Tuesday, September 4, 2018

Big Sur International Marathon

We arrived as usual to the expo on Saturday about an hour before closing.  The last two years there has been construction at the convention center so this was the first year the expo was fully back in its normal site.  Because of the larger space it felt much less chaotic than previous years, though you do have to go up and down a few floors to get your bib, shuttle ticket, and shirt.

The race took on Hoka as a sponsor this year supplanting their usual merchandise sponsor of Asics. I've learned over the years that Asics shirts run small. I am even fairly certain this year on the registration page for the race they recommended sizing up.  So size up I did and their new generic shirt sponsor shirts definitely ran true to size.  My own fault for not carefully trying it on at the expo, but my race shirt is a touch big and by race day I was told they were all out of the size down. So that was a little bit of a bummer for me.

Big Sur also revamped their logo this year to be a little more modern. I love the new look though do miss their signature "Run on the jagged edge of the Western world."  They said they will bring back pieces with the vintage feel so I hope they do that in the future.

I stopped by Michael Martinez's booth to say hello and get a photo. I told him how he had played "What A Wonderful World" last year when I crossed the Bixby which pretty much made my Big Sur running life. I always check the CD he has for sale but it has been the same the last few years.

I planned to wake up at 3:30 am and sadly did not get a great night's sleep.  My son took forever to fall asleep which kept me up.  Not too terrible, but I also didn't have a good night's sleep the day before so was dragging a little. I thought for sure my son would sleep through my getting ready but he woke up once I got out of bed and was fairly chipper talking to me while I got ready. I didn't mind that but I was trying to be quiet so as not to wake my husband.

As I left my hotel room I noted there was a relatively strong wind and the flags at the hotel were moving about.  I hopped onto the shuttle bus which picks up right next door to my hotel.  This year it was a luxury tour bus (some years you get yellow school busses).  I'm always concerned about getting motion sickness on the long, windy bus trip to the start line. Some years I score the entire seat to myself which helps so I can lie down.  Someone sat next to me so no such luck this year.  I stripped off my jacket as soon as I got on the bus since motion sickness seems to be exacerbated by being warm. The bus had its air on and was fairly cool and I don't know if that was it, but I luckily did not feel even a little sick this year.

I chatted briefly with my seat mate before the bus left. But I closed my eyes and leaned against the window most of the trip to try to sleep, or pretend to sleep, or fool my body into thinking we were sleeping. We eventually rolled to a stop in what I imagine was a long line of busses on Highway 1 near the start.  This was sort of odd as I never recall ever being stuck in a traffic jam.  I looked out the window and the trees and tall grasses were swaying in a breeze which I thought was a bad omen as usually in the tree areas you can't feel much wind on even the windiest days.  Usually we pass the start area and turnaround almost a mile farther down the road before driving back up by the start and getting dropped off. So I was really surprised when the bus driver turned on the lights, opened the door and set us out into the day.  I told my seatmate we were still pretty far from the start. I estimate we walked about half a mile to the start area. We did this the year the bridge farther up the road was not in service but the race warned us ahead of time this would be happening.  So that was a little shocking.

It was a little chilly but by no means cold and I thought it was going to be a really warm day out there. I headed up to the announcer booth area to meet Angela.  She arrived not long after I got there and we found a place to sit down to wait out the masses using the portapotties so we could hop into the start area last minute.

A note on my race day plan:  When I started working with my coach I told her I had no time goal for Big Sur and my goal this cycle was to build on CIM 2017 fitness and lay a good foundation for CIM 2018 work.  After a few weeks of working together I asked her what she considered marathon goal pace to be this cycle. I wanted a framework for viewing the tempo and speed work we were doing. She wrote back and said as we moved closer to the marathon we would be doing more work at goal pace of 8:20. Frankly, I consider 8:20 to be my CIM 2018 goal pace so I was a little surprised she was moving in that direction so soon.  We discussed that and ultimately I told her I'd trust her.  I'm glad I did as we did a lot of really confidence building work this training block.

So as Big Sur loomed I realized I was in arguably the second best if not the best marathoning shape of my life and should I really just go out there and run easy peasy miles the entire way? Obviously I wasn't going to run anything close to a PR at Big Sur, but I started thinking maybe I could go out in the low-9:00s and maybe just maybe snag a sub-4 finish.  At the end of this training block a 9:00 minute mile is the pace I would have pegged as the fastest pace I could say with confidence, "Yes, I can definitely hold that for 26.2."  For perspective, any time I have PRd a marathon I was not confident at all I could hold the pace I held the whole way. So confidence pace was just that, full of confidence and had a healthy dose of break-glass-in-case-of-emergency reserves.

I discussed this with my coach who thought sub-4 was doable, but she recommended running by feel since it was so hilly.  Comfortable the first 5, kick it up a click over the next 10, kick it up a click over the next 5, have fun the last 10K.  I thought about it and comfortable for the first downhill 5 of Big Sur was pretty much probably going to be at sub-4 pace, so I thought I'd go out at that and see what happened.

Angela and I took off with the second wave. The 3:50 pace group passed us after a bit and I felt she was holding on at their pace which was definitely not my 9:00s so I held back. I was hoping to stay around 9:05 for the early miles. I let myself slow on the inclines and pick up a little speed on the downhills and my average pace was right where it should be with effort at comfortable. I had been really worried about beating myself up on the downhills at Big Sur. I wanted to let myself go with the downhill flow a little bit but had told myself I wouldn't go faster than 8:20-8:30 on any downhill. I figured if I had trained with that as goal pace then running that pace downhill wasn't exactly bombing down a hill.

We hit the coast at mile 5 and that is where I always say you will know what the weather will be like that day.  When we were waiting at the start area, I swear it was blue clear skies. I even told Angela that Big Sur is its most gorgeous on blue sky days (Sorry, Angela).  Angela -- who had just run the ridiculous weather Boston Marathon -- joked there was 0% chance of rain. I was sort of psyched up for some warmer final miles. But at the coast it was densely overcast and fairly windy. I've run Big Sur in some truly horrid wind conditions.  This year it was definitely a strong headwind but just below the amount you'd define as soul-crushing. Don't mistake, there were times I held onto my hat and tucked behind people, but I won't say it was a Year of Wind.  It even misty drizzled on and off here and there.

My pace strategy worked really well the first 10 miles of Big Sur which has inclines at that point I would liken to general road marathon hills.  The first more sustained climb comes at about mile 8 and it did slow me a bit but I knew there would be a nice descent down to the base of Hurricane Point to even that out.  I had a minor side stitch in the early miles and it came on full force as I started the downhill pickup towards the Hurricane Point climb.  It was sort of reminiscent of the game-ending stitch of the Humboldt Half the other year.  I rarely get side stitches when I run so it was frustrating.  I couldn't take a deep breath in it hurt so badly and I contemplated walking to work it out. But I was coasting downhill at sub-9:00 pace and I knew Hurricane Point was coming up and I'd need this faster running time to help me smooth out the slowness that was to come.  So I kept running but I couldn't go quite as quick as I would have if the stitch hadn't been an issue. I was hoping since it worsened so badly on the downhill it was ease up on the uphill which turned out to be the case.

As we made that descent you pass through a relay station and normally you can hear the taiko drums as you come down that hill.  I didn't hear anything.  As we got closer I didn't see anything.  Where were the taiko drummers? I always love how they fire me up for the two mile climb. They are so iconic to Big Sur I couldn't believe they would omit them.  A little bit of sadness here.
I hit the climb and told myself I could slow as much as needed but to just keep running. The downshifting continued and continued and I was trudging up the hill.  The climb to Hurricane Point is fairly steep the first third, probably a little easier the middle third, then steepens up again the last third.  As we went up I thought I could hear taiko drummers and they soon appeared about halfway up the hill.  It was nice to get the boost when it was more needed mid-hill, though I think I prefer them at the bottom of the hill. I'm curious if this new placement will be permanent or not.

It is normally quite windy at the top of Hurricane Point during even non-windy years and it was howling this year. I held onto my hat and leaned into it as we rounded the bend.  And then there was Bixby!  God, I love this part of the race.  You round the bend and see the most glorious view and after two miles of climbing you get to run a mile downhill.  The wind was just right that I could hear the piano music from a mile away.  My legs appreciated the down and I coasted on a high to the the bridge.

This year Michael Martinez was playing "Bad" (as in Michael Jackson) which was sort of a surprise as usually there are more dulcet tunes being played. But I guess this is the year of Big Sur suprises.  Or Big SURprises.  Ha ha, hardy har har. :)

For the first time ever I didn't stop for a photo with Michael.  Actually, for the first time ever I didn't take one photo the entire race. I made the decision this year was about running, so I left my GoPro at home. I had my cell phone in my Orange Mud pack but it isn't accessible while on the run.  I figured if it was a gorgeous day or something truly unique presented itself I would stop for a photo but overcast Big Sur is not as pretty as blue sky Big Sur and I had plenty of blue sky Big Sur photos already.  And frankly, I have a library of overcast Big Sur photos from previous races so I figured I was covered. The perks of running a race for the 8th time.

There is a little more of a decline after Bixby and then the real working miles of the race start.  They aren't as pretty, the hills get more serious and you get more tired.  As I departed the Bixby high my overall pace was at about a 9:22 after my trudge up to Hurricane Point. I look back at the next few miles and am still not quite sure what happened. I certainly felt pretty low at that point from a sub-4 perspective.  I doubted I could bring that down almost 20 seconds a mile the rest of the race as I already had an idea of how much the hills were going to slow me.

Somewhere in mile 15 where the climbs start up again, I stopped trying to run my A goal time.  I remember thinking I wasn't even sure if I had mentally given up or if my body was physically shutting down and saying nope. I had the feeling I probably could have dug into it a bit longer but at the same time it would have been a losing proposition from a physical standpoint.

As we hit hill after hill I felt really silly for even contemplating a time goal on this course. I did realize I was well on my way to a hefty course PR. I doubted I would ever be in this shape before Big Sur again and also that I would ever try to run it at any designated pace again. I told myself to just keep running as much as possible because whatever time I put down today would likely be my lifetime Big Sur course PR.

I wanted though, so badly, to take short walking breaks on the hills. I knew once I let myself do that it would be a hard habit to break the rest of the race. I think it started with walking for short periods through aid stations.  Then eventually here and there I'd walk a little on the hills.  I tried to keep them short just to get some pep back all the time with the course PR goal in the back of my mind.
The last few times I've done Big Sur I did it with a run-walk strategy due to lack of training.  I have to say doing it that way the last few times really skewed my perception of the Big Sur hills.  I remember they were nasty but the nasty factor seemed like a distant dream and in more recent years I thought the hills were totally okay. Challenging yes, but not demoralizing. These suckers were demoralizing and challenging and far steeper than I recalled.

At one point I started walking on an uphill and I passed a woman who was running. I don't mean to knock her running pace because good on her for keeping it one foot at a time. But I had this feeling when I passed her while walking at a business casual pace that there was a point of diminishing returns from an energy standpoint. If you can walk up a hill faster than you can run up it, I vote walk.

I took a gel at miles 5, 10, 16 and the rest of the race I grabbed orange slices bananas, and strawberries from aid stations. Maybe a gel would have brought me a little more life but at the time I was craving some real food.

Somewhere in the high teens, I heard a chatter behind me. I could tell instantly it was a pace group.  The pace leader was saying he had paced a 3:45 group last week, had run Boston the week before that, and next week he was running some other marathon.  Unreal.  As they passed I looked at their sign and it said, "4:05."  This really surprised me as I swore I got run over by the 4:05 group at mile 1 or 2 and couldn't for the life of me figure out why they were running so fast.  But here they were making their move on me. In hindsight I wish I had tried to go with them.  It was windy at that point and the pace leader was even joking to a tall guy running with him that he was sorry he couldn't completely block the wind for him. I should have tucked behind that tall guy and held on.  But they passed me not slowly but rather definitively and I could tell they were going much faster than I was moving at that point. But in hindsight I wish I had tried for at least a little while.

As we got into the 20s I knew there was the last really scary hill at mile 22.  I knew I'd probably have to walk up that one a little.  So through the low 20s I told myself to run up all the hills and then I could walk a teeny bit on 22. I thought about a podcast with Desi Linden I had heard recently where she said sometimes during races she says to just keep the pace until that lamp post or that tree and I started playing that game in my head.  For a brief time I counted my steps and told myself to run to 10. Then run to 10 again. And so on. I had two gears at this point in the race.  Run or Walk.  I didn't feel like Run had any sort speed options.

My average pace was slowly creeping up and though I was still far in the clear of a course PR, I had visions of dissolving into a walking mess and losing that shiny star.  So I kept on trudging along. I'm super proud I got over those hills in the early 20s and the 22 hill showed up. I picked a point on it I wanted to run to before walking. Then picked another point.  Then finally took a break. My calves were burning on the uphills at this point and I realized my body was not conditioned for these types of hills.

There's a nice descent after 22, another little climb, and another nice descent.  There's actually a fair bit of downhill running towards the end there.  The camber was pretty noticeable in these miles which made me feel I was almost running horizontal a few times.  But I kept the pace going and tried to capitalize on the final downhills.

I knew the last real hill was at mile 25 and as we approached it I realized it looked much worse than I had remembered.  I had told Angela it looked bad but wasn't actually that bad.  I'm here to tell you it was actually fairly bad.  I have only ever run up this hill without walking twice before.  I told myself this would be the third time.  As I started up the rise at what felt like a barely moving running pace I did tell myself that if someone passed me while they were walking I would just walk. You know, diminishing returns and all.  Up I went and it was so hard to not walk.  It felt like everyone around me was walking. If there's anything that is tough it is continuing to run when you really want to walk and everyone else is walking so you won't feel bad about it. My calves were burning, my hamstrings were burning, even my glutes were burning and getting in on the action.  If you want to fire up your posterior chain, run some hills!

I almost walked probably four times but kept chugging.  And then the last time I contemplated walking I was practically at the top and had no choice but to keep going.  Mile 25 hill mini victory!  After the actual hill, there is still a very slight incline as you approach the finish area.  I started to pick up the pace as I could hear the race announcer in the distance.

Runners approaching the finish, you can get an idea for the weather

As I passed the mile 26 mile marker I got a text notification on my Garmin from my husband.  "Did I miss you?"  Man, way to make me feel good.  Lol.  I love the Big Sur finish because you turn the corner and finally see the finish arch.  It isn't too far away but just enough of some distance that you can get your finish kick going strong.  I pushed as much as I could, heard but did not see my husband cheering, and crossed the line in 4:16, an 11 minute course PR.

At first, I won't lie, I was disappointed with the way I ran.  There's a nagging voice of doubt which wonders if you really weren't trained as you thought you were or maybe your coach has no idea what she was talking about.  My dad sent me an email a couple of hours after the race congratulating me and he asked if I was happy with the result.  Without skipping a beat I wrote back that given the fact that the course was much hillier than anything I normally run and that a time goal was a very last minute decision I was okay with the result. And as soon as I typed it, I knew it was true.  If I had told my coach I wanted to run well at Big Sur I would have done a lot more hill prep. My hilliest longer routes will have maybe 620 feet of elevation gain and Big Sur clocked 1,588 feet of elevation gain.  Maybe for some people running slower than the pace you trained at will sustain them over hills, but I am not one of those people.  Lesson learned.

If you've followed this blog at all you know that this race has my heart.  With my extreme tardiness in race reports I can happily report that I have secured a spot in Big Sur for 2019 and will be back for my 9th running.

For more course photos/info check out prior race reports:
Big Sur 2009
Big Sur 2010
Big Sur 2011
Big Sur 2012
Big Sur 2015
Big Sur 2016
Big Sur 2017


Ann (bunnygirl) said...

I'm so glad you're still running! I can get through a 5K, but anything more than that causes my hamstring tendonitis to flare up again. I miss going out for a weekly three-hour run around town and I miss running marathons and half-marathons. Wishing you the best!

RG said...

Me too, I remember Ann's reports - wishing you the best. My good running days also past but still enough to stay healthy.

Hills! I am fortunate to live where there are always some hills to do on almost any length run and I found that doing them regularly was a huge help for long races.

Enjoyed the report.

Jen said...

Congrats on the course PR! It’s so hard not to beat yourself up in these situations, but great job running through those last hills. And the camber really kills your legs after a while. Hope CIM training is going smoothly for you!