Race Recap: 2016 Big Sur Marathon

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The 2016 Big Sur Marathon is over. Cross this race off the bucket list. But let’s not move on to the next thing yet. Let’s savor this one for a while.

I close my eyes and breath in, taking it all in. My senses are full. In this quiet moment I’ve made for myself, I recall THE POUNDING.

THE NERVOUS POUNDING of my heart in my chest as our bus approaches the start line.
We’d ridden the entire 26.2 miles of the marathon route in reverse to get there. It’s an interesting backward preview, knowing on foot you’ll be covering all the ups as downs and the downs as ups. What I remember for sure is there were a lot of each. (When the day was done, I gained more than 2,000 total feet of elevation.) I look out the window. It’s dark at 5:30 a.m., and with no visible scenery to occupy my mind, I reflect on my training. That was a big downhill we drove just now, which means a big uphill later. At what mile will that be for me? Did I do enough hill training for it? Will I push too hard in those early stages and not leave enough for the rest of the race?

THE FUTILE POUNDING of my fist on my iPhone, because the battery has conked out AGAIN.
I pull the phone out of my belt to take a picture, and I’m greeted with a frustratingly familiar black screen. Ack! I know there is juice, even though the phone has been searching for a signal for hours. No, this is because it’s too cold outside. My phone would frequently do this during training runs in Chicago. I usually joke and tell people it’s because my phone was purchased in Phoenix and it’s not acclimated to the weather. Only I’m not laughing now. There will be no more midrun selfies, at a time when I wanted them most. I’m really glad I got some shots early on, because I’ll need to rely on my memory and the official race photographers to preserve my effort for the rest of the morning. I make a last-ditch attempt to power up right before the iconic Bixby Creek Bridge—no luck—and holster my phone for good. Well, this is fate telling you to get your mind off the technology and make memories with your brain. Focus on the moment.

THE RHYTHMIC POUNDING of the taiko drums at mile 10, a traditional signal to begin the 520-foot ascent over the next 2 miles to the highest point of the course.
The drum line is strategically placed there at the base, at the Little Sur River bridge, I’ve read, for just such an effect, to plant the rhythm in the mind, the body and the soul. So much is written about that couple of muscle-busting miles to Hurricane Point. What they don’t tell you about, or at least what I missed if they did, is the wind. Gusts had been buffeting me and the other runners for miles, and nearing Hurricane Point, when we were at our weakest from the climb, the wind was a double slap in the face. I’d already cinched my visor down on my head earlier, and the bursts here were enough to blow it clean off. Thankfully, it stuck when it hit the pavement and didn’t continue skittering off the road and down into the Pacific below. Why am I even wearing the visor, I wondered, except to have something to aggravate me? The sun had barely broken through, and it wasn’t raining, which are my two main reasons for the headwear in the first place. I took it off to carry for a minute, realized I didn’t like having it in my hands, and then wriggled it back where it belongs. Don’t let the killer hill or the assailing wind or the floppy visor get you off your game plan, man. There’s too much race left.

THE UNRELENTING POUNDING of my feet on the pavement, especially around mile 20, when I can finally allow my mind to comprehend the finish.
A few days earlier, I watched the Boston Marathon on TV. We followed the lead pack in the men’s and women’s races, including some of the best distance runners in the world, and one of the commentators said that by mile 20, marathoners—yes, even these elite athletes—get fatigued and must rely on mental toughness to finish well. Mile 20 has significance for me, too. Not only is it near the limit of any of my training runs (22.5 is my longest, and that didn’t go so great), but it’s also the spot where I hit a wall in two of my three previous marathons. So how was I doing now? After a mental check head to toe, I realized my right ankle was sore, and my quads, especially my right one, were screaming. Most of the course, the southbound lane of Highway 1, is steeply sloped toward the ocean, which takes a toll on the body’s frame even if you make a point to find the flatter spots. Could that explain why my right side hurt? At any rate, I’m feeling like I have enough left. Only 10K to go. Which is what, 45 minutes? You can take 45 minutes of pain. Let’s call it discomfort. You can take it. You can make it.

THE SWEET, SWEET POUNDING of the massage therapist on my right quad, and my left one, and my adductors, and my calves, not long after the race.
I hobble through the finishers chute to the VIP tent, having just enjoyed a decent kick to the end and also having totally shattered my PR from three years ago. (“No one PRs at this race!” people would tell me later, in amazement. But I did, by 50 minutes.) I grab the first thing I see, a berry smoothie, and the thing I see after that, a big ol’ chocolate chip cookie, and make as much small talk as I have breath for. The party organizers point me toward the free massage area. I’m thinking it was an excellent idea to spring for the VIP treatment. I’ve never gotten a massage after a race before, but don’t mind if I do. I take off my space blanket and my medal, which isn’t actually metal and has already become my most coveted running memorabile, and manage to hoist myself up on the table. I lie on my back and as my muscles cramp up, I’m surprisingly relaxed.

I close my eyes and breathe in, taking it all in, and reflect on the Big Sur Marathon. My senses are full. In this quiet moment I’ve made for myself, I smile.

This Is Big (Sur)

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Bixby Creek Bridge

“If we were told we could only run one marathon in our lifetime, Big Sur would have to be it.” —Bart Yasso, chief running officer, Runner’s World

I don’t recall exactly when the Big Sur Marathon first entered my head. But I know that when I read Bart Yasso’s quote about it last year, Big Sur burrowed there.

The marathon, with its breathtaking California coastal views and epic climbs (perhaps as payment for those views), is on a lot of people’s bucket lists. It’s on mine. And I’m fortunate enough to not wait long to cross it off.

Search for “Big Sur Marathon” online, and you’ll find no shortage of amazing photos of the ragged edge of the Western world, most notably of Bixby Creek Bridge, complete with ant-size people running across for a humbling juxtaposition.

Oh, what an experience it will be! But if it were only about photo ops, my family and I could have purchased plane tickets and booked a hotel room for a few nights on the Monterey Peninsula. (Although we’re doing that, too.)

No, this is about the Big Sur Marathon, 26.2 miles of exhilaration and pain along northbound Highway 1. This is about 16 weeks of training—starting in January, in Chicago, in subzero wind chill—logging up to 35 miles each week (yes, only 35 miles, but that’s another blog post), subjecting my glutes and quads and calves and lungs to grueling hill work. This is about eating well (OK, eating like a horse), nursing nagging injuries, and avoiding illness or shaking them quickly. About keeping an eye on the prize. This is about being on the cusp of shattering my marathon PR in the grandest way I can think of.

There are a lot of superlatives in this post. The risk in building up something so much in your mind is having the experience not go as you envisioned or things not play out as planned. When you’ve worked so hard for something, and when every account you hear about it only boosts your already high expectations, it’s hard not to make more out of than you should.

I need to try to keep those feelings in check, but also allow myself to be moved in the moment.

As I write this, with less than 24 hours to go before the race, my nerves are good. Butterflies are minimal. Taper madness, even that’s not so bad! All that’s about to change, I know, when I head to the expo this morning to check in, and when I board the bus (at OMG-early) to the start line.

This is Big.