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April 7, 2006

Big Sur Advice

Before we get to today’s post, I’m wondering…how does Mandisa’a being voted off American Idol this week compare to major upsets in sports? It was like the Indianapolis Colts losing in the divisional playoffs, or Team Canada failing to advance in the Olympic hockey tournament. I was almost as shocked to see this as I was watching Paula Radcliffe’s DNFs at the Olympics. Yes, I think about these things. But that’s enough for now, because today’s post is a long one…

From time to time, though various avenues - either via blogging or my newspaper column or mutual acquaintances – I get questions about marathon training. And as spring approaches, many of those people are seeking information about the Big Sur Marathon.

One very cool thing about having this blog is that I’ve come across some local runners who will be doing their first marathon at Big Sur this month. I’ve found that although the web is world wide, it is also great for making local connections (Sorry, that sounds like a slogan for match.com, but you get the idea.)

In particular, I’ve exchanged e-mails with a man in Pacific Grove who first contacted me in January for training advice during his buildup to Big Sur. Unfortunately, he also happens to be the head football coach at our rival high school, whose teams have kicked Carmel High’s butt pretty consistently over the past several years. I felt like Jan Ullrich waking up one morning to find an e-mail from Lance Armstrong in his in-box.

Demonstrating our collective maturity, we decided to overlook our conflicting loyalties and maintain friendly relations. This was pushing the envelope of graciousness for me – let’s just say I wouldn’t extend the same courtesy to Pete Carroll if he ever called me out of the blue. But it turns out I like the guy, so go figure.

Anyway, most of his questions are very typical of novice runners. Since I happen to know a handful of first-time marathoners, and a lot of folks who are preparing for Big Sur, I thought posting these questions and answers would be beneficial for a larger group of readers.

So, for Brian, Dave, Kim, and anyone else who is gearing up for Big Sur: pay attention, this is for you. As for anyone else, feel free to read along as well (Or don’t. My hit counter has already registered you anyway. It’s up to you.)

Question 1- Hills: I've noticed that in training runs, I sort of settle into a hill. What I mean by this is that at the start of the hill I get a little moody, breathe harder, etc. Then, as I progress up the hill, everything calms down, and it almost feels like it gets easier for a while. It this at all normal?

A: I think your observation is pretty typical. You're probably settling into a rhythm that your body feels it can maintain for the length of the hill. All those jitters at the bottom of the hill are just your fight-or-flight alarms going off.

Just wait until you're at the base of Hurricane Point, and you hear the Taiko drummers thundering in your ears as you stare up the hill. I mean...I get excited just typing things like that [Ed note: In fact, I wrote a whole article about it once. I’ll post it here soon.]

Anyway, the take home lesson is to not worry about how fast or slow you are going on the long hills, but just find a comfortable groove and ride it to the top.

Question 2 – Wind: I read in one of your previous articles that you have to view the wind as just another part of the course, and I'm not really afraid of the wind. Is it predominately a head wind or a side wind? It's almost more difficult for me to hold a rhythm when I'm getting pushed from the side.

A: The winds at Big Sur are typically on a diagonal coming from the north and west. It can easily shift to a headwind or a direct lateral wind, though. One year we saw guys getting blown sideways all over the place going up Hurricane Point (and yes, that day pretty much sucked). Pretty much the only thing about which you can be certain is that it will never EVER be a tailwind, so don't even get your hopes up.

Question 3 – Pacing: As a first time marathoner, how should I approach my pacing on race day? Typically my long runs go something like this - my first six miles stay a little under the 10-minute mark (9:40-9:50), my next six are almost at 10 exactly, and my last six are a little over 10. I have also noticed about the same variance based on downhill (under 10), flat (a little under 10), and uphill (10 and 1/2 ish).

My main goal is to finish Big Sur safely, and I am pretty confident that I can accomplish that. I know conditions on race day will be a factor in my final time. I thought I would go more by feel than being a slave to the watch. "10" is such a nice round number and so easy to track in terms of a pace that it seems natural to stay in that neighborhood. What's a good way for a first timer to pace?

A: The best answer is to pace yourself by effort, and let your split times fluctuate up and down with the terrain. The Hurricane Point miles may take you 1-2 minutes per mile slower than your average pace, and that's OK. You'll naturally go out a little faster than average in the first few downhill miles, but you need to be very careful to not get carried away and go too quickly. You may also get an adrenaline rush just after the halfway point and feel like you can make up some time, but DON'T DO IT! Even if you feel fantastic during miles 15-20, keep holding back until you hit the final 10K. Experienced runners say the marathon starts at mile 20.

I like to think of it like operating a car or a bike - you want to cruise the middle of the race in a comfortable gear, and you always want to know there is at least one more gear you can shift into during the final stages of the race when the going gets tough.

I can't emphasize enough, and it's impossible for you to yet appreciate, exactly how difficult the last 10K of the race can be. Think of whatever your most arduous, difficult training run has been, and then magnify it times three (if you’re having a good day), or maybe even ten (if you’re having a bad day).

Yes, I'm purposely trying to scare you a bit here. Your mindset should be to stay very conservative through the entire race, and never lose your focus in that regard. At the same time, keep a positive attitude that you can persevere and overcome, and just keep plugging away. So be terrified, but optimistic. Got it?

Honestly, I wouldn't even worry about your finishing time. Your only goal should be to finish the race without it becoming a death march at the end. If you do this well, it will be a positive experience and you will be inspired to continue this wonderful habit you've started, whether it's with another marathon in the future or just as a beneficial lifelong habit. There will always be future races where you can worry about running faster.


So, if you’ve ever wondered what I do when I’m not running or blogging, here’s your answer – I’m pretty much thinking, talking, and writing about running. As my new friend the football coach told me in his last e-mail, “Your wife must be a saint.”

Um, yeah. No kidding.


Kim 4/7/06, 2:27 PM  

I'm feeling ok with the hills going into. Maybe my naivety speaking. But I've been running some serious hills so I'm not too scared of them anymore.
And as far as the wind goes...I've been thinking...with all these storms...the wind has been coming from the south...so maybe we'll end up with a tailwind. LOL. Wishful thinking.
But one of my questions...is more general...I figure I'm going to need an extra push after 20 miles...I know I'll finish...but I start to really slow anytime I've done more than 20 on a run...with Highway 1 shut down...is there anyway to strategically place my husband to root me on? Can he run down a bit? During the BS Half...it really was motivating having people cheer you on...
I know it's a personal race...one to win or lose on our own...yada yada yada...but it would just be nice to get that extra umph to push me through the end.
Thanks again...I'm sure as I get closer and I start to stress...I'll be bugging you. :)
Have my last LONG run tomorrow. YAY. Then tapering.

Tazz 4/7/06, 3:35 PM  

Thanks for the comments and suggestions , this will be the first attempt at 26.2 for me (I have 3 half marathons complete incuding Big Sur half and the pier to peak/La Cumbra peak half)

While the climb at hurricane point is step and long , I am actully more worried about the rolling climbs later in the race when my legs will be sluggish.

Well thank's again for the words of wisdom and hope your training and race are a success!!

Mike Dolan VAFB CA

robtherunner 4/7/06, 4:13 PM  

It was nice of you to be honest. I can honestly say that in the 35 marathons and ultras I have run I can count on one hand the number of times I have had something left the last 10K. In fact two races come to mind and one of them is not my fastest marathon either. Maybe that has something to do with my inability to pace myself. One of these days I will take my running more seriously.

olga 4/7/06, 5:01 PM  

That's so good to split-post advice for runners.
Rob, didn't you feel good last 10k of Peterson ridge running with me?;)
As for Mandissa - man, I think it just shows the good taste in Americans?? Not! I was terrified to see all 3 of them in the bottom 3! Crazy!

Brian,  4/8/06, 10:18 AM  

Thanks for this post and for all the advice and encouragement over the past few weeks. With your help I'm better prepared, more confidant, tuned-up and only a little terrified.

However today’s run may have me feeling a little cocky…
What a great run! Thanks for getting me out of bed (figurative here).

Drew 4/10/06, 1:29 PM  

Not only have you helped to inspire some folks who will be running Big Sir this year, but you've inspired me as well. It will fall on my birthday next year and I plan to be there. I'll have to remember to re-read your thoughts then.

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