It was not quite a movie script ending, but my Big Sur International Marathon experience was darned close. I feared having built it up so much in my mind that the race just might not live up to expectations, but it actually exceeded them. I still can't really believe I got to finally run my someday race. If you had told me I would get to do this four years ago, in the middle of chemo, I would have just shook my head and laughed at you.
Capsule Review of the Race
Let me start out by reviewing the race itself. Big Sur is one of America's more challenging road marathons. In fact, the race instructions specifically contained a warning to add twenty minutes to your "usual" marathon finishing time. We were advised us to run BSIM for "the worst time in your life and your best."
Every race has positives and negatives. Let's get the negatives out the way first: the elevation chart for this race looks like an EKG, there's a headwind (though it was not too bad this year), the race is expensive, you need to register at least six months in advance, and if you live in the north or midwest (like I do) you'll have to train through the worst of winter. All that being said, BSIM is TOTALLY worth it. The race is in it's 26th year and it is well-organized by real runners (the race directors even ran the course a few weeks before the marathon). The scenery is jaw-dropping. Green rolling mountains, surf crashing on rocks, stately bridges, colorful wildflowers. There is even a piano player, in tails, on the course. Need I say more? I have included a few photos I took along the way as I ran, but seriously ... It is even more beautiful in person. The pictures don't really do it proper justice.
(In the movie Gladiator, Maxiumus says to his troops, "If you find yourself alone, riding in green fields with the sun on your face, do not be troubled; for you are in Elysium, and you're already dead!" Well, I would imagine if there is an Elysium for runners, it must look something like this.)
Travel to the Race and Expo
As I have written before on my blog, I have wanted to run the Big Sur Marathon since I first began running. It was always a “someday” race, however. But then in 2007, of course I was diagnosed with advanced stage Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, with disease in my chest, liver, and spleen. And, it seemed, someday might most certainly never come. I struggled through eight months of chemotherapy and managed to get into, and perhaps just as importantly, remain in remission. But once betrayed by your body, it becomes very difficult to ever fully trust it again. Cancer scars you on the inside and the outside, but some of the most lasting scars are the psychological ones. I have struggled mightily since having had cancer with planning for the long-term. Committing to cross the country to run the Big Sur Marathon was one of the biggest thing I’ve committed myself to since being diagnosed with cancer. It was very important for me to see it through.
I flew to Monterey on Friday. I’m a Midwestern girl who has never been further west than the Ohio-Indiana border, so this was a huge adventure even without the daunting prospect of one of the world's most challenging marathons! During the flight, I stared out the window of the plane at the Rocky Mountains. I've seen the rounded, green Alleghenies many times, but the snowy and pointy Rockies and Sierras were a new experience. I came away from the flight impressed and awed by the vastness of my country.
On Friday and Saturday, I did the normal tourist things in Monterey – I went to the fisherman’s wharf and gawked at the seals, I went to the aquarium and admired the bright yellow and purple fishies. And of course, I made the mandatory trip to the race expo. Finding my number was painless and easy. I liked that the race had put our first names on our bibs. During the race, people were yelling "Go Jenny" and that was a nice pick up when things were a little rough. The shirts were also very neat – a huge bonus is that they are sized to be WOMEN’S SPECIFIC. Too often you end up with a guy's shirt that just doesn't fit right and you never wear; I definitely see wearing my Big Sur shirt. Anyway, the shirts were long sleeve and made of a thinner tech fabric. Very nice. The women got a bright teal blue shirt and the guys got a royal blue shirt. (The other races got a different style and color shirt from the full marathoners. Also another nice, runner friendly touch.)
The expo was pretty good sized considering that this race isn't huge (there were 4,500 runners registered for the full marathon although unfortunately there were many no shows due to the course change and life; it's hard to register for a race 6 months in advance and not have something happen). I bought a Big Sur hat for a friend who just went through a stem cell transplant for Hodgkin’s. I also bought a bright red and white Big Sur sling bag to use for the gym. I was on the hunt for a Big Sur hooded sweatshirt, but I didn't see any.
After a day wandering around the aquarium and Montery (I walked way too much on Saturday...), I had my traditional long run dinner in downtown Montery (a Subway foot long sub sandwich -- turkey with provolone cheese, lettuce, tomato, and honey mustard sauce). Following the advice of my friend Ben who ran Big Sur in 2008, I essentially stayed on east coast time which made the 3:30 wake up to catch the bus much, much easier. Great advice, Ben!
I did not really have a race plan. I feel kind of embarrassed saying that as an experienced runner, but it is true. I wanted to mainly run Big Sur for the course and the experience, so I did not want to "red-line it." It isn't a PR friendly course (unless you're a mountain goat maybe...) and I was not in anywhere near PR shape anyway. We had a really nasty winter as far as the weather goes, and although I averaged ~ 70 miles per week and did six runs of 20 miles plus, I did zero speedwork and my runs were all slow paced. So, I felt very confident in my ability to finish, just not in my ability to race. Plus, I wanted to carry my camera and snap pictures during the race. I did my long runs between 8:40 and 9:10 pace, so I figured I'd target a 4 hour marathon. If I could go sub-4 at Big Sur, all the better. But really, I wanted Big Sur to sort of be a victory lap for overcoming cancer.
The Bus Ride and Safeway
I slept surprisingly well. I woke up several times, but I always fell back to sleep fast. My alarm went off (Chariots of Fire, of course) at 3:30. I got up and immediately drank a 16 oz bottle of water and ate a packet of lemon lime sports beans. My stomach was not cooperative on my long runs, so that’s all I went with. I felt pretty calm and collected. I think maybe I just wasn’t awake yet. I wore a red and white Nike singlet, black and white Asics shorts, my Mizuno Wave Riders, and red and white Adidas socks. Because I had been warned several times about the camber of the road in the Carmel Highlands, I decided to wear my IT band strap as a preventive measure.
The Embassy Suites’ bus pick up was only 0.3 miles from my hotel, so getting there was painless. It was dark and cold, but they would load a bus, and there would be another immediately behind it, so there were no long waits. I sat down by the window. A guy named “Tim” sat next to me (I know his name is Tim because our names were on our numbers). He seemed quiet and I was feeling quiet, so we didn’t talk other than to say hello. Everyone else on the bus seemed to more than make up for our reticence. It was a pretty talkative crew.
The bus ride over to the Carmel starting line was only about 15 minutes. We got off the bus at about 4:45. It was very dark and cold and the sky was studded with bright twinkling stars. The first thing I noticed was a green wall of porta potties; I have never seen so many porta potties in one spot. Haha. The race definitely provided well for us in that regard. My bigger issue was I was shivering even though I dressed warmly. I was starting to wonder what to do about that, and started walking a little to keep warm. It was then that I saw a crowd of runners and decided to follow them. Turns out the Safeway grocery store in Carmel is open 24 hours. We runners descended upon Safeway like gnats drawn to a bright light. I sat in the flower department next to a purple orchid and chatted with Rosa (I sure hope I have her name right, I'm great with faces, horrible with names) from San Jose. Rosa has run for Team in Training before and I thanked her and told her the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society is AWESOME in helping patients. She was doing the first leg of the relay, but she was planning to run the second leg as well to see the piano player who was reportedly at around mile 5.
Safeway, bless them, cheerfully tolerated the presence of what seemed like a thousand noisy runners sprawled out all over their store for approximately an hour. At about 5:55, the manager got on the intercom and kindly asked us to leave because we were making it impossible for his workers to get set up for the day. I hope we didn't make his life too hard, I did greatly appreciate having somewhere warm to wait for the start of the race and I'm sure everyone else did too. If we had Safeways in Ohio, I would totally shop there. So anyway it was reluctantly back out into the cold. By this time, though, the dawn's first light was creeping over the mountains around Carmel, and very soon after that it was time to check sweats and line up. I stripped down to an old neon yellow long-sleeve race shirt I planned to throw away and my shorts. We then began moving towards the start on the Pacific Coast Highway. Rosa and I parted ways as I wanted to line up in B-Corral (the corral for runners looking to run 4:00-4:30) and she was planning to start in C-Corral.
Start of the Race!
I found B-Corral and lined up at the very back next to a woman from Virginia. I did not see any reason to try and push my way further forward; I figured starting slow was better than going out fast. Someone announced the temperature was 52 degrees – it was actually very similar to Towpath in October. I’d have preferred 42 degrees, but you can't control the weather, it is what is. Bart Yasso was the race starter. The National Anthem was played, and a prayer was read. I didn’t hear all that was said, but I caught a line about wings on our heels that made me smile. Then doves were released, and Bart started A-Corral (the sub-4 hour people).
Right after A-Corral started I said goodbye to my ugly bright yellow shirt. I did decide to keep my white cotton throw away gloves. I eventually tossed them after a hill in the Carmel Highlands, probably around 40 minutes into the race.
The race directors then called B-Corral forward. They told us we were a boisterous group (we definitely were that!) and that we were more beautiful than the members of A-Corral. I’m not sure why they were trying to butter us up, but hey, we ate it up. Then the time came for Bart to start us. But his gun wouldn’t fire! The race director made a joke about how this was the first time Bart ever shot blanks. Bart had to start us with his voice. It was a very short walk forward to the chip mat and we were off!
I have to admit to getting choked up as I crossed the starting line. I could not believe I was finally running the Big Sur Marathon. After all those years, after that entire struggle with cancer, I finally had made it to the starting line of my "someday" marathon. Finally, someday was here! It wasn’t the starting line I had envisioned under the redwood trees at Pfeffier State Park of course what with the landslide causing the change to the out-and-back, but it was the starting line for the Big Sur Marathon nonetheless.
The hills started almost immediately as we ran the "wrong" way up the back of the "D Minor Hill at the D Major Time." I had refrained from driving the course before the race, wanting it to be a surprise. Frankly I was fearing monsters like the short, steep hills I run up and down in the Rocky River valley at home. Story Road Hill and Rock Cliff Hill had me very well prepared so I was pleasantly surprised. The hills were LONG and definitely trying, but the slope wasn’t severe like the ones at home. I thought all of the hills were very, very run-able. In fact, that is one thing I will say for Big Sur: It is a very runnable course. If you're a good hill runner, you could do very well here.
I cruised through the first part of the course and enjoyed the cool air and the shade of the Carmel Highlands, knowing it would probably warm up fast as there was not a cloud in the sky. The first five miles went by in 46:02, so I was running around 9:10/miles. It felt like a good comfortable pace, so I stuck with it. I was glad I was wearing my IT band strap because the road WAS severely sloped towards the ocean.
Mile 1: 09:28
Mile 2: 09:01
Mile 3: 09:22
Mile 4: 08:59
Mile 5: 09:10
Five Mile Split: 46:02 (9:12/mile)
The Middle Miles
At mile five approximately, we came out of the Carmel Highlands and got our first view of the coast. And my jaw fell to the road. Wow, wow, wow. These huge green mountains just rose up seemingly out of nowhere. The Pacific Ocean was a gorgeous blue. The white surf was crashing on the rocks. Just wow, wow, wow! I especially loved running through the canyons formed by the dirt and rocks on the sided of the road and in and out of the shadows.
A picture is worth a thousand words, so I'll let the photos I took of the course and the coast line speak for themselves ...
There was quite a bit of music on the course, but I have to say the two highlights were 1) the signature piano player, in a tuxedo, of course, and the 2) drummers.
Mile 6: 08:58
Mile 7: 08:39
Mile 8: 08:59
Mile 9: 09:04
Mile 10: 09:11
Ten Mile Split: 1:30:53 (9:05/mile)
As we ran along, we constantly saw other runners going the other direction for the other race distances. That was a neat feature of the out-and-back course -- you could enjoy the scenery, you could look at other runners coming the other way, or the bands. I saw the lead guys and they were booking it (I think the winning man ran a 2:31!). My concerns about the race being crowded were unfounded; starting us in waves (A, B, C) was smart, as was allowing us the first two miles of the course to use both side of the roads in order to let people thin out. The only place where it was somewhat crowded was on the narrow roads in Point Lobos.
The turn around point was placed at around mile 12.2, just before the Rocky Creek bridge and the landslide. I turned the corner feeling good, but I also was noticing it was starting to warm up considerably and that the sun was really blasting. There was no half-marathon marker, but I tapped my Garmin at mile 13.1 for a 1:57ish split.
Mile 11: 08:47
Mile 12: 08:51
Mile 13: 08:55
Half-Marathon Split: 1:57:26 (8:57/mile)
I started to pick up the pace sub-consciously at this point, but I felt great up to mile 18. At mile 18, I started to get tired. Makes sense, I guess. At this point I also noticed some buzzards circling over head. I guess they were there to provide us with an impetus and some motivation to keep moving! A runner next to me joked that we should buy one of the houses for sale along the Highway.
At mile 19, we passed the piano player for a second time (the first time had been at mile 5). One thing I loved about Big Sur was being able to hear the sounds of the grand piano bouncing off the mountains -- you could hear it from literally a mile away. I am pretty sure he was playing “Chariots of Fire” on the way out and the theme to “Rocky” (Gonna Fly Now) on the way back. I also noticed on the mile 19 marker that they had Cicero’s quote “Dum Spiro Spero” – while I breathe, I hope. So I gave mile 19 to my oncologist, Dr. Spiro. He ran Big Sur in 1990 and he inspired me to come out and run it. It was actually one of my better miles. My second-wind, I guess.
Mile 14: 08:34
Mile 15: 08:29
Mile 16: 08:39
Mile 17: 08:45
Mile 18: 08:48
Mile 19: 08:21
Mile 20: 08:59
Twenty Mile Split: 2:58:01 (8:54/mile)
End of the Race and Return of the Evil Carmel Highlands
(Evil because of that sharp camber of the road. Ouch!)
As we re-entered the Carmel Highlands, there was a BIG hill at mile 20. A lot of people walked it, but I tried to run it the best I could. I think this is the hill that did me in as far as my breathing goes. It had WALL written all over it, and I had only drank Gatorade at every other stop since eating the sports beans three hours before. (Yup. I skipped the gels and every other form of carbs other than approximately three cups of Gatorade. I'm not sure that was smart.) Nevertheless, at this point, I was still feeling strong running-wise. But the heat and the distance was also starting to take a toll on me. My stride shortened somewhat and I had my first hint of the breathing issues that would really rear up at around mile 23.
There was a family handing out strawberries along the road; I stopped and grabbed two to eat. I figured nuts to my stupid stomach; I was less than an hour from finishing anyway. The strawberries were delicious. Definitely the best I've ever had. After that, my breathing always was a problem, although I ran fairly strong into Point Lobos.
Point Lobos was the highlight of the 2011 race – the race normally does not go through there. This was the only place the course was somewhat crowded, but it wasn't bad. Unfortunately, it was very hard to enjoy Point Lobos as it was miles 23 and 24 which are always tough miles to enjoy (I enjoyed Point Lobos much more when I went back on Monday!) There was a short steep hill -- the photo is of me trying to power up it the best I could. And it was then that the wheels really came off in terms of my breathing. I think it may have been my asthma; I just felt like I couldn’t breathe properly. I felt like I was hyperventilating. I was also very warm.
It may have been me hallucinating or dying or something, but I think there was an accordion playing leprechaun in Point Lobos ...
We came out of Point Lobos back out into the sun and up the infamous “D Minor Hill at the D Major time.” I kept struggling along – I had been averaging 8:55 pace up to mile 23, but I just felt like I couldn’t breathe properly and slowed down considerably. I kept patting a list of cancer warriors I was carrying that I was running in memory and in honor of; that kept me moving forward when all I wanted to do was find some shade and sit down. Mile 24 and mile 25 were very slow; I know I came in for mile 26 at a 9:35 pace from my Garmin. I felt almost like a fish out of water as far as my breathing, but I kept trying to compose myself for the finish. My legs felt fine, it was all my breathing that was the issue. I crested the hill and ran down the back of the D Minor Hill, looking for the finish line. A runner lounging by the side of the road yelled the finish line is 500 yards. I thought being a runner he was probably being truthful (spectators tend to say well-intentioned but actually mean things like “you’re almost there” when you have four miles to go! There was a guy at mile 2 that had a sign about us being "almost there" that I did find funny at that point.)
We finally came into view of the finish and I did my best to run it in at a good clip. I felt sort of out of it from the heat; I am guessing it was 75 degrees with the bright sun. I think Bart was helping announce the finishers coming in. As I approached the line (trying to catch the four hour pace leader), whoever the MC was remarked that we looked very strong finishing and looked like we could run another 6 miles. Uh no thank you. The sun was really blasting and I wished I had 1) worn my sunglasses and 2) I knew I probably was sunburned -- that's what happens when you wear only SPF 15 and you're a winter-pale fair complexion Ohio girl.
I crossed the line with the clock reading 4:01. My Garmin claimed the course was 26.47 miles (hard to always run tangents!) with 2,452 feet worth of climbing (the point-to-point has 1,700 approximately). My gun time was 4:01 and change; my chip time was 3:58:18 (9:05 pace), good enough to finish as the 281st woman out of 1,548 and as the 875th overall finisher of 3,218. Although I didn't have a set time goal, I really, really, really wanted to break four hours at Big Sur and I am so happy I made my goal!
Mile 21: 09:19
Mile 22: 09:31
Mile 23: 08:42
Mile 24: 09:14
Mile 25: 09:48
Mile 26: 09:31
Mile 26.47: 04:15
Total Time: 3:58:19 (9:00/mile for 26.47 miles)
I got my finisher’s medal and staggered over to get my finisher’s photo. The medal is very cool. It is big and hand carved. I like it a lot. After smiling for a red-faced, bad finisher's picture, I then proceeded into a tent (which was blessedly shady … given my eye problem, I REALLY wish I had worn my sunglasses) to get food boxes. There was a banana, a cookie, a Gatorade chocolate chip bar, some grapes, two strawberries, and a piece of bread in my box. I also did score some soup (remembering once again Ben’s report), but since I don’t drink, I passed on the beer. Bag check was super easy. I then got on the bus back to the Embassy Suites – again super easy. You can tell this is a super well organized event!
All and all, I loved running on the ragged edge of the western world. I wish I hadn’t run into that breathing problem at the end (still not entirely sure what happened to me – maybe that was my chemo damaged lungs saying uncle…), but that was the only mar on an otherwise fantastic day. I felt extremely well prepared for the hills – in fact, that’s where I did all my passing.
This time four years ago, I was barely able to run around the block. I was reduced to coughing up blood by the sides of trails and to watching other runners pass me. I have now survived cancer and the effects of chemo to conquer and run one of the most difficult marathon courses in the world. If you had told me four years ago that I’d be running the Big Sur Marathon I would have laughed at you; it seemed impossible. Never give up hope and never stop fighting.
I stayed Monday and went back to Point Lobos. I also drove down to Big Sur itself and Pfeiffer State Park to see the redwoods ... They were magnificent.
To end, I just want to say thank you Big Sur Marathon for giving this Midwestern girl the experience of a lifetime. It was awesome, and mystical, and unforgettable. I wanted to do a race that befit beating cancer, and I can't think of a better race to do that than the spectacular, challenging, and awesome Big Sur Marathon.
Some additional photos of me on the marathon course.
My Big Sur photo gallery on Flickr:
[flickr-gallery mode="photoset" photoset="72157626653469756"]