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April 19, 2006

Hurricane Drums

If you've ever browsed my website of article archives, you may have come across a version of this article I wrote before last year's Big Sur Marathon. I wasn't a blogger then, so I've tinkered with this article a bit, and the current version is below. It's about one of my favorite parts of the Big Sur course...

It's been twelve months, and I can still hear them.

Most marathons make an honest effort to provide some sort of course entertainment for the runners (after all, it can be a very long time to stay focused), but none lend themselves as easily to inspirational accompaniment as the Big Sur International Marathon.

The scenic coastline easily echoes the beauty of instrumental music, and there are several points between Big Sur and Carmel where runners are encouraged by orchestras, jazz bands, bagpipes, or piano sonatas. However, all of these sounds fade in comparison to the impact of the Taiko drums at the base of Hurricane Point.

Japanese Taiko drums originated over 2000 years ago as instruments of war. Their thunderous sounds were ideal for intimidating an enemy army from a distance. The drumbeats could be heard across the whole battlefield, and changes in pace or pattern were used for coordinating the movement of large numbers of soldiers.

Once a battle was waged, the constant drumming above the din reassured and motivated the soldiers to continue fighting, no matter how formidable the opponent appeared. They knew that as long as they heard the drumbeat, the battle plan was still in effect.

During the Big Sur Marathon, runners hear the drums before they see them. Depending on wind conditions, the first faraway sounds are picked up about 1-2 miles before the Little Sur River bridge, where the drummers stand on the shoulder of the road. The bridge sits at 40 feet above sea level, and immediately after crossing it, the runners begin the 2.2-mile, 520-foot climb to the top of Hurricane Point.

Hearing the drums in the distance, runners know they are approaching the signature climb of the race, and even experienced racers get a slight sick-in-the-stomach feeling about the challenge that lies ahead.

Talk about intimidation from a distance.

At the base of the hill, the emotional dynamic changes. The sound of the drummers grows louder and louder, until you pass right in front of them and see them pounding away relentlessly. Amidst the thunderous drums you hear shouts of encouragement from the congregating relay runners, and your heart thumps harder as you take the full measure of the daunting obstacle ahead.

It's a pure fight-or-flight situation, and (assuming you don't quit the race right here) the adrenaline boost emboldens your spirit and puts some extra spark in your legs as you take your first brave strides upward.

Before too long your body begins to protest the climb, and the drummers are no longer in sight. However, you can still hear their drumbeats above the sound of your heavy breathing and the howling of the wind as you soldier ahead in the midst of your battle against the hill.

I like to match the cadence of my strides to the rhythm of the background drums, as if I'm channeling the energy of the drums into my legs, to maintain my turnover and steadily reach the summit.

Shortly after the summit of Hurricane Point, the actual sound of the drumming ceases, but their powerful echo still resonates in my mind. Even as I'm passing the grand piano at Bixby Bridge, or any of the other musicians in the last half of the course, I keep the sound of the drums as my primary motivation as fatigue sets in.

I'm reassured in that as long as I can hear the drums in my head, I can keep my legs moving toward the distant finish line. I keep their rhythm through the final challenging miles, until I ultimately cross the finish line.

It’s only at that moment that I finally allow the drumming in my head to cease.

By now I've run the Big Sur Marathon so many times, and the sound of the Taiko drummers is so distinctively strong, that I'm able to conjure their rhythm in my head almost any time I need to. I frequently summon the drums when I'm ascending a long hill, or when I'm growing fatigued in the final miles of a 20-mile training run.

As the months drift toward the end of the year, my memory of the inspirational drumbeats of April grows slightly dimmer. But then the calendar turns to January, and I realize that it's time to shift my Big Sur training into high gear. Into February, the sound of the drums grows more prominent with each passing week.

By the time April arrives, I can clearly visualize myself at the base of Hurricane Point, close enough to the drums to feel their vibrations, charging ahead against formidable odds.

The drums fill me with dread. They also fill me with strength. The drums inspire and encourage me, through the race and through the year.

I can't wait to hear them in person again next week.


backofpack 4/19/06, 10:17 AM  

I love it! That is a great post. You make me want to run Big Sur and hear those drums. I love the way you "summon" them to keep you going through training.

The first time Eric ran Portland they had a drum corp at the start - it was an awesome, inspirational sound that really kicked things off.

Susan 4/19/06, 1:16 PM  

WOW - what an awesome post! I'd love to hear those drums some day.

Downhillnut 4/19/06, 3:16 PM  

VERY cool. The last couple of years there have been drummers at the top of the big Weaselhead hill on the Police Half route. You can hear them as you go through the valley and you know you won't actually see them until you make it up up up to the top.

I have cheered on friends at that hill for 2 years, have put up a sign that said "BE STRONG" at the bottom and chalked encouragement on the paved ascent.

This is the first year I will race it myself, and I will remember how you keep the drums in your head, to keep them in mine until the finish.

Have an awesome Big Sur!

Kim 4/19/06, 3:17 PM  

I'm getting excited. Sounds wonderful. And I can pause my Ipod for a while and let the rhythm move me.
Haven't blogged in a while but tapering is going well.
Can't wait....

susie 4/19/06, 3:52 PM  

Wow, it's getting close, isn't it? Are you having taper madness yet? The drums: I'll bet the pounding stays in your head for days after the race. I hope they serve you well this year.

olga 4/19/06, 6:10 PM  

I will surely make it there, whether or not it's short by about 6 miles:) I loved to drive by Rt1 and take short hikes and see the scenery - what a perfect srunning destination!

robtherunner 4/19/06, 10:08 PM  

I have not heard the drums at Big Sur, but like Michelle mentioned above I have heard them at the start of the Portland Marathon and they got me completely pumped up. My first marathon in 2002 at Portland they started the drumming at the start of the race, which made for one of the most memorable moments of the race.

Here's my goal. Boston 2007, Big Sur 2008.

Darrell 4/19/06, 11:08 PM  

Your enthusiam for this race is contagious. I can hear the drums, here and now. I just checked out the BSIM website. What awesome pictures. I wish I was ready to join you next weekend. 2007 or maybe 2008 with Rob! Have a great race, Donald.

Deene 4/20/06, 2:16 PM  

your post makes me want to run this just to hear the drummers. I have some drumming music on my playlist when I run, the cadence is helpful when you're approaching the wall.

dave kellogg 4/21/06, 2:00 AM  

Hey, did we publish this last year? If not, we should this year. e-mail - dave

DREW 4/21/06, 10:13 AM  

Sometime around July of last year I began searching for potential marathons. At that point I'd done zero and didn't know much about when and where any were held. I was just starting my marathon journey. I distinctly remember stumbling onto the Big Sur site and knowing immediately that it was something very special. The description of Hurricane Point and the drummers is something I've read repeatedly and I've been committed to hearing them for myself since that July afternoon. There were Taiko drummers in Las Vegas at about mile 25 and they continue to beat in my head. Their pounding touched something deep and almost primative inside and helped me grunt out the last couple of miles in that race.

I won't be in Big Sur next weekend, but I will be there next year. In a way, I've been listening to those drums since last July. On April 29, 2007 I'll turn 44 and at some point that morning I'll start my ascent up Hurricane Point to their beat. I can't wait.

Thanks for reminding me of one of the many things that hooked me into marathons.

Anne 4/21/06, 6:23 PM  

Sounds like Big Sur took a page from Vermont City Marathon's organizers, or maybe it's the other way around. Coming off a quiet lakefront bikepath for several miles, you start to hear the Taiko drums at the base of a big hill at Mile 16. Along the way are spectators cheering you on, followed by the adrenaline rush of the relayers cheering from the top. Thanks for your terrific description of how those drummers work their musical magic.

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