11 May 2010

Big Sur 13.1

The first mile was the same mile we had walked up to the starting line. At the top of the drive, in the parking lot to the camp store at Fernwood, were the first of few road-side spectators. Campers, families, and volunteers who cheered us on at the beginning. At this point, mile 1, the pack was pretty tight, and there was a relaxed, non-urgent feel at least among the 4-hour folks. (The elite runners were well on their way, of course.) We would have these little pockets of spectators through the 4 or so miles of redwood forest that lined the start of the course. Where there were cabins, camps, or in one place some kind of connecting road, a small group was there to encourage us onward.

It was during these opening miles that I realized maybe the way to do this event is to be a course marshal or first aid worker. They constantly patrolled the course, the whole distance, on bicycles. Well, if I could be on that road on a bicycle, I would never have prepared to run it, that's for sure!Somewhere in that first mile, a posse of cyclists was straddling their bikes as we went by, and we couldn't help notice that a couple of them were clearly designated "defibrillators." Ha! We hoped they would track us the whole way.

These opening miles went by fast, but we were covering them at about a 9:15 pace - slower than nearly all my training runs. But great fun as the four of us stayed together, navigated the still tight pack, joked with each other and chatted up others around us. The first aid station was at 2.5 miles, still in the forest. By then it was clear I was not going to need my long-sleeved top for long. The trees peter out at about 4 miles, and by then the sun was peaking over the hills, and I was ready to lose the turtleneck altogether. I dropped that at station #2, mile 5 - where the 21-mile walk had begun, which son Chris was doing. Where, I wondered, just now?

I also knew by now that I might have done well to spend just a bit more time in the porta-johns earlier, but the lines here were way too long to stop. And, being shy, a Midwesterner, and a pastor, I was not about to just run off the road and take care of business. Though plenty of runners did ... and not only men! Well, and that was another reason not to, I guess! That waited for the next station, where there were 6 - 8 johns, and only 3 people standing in front of them. I thought, this won't take long. But, as it turns out, it did; nearly 3 minutes, and most of that was waiting. Blasted shy Midwestern pastor scruples!

The volunteers along the way were fantastic. They were ready, eager, attentive and encouraging. Which was important since there were no other spectators once we left the woods. Our bibs had first names printed boldly, so those of us who wore bibs front and high would hear random strangers call our names and cheer us on. Nice! Aid stations had water and Gatorade, or Gatorade and water - it alternated. After the 5-mile mark (station #2) they were about every 1.5 miles. For me, that meant about every 13 minutes I could get something to drink, and from about the 4th station on I took one cup of each as I jogged through the line.

The last 8 stations had fresh fruit (sliced oranges, and banana sections), and 2 of the stations had GU gel. At the first GU station, just before the route reached its lowest elevation - coming up to Mile 9, anticipating the ascent to Hurricane Point - I had my first brain-freeze moment. Buses passed as we approached this station, ferrying Relay runners I assume. (This was the only poorly conceived part of the day: diesel buses creeping past a tight field of runners, with a bank/hill on the right which only served to keep the fume/smell around us all.) Buses past, the next thing was the presence of volunteers holding up something, waving it, and shouting: "Blackberry! Blackberry!" Now, son Chris engineers mobile software for the Blackberry and has written a book on the subject. So I might be forgiven for thinking, "oh that's too bad, someone dropped their Blackberry." And I really thought that. Since I was carrying my much cheaper phone, and I presume many had phones with them if only for the cameras, I thought the relay buses must also be carrying valuables dropped along the way. So, here was someone trying to return it? Yeah, obviously that makes no sense whatsoever. So I was either in a brain freeze, or in the zone. I said to the young man, "hey, you selling that?" He laughed and said, "no, they're free" ... and then I saw that in his hand was GU, and I realized he was hawking his flavor. D'oh! I took it, laughing at myself and shaking my head.

And then I put it all behind me because there were the Taiko drummers, at mile 9+, at 40 feet above sea level, in all their drama and rhythmic might and costume. Beating away to drive us up the longest incline, the steepest grade, to the highest elevation on the course. Hurricane Point.Now the brain had to get back in gear, the training had to kick in, and the legs had to prove what they could do. It would be a climb of nearly 3 miles to get from 40 to 560 feet above sea level, in a section of road that is famous for false summits. The only way I would know for sure that I was at the top was when I saw the 12-mile marker.

And here is where I truly got in the zone.

I was "alone" at this point, in relation to the guys I had spent the night with. My long pit stop put me at least 3 minutes behind Adam, Rich, and Todd. This would have been around mile 6 or so. When I hit the road again, against all that I had read about race day, I picked up the pace to see if I could re-join the guys. At least this stretch was flat, and the day was young, and I was feeling great, and newly-relieved I had nothing to lose. I soon found that I was somewhere among the 4:15 pace group, and at this point we were limited to the left lane, so navigating was tricky. I didn't want to be rude, I was reluctant to run on a shoulder I'd never been on before, and the marshals were pretty strict about using the right lane. I hope I was not too rude, but I ran on looking for the distinctive trio of jerseys that would identify my guys. And somewhere along the way, there was Adam, standing on the shoulder on a little lift of rock and sand, looking back at the approaching field. He had waited for me. Wow. I appreciated that. We went on together, chatting and enjoying the pace. Then he wanted to stop and take a picture. Said he'd catch up, and I should just move on. So I did. This was somewhere before mile 8, and I never saw him again until we all met up in the finishers area.

Adam is an experienced long distance runner, who says he was not well prepared for this marathon. Most of his running these days is on trails. A lot of it is longer than marathon length. But the real reason he finished after me is the 100+ pictures he took that day!

I continued without Adam, had my Blackberry GU incident, and let the Taiko drummers get me in the zone. And I wish I could say more about the ascent to Hurricane Point. I was aware of the mile markers, and noted what turned out to be my 2 slowest miles of the day: from mile 10-11 (a 10-minute mile), and from mile 11-12 (about 9:30 pace). I am aware of other runners, of those who were alternating walking and running, those who were jogging very slowly, others who were enjoying their running partners and chatting all the way, some who looked about ready to stop. Me, I just kept putting one foot in front of the other. I kept my cadence roughly what it had been, and just shortened my stride. I'm not saying it wasn't difficult. This was the hill I dreaded during training - it was the one psychological hurdle that made me question my decision to begin to run in the first place. Where I live in Illinois, there aren't hills like this, and the best I could do in preparation was to make whatever hills I could part of my long runs. So, here I was, one foot in front of the other, repeating as necessary, marking mile 10, and mile 11, and then there I was, at mile 12.

I had made it to the top. This was the pinnacle, literally, of Big Sur. Many stopped to take photos, and to sight see. I should have, except I didn't have a camera, and wasn't with anyone to "share the moment with." Karen and I have pulled off here on our drives, so I guess I may be excused for not being the romantic just then. In fact, I was relieved and elated, and knew that the next mile, though downhill all the way, was actually more potentially dangerous. The course video at the Big Sur site says about the downhill from 12-13, "this is where most of the marathon injuries will happen." O - K.

So after a slow ascent with "baby strides," mile 13 was a recovery mile, with even smaller strides and an only slightly quicker cadence. It was on the downside of Hurricane Point that I came on Rich. He looked hot, tired, and beat. Talk about working your program: he said at about mile 10 (remember, that is just starting the long uphill) Todd egged him on, and he took the bait. And he was wasted. He was struggling to recover, and after he declined my offer of some GU he waved me on to keep up my own pace. Well, Rich has run many marathons, and he is my coach, so ... on I went.

The road continues to wind along the coast, and makes this beautiful descent of over 100 feet in that first mile. Mile 13 is only half-way down the full descent, but it is at the base of the iconic Bixby Bridge. Coming down the hill, we heard the grand piano. As I approached mile 13, he was playing "Bohemian Rhapsody," which I always like and which made me laugh. More on the music later, but the music is another big part of why this race in the first place. And the piano at Bixby Bridge, halfway along the course, is legendary. In all my training, whenever I thought of the piano, I somehow imagined it would be classical. I got "Bohemian Rhapsody." (Todd would later claim that he heard a Mozart opera overture. And he may well have.)

Bixby Bridge. At the dead center of the bridge is the exact center of the marathon course. I checked my watch as I hit the line. 2:00:12 Two hours, 12 seconds of forward motion. (I had stopped my chrono during the potty break). I was on track for a 4-hour marathon.

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