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May 1, 2006

Big Sur 2006 Report

So much to say...where to begin? I guess it makes sense to start with my race. This could get long-winded, so it might be a good idea to fix yourself a nice tall drink, and pull up a comfortable chair. Go ahead. I'll wait a minute.

(Waiting.....) OK? Here we go...

Looking at the numbers, especially after everything I’ve written over the past week, you might conclude that I’m disappointed with the way things turned out. You would be right, but only a little bit. I've certainly made my intentions clear about chasing after a sub-three hour marathon.

In my last few marathons I had been fairly conservative in the first half, kept a consistent pace through the late miles, and come in just a few minutes above three hours. So my mindset going into Sunday’s race was to be a little more aggressive in the early going, which would hopefully do one of two things: 1) establish a slightly faster-then-normal pace that I could maintain consistently to finish a few minutes under three hours, or 2) give me just enough of a cushion that I could slow down a bit and still duck in under the wire.

I ran the first four miles ahead of pace but very comfortably; these are the gently downhill miles that are the easiest of the course. Beginning with mile 5, the course leaves the shelter of the tall redwoods and traverses vast coastal pastures - these next 4 miles are a long, gradual uphill stretch that lies exposed to the wind. It was during this section that I hit my first decision point.

My heart rate monitor was beeping above my target level while I was clinging to a pair of runners to draft as much as I could. If I slowed the pace and dropped from these runners, chances are that my heart rate would have been just as high even while running slower, since I would be facing the headwind on my own.

(And as far as the weather goes, let me say this: it was pretty typical Big Sur weather. The winds were mild at times, stronger at others, and generally unpredictable. When the sun came out, the course seemed to warm up in a hurry over the last 10 miles. So conditions were far from ideal, but not worth complaining about. We’ve had much worse. You just take whatever you can get at this race, and Sunday was a perfect example. )

The other thing that bears mentioning with this race is that if you find yourself in the first quarter to third of the pack, you will run long stretches of the race on your own. There just aren’t a lot of fast runners who sign on for this race, because it’s about the exact opposite of what you look for in a PR course. So any time you have a chance to draft with a pack of runners, you need to take advantage.

I made the decision to stay with this pair of runners, working harder than I would have liked but keeping with my strategy to be more aggressive. We broke apart on the descent to the base of Hurricane Point, but by then I had caught up to the lead female runner, and ran with her most of the way up the 2-mile climb. After another downhill mile I crossed the Bixby Bridge, the halfway point of the race at 1:29:25 – more or less right where I wanted to be.

From this point I just wanted to keep working hard, taking the race one mile at a time, knowing if I kept an average of 6:50 per mile I would finish in 3 hours. The road kept rolling up and down, and I was gaining a handful of seconds per mile, but beginning to feel the strain.

I hit mile 20 in 2:15 – leaving me 45 minutes to do a final, very hilly 10K. I had a good chance to do it, but I was definitely feeling the pain.

I clicked off mile 21 in just over 7 minutes – meaning I was slowing down. And up next were the two toughest miles of the course – miles 22 and 23 through Carmel Highlands.

I’ve suffered through the steep hills of the Highlands many times during my marathon career. It’s a backbreaking stretch of road that can completely demoralize the best of runners. It’s the place where my inner demons emerge, and my body cries out against the pain I inflict upon myself to continue onward.

This year I felt more desparate than others – probably because of the extra effort I had spent earlier in the race. There were several times when I felt like I was barely keeping my legs moving. More than once, I gave myself a visible target to reach before I could stop and take a walking break: just make it to the next cone, the next telephone pole, the base of the next hill. The marathon became a nearly continuous series of 50-yard efforts, and it was all I could do to move from one to another.

Somehow I willed my body onward, and surprisingly never gave in to the temptation to walk. And while it felt like I was jogging in place, my mile splits were 7:26, 7:46, 7:18 - not a complete collapse, but just slow enough to put me behind my target pace. I hit mile 24 at 2 hrs, 45 minutes. It was still possible to break three hours, but with the way I was feeling I knew the odds were heavily against me.

I maintained my “dead man running” mode through the final two miles, and while I remained optimistic, in the back of my mind I knew I would just miss the goal time. The strategy I had employed was effective in putting me in position to succeed, but I couldn’t make the final move when the need arose. My only goal became to maintain forward momentum all the way to the finish.

Then came the silver lining. The 26-mile marker sits on the Carmel River Bridge. When runners cross the bridge, they see the finish line for the first time. And waiting for me just across the bridge were my son and wife, yelling and cheering me on.

They had done the 5K earlier in the day, and hung around the finish to see me home. And in the space of about two seconds, I did the following:
1. Glance at the finish line clock, which had just turned to 3:00:00
2. Turn and look over my shoulder to make sure no one was gaining on me, and
3. Gesture and call to my son to run with me down to the finish line.
And from there I shut the motor down, and jogged the final 200 meters to the finish line with my son right beside me. I probably could have broken 3:01, but at that point it didn't matter. We crossed the finish line together and started telling each other about our races while I staggered through the finisher’s chute.

Now, the three events above happened in precisely the specified order. I’d like to say that if the clock had read 2:59, or if someone had been hot on my heels, I would have done the same thing. But in all likelihood, I wouldn’t have. Thankfully, I didn’t have to make such a call, and the happiness of the last 200 meters more than made up for the disappointment of missing my goal time.

I believe that everything happens for a reason. I think that when God closes a door, he usually opens a window. I feel that if it wasn't meant to be for me to break 3 hours on Sunday, maybe the outcome was scripted to happen exactly as it did: with my son and I crossing the finish line together, sharing a moment of joy and relief, reveling in our mutual accomplishments.

Even without the memorable finish, I would have been satisfied with my effort on Sunday. I made a calculated gamble that didn’t quite pay off, but gave me my second best result here ever. To get there, I navigated through some very dark psychological waters, and pushed my body nearly to its limit to persevere.

I have even more to say about this race that I’ll discuss in the days to come. My son had a very enjoyable day, which I'll report on soon, and he has already mentioned doing another race someday. I’ve touched on a couple of other issues in this report that I’ll explore further in future posts. My next post will probably be our Herald article with some memorable snapshots of marathon day.

One thing is certain: there will be NO running this week, so there’s bound to be a lot of rambling. Most of it will be about Sunday, but then I’ll move on and talk about the new direction my training is taking over the next several months. And this blog just wouldn’t be complete without mentioning yet another music video hottie I’ve had on my mind lately. So I’ll definitely keep the information flowing during this down week.

Finally, I wanted to say thanks again to everybody who sent kind words before and after the race. It means a lot to know there are people out there interested in your results (you know, besides those who have the obligation of being related to you). As I’ve said before, running is an extremely difficult sport – so I’m glad to take every little bit of encouragement and support I’m fortunate enough to get.


backofpack 5/1/06, 8:39 PM  

Another great report Donald! Yesterday, after reading your post, I had to go back and check your goal. I couldn't figure out why 3:01 wasn't making you jump for joy. Once I remembered the sub-3 goal, I got it. I still think it was an awesome time - and you know you gave it your all, so you have much to be proud of. And finally, that finish. I have to think that was pretty satisfying - and something your son will always carry with him. Well done.

angie's pink fuzzy 5/1/06, 8:57 PM  

great report. sure, you could have shaved a few seconds off the clock, but I know the joy of finishing a race with my son at my side, and I'm sure it was worth it!!

DREW 5/1/06, 9:54 PM  

When I ran Vegas last year I pulled two of my boys down the screaming madness of the finish line and they were a bit intimidated by it all. I had to drop them off at the side and continue through on my own. Funny thing how memories are made. Sounds like things fell into place perfectly for you and your son. The fact that he'd run his race earlier makes your day even more perfect.


Kim 5/1/06, 11:04 PM  

I'd say it was a memorable finish...and one I'm sure your son will remember too.

I'm in awe that you pushed through. I struggled with the Highlands. They're cruel. Just cruel.

Thanks for sharing your story. And for answering all my questions along the way. You helped make this a good first race for me.

susie 5/2/06, 2:42 AM  

What a strong race. It sounds like you did everything right, and what a cool finish with your son. That's a memory he won't forget, especially having just finished his own first race.

Downhillnut 5/2/06, 5:58 AM  

Last summer I was able to finish my Half just in time to re-finish with my daughter, who was doing her mile. Finish lines are joyful places, even moreso with offspring by your side!

I'm sure you have a lot of lessons learned from your race strategy. I applaud your tremendous effort (wow!) and look forward to learning from you.

Anne 5/2/06, 7:44 AM  

I was expecting this report to end with a dash of disappointment or maybe even an ailment or injury. Instead, it was an honest assessment and a beautiful finish. Again, great going, Donald!

stronger 5/2/06, 8:56 AM  

I'd take that finisher photo over a 2:59 finisher photo any day. Fantastic ending. I hope your son carries with him the memories you place in our minds.

Deene 5/2/06, 9:06 AM  

that was cool to have your son running with you at the finish, he'll remember it!
Pushing limits - that's what it's all about. Congrats!

olga 5/2/06, 1:19 PM  

The HILLS, the WIND, and finishing with the SON -man, it was a great race!! Congrats again, fantastic report, and rest - you and your kid:)

jeff 5/2/06, 1:56 PM  

oh man...even knowing the time you finished in, i was still thinking, "you can do it donald, go go go!" great recap and amazing finish. you are one awesome guy.

big kahuna is penciled on the calendar...

robtherunner 5/2/06, 3:53 PM  

As usual, well said. Enjoy your rest. You most definitely deserve it.

Darrell 5/2/06, 9:42 PM  

You couldn't have scripted a better ending to this race. Thanks for the great report and the inspiration.

dave kellogg 5/5/06, 1:53 AM  

It's such a weird and spiritual battle through miles 21-23, I have to think for most runners that is such a desperate and painful time. Such despair, hopelessness, and disappointment, the moment of truth. then you come through it, and there are the people you love and you remember what's really important and you know that it is really going to be OK. Powerful stuff, we should write about it for the newspaper next year.

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