking and a little National Antheming, off we went. I felt terrible. My legs were really tight. During the first 5 miles of downhill, I tried to hold back while also trying to loosen up. Ugh. Around M6, the course exits the redwoods of the Big Sur area and enters the much more open coastal area. Ocean->road->hill. There are only two ways for air blowing in off the ocean to go: up the coast (a nice tailwind) or down the coast (a nasty headwind). Most years, this race gets a headwind. And that was certainly true this year. 20 mph sustained. No staggering gusts, luckily, but the sustained wind was enough to make me very cold and sap my will to live.

Time for the hills. And a potty stop. One really nice thing org-wise at Big Sur is the amount of portapotties. A wall of 3-5 portapotties appeared every 2 miles. No waiting in line. Up the hill I went. My legs loosened up, but I struggled a bit with the hill... much more than what I remembered from 2006. The organizers had lined this hill with periodic signs naming each section with something invoking pain, suffering, and torture. I don't remember any of these names :-). At Hurricane Point was a nice big sign congratulating everyone on getting there... and recommending that everyone stop and look back. Sure enough, what looked so imposing from the bottom of the hill was just as cool from Hurricane Point.

One problem, though.

Ain't the top of the hill. Onward.

The halfway point of the race is the Bixby Bridge. Here's the Bixby Bridge:

Nice, huh. Picture the runners coming toward you. This is where the dude was playing the grand piano. I hit the half right at 1:52. Right on target for "about 3:45", unless I had burned myself out. We would soon learn.

I was wearing the pink uniform for this race, and I vaguely remember talking to people about it... but not clearly. Usually this means that my brain has gotten mushy from lack of energy or dehydration. My pace was starting to slow in the second half. I think 'lack of energy' was more of a side effect. The actual issues were 'previous sickness' and 'lack of miles'. Additionally, weaving around all the walkers was starting to take a toll on my psyche.

Anyway, I don't have any specific recollections of fun conversations. Except for one. Somewhere around M21, I passed a Maniac friend. Shortly after that, the course took us by some big houses. One was for sale. I heard a walker ask the realtor, "How much?"

The answer: 6.2.

I'm assuming that the denomination was "million dollars". Just a bit out of my price range.

Onward. I had definitely slowed between about M14 and M23. I tried to pick it up; lots of downhill in the last miles. Some steep uphill too.

Man, this race is pretty and my writeup simply doesn't do it justice. 6 miles of redwoods. 14-15 miles of oceanside, with a lighthouse and big bridges. 4-5 miles of rural running past big houses. Few races can compare with the scenery you get on this course, and that's why it is a must-do even with all the logistics.

So many walkers in the last few miles. Weaving, weaving, weaving.

Robert Lopez, from Seattle Washington!

Hey, I got announced.


Gah! A 1:52/1:58 split. I definitely slowed. No 3:45 for me. But I did beat my 2006 time. I was very sore. The slanty roads did a number on my feet - my right foot, especially. I did not sleep well the night after the race because my foot hurt so much.

I ate some. Talked to some people. Then went to climb on a bus.

Ooops, I got there just in time to wait 30 minutes for the Big Sur Caravan. After that, buses pulled up to take us where we needed to go. And those of us who had waited patiently for 30 minutes got to stand there while others who had just walked up jumped right onto the buses.


And that was it for me. Too many people kind of left a bad taste in my mouth. I recommend this race to anyone and everyone who hasn't done it. Now I've done it twice. That's probably enough.

Next up: Already happened. The Eugene Marathon. If you got here from my calendar page, then you know that I PRed at Eugene. And if you didn't come from that page, well, now you know too :-). But there's an interesting story behind this. Call it 'the accidental PR' even though I said in my annual goal preview that I would try to run fast at Eugene. I'll be back with that story Real Soon Now!

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