Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Race Report: Thank you, Big Sur! May I have another!

When in doubt, double down.

The view from Hurricane Point.
On Sunday, April 29, 2012, I competed in the business end of the "Boston 2 Big Sur Challenge" by running my second marathon in 13 days.  This one was the Big Sur International Marathon in Carmel, CA, widely reputed to be the most spectacular marathon in the country, and one that's as challenging as it is difficult.  Erm, I mean, as it is beautiful.  For the reasons I explained in my Boston race report, in the 13 days between marathons, I'd done little other than convalesce in the hope that I'd be able to make it through Big Sur intact. 

You can almost hear the Aqua on the stereo.
The flight out to California was long but uneventful, and due to my infinite well of karma, was lucky enough to get upgraded to a convertible when all I'd asked for was a compact.  The two hour drive from San Jose to Carmel, in 70-degree sunshine and with the coast and mountains on either side, made me wonder why people live anywhere else.  After a brief stop for lunch on Cannery Row, I met up with a couple of friends at our rental house, and we immediately hopped back into the car to take in 17-Mile Drive, a famous loop that circumnavigates the Pebble Beach Golf Course.  As Michael Jordan once said, "This is livin'!"  Or, if he didn't say it, I'm sure someone did, or at least should have.

Pebble Beach.  Not all beach.
Vistas, vistas everywhere.

Being a triathlete, I know what large bodies of water are for.
Chicks dig convertibles, especially white Chryslers.
The Lone Cypress.  On the mountain on the other side of the bay, our rental house!
"It's important to remember the last two days of our lives."
Following a great homemade dinner on Thursday night, Friday was spent driving the course and taking pictures, attending the famous Monterey Aquarium and packet pickup, and eating way too much.  Saturday was a blissful series of naps and indulgent lounging activities, complete with an awful movie.  Then it was early to bed, and up for the race.

The Big Sur International Marathon is a point-to-point race running north right along the Pacific Ocean.
The trick is that, as one notices during the drive, it's anything but flat.  The official elevation profile makes it pretty clear that there's a climb involved, but it doesn't look too bad otherwise:


The only problem with this profile is that it's a damned lie -- all they've done is taken elevations at every mile and smoothed out the details, which is where the devil sets up his base camp.  Here's what the course actually looks like:


It became pretty clear to me during our preview drive that this wasn't going to be a PR kind of course.  Not only had Boston taken a lot out of me, but I simply hadn't trained on the hills the way one needs to in order to run well here.  Running uphill is tough, but the downhills take arguably even more out of you, and it's very rare to have courses like this one with descents of over a mile at a time, at a grade of 7-8%.  I decided to hang out with the 3:25 pace group through the first half or so, i.e., until the top of the climb at Hurricane Point (mile 12), and then to see how I was feeling.

If there's a drawback to this marathon, it's that, due to the 6:45 start time and the need to be driven by bus to the starting line well in advance, the wakeup time is a truly inhumane 2:30 a.m.  Partially offsetting the pain, at least, was the fact that I was still pretty much on east coast time, so it felt a little more like 5:00-5:30, which isn't too bad as marathons go.

The pre-race scene at the starting line was remarkably hospitable: plenty of porta-jons, coffee, tea, hot chocolate, water, Gatorade, and all manner of other amenities were abundant, and our crew lounged around for an hour or so, peoplewatching and listening to Jeff Galloway and Bart Yasso quipping over the P.A. system.  The only thing slightly less than ideal was the rugby scrum as 4,000 people tried to hand their bags over to the dry clothes truck at the very same time.

The race itself was truly spectacular -- a thing to behold.  The first five miles were lightly rolling but had a clear downward trajectory, and holding a 7:20 pace felt pretty effortless.  They're a light meander through a forest, with morning mist and quiet roads lending an ambiance that couldn't be more different from the screaming hordes in Boston.  In fact, one of the characteristics of this race is that, because it's relatively small, remote, and the course is closed to car traffic, there are very few fans of any sort in the first twenty miles or so -- just the sound of footsteps and happy banter among runners who are cruising through one of the more spectacular places on earth.  Those of us who had raced Boston two weeks earlier were also feeling exceedingly pleased with the crisp 50-degree day.

Pt. Sur Lighthouse, shrouded in mist.
We emerged from the forest around mile 6, at which point the course opens up and we got spectacular ocean views to our left, although the mist obscured some of the details.  At mile 8 we cruised past the Pt. Sur Lighthouse as we encountered a 2-mile false-flat straightaway, and at the same time found the legendary Big Sur wind, which was barreling straight south into our faces.  It felt refreshing, but it was strong enough that runners were quite literally pacelining down the road in order to get whatever draft was available, which wasn't too much.  I was still on about a 3:20 pace, but the wind made me feel like I was trying a little bit harder than I wanted to.  Oh well -- that's what earns me the big bucks at the finish line.

The first 400 yards of the Hurricane Point climb.  Only 1.9 miles to go.
At the end of the straightaway, we plummeted down a 1-mile descent at a grade approaching 10% before hitting the bottom of the famous climb up to Hurricane Point, a 2-mile slog at 4-5% grade.  It's not the steepest hill that one has ever encountered, but it is clearly the longest I've ever run in a race setting.  The day was doing its best to make the climb appear daunting: the bottom was below the cloud layer, but the climb itself wound its way straight up into the clouds.  At this point, the pacer slowed down, but not by all that much -- he was running at 8:00 pace or so up the steep grade, and he showed no sign of letting up at all.  My gameplan was to stick with him until it no longer made sense, so I resolved to crest the hill with the group at mile 12, and then to reassess.

The road arcing down to Bixby Bridge.
Eventually we made it to the top, although I was well up into Z4 heart rate with the effort, and I knew I wouldn't be able to hold on for much more unless things lightened up.  Fortunately, the road stops ascending; unfortunately, it slings you right back down the other side at an 8% grade or so for a mile, before one crosses the iconic Bixby Bridge at mile 13.

One of the defining spectacles at Big Sur is that a tuxedo'd pianist plays a grand piano on the far side of Bixby Bridge, and with the speakers that the race directors position, one can clearly hear the theme from Chariots of Fire, Greensleeves, and other timeless tunes enveloping them as they reach the halfway point of the course, which is directly over the center span of the bridge.  It's otherworldly and emotional to hear such a thing halfway through a timeless journey like this marathon, with craggy cliffs overlooking the Pacific -- there's not much else like it in the running world.

I crossed the bridge on something like a 3:22 pace, which is exactly where I wanted to be, but the back half of the course is nonstop rolling hills -- many of them more than "rolling" -- and the road takes on a nasty camber that has one's left leg an inch or two higher than one's right for miles on end.  About mile 17, my legs simply gave up the ghost; too much climbing, too much descending, and not enough in the tank after the system shock that was Boston.   I made the executive decision that, heck, I wasn't in striking range of a Boston slot or any other time of note, so there was little sense in doing anything other than backing it off and enjoying the experience.  So that's just what I did: I slowed by about 45 seconds a mile on average, took in the views, ate fresh strawberries by the handful from aid stations, and made my way to the finish line in a gentleman's 3:40.  Very nearly an hour faster than Boston two weeks earlier! Apparently not running for thirteen days straight does wonders for one's fitness.


In all, the race was an amazing experience.  I'm not sure whether I enjoyed it more than Eugene, the race where I ran my 3:07 personal best in May 2011, but it's at least a toss-up.  The scenery and race organization are second to none, and it just doesn't feel like any other race that I'm aware of.  Instead of just covering a course, hitting the aid stations, monitoring one's splits, and trying for the best time one can, this one feels like a return to primal roots on some level -- it's why we own running shoes.  I'm thinking of coming back next spring to improve on my time with some proper training, and without the burden of running Boston beforehand, but we'll see.  One thing I've taken from the Boston 2 Big Sur experience is that I'm no longer in the business of running marathons just for fun.  They're incredibly painful in the best of circumstances, and when one isn't taking them seriously, training with dedication, and doggedly pursuing a goal, there's very little to fall back on mentally when the going gets tough.  In a race like Big Sur, that's fine -- the views are the reason one's there.  But after running the two toughest marathons I've ever done, and running them only 13 days apart, I'm very glad that there's some cycling in my future.