Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Race Report: The Big Sur International Marathon

As I drove towards Monterey, California, last Friday, the wind was blowing furiously in from the sea. Beside Highway 1 was a row of dunes over a hundred feet tall, and sand was being driven over the top of them, half-burying the paved recreational path at the foot of the dunes.

I checked into my hotel and arrayed my electronic gear for charging:

You can never be too thin or have too many electronic devices!

I donned my running gear and went for a recovery run before visiting the expo to pick up my race packet. The wind continued to gust, blowing sand from the beach into my face as I tried to relax and loosen up during an easy five-mile run. If it was this windy on the shores of the relatively-protected Monterey Bay, what would it be like in two days, when I would be running along the exposed cliffs of Big Sur?

The race expo on Friday afternoon was a relaxed affair, with runners just beginning to trickle in. I picked up my bib, D-tag, and shirt, then strolled into the exhibitor's area where I bought a couple pairs of $1 throwaway gloves. Prominently on display was a stack of Big Sur souvenir fleece blankets. In retrospect, I probably should have bought one!

The next morning I met up with fellow DARTer Todd Hartung, and we went for another easy run along Monterey Bay. This time, the wind was much lighter; it was actually quite pleasant, if a bit chilly. At race pace, the weather would have been perfect. Big Sur would be Todd's 26th marathon and my first; he's a lot faster than me, so this would be my only chance to run with him all weekend. Later that day we drove the Big Sur course (I wrote a recap of that drive here). Suffice it to say that, while the hills on the course were daunting, the scenery was breathtaking. We stopped at several points along the way and tried to imagine what it would be like on race day, when the runners would have the highway all to themselves. By this time, the wind had picked up again. What would tomorrow's weather bring?

At dinner we once again stuck to the carbo-loading regime. Our restaurant featured an annual "marathon pasta" in honor of the race, and Todd and I both ordered it: Whole-wheat noodles with potatoes, peas, and corn. It was a little bland, but that was okay -- I'd rather have bland food than something exotic that might upset my stomach. Joining us for dinner were Todd's wife, and my father and stepmother, who had flown down from Oregon in Dad's small plane to watch me race. The three of them mocked us with their protein- and fat-laden meals, and we pretended not to care. I like pasta as much as the next guy, but it doesn't hold a candle to a nice piece of steak or fish -- especially when the pasta isn't bathed in delicious, fattening sauce.

I went to bed around 9:30, grateful that my parents, who were sharing a room with me, were also turning in early. I set my alarm for 3:30 and hoped to get at least a couple hours of sleep while I fretted about the race. The weather forecast was sunny, light winds, and 43 degrees at race time, warming to 55 or 60 by my projected finish time. I couldn't decide whether to wear a singlet alone, or to wear a short-sleeved compression shirt underneath. The decision was made for me when I realized I hadn't packed a short-sleeved compression shirt! I put on an old pair of sweatpants and sweatshirt over my shorts and singlet, and headed to the hotel lobby to meet Todd.

We walked to the bus pickup area, just two blocks from our hotel. The pickup was meticulously organized by race officials wearing matching jackets, ties, and running shoes. We were on a bus and on our way in a matter of minutes. We arrived at the starting area in Carmel at about 4:30, walking through the largest array of porta-potties I've ever seen before finding a stone wall we could sit on while we awaited the 6:45 start. That was the good news. The bad news was that it was unbelievably cold. I was shivering within minutes, even while I maxed out my layers and wore my $1 gloves. Why hadn't I bought one of those blankets?!? The other bad news is that we were directly in front of the loudspeakers used to make pre-race announcements. Somehow Todd and I managed to protect our ears and shiver our way through the hour and a half wait, availing ourselves of the generous porta-potty array multiple times before getting herded towards the starting line. It was only then that we realized what hundreds of runners had already figured out: There was a huge, heated grocery store right next to the start line, open 24 hours!

As I walked to the starting area, I began to warm up, and by the time I arrived in our "corral" (actually just a loosely defined area with no physical separation from the other starting groups), I knew I wouldn't be too cold on this race. My plan was to stay with the 3:30 pace team for as long as I could. Most large marathons have designated pacers running at set speeds, helping the runners achieve their goals. For Big Sur, 3:30 was the fastest team, and it was also my goal. There were also teams running 3:40, 3:50, and so on.

I knew that a 3:30 pace would be very difficult for me on a course as hilly as Big Sur, but I had trained hard for this race and figured I might as well give it a shot. Todd, fresh off a 3:18 performance in Charlottesville, was going to be going even faster, so this was a way to stay with someone running a pace I should be comfortable with for many miles. Here's the scene at the starting line:

Many runners, many cameras

There were a couple hundred runners ahead of me, but thousands arrayed behind me. Here's a self portrait:

 Me and a few of my closest friends. The tiny guy to the left finished about 10 minutes ahead of me

At this point, between the adrenaline of the imminent start and the proximity of hundreds of warm bodies, I was finally feeling warm enough to remove my sweatpants and sweatshirt. I tossed them to the side of the road, where we assured they would later be picked up and donated to charity. After the Star-Spangled Banner and the rockinest invocation I've ever heard (including something to the effect of "God grant me the strength to persevere in the face of adversity, the courage to stop in case of injury, and the wisdom to know the difference"), we were off.

The race starts with one of its hilliest sections. Within a few hundred meters, we were headed up a hill, which crested in a half-mile, then descended just as rapidly. This would be the notorious 25-mile hill on our return, but at this point it seemed only a minor obstacle. The hills kept coming, rolling higher and higher in a lovely residential neighborhood of million-dollar homes with tantalizing glimpses of the ocean every few hundred meters. This is the Carmel Highlands, considered by many to be the toughest section of the course -- when encountered at the end of the race! By Mile 4, we crested the highlands and started down a long hill. My splits for miles 1 to 4 were 7:56, 7:42, 7:50, 7:59. Here's a photo of me crossing one of the many beautiful bridges in Carmel Highlands.

Yep, that's one fine bridge

Mile 5 was a solid downhill stretch. I figured I should run this hill in an equal effort to the uphill sections, so I strode down at what seemed like a comfortable pace, which turned out to be 7:23! Perhaps a little too fast. The 3:30 pace group was now well behind me. I was still feeling very strong, not winded at all, so I decided that was okay -- as long as I didn't start running up hills at that pace. At this point we emerged into much more open country, with sweeping views of the dramatic coastline. Here are a couple photos from this stretch:

Looking good, Dave!

Feeling good, Dave!

The gorgeous scenery just goes on and on

I struck up conversations with a couple of folks in this section, including a guy who actually owned one of the multi-million-dollar homes we were all drooling over as we ran by. He had run Boston two weeks earlier and was hoping to just hang on for a 3:30 pace (kind of like me, with the exception of the whole "just ran Boston" part). He said the hardest part of the race for him was going to be resisting the temptation to turn up his driveway the two times he'd be passing it. Between the scenery and the conversation, the miles passed quickly. My splits for miles 6 to 9 were 7:57, 7:56, 7:53, 7:51.

The Big Sur course had to be revised this year due to a landslide just past the Rocky Creek Bridge, which had only been partly repaired a week before the race. Normally it's a point to point race, starting in Big Sur and ending in Carmel, where we started this year. This year it was an out-and-back course, with a turnaround just past Mile 12, right before the bridge, and a small extra loop at Point Lobos State Park. This means we wouldn't be running one of the most dramatic sections of the course, Hurricane Point, nearly a 600-foot climb to a spectacular bluff overlooking the ocean below. Although the consensus was that this year's course was harder, I couldn't help feeling like we hadn't done the "real" Big Sur Marathon. Besides, we missed out on an amazing view. Here's a picture I took from Hurricane point on Saturday when Todd and I drove the course:

As I approached the turnaround, the hills got nasty once again, but I still felt quite strong. I dropped the Big Sur Homeowner and maintained a pace solidly under 8-minute-miles. Here's a self-portrait:

Still looking good and feeling good, Dave!

As I climbed the last, tallest hill on the course, I wondered when I'd see Todd. I knew he was ahead of me, and I figured by this point he would be several minutes ahead. I had the idea of taking a picture of him as he ran by, so I got my camera out. Here's a shot from the crest of that final hill:

No Todd here

After a few minutes running along carrying the camera, I began to feel self-conscious. How long was I going to have to keep this up? Was the turnaround farther ahead than I thought? What if the camera fell out of my hand? WHERE ARE YOU, TODD?!? Finally I put the camera away. A couple minutes later, Todd ran by, chatting away with another runner. "Looking great, Dave!" he shouted. I shouted something encouraging back, but had no time to take out the camera and take a picture. I had also wanted to take a photo of the turnaround point, but it was also a water station, so I decided the better of it and took the opportunity to hydrate.

Fortunately, I had taken a picture from the turnaround point the day before

Then I headed back up the hill, still feeling quite good when I reached the 13-mile marker. My splits for Miles 10-13 were 7:56, 8:06, 8:07, 7:58.

I don't have an exact half-marathon split, but I do remember looking down at my watch just after I passed the 13-mile marker and seeing a 1:43. That's the same as my half-marathon PR, on a much flatter course. I hoped I wasn't being too aggressive. But this is also the section where the 3:30 pace team started to catch up to me. My watch still showed something like a 7:50 average pace, so it seemed odd to me that the 3:30 team would be here -- they were supposed to be running 8:01s; they should be two minutes behind me. Each time the pace team caught up to me, I'd pick up the pace just a bit. I just felt more comfortable in front of them than behind them. I decided to snap some pictures to pass the time:

I'm not the only one taking pictures

I noticed the guy ahead of me was taking pictures too, so I asked him if he'd mind if we swapped cameras and took pictures of each other. His camera was an iPhone, and even though I have an iPhone myself, somehow I screwed up and pressed the wrong button on-screen, and couldn't take the shot of him. He didn't mind, and still managed to get a picture of me:

Still looking good, Dave! But, um, next time would you mind not taking a picture when there's a car parked between you and the view?

By now my legs were starting to feel a little tired. I began to labor a bit on the uphills. It was getting warm. But I was staying ahead of the 3:30 pace team, and the scenery was as spectacular as ever. My pace for miles 14-17 was 7:58, 7:49, 8:06, 7:50.

Around Mile 18, the 3:30 pace team finally passed me, along with Big Sur Homeowner and the tiny guy from the starting line. I kept up with them for the next couple of miles, running miles 18-20 in 7:50, 7:42, and 7:53. But just after I passed the Mile 20 marker, I entered Carmel Highlands. Remember that 7:23 downhill mile? Now I'd have to run up that same hill.

This was also the final relay change point, and there was a big crowd of runners waiting for their teammates for the exchange. I saw a big table loaded with water about 10 feet off the road, but no one was handing out water to the racers. With a big hill ahead of me, I wanted some of that water. I weaved through the crowd of relay runners to the water table and reached for a cup as I ran by. Instead of grabbing it, I knocked it over. I briefly thought about stopping and grabbing another cup, but I decided against it. There had been plenty of water stations along the course, sometimes coming even more than once a mile, so I figured there'd be another station soon. I'm not sure if this was a critical error, but it certainly contributed to my losing steam. I took that hill slowly... very slowly. Mile 21's split was 9 minutes flat.

Finally there was a water station, and I was able to keep going. But I never got back to my 8-minute pace. Miles 22 and 23 were 8:51 and 9:00. I was spent. I hadn't taken any photos since around Mile 15. At this point I was on the Point Lobos spur, a march through a narrow, tree-lined road with no breeze to cool me. I was hoping for a stunning view when we reached the ocean, but when I arrived, I didn't have the capacity to appreciate it. Finally, I decided to walk. I hadn't walked yet, except for a few steps at water stops to make sure I drank every drop.

The 3:30 pace team was now a distant memory, and I shifted my goal: I didn't want the 3:40 pace team to pass me. I ran for a hundred meters or so, then walked again at the Point Lobos aid station. I told myself that I needed to run until I hit the Mile 24 marker, under a half-mile away. I didn't make it. I told myself I had to start running again after 30 seconds. Finally I passed Mile 24, a 10:14 mile. I was now four minutes behind my 3:30 pace. I told myself to run five minutes before walking again. I made it four, then walked for 60 seconds.

I was back on Highway 1, and ahead loomed the final hill of the race. What had seemed so easy at the start of the race now seemed like a huge barrier. I decided to snap a picture to show the world what a horrific ordeal I now faced:

Uh, Dave? That's really not a very big hill

I told myself to run at least to the bottom of the hill. I made it all the way to the aid station at Mile 25.1, halfway up the hill. Mile 25 split: 9:32. Maybe I'd be able to crank out a fast finish. But first, I walked for 60 seconds as I finished my cup of water. Then I started running. I wasn't going to let myself walk again. I told myself I could run slow, but I couldn't walk. I crested the hill and started down the other side. This should be easy, it's a downhill finish. Somehow, it wasn't easy. I shuffled down the hill. Practically there, right? Not quite. There was a seemingly interminable flat stretch until I finally arrived at the bridge where we had started. Looking at my GPS record, I now see that it was in fact about a third of a mile. My Mile 26 split was 10:16. The finish line, I knew, was a little farther up the highway than the start. Surely I'd be able to pick up the pace for that last, final sprint to the finish. I did speed up, but not much. My Garmin records the last 0.32 miles at an 8:25 pace—slower than my average pace for the entire race.

But I was credibly running across the finish line—I hadn't walked for over a mile. I even remembered to raise my arms in victory as I finished.

My final time: 3:37:50 according to my watch, but officially 3:37:55. That's a bit slower than my goal, but still a very credible first-marathon time. I had two backup goals: Faster than 3:45, and sub-four-hour, and I beat those handily on a very difficult course. While the corrected elevation recorded by a Garmin isn't necessarily accurate, my record shows a cumulative elevation gain of 1,859 feet. The hilliest training run I've done is the Fellowship of the Idiots, with a cumulative gain of 1,210 feet. Even if you extended that terrain over 26.2 miles, it would still only be 1,653 feet. While the hills at Big Sur were never especially steep, they were relentless: this is a very challenging marathon.

I finished in 354th place out of 3,218 runners, 280th out of 1,670 men. In my age division, I was 42nd out of 246. My average pace for the race ended up being 8:19 per mile. Many of the commenters on Facebook who have run Big Sur in the past said that this out-and-back course was actually tougher than the usual point-to-point course. Fellow DARTer Todd Hartung said he felt as good as he ever did for this race, but his 3:32:29 time was more than 14 minutes slower than his PR, so that gives you a sense of how hard the course was. So, despite not attaining my top goal, I'm very happy with my performance in this race, my first-ever marathon.

After I crossed the finish line, I handed my camera to my dad, who was waiting in the spectator area, and he snapped this photo of me.

I'm amazed I managed to raise my arms this high. Heck, I'm amazed I was able to stand up at this point.

Then I wobbled over to accept my one-of-a-kind, hand-made ceramic finisher's medal. This is definitely a keeper!

Simulated wood-grain desktop not included

Next we were funneled through a station where we were given nice trays of fresh fruit and energy bars, and finally to a surprisingly small self-service water station. While I can understand that bottled water is wasteful, it's quite difficult to get yourself a cup of water when you're feeling woozy and holding a tray of food in one hand. Fortunately by this time my dad had arrived and was willing to get me as much as I wanted. I collapsed in the grass a few yards from the water station while Dad continually refilled my cups of water. I must have drank at least 12 of them.

I do have to say the the experience of completing a marathon, especially such a dramatic one, is unlike anything I've ever experienced. While I've struggled at the finish of races before, I've never felt so simultaneously drained and elated at the end of a race. It was a fantastic journey, and I'm already planning my next one.

Below is the GPS record of my run.


  1. You, sir, are a marathoner! Congratulations and nice write up.

  2. Thanks so much for sharing! I can't stop thinking about it! It was a really hard race for me...I am not a runner (I just take care of them), and I didnt have dinner or breakfast and forgot my clothes too, but had the best time eever! : )

  3. This is amazing! I saw this blogpost on BSIM's facebook page! CONGRATS on your stellar pace, and I completely agree with your assessment of how challenging and wonderful the race was!!!

  4. Matt: I am indeed. I think I'll get one of those 26.2 stickers for my car.

    Disciplined: I can't agree more -- one of the hardest and best times ever.

    Linna: Thanks. I guess all those miles eventually pay off!

  5. Way to go big for your first marathon! Have you already started thinking about your next one? :)

  6. I enjoyed your report. I ran Big Sur last weekend as well (but you're quite a bit faster than me). That hill at mile 20 or so was an absolute killer. The hills I run at home (I live in Cleveland) are of the short and very steep variety. I was glad the Big Sur hills weren't like that, but they were definitely exactly as you said: simply relentless.

  7. Lia: Actually I have. I will be running the Steamboat Marathon on June 5. Hopefully it will be a little easier than this one!

    Jenny: Congratulations on finishing Big Sur! I have tremendous respect for anyone who finishes a marathon; it's truly a monumental challenge, every bit as hard as I thought it would be. Even more so, really -- it takes an incredible amount of determination to complete those final 6 miles, no matter what pace you're running at.

  8. Great job, and loved the write up.

    Big Sur 2012 will be my first marathon. Any advice?

  9. Hmmm... advice? If the race actually starts out at Big Sur this year, I'd recommend staying out there rather than Monterey. Then you can walk to the starting line and you won't have to shiver in the cold waiting for things to get going. You'll have a car, so you can always drive into Monterey.

    Also, get plenty of hill work in, you'll need it. Work on both uphill and downhill running, and do it in your long runs, so you get used to the pounding your legs will take in this race.

    Finally, just enjoy it. It's a beautiful course, so take time to appreciate the spectacular scenery as you run.