Race Report: The Hilliest Marathon Evar

Upside of running a marathon on the opposite coast: it basically forces you to take a vacation, unless you really want to fly back within 24 hours of touching down (not this guy).

Downside of running a marathon on the opposite coast: holy 500 unread emails, batman.

BUT ANYWHO. BIG SUR!

West coast best coast?

West coast best coast?

This whole trip was a very interesting logistical ballet. While the race was on a Sunday, we flew into SFO on the previous Thursday, giving us a few entire days to get settled beforehand. Afterwards, we left on that Tuesday, giving us yet another day after the fact to stretch our aching legs and tour around before cramming back into a tiny metal tube flying at 35,000 feet for several hours.

It turned out to be a brilliant plan.

Thursday, Friday, Saturday: Pre-race

She is SO EXCITED for the 6-hour plane ride.

She is SO EXCITED for the 6-hour plane ride.

The flight was long, but uneventful. The wild card, I noticed in class I was teaching the previous day, was a tickle in the back of my throat that, historically, signaled the onset of a head cold. With hardly 72 hours to go before a marathon, I was more than a little worried that this could be problematic. So we tried to accommodate by making sure we got plenty of sleep and fluids.

That first evening, we stayed in a hotel right next to the airport. Pretty much rolled out of the plane and into bed.

Friday morning, we rented a car and drove the ~2 hours from San Francisco to Monterey.

It's a surprisingly long drive, especially if you're still a little jet-lagged.

It’s a surprisingly long drive, especially if you’re still a little jet-lagged.

The plan was to arrive by lunch time, both so we could get to the Expo in plenty of time, and so we could meet up with friends of ours from Pittsburgh who were also running–Danielle (The Lady’s running buddy!), and her husband Jose (who ended up not running). We met them for lunch at a nearby crepe restaurant (omnomnom) which, not at all coincidentally, was a block away from the Expo.

We picked up our bibs, bought a bunch of really cool swag–they had some awesome stuff there!–got all the information we needed on the buses that would drive us to the starting line at oh-God-o-clock the next morning, and by the early afternoon we were all wrapped up!

Danielle and Jose wanted to spend the rest of the day in San Francisco, but since The Lady and I had just come back from there we were loathe to make that drive two more times in the same day. Instead, we planned to meet up the next morning before parting ways; The Lady and I made our way to our hotel further up the road, which turned out to be a lovely inn about two blocks away from Cannery Row. So we took the opportunity to do a little bit of sight-seeing!

It was nice to get out and about, particularly since we knew we’d be spending all of the next day lounging, giving our legs as much rest as possible before the marathon.

Not too much rest, though–that Saturday morning was a group shake-out run with several Runner’s World reps, including none other than Bart Yasso!

You're jelly.

You’re jelly.

Fun fact: we actually got to meet him before the Pittsburgh marathon a few years back, but this was the first time we really got to run and chat with him. Wonderful guy with boundless energy who thrives on meeting new people, especially runners.

After the shake-out, we went back to our hotel, got cleaned up, and lounged the rest of the day. Bedtime was early, as wake-up was super early: around 3am.

Sunday: Race Day!

At this point, nearly two months out from the race, I honestly don’t remember how early it was that we woke up. But I do know the buses left sometime in the 3am range, so it was early. The bus ride itself was a good 45-60 minutes over Highway 1; very rolling. I somewhat dozed in and out; it was still pitch black out, so it’s not like I could really enjoy the scenery anyway.

We arrived at the starting line–seeming civilization in the middle of nowhere. Fortuitously enough, we encountered Danielle, and huddled together until the sun came up.

The start was right around 7am. The sun had only just started coming up an hour before, and the landscape as it came into view was, simply, breathtaking.

We had a few minutes to warm up (darting between runners) and generally attempt to shake out the butterflies, but soon enough, the starting time arrived. After a few announcements, the race director wished us good luck…and we were off!

Miles 1-5

The whole course was beautiful, but the first few miles almost felt like I was alone on the western coast of the United States. It was absolutely beautiful; there were giant trees to both sides of the road, killing the wind but also keeping out the rapidly rising sun. There were almost no crowds to speak of; the occasional house or lodge we passed by might’ve had a handful of people outside watching us go by, but other than that it was just the quiet pitter-pat of running feet punctuated by the occasional conversation between runners.

I loved it. Really helped me settle in, mentally. Plus I’m just kind of a nature freak: being by myself out in the great quiet embrace of Mother Nature is incredibly calming and soothing.

The road itself was, as advertised, rolling. The first 5 miles were a net downhill of 250ft, but there were certainly uphills as well as downhills on the winding road. We kept a fairly consistent sub-9 pace: 8:52, 8:40, 8:38, 8:44, 8:51.

Miles 5-10

With the exception of the last mile of this stretch, it was a significant net uphill. Gone were the cover of the trees; we had emerged along the California coastline, and the wind made its presence felt. It was absolutely beautiful; we could see the waves crashing on one side, and on the other the rolling hills complete with grazing cattle (we could even hear them; we imagined they were cheering us on). The Lady in particular recalled how there was a solid 2-mile steady climb during this stretch, where you could see the entire two miles; the road was a straight shot the whole way. Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, I felt pretty good. I had settled in nicely, and while our pace had slowed due to the climbs, I was enjoying myself.

Given that we weren’t aiming for any particular time goal, we stopped a couple of times to take pictures of the scenery.

We stayed solidly in mid-9s territory: 9:04, 9:03, 10:08, 9:25, 9:48.

Miles 10-15

Ok. Here’s where things got interesting. I’ll show you, and then describe it to you. Here’s the elevation chart as compiled by Strava from my GPS data of the race.

Screen Shot 2015-06-17 at 11.55.49 AM

That spike in the middle, ladies and gentlemen, is known as Hurricane Point, and this elevation chart isn’t exaggerating: it is indeed a straight climb for two miles, during which you ascend just about 500ft. It’s not rolling; it is, quite literally, a straight climb. Mile 10 is the worst–you gain over 300 of the total 500ft in just that one mile.

Thankfully, I had my game face on and chugged up the hill, feeling surprisingly good the whole time. The Lady stuck right with me, too.

Upon reaching the top of the hill, we thought about stopping for another photo op, but the wind up there was crazy. I don’t know how strong it actually was, but I do know that, in the small amount of time that my foot was off the ground when I’d lift it to take another step, the wind would blast it sideways. My bib rippled, crackling loud enough to make me worry it would get blown off. So we kept moving.

We got a bit of a reprieve with a fairly lengthy downhill. At precisely the 13.1 mile mark, we reached the famous Bixby Creek Bridge. Of course we stopped to take a few photos.

And yes, as per Big Sur tradition, there was a pianist on a grand piano here. Absolutely delightful.

Despite Hurricane Point, we still made pretty good time on this stretch, keeping our mid-9s pacing on average: 9:48, 10:28, 9:53, 8:46, 9:54.

Miles 15-20

We were still cruising pretty well. I was definitely feeling the fatigue creeping in, but I still felt strong. However, for whatever reason, my GI tract decided to stage a revolt at this point. At mile 16 I had to make an unscheduled pit stop (The Lady had made one several miles ago; we were making excellent time so far, given our frequent photo stops, pit stops, and the general hilly course), after which I felt immensely better. Hashtag runner problems.

This was also where the course started deviating more inland, away from the coast. Kind of sad, though it did mean the wind eased up a bit. However, the sun was starting to get pretty warm, and while we did move further inland, there wasn’t a corresponding increase in tree cover. Instead, the surrounding area seemed to turn into farmland. The shade was a bit spotty.

Still we pressed on at a pretty decent clip: 14:13 (pit stop), 9:33, 9:42, 9:46, 9:47.

Miles 20-25

You know “The Wall” that runners talk about, and the concept of “hitting” it? That’s pretty much what happened to me at mile 20. One minute I was fine, the next minute, I really, really wasn’t.

I call this maneuver the

I call this maneuver the “Final 10K Shuffle-Step”.

I wish I could say it got better, but it really didn’t. While this probably would have happened anyway, my sneaking suspicion is the head cold I mentioned at the beginning hit full force here. Marathons put a ton of stress on your body, and one of the ways that stress manifests is by shredding your immune system. Most of the time this isn’t too much of a problem, but if you’re already getting sick, running a marathon will kick the disease into overdrive.

I was having a hard time breathing without launching into coughing fits that had me doubled over. My legs wouldn’t cooperate. It was painful.

The Lady, incredibly, was hitting a stride. Where I evidently kept her in the game for the first part of the marathon, she was the single reason I kept pushing forward past the 20-mile mark. 11:29, 11:31, 10:57, 12:38, 10:55.

Final mile

I had an amusing revelation the day after Big Sur. We ended up driving by the finish line to meet up with Danielle and her husband before they left town. I recognized the finish, remembering the tents and the people cheering us those final agonizing miles. But as we drove past the finish line and into where miles 25 and 26 had been, I startled to realize:

I had no recollection of it whatsoever. Even on the drive back, when we were driving in the exact same direction along the course that we’d run–towards the finish–I couldn’t place the surroundings. They were completely unfamiliar to me.

That’s to illustrate that, while I don’t remember the course in that final 1.2-mile stretch, I vividly remember the pain I was in. Again, if not for The Lady’s gentle but constant encouragement, I don’t know how I would have dragged myself across the finish line.

Finishing time: 4:26:11 (according to the official Big Sur finisher’s book)

The immediate aftermath was painful. The lead in my legs began to set almost immediately after I stopped running, and it hurt. A lot. I think The Lady was honestly worried there was something wrong with me aside from the whole “just ran a marathon” thing. It took the better part of the ride back on the bus before the pain in my legs began subsiding.

We went back to the hotels, cleaned up, and rested. My legs, while completely beat, were functioning semi-normally by that evening. I couldn’t yet tell how bad my head cold was going to be; given how badly I knew I’d just trashed my immune system, I imagined the virus would be rampaging through my body virtually unchecked for the better part of the next 24 hours.

(turns out, that was prescient: it took about that time before things really got bad)

By that evening we were both feeling decently well rested–and HUNGRY–so we took a short walk to a nearby burger joint. It turned out to be perfect.

Photo Apr 26, 20 49 48

It was very much a local mom-and-pop establishment. We were even treated to a group of retired folks who had organized themselves into something of an orchestra, conducting a regular practice session in the middle of the restaurant. So not only did we have a warm, inviting atmosphere in which to chow down on burgers & fries, but music from adorable retirees as well. It was perfect.

We slept well that night.

Monday, Tuesday: Post-race

It turned out to be a brilliant decision on our part to sacrifice two work days for the purpose of easing ourselves back into civilization. It gave us time actually enjoy traveling.

Since our hotel was all of a few blocks from Cannery Row–and therefore the beach and the Monterey Aquarium–we spent plenty of time checking out both. It was a convenient way to stretch out our legs a bit, and let’s face: beaches and aquariums are awesome. We had a lovely time.

Monday late afternoon, we said goodbye to Monterey and road tripped back into San Francisco to spend the night with my college-friend-turned-badass-Bay-Area-developer Amanda and her roommate. We don’t get to see each other very often anymore–what with living on opposite coasts and all–so it was a treat to be able to hang out with her for a night and catch up.

Oh, and we got along just fine with her apartment’s third, and furry, inhabitant.

Meet Jake the Cuddle Monster. He will cuddle you to death.

Meet Jake the Cuddle Monster. He will cuddle you to death.

Come Tuesday morning, as Amanda was departing for work, we packed up as well, said our goodbyes, and headed for the airport and home.

Epilogue

This was one of the most bipolar marathon training sessions I can remember. Granted, I’ve only been through all of three (I guess, technically, four? I ran the 2014 AF half but trained as though it was the full) so I’m not exactly working with a large sample; each training session is likely to have its own “first”s and “most”s for a few more yet to come. But the move to Athens can’t be discounted entirely, either; we were here all of two months before we started training. Kind of hard to imagine there wouldn’t be some bumps in that particular road.

Also, I was coming down with a head cold four days before the race. And as predicted, about 48 hours after the race, my immune system had recovered enough to discover that my body was saturated with whatever virus it was and flipped every alarm switch to DEFCON 1. tl;dr I was the most miserable wreck all of Tuesday for the drive to the airport and the flight home, what with a runny nose, splitting headache (that ibuprofen didn’t even put a dent in), and general lethargy. In that light, it’s kind of amazing that broke down at mile 20 as opposed to, y’know, mile 1.

All that aside, it’s still tough for me to shake the disappointment with what appeared to be a second consecutive 20-mile breakdown. At both Marine Corps and now Big Sur, mile 20 has been a wall that has thus far been insurmountable; I’m rolling, until that crucial final 10K where the wheels abruptly fall off.

And yet…there’s this neat feature on Strava where it attempts to intelligently discern how much of your workout you actually spent in motion. Since I don’t stop my watch during races (why would you?), it had the data to come up with a guess of what my time would’ve been minus the 2 bathroom breaks and 3 photo ops. Any guesses?

A 9:47 min/mi pace (for reference, my average pace for my official time was 10:10 min/mi). Any idea what my current marathon PR pace is? 9:47 min/mi.

So discounting the bathroom stops and photo ops, I ran Big Sur–in all its crazy elevation changes, with a head cold, and after a relatively subpar training cycle–at the same pace as my PR.

That gives me a glimmer of optimism. It also means it’s time to get back to work.

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2 thoughts on “Race Report: The Hilliest Marathon Evar

  1. Pingback: July Triumphs | Where are the pancakes?

  2. Pingback: The Serenity Run | Where are the pancakes?

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