“I think there are two types of people in this world:
People who run marathons, and people who do not.
I do not think you actually have to run or have run a marathon to be the type of person to run a marathon. You simply have to be the type who believes in the possibility of going the distance. You must have stamina; endurance; a belief in things greater than yourself. You must have faith.”
Me of Little Faith
Prior to the Big Sur Marathon, a series of injuries left me with little faith in my abilities to run 26.2 miles. I tested my body a few weeks before the race and my body unambiguously demonstrated its lack of readiness. The smart thing to do would have been to skip the race. The problem with giving up before you start, “in the name of being smart” is that it creates a slippery slope wherein one can become so smart as to never do anything ever again. Better to fail than be too smart to start; far better to fail than live afraid of failing.
“Because in the end, you won’t remember the time you spent working in the office or mowing your lawn. Climb that goddamn mountain.”
― Jack Kerouac
I can’t write words to describe the beauty and majesty of the Big Sur Marathon. Very simply, there are 5 miles of running through redwood forests and then about 19 miles of this:
As beautiful as God made this race course, he also made it brutally difficult with a series of small hills that go on and on and on. There were a total of 2200 feet of climb throughout the 26.2 mile course. That’s about 1 foot of climb for every word in this blog post. About 500 feet of that climb came in a single unrelenting 2 mile stretch.
The man sitting next to me on the flight up the California coast was going to Monterey to golf. As we chatted, I explained that most of the flight was filled with svelte athletes who had run the Boston Marathon just days before as part of a coast to coast challenge. When the guy realized I was running the race as well, he looked me the eye and said, “You’re a runner? You don’t look like a runner. THEY look like runners“. I smiled and kept my response to myself.
Within 30 minutes of touching down, I claimed my bib and was walking the streets of Monterey shopping for food and fluid stocks to get me through the next 24 hours. I sat in an empty English pub for a while watching the owner cut what seemed to be a hundred limes for serve with days drinks. I ate, and nursed a Smithwicks while reading Kerouac and taking a physical and emotional self inventory. I flashed back to the Santa Barbara marathon 5 months prior when I injured my knee. Self-doubt not only took up residence in my mind, but it refurnished the place and spray painted the walls with the words:
“You don’t look like a runner. THEY look like runners“
I hailed a cab to my hotel and held up there until it was time for bed. At the appointed hour of 2:45 in the blessed am, my sister called me from England to find me already up and hydrating. I sat in a hot bath for about 30 minutes as I had all week in hopes of getting my calves loose. By 3:45am I was on a shuttle bus to Big Sur.
The race staging area was dark, chilly and crowded. It was all rustic without basic creature comforts like cell service. I socialized with the other runners but after a while, I pulled out my copy of Kerouac and started to read, if only for the bohemian novelty of reading Big Sur in Big Sur. I looked up at the early morning sky and tried to filter out all the noise of the generators and the runners in hopes of just feeling the native energy of these dark woods. I got nothing. Either they weren’t transmitting or the noise inside me was too loud. Eventually, I packed everything away, checked my bag and made my way out onto the starting line on California’s Highway 1.
I stood near the back of the crowd of 4,000 runners, filled with both anticipation and dread. Six weeks prior, I couldn’t complete 4 miles and now there were 26.2 in front of me. This race could end very quickly for me. Before I knew it we were underway running through Redwoods.
The Big Sur Marathon reminded of a trail race, not only because of the hills, but because of the immersion in nature. Through most of the race there was dirt strip off each side of the road. My wife describes the benefit of running on trail is that the earth absorbs the impact. Although it’s more work, running on dirt is much easier for me mentally than is running on asphalt. Marathon running is in fact, as mental much as it is physical, even more so when one is injured.
The other way this race reminded me of a trail run was that there were no spectators for most of the course. Highway 1 was shut down while this race was underway making this the antithesis of the famed First Avenue of the New York Marathon. There were no spectators, no signs, no cowbells, no cheering, only runners, horses, cows, the ocean, the occasional bridge, breathtaking views and God. Lots and lots of God.
At mile 4, I pulled over to slow down and walk a bit. My right calf quivered, spasmed momentarily and started barking at me like a crazed neighbor in a tenement, “HEY! I will seized up! Don’t slow down! MOVE! “; on the plus side, I had a really fast (for me) first 9 miles.
The Mile 5 marker signified the end of the protection of the redwoods. Beyond the sign, the world changes from redwood forest to exposed Pacific coastline. On a bad day that could mean a miserable headwind. This was a good day with overcast skies, cool temperatures and no cows blowing by.
The Big Sur Marathon is accurately marketed as a race “on the Ragged Edge of the Western World”. When the redwoods gave way to the sea, things shifted for me. I was grateful to have made it that far. I started to feel like my old running self again. The worry passed and I started to enjoy myself. I started to believe there was a chance I could do this. My knee hurt a bit, my calf hurt a bit, but I was bee bopping along pretty well (bee bopping, that’s a highly technical runner term).
I was moving in a crowded cohort of runners. There was an older Irish lady with a sign indicating she was running her 99th marathon. We kept passing each other as I was generally faster, but she was more consistent (think rabbit and the hare). There was also that young couple in the maroon Minnesota Golden Gopher shirts. Evey time I would come up behind them, I had to say “Go Gophers” in my best Minnesota accent. The very last time I saw them he was standing guard as she was taking a bathroom break behind a big bush. I couldn’t resist yelling out, “Going Gophers!”. He laughed.
A GPS can tell you the distance you’ve traveled but looking back shows you the beauty of where you’ve been in a whole new way. This race is beautiful both forward and backward looking. You miss half the views if you don’t look back.
Miles 5 to 10 went joyfully for me. Then came the 2 mile climb to Hurricane point at 15% grade (that’s serious). The memorable thing about that transition to the long hill was that the song Sweet Caroline came on my running music right at the start. I had asked one of my Scotland tweeps, Barbara to recommend a song to add to the playlist. Her contribution interrupted the usual order of my marathon music and I found myself singing Neil Diamond as I started my climb. I sounded like an idiot, at the Sweet Caroline crescendo, but I just didn’t care. I was taking the hill….until I wasn’t.
“The only truth is music.” ― Jack Kerouac
I ran as much as I could up that 2 mile hill and then I walked and then my calf tightened and then my knee tightened. Things turned ugly really quick. The next 3 miles took me 45 minutes to complete. I used this time to eat the nuts and chocolate I carried with me. I normally wait until later in the race, but I was moving so slowly that this seemed the perfect time. When I finally got over the hill, my leg was too tight to run and I had to walk down the hill. I was angry, but I had the Bixby bridge, half-way point in my sites and to me, that was like water in the desert.
The Bixby Bridge
Most marathons have a sign that show you when you have reached the halfway point. This race offers the unusual highlight of a serenade by Monterey’s own composer/pianist, Michael Martinez. Michael’s music marathon greets all the runners from first to last as they cross the bridge. He was playing Paul Simon as I approached the line for a picture with him. After I got my photo, I wanted to wait and listen and take the scene in. I struggled, because I was in the middle of a timed race and taking videos of the ocean with Michael playing in the background was not conducive to a personal best race time or in my case, finishing before the course closed. I make peace with the delay, but I wasn’t sure if I was going to finish this race, so I might as well enjoy this moment of my life. I wondered if the people in first and second place stopped to enjoy the music and take a picture. I wondered if they got any good selifies as they pushed each other along. Did they just zoom by the piano and did Michael play the William Tell Overture? Who knows? I am just glad that wasn’t my experience. I was just out for a long run, with a time limit. Next time though, I will ask him if he knows any Grateful Dead.
“Big Sur Marathon Part II
After the intermission on the Bixby bridge, I was moving slowly, but moving. It struck me that I had no idea what waited in store the rest of the race. I am a planner, I usually have my long races well scouted and researched. Not this time. I had been so focused on getting to the half-way point, that I didn’t have a plan for the rest of the race and the rest of the race was all hill after hill after hill after hill after hill. I withdrew deep into myself and kept going. For the rest of the race, I only interacted with runners I saw needing of encouragement. As I ran I thought. I realized that all four of the marathons I had participated all touched the Pacific Ocean, none so much as this one.
I had set my GPS to display only distance and total pace. I didn’t want to be distracted by the time, but I needed to be aware of my pacing in order to stay ahead of the course closures. About Mile 17, my head started doing the math and I realized that had enough time banked that I could walk at a 18 minute/mile pace for the next 9 miles and still finish before the race closed. I didn’t like entertaining this idea, because it gave me an excuse not to try my very best. That being said, I was having trouble maintaining any kind of sustained run either up or down the small hills. By mile 19, I redid the math and gave in and started power walking/limping the rest of the race. Walking went against what I believed I should be doing, but I was just going to frustrate myself trying to continue running, as had no kick left. Eventually, I settled on the idea that as long as I finished, walking the rest of the marathon was just an alternative way to succeed. Acceptance was the answer to all my problems at that moment.
Death on the Race
About mile 21, I came across a scene. Paramedics were working on the side of the road on someone. The runners were diverted to a narrow single lane and our view of what was going on was blocked. A blocked view is never a good thing; I’ve been around enough races to know that this was out of the ordinary and I’ve been in enough Emergency Rooms to recognize that blessing and a prayer was in order. As it turns out, though a nurse and doctor were immediately on scene one of the volunteer race marshals collapsed and died at that spot.
O why is God torturing me, that’s it, be a loner, travel, talk to waiters, walk around, no more self-imposed agony…it’s time to think and watch and keep concentrated on the fact that after all this whole surface of the world as we know it now will be covered with the silt of a billion years in time…― Jack Kerouac, Big Sur
I had heard about the strawberries on the Big Sur Marathon. I had heard that they were fresh and delicious. Given that I have strawberry fields around my home, I didn’t take much note of it. I had passed on the orange stations during the LA Marathon in observance of the rule that one should never eat on a marathon what one hasn’t eaten during training. As I was at mile 23 and they were there, I indulged and I am so very happy I did. These were great strawberries. The flavor exploded in mouth. I wanted to only have two and I ended up finishing a good half-dozen before leaving the station. It was a highlight.
“In Strawberries, take note of best producing runners—cut down the others.”- Jack Kerouac in a 1953 letter to Carolyn Cassady (Note: by Strawberries, he means marijuana)
I crossed the finish line in a marathon personal worst 6 hours and 3 minutes. To be fair, this was the hardest of the four marathons that I have run, San Francisco included. I also started in the worst shape of any marathon with no training runs exceeding 15 miles and virtually no running in the final weeks. I was happy to have found a way to finish. I was tired, limping and I had strained my abdominal muscles and a quad muscle power walking, but I finished. In truth I was disappointed, not so much in the performance, but in the shape my body started the race in.
The course officially closed about 15 minutes after I finished. I sat, stretched, ate and called as the volunteers began to take down the tents. The show was definitely over. I made my way out to the shuttle bus area and waited in a small group. A lady recognized me from the race and jokingly commented to the small group how at the start of the race I was chatty and happy and at the end of the race I was laser focused and dead serious. I smiled and in my mind, thanked her for the feedback.
There were only two of us on the full length bus back to my hotel. The bus driver was released for the day now that we the stragglers were done. I showered, soaked my legs in the cold pool, and went for lunch. I hung out in the hotel the rest of the day because I had another early wakeup call the next day. The travel home was another full adventure.
Although I deeply enjoyed the experience, I spent about six months being disappointed in my performance at this race hearing those words again, “You don’t look like a runner. THEY look like runners“. This past week I finally decided to check out my certificate of completion. I finished 222nd out of 433 people in my age division. That’s a whole lot better than I would have guessed (I suspect they count those that did not finish). Overall, I finished in the bottom 26% of the race participants, that was better than the bottom 3% I would have thought. I guess to be a marathon runner, stubbornness will suffice in lieu of faith. It also helps if one sanity checks with the actual statistics.