Monday, May 7, 2018

Race Report: Big Sur Marathon

I'm planning to write a separate post specifically about the Boston 2 Big Sur Challenge, but I figured I'd give Big Sur its due & write a proper race report just about that race first. :)

Friends, I must say that post-Boston marathon, I was in rough shape. If you've been playing along at home for a while now, you might recall that part of the reason my Boston training cycle sucked so badly was getting injured badly enough to miss a week of training on three separate occasions, not to mention all kinds of little yellow flags & micro injuries that made it difficult to ever really build up much fitness at a stretch.

I'm pretty sure I know most of the reasons for this (which maybe I'll write more about in a future post), but just suffice it to say that I knew going into that race that I was very, very far from top form and was lucky to even make it to the start. The upside of this is that I wasn't able to run hard enough to be sore after, but I definitely did have a number of body parts screaming at me to DAMMIT WILL YOU PLEASE JUST STOP WITH THIS NONSENSE ALREADY! In all honestly, if it wasn't Boston & I didn't have so many sunk costs already, I probably would have said "Eh, screw it" & stayed in bed.

In addition to that stuff, I had some really, really nasty chafing from the rain. Again I'll probably write another post just about dealing with all that insane weather clothing-wise, but spoilers, I was missing so much skin all over my body that I kept getting stuck to the sheets at night & would regularly wake up in excruciating pain any time I would move and inadvertently rip myself off of them for days afterward. I also blackened both big toenails and messed one of them up so badly that could barely walk for a good week post-race. Ironically, while I wasn't sore, it was definitely the most pain and discomfort I've ever been in after a race.

Which is all to say, things were not looking good for me in terms of being able to finish (or even start) Big Sur. (Not that I ever admitted this to myself. The entire time I was limping around New York and DC in the one pair of shoes that didn't leave me in excruciating pain, Don would look at me doubtfully & go, "How on earth are you going to run a marathon in 11/9/7/5 days? You can barely walk." And the only thought I would let pass through my mind was, "Well, I'm running a marathon in 11/9/7/5 days, so it HAS to get better. Like, *obviously*." Like I just would not even let myself consider for a moment that I might not be able to run Big Sur.)

Thankfully, by the time we returned from the east coast most of the chafing was beginning to heal and the pain in my toe was considerably less. I wasn't walking normally, exactly, but the pain wasn't near what it had been.

Since it was Don's birthday on Friday and neither of us had ever been to Big Sur, we decided to go down on Thursday and spend the days before the race doing some sightseeing in the area. I booked a cabin at a campground not far from the start at Big Sur Station, made a fancy dinner reservation for his birthday night, and we were all set.

Er, except for one tiny oversight: Getting my bib from the expo. Somehow it never occurred to me until days before the race that, duh, if we drove down on Thursday, I'd be a good 45 minutes from the expo in Monterey on Friday and Saturday! Ugggggghhhhhh. Fortunately, my lovely friend RoadBunner (marathon maven and knower-of-all-things Big Sur as an eight-time finisher) was also running and graciously picked up my bib, shirt, and gear bag at the expo (in addition to sending me ALLLLL her Big Sur secrets!).

Before we talk about the race, let me just say that the beauty of Big Sur is indeed beyond words. The trip from Monterey to Big Sur Station is only about a 45 minute drive but I think it took us an hour and a half because of all the times we stopped and pulled over to gawk at the scenery and take pictures.

Bixby Bridge!

Sand Dollar Beach

Pre-dinner margarita at the Nepenthe balcony firepit

The view from Sierra Mar on Don's birthday

McWay Falls

I also liked that we drove from the finish to the start because it gave me a chance to see & get a feel for the course (if in reverse!). I definitely noted all the spots RoadBunner had described to me hill-wise, and most *definitely* gained an appreciation for the climb up to Hurricane Point. (Don, while driving down it: "You realize I had to shift to a different gear going down this." Me: "Yes thank you.")

I could say tons about our stay in Big Sur doing non-race stuff, but that is not why you're here, so let's get down to the nitty gritty.

By Saturday afternoon, my funky toe felt almost normal, or, at the very least, pain-free (though it definitely 100% did NOT look normal AT ALL). I had even jogged a few steps on it in a parking lot and thought, "You know, I think I can do this. Enough to at least try, anyway." So at 4:30am the next morning, I got up, got dressed, ate half a bagel with cream cheese, & left the cabin.

I'll say more about this when I do a 'logistics' post, but the cabin we stayed at was in a kind of campground, which I picked because it was about a quarter mile from one of the shuttle stops. I figured no big deal to just hop a quarter mile down the road & then catch the shuttle 2-3 miles to the start at Big Sur Station.

However, that plan suddenly seemed questionable when I walked outside at 5am & it was pitch black! It hadn't occurred to me to bring a flashlight or headlamp, so I wasn't even sure how I was going to find my way out of the campsite & to Highway 1.

Fortunately, my instincts kicked in & I remembered, "Duh, you are at a major running event & there are guaranteed to be at least a few other people in this campsite going exactly where you're going. FIND YOUR PEOPLE!

And sure enough, I soon spotted a crowd of folks in athletic gear chatting & working their way through the campsite with flashlights and headlamps. There is no way *anyone* who is not going to this race is awake right now, I reasoned, & latched casually on to the group. And bonus! I learned that you don't have to walk the quarter mile to River Inn; that's just the northern most stop, & the shuttles just stop anywhere they see people standing around in running clothes.

There was a little drama with our shuttle being able to get to the start, but I wasn't that worried about it since we still had over an hour until the start, and also they obviously *can't* start the race while Highway 1 is still full of buses. Eventually they dropped us off about half a mile to the start, and I quickly found Road Bunner at our prearranged spot by the announcer stand & got my bib and gear bag from her.

The starting line around 5:45am

Running friends = the best (especially when they give you all their secrets!)

Road Bunner Big Sur Secret #1 is "Don't line up when they call you," and WOW, now I totally understand why. The race was divided into three self-seeded waves (sub 3:45, 3:45-4:45, and over 4:45, I think?) and though the wave 1 start was scheduled for 6:45am, I think they started calling wave 3 to line up around 6am! Also wave 3 had to walk way way way up the road, because waves 1 & 2 had to fit in front of them.

Big Sur Station where everything was staged was quite crowded as she'd told me, even after the wave 3 runners lined up. Almost every sittable surface was taken, and port-a-potty lines (though there were many) were still quite long. But we waited patiently as they called wave 2 and then wave 1 to come line up, sitting nice & comfy on a curb still in our warmies.

Finally, with nearly everyone out of the staging area & lined up, we had our choice of any port-a-potty in the place! The temperature wasn't too chilly, so around 6:35 or so we stripped down and walked right up to the gear check with no line and no drama, then hung out by the start line as the National Anthem was sung and wave 1 went off.

Wave 1 lining up

Not only was the guy who sang the Anthem really good, he was also running AND working on a goal of singing the National Anthem at races in all 50 states. California was #46!

Five minutes later the announcer started wave 2, and we waited patiently to the side until it seemed like the right pace to jump in with. Off we went!

Having never tried to run a marathon 13 days after running *another* marathon, I really had no idea what to expect from my legs pace-wise. My only vague considerations were:

    1) There's no way you'll feel as fresh as if you HADN'T run another marathon 13 days ago

    2) It's known for being a hard, hilly, cambered course that beats the shit out of runners, and

    3) There's almost guaranteed to be a headwind for at least some of the race.

All I was in it for was finishing (and, y'know, being out there for as little time as possible), so I'd basically decided to run by feel & just try not to be lazy. The first few miles were a bit rolling but still significantly net downhill. It was also pretty crowded at first, and since I wasn't in a rush I just kind of rolled with it.

These first miles are somewhat inland & protected, so if it's going to be a windy day, you won't know it yet.

    Mile 1: 9:15
    Mile 2: 8:42
    Mile 3: 8:39
    Mile 4: 8:40
    Mile 5: 8:46

As Road Bunner had warned me, around mile 5-6 is when you hit the coast and get a sense for how windy it's going to be. Sure enough we went from basically no wind to some wind, but nothing too crazy most of the time. Mile 6 is also where things start going net up, though, as with the first few miles, it is ALL rollers ALL the time. If you're not going up, you're going down.

I've already mentioned how much injury & body drama I've dealt with over the past few months, so I was pretty relieved to find that I felt as good as I did in those first few miles. My entire Boston 2 Big Sur dream almost came crashing to a halt in mile 8, though, when out of nowhere I felt like I'd blown out my right Achilles/calf. You know those kinds of strains that come seemingly out of nowhere that you have absolutely no chance of running through; this felt like that. I limped along for a few steps and then had to stop, barely able to put weight on my right leg.

I stepped to the side of the course & tried to massage it out; it felt a little better, so I tried running for a few more minutes. Nope; the same pain popped right back up. I have to say, at that point I was sure my race was over, because there are things you can run through and things you can't, & sharp, sudden Achilles/calf strains are one of the latter.

I took one more stop, tried to stretch it out and massage it a little, really not believing it was going to accomplish anything. If I had to quit, though, I was determined to run as far as I possibly could on it, so I very cautiously started up again, being so careful not to push the pace in any way and pay careful attention to how my leg felt. I had a couple more twinges, but when I got through a mile, and then another mile, and then another mile with no more sharp, sudden pains, I very conservatively started to let myself thing that *maybe* I still had a race.

    Mile 6: 8:49
    Mile 7: 9:03
    Mile 8: 10:08 (calf issues, 2 stops)
    Mile 9: 9:29
    Mile 10: 9:00

But that was all the time I had to think about it, though, because IT'S MILE MARKER 10 and you know what that means: Time to go up, up, UP!!

You can't not smile in Big Sur. :)

Quiz time! Can you pick out on this Big Sur elevation map where the giant 2 mile hill up to Hurricane Point is?


Now. Guys, I have to admit that I sort of enjoyed running this big ol' mother f###ing hill, in the way that you only can if you aren't in any way concerned about your time. I knew it was there, exactly where it started and how long it was and that there would also probably be a headwind, and I was prepared for it to be absolutely hard as nails. But I had a personal goal of running the whole thing, start to finish, mile marker 10 through mile marker 12, without pausing or walking.

And? I'm pretty frickin' proud to say I nailed it. It wasn't fast, but I never stopped or walked. I thought about all those miles and miles I'd gone of my way to run hills during this training cycle (which is maybe the one thing I did well), and they did not fail me. Road Bunner had warned me that there were a few false summits, but not to be fooled because Hurricane Point was square at mile marker 12, and she was right on.

Not exactly sure but I think this might have been approaching Hurricane Point

A couple of things about miles 11 & 12. Yes, they're steep and tough, but everyone is suffering together so you feel sort of "in it" with people. (A bunch of people as we passed mile marker 10 went, "Oh boy, here we go!" which was exactly how I felt.) Also, the views are just AMAAAAZING, so don't forget to look around! Finally, one of the best things about this section was the Taiko drummers. I didn't stop (because goals!) but did manage to get a few decent shots on the run. If only they could have been stationed all along the entire two miles!

After Hurricane Point, you get a huuuuuuuge downhill coast to the halfway point where Michael Martinez is stationed with his piano at Bixby Bridge. Besides my calf drama, this was the one time I actually stopped, to take a picture.

    Mile 11: 10:58
    Mile 12: 10:05
    Mile 13: 9:00

As long as we're talking about that big ol' downhill, let's also talk briefly about the camber of this race. Dudes, it is INSANE! The hills, I think I could handle again, but man, the camber really did a number on my feet and knees. Of course, I know a not insignificant part of this was probably a) having just run another marathon & obviously not being fully recovered yet and b) admittedly not being in very good shape strength-wise. (Looking at my form in some of the pictures....oof. It was freakin' rough at times.) I feel like even on my worst days, I can usually cruise down the hills in Golden Gate Park in the 8:00-8:15 range without much effort, but through most of this race it was just too uncomfortable & I never could find a comfortable way to take real advantage of the downhills and just "coast". (So, yeah, two more pieces of Big Sur training advice: 1) Make sure you're REALLY strong in the core/hips/etc., and 2) make sure you train some steep downhills so your body can figure out how to run them efficiently & comfortably.)

I don't know where exactly this one was taken but it amuses me.
(Also see above re: poor form...Yikes.)

It was really after Hurricane Point & that giant, painful downhill that I started to feel the fatigue of one & a half hilly marathons in my legs. I'd been kind of entertaining the idea of finishing under 4 hours (ie., 9:00ish pace, which should not be a big deal), but man, after Bixby Bridge I just felt so drained. I kept moving and never felt like I hit the wall; just, there seemed to be an upper limit as to how quickly I could turn over my legs and no matter how I tried, I could not get them to go faster than that for more than a few steps at a time. So, as I usually do in marathons, I just kind of broke things up. Gels every 3 miles, and looking forward to things like mile 16 (just count down from 10!) and mile 20 (less than an hour to go!)

    Mile 14: 9:41
    Mile 15: 9:35
    Mile 16: 9:26
    Mile 17: 9:24
    Mile 18: 9:24
    Mile 19: 9:19
    Mile 20: 9:56

Something else Road Bunner had warned me about were the two last big hills everyone always forgets about: Mile 22 and mile 26. And wow, she was right, and I am super glad she warned me. When you see the mile 22 hill coming up as you approach mile marker 21, no kidding, it looks like it literally goes straight up into the sky. But I knew it was there and that it was only about a mile and a half long, so I just put my head down & started counting. No stopping, no walking!

Also: The strawberry aid station at mile 23. Yes.

    Mile 21: 9:30
    Mile 22: 10:06
    Mile 23: 9:53
    Mile 24: 9:57

At that point, as in all but the most magical of marathons, no matter how fast you're going, it was just one mile at a time; get through one more mile, and one more mile, and one more mile. At this point I felt pretty confident I would finish, and that's all I cared about.

At mile 25 there is a giant arch marking the start of the last big hill. And it's a doozy. But again, I knew it was there and I had just one mile to go, so again, I put my head down & started churning the legs.

One thing that felt odd about this marathon (especially after Boston) is that you don't see or hear any cheering for the finish line until you're literally almost there. Like I feel like maybe I hit mile marker 26 before there were a significant number of people lined up on the road cheering.

For the second half of the race I'd sort of been playing leap frog with this woman in a pink jacket. Not that I had any real motivation to beat her or not (she was very nice and said 'Good job' to me once as she passed me!), but man, in those last few tenths, the main thought in my head was that on the other side of that finish line was an entire month of rest, so I ended up kind of using the pink woman to push myself to finish as quickly as I could.

Something I do know about myself is that even when I'm freaking exhausted I often do have a pretty strong finishing kick left in the tank, and it was not hard for me with the finish line in sight to find just one more gear and sprint past her (er, for limited definitions of sprinting) to the mat.

(And then, of course, immediately, "Uhhhh, okay, where were those legs earlier??")
    Mile 25: 9:40
    Mile 26: 9:55
    Mile 26.37: 3:12 (8:38 pace)

    Official: 4:09:30 / 26.2 miles / 9:31 average pace
    Garmin: 4:09:34 / 26.37 / 9:28 average pace

Just as with Boston, the whole-body pain-fest hit me almost as soon as I stopped running. My right calf & Achilles which had been fine since mile 9 suddenly seized up & I could barely put weight on it, not even a little. Honestly, in retrospect, I have no idea how I was able to run the rest of the race on it.

I made my way out of the finish area & quickly found the Boston 2 Big Sur tent. I'm not generally a super emotional person and I wouldn't have said that I'd been feeling particularly emotional about or really all that attached to Boston 2 Big Sur (expect for all the sunk costs of paying for & traveling to the two races). But as I made my way toward the tent and saw the old dude handing out the B2B medals with the most welcoming, genuine smile you can imagine, something in me just broke and suddenly I was absolutely sobbing. Like we're talking complete & total, full-on, unabashed ugly crying. I think I'd sort of compartmentalized all the fears & worries & stress surrounding these two races for so long that once I'd finally done it it all just kind of came spilling out.

Eventually I pulled myself together enough to get my B2B jacket (which I'll take over the Boston jacket any day) & free beer. (There was also a ton of free food, but my stomach wasn't quite ready for solids.)

I also have to say, the part about how the Big Sur course chews you up & spits you out? NOT FALSE ADVERTISING. I know a good chunk of it was due to my lack of strength, panoply of micro-injuries, & general exhaustion, but still. I was in rough, rough shape after this race for *days*.

Phew, this has gotten long enough, so watch this space for separate posts on Big Sur logistics & doing Boston 2 Big Sur. :)


  1. Yes you did, CONGRATS! So thrilled for you, and so cool to relieve Boston 2 Big Sur through your eyes — and your aches, and your pains, and your tears. They're all part of successfully navigating one of the most amazing journeys in all of racing. And YES, I'm with you... I'll happily take the B2B jacket (which I can actually wear out of my house without feeling like Mr. Pretension) over the garish Boston jacket any day. Rest and recover well, and next up is the "pride is forever" part of the program!

    1. And by the way, don't know how you feel about HOKAs but just in case:

  2. Congratulations! You did it!!! Hope you're not too banged up. Enjoy the recovery. Also - hey crazy lady, you've run THREE marathons this year. I believe that qualifies you as a proper Marathon Maniac?

  3. What an experience! And a hug undertaking. Two marathons, both challenging, in that short span is a daunting task. Now take some time to recover!

  4. Congrats! I can't imagine running 2 marathons back to back, much less Boston and Big Sur. I haven't done Boston but Big Sur was my big ole bucket list race and I am so glad I did it! But yes, it was harder than anything I've ever done.