(OK, you asked for it. Here’s the full race report from Sunday’s Big Sur Marathon. It’s a long one – but you must have expected that.
I’m not sure if I’ll get around to posting again before I leave for Wildflower on Friday. If not, I’ll post my results here as soon as possible, with a report to follow next week.
And if you’re one of the thousands of people at Wildflower this weekend … I’ll be the tall, awkward-looking guy with a loopy grin and a black race uniform like you saw in the previous post. Feel free to say hi if we happen to cross paths.)
From time to time, someone will ask me what it is about running that I find so attractive. I usually reply with the laundry list of standard answers – health benefits, alone time, stress relief, and so on.
By the time I mention that races are also a nice competitive outlet, I’ve lulled the listener into believing that this final aspect is merely a bonus, like the “director’s comments” feature on a DVD – not something you’d purchase separately, but since it comes along with everything else, you may as well use it.
The real answer is a far different, and much simpler truth: competition is the lifeblood of my racing experience.
That’s not to say that I don’t enjoy all those other benefits of training. But when I’m lining up at the start of a race, I’m ready to run (or swim or ride – but that’s for another day) right into the fire, and my performance is the only thing that matters. Sometimes the competition is against others – but more likely, it’s a competition against the course, against the clock, or against my own inner demons. When it comes to inconsequential crusades, I’m the Don Quixote of running.
Last Sunday’s Big Sur Marathon was an example of how I sometimes fight all of these battles simultaneously. And just how slim the margin between success and failure can be.
I also spent a lot of time during the race thinking about opportunities, with three main premises:
1) Some opportunities just present themselves to take advantage of, whether you’re ready to respond or not.
2) Others can be created by our own actions, and …
3) Some may be hard to recognize, because they are disguised as painful or unpleasant circumstances.
During the course of the morning, I’d have experience with all three types.
Here’s an example of the first type of opportunity: Conditions on race morning were as nice as we could ask for. Air temperature was about 50 degrees at the start, with fog and moderate breezes for miles 6-20, and overcast skies at the finish. (In other words, it was a “no excuses” day by Big Sur standards – and if I couldn’t meet my goals, I wouldn’t have the weather to blame.)
The next opportunity I found was in the form of my friend Andrew, who I’ve referenced in previous posts. Normally, he and I shake hands on the start line, the gun sounds, and I watch him vanish into the distance ahead of me. But for whatever reason, he decided to cruise the first few miles this year – and I jumped at the chance to have him pull me along.
In my newspaper article (two posts ago), I wrote that those first two miles were the easiest 6-minute miles I’ve ever run. What I didn’t say was that for the most part, Andrew didn’t know I was there. When I saw that he wasn’t pulling away, I sped up a bit to tuck in behind him, and ran as silently as I could manage. That was my competitive instinct kicking in – a little voice telling me to use the situation to my advantage for as long as possible, without wasting time or effort on civilized things like companionship or small talk we could have had if we were running side by side. (I’m never much for small talk – as I’ll describe more in a minute).
I knew I shouldn’t hang with him for too long, though, so I drifted back as he eased into his customary race pace by mile 3. But that initial momentum was enough of a boost to help me click off the first 5 miles well ahead of my average pace, while still feeling very comfortable.
Miles 6-9 are mostly uphill, and entirely exposed to the wind, which was starting to blow fairly strongly in our faces. That’s where I found my next opportunity, in the pair of out-of-town first-time Big Sur runners I mentioned in the Herald article – one from Maine, one from Chicago.
The three of us were somewhat isolated from other packs of runners, so I was trying to keep a low profile and get as much drafting assistance as I could through this stretch, without having to pull at the front too often. And when they asked me if I knew anything about the course, I wanted to disappear completely.
Actually, that’s not entirely accurate – what I really wanted to do was lie. I wanted to say, “Nope – it’s my first time” and continue letting them think I was naïve. The last thing I wanted was to tell them that I’ve run the course more than a dozen times – because I didn’t want to open the door to several follow-up questions.
I know it sounds arrogant, but there’s no way I was going to get chatty at mile 7 of the Big Sur Marathon. I didn’t want to waste my breath, and I didn’t want to give the impression that I knew what I was doing – because I was afraid that the other guys would start setting their pace off of me, instead of vice-versa. Part of pack running is a poker game, where you try to sense how others in the group are doing, without revealing your own hand until you can make a decisive move. Telling these guys my story would be like announcing a pair of face cards at the table.
I settled on the morally defensible position of not lying – but not showing my cards, either. I gave my “it gets harder” line, then quickly followed that with, “I hope I’m not going out too fast” - which was misleading, but not untrue - just to plant some uncertainty in their heads. We stayed together until the base of Hurricane Point at mile 10, at which time I pulled away, and never saw them again.
(Thanks for the lift, fellas. Have I mentioned that I can be a little competitive sometimes?)
It was shortly after this episode – and perhaps due to some kind of runner’s karma after my deception – that I had my first “Uh-Oh” moment of the race, on the downside of Hurricane Point toward the midway point at Bixby Bridge. Along this downhill stretch, I started to feel soreness in my quadriceps.
Pain in my quads isn’t unusual during the last 10K of a marathon. But during mile 13, it’s cause for concern. I was wondering what the impact of my low mileage training would be, and I think this was where it became evident. My 40ish miles per week of running hadn’t adequately prepared my body for that kind of pounding in nearly the same way that one month of 80-mile weeks would have.
So I was a bit nervous as I cruised across the Bixby Bridge, glanced at the 1:28 split on my watch, and realized I had a small halftime lead. Given the condition of my legs, I had no idea if I could maintain the pace.
Miles 13-22 consisted of many little opportunities that I created for myself. Although I was reeling people in fairly consistently, I also got passed a handful of times by runners who looked much stronger than I felt. Each time that happened, I cranked up my intensity level just one notch, to try and match strides and/or draft the person for as long as I could.
It was a calculated risk. Increasing my effort through this section increased the chance that I would hit the wall later on – but the time that I might gain could be enough to offset whatever I would lose in Carmel Highlands (miles 22-24). My competitive side played a role here as well - otherwise I might have just stayed comfortable for as long as possible. But on Sunday, I made a conscious decision to keep pace with as many people as possible, and to make each little opportunity build upon the one before. I was also praying that I would be ready to respond to that opportunity when I needed it most.
This stretch was where the race became very difficult - my quads were hurting, my legs were heavy, my energy felt drained – but I managed to maintain mile splits of 6:40-6:55, which meant I was still running at just under three-hour pace. I knew it wouldn’t last for the duration of the race, but I wanted to make my time cushion as large as possible before I got the beatdown that awaited me in the Highlands. I hit the 20-mile mark at 2:14 and change, meaning I needed a 45-minute 10K to break three hours.
I don’t know what else to say about Carmel Highlands that I haven’t already written. Punishing? Merciless? Backbreaking? Demoralizing? I’ve used all of these descriptions in previous years. And they were all applicable again this year. There were countless stretches when I wanted to stop and walk, wanted to stretch my legs at the side of the road, wanted to scream in pain and despair.
However, one primary difference this year is that I sort of welcomed the darkness of those miles, instead of dreading them. I mean, I’ve written about the strong emotions and desperate passion I experience in the Highlands so many times, that a small, twisted part of me wanted to revisit that part of the race to analyze it in more detail. It was like I was fact-checking all of those powerful feelings, and mile 23 was the only place I could go to confirm them.
(Sorry, that’s a strange tangent to throw at you this far into the report. Can you tell that those miles drive me crazy?)
I managed to keep running all the way through this section, although my pace had slowed to about 7:30 miles. At the 24 mile mark, I had 16 minutes to run 2.2 miles and break three hours: Game....On.
When I saw those numbers, I was absolutely certain of two things: 1) The last two miles were going to hurt like crazy, and 2) There was no effing way I was going to miss breaking three hours.
Part of this resolve was my competitive side: I had simply battled too many things for too many hours to back down now. I was fighting the course that always manages to punish my body and break my spirit. I was racing the clock that told me I didn’t have what it takes to catch it any more. And I was shouting down the small voice in the back of my head that said I’d be just as happy settling for the easy way out.
The other thought that kept me running was recognizing the opportunity amidst the crisis.
When I first broke three hours here (four years ago), I thought it was a breakthrough performance that ensured future success whenever I came back to try again. But the next year, the weather was bad and I ran a few minutes slower. The year after that, I was on pace for most of the race, and collapsed towards the end (guess where!) before coming up short. And last year, I ran a very solid race, but only managed 3:01. Over the past year, I occasionally found myself wondering if I could do it again.
The point is, I had realized that nothing is guaranteed: certain opportunities only come along every so often - if ever - and when they do, you have to be ready to commit every ounce of yourself to capitalize on them.
I knew that being on pace to break three hours at Big Sur with two miles remaining wasn’t something I could count on happening another day. What initially felt like a crisis (the pain of the next two miles) was really an opportunity I might not see again. There was no doubt whatsoever about what I had to do.
I raced to the finish line with 10 seconds to spare, and suddenly, all of those little things that happened during the race became big things in the final analysis. Ten seconds. The extra time I gained by drafting my friend in the first two miles. The time saved by staying focused instead of becoming a tour guide from miles 6-10. Ten seconds. Each time I strained to keep up with a passing runner when I felt like staying comfortable. Every time I resisted the temptation to walk during the dark miles in the Highlands.
Ten seconds. My margin of error in a three-hour race.
I’m not exactly proud of being such a competitive dude when I’ve got my game face on, but I know one thing for certain: if I hadn’t been, I would be sitting here writing about how I just barely missed my goal time again. So I can’t honestly say I have any regrets in that regard. Sure, I’ll probably spend time in some sort of runners’ purgatory some day, but for the time being, my Machiavellian approach to racing seems to work just splendidly.
On that note, I’d be remiss to end this report without describing something else happened as I crossed the finish line: I went completely bonkers.
I’m normally a pretty reserved guy who keeps his thoughts to himself (well, except for this blog – but that’s too complicated to explain right now) and his feelings in check. But when I saw the finish line and knew I would make it, I simply let loose and let my emotions take over.
I pumped both fists into the air and let out a yell that would make a rock star proud. I passed through the chute saying “Yes!” and “All right!”, slapping high-fives and giving hugs to all the volunteers, and generally carrying on like those ladies on the Oprah show on the day she gave all of them a car.
It was a moment of pure bliss – and it was worth all of the pain and suffering that preceded it. I don’t know any other feeling like it – a combination of joy and satisfaction and pride and relief, with a dose of humility (since, all of a sudden, I couldn't walk normally anymore) thrown in for good measure. In that moment lies the convergence of preparation, determination, and opportunity, and it represents everything I love about racing in general, and the Big Sur Marathon in particular.
It was a moment I’ll remember forever – and one I’ll try to duplicate every time I race.
May 2, 2007
(OK, you asked for it. Here’s the full race report from Sunday’s Big Sur Marathon. It’s a long one – but you must have expected that.