Running on Tilt

What Now? Part I

Big Sur race report, part I

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In high school, before we could drive, my friends and I would rely on our parents to get us where we needed to go. When the movie watching or whiffle ball playing or pizza eating was done, one lucky parent got to drive everybody home. A new friend came into the fold, and one afternoon his father, a ponytailed mathematics professor, found himself chauffeuring in his min-van half a dozen teenagers, each of whom lived in a distinct neighborhood, back to their front doors. The exasperated professor, who neither knew our names nor where any of us lived, asked in a peculiar voice after each deposit, “What now?” The simple question got much repeated play among giggles from the backseat peanut gallery.

What now, according to one of my older sisters who just gave birth, is one of the questions you ask yourself when the pregnancy is over and you have a newborn. And it is what many marathoners ask themselves after dedicating a tremendous amount of physical and mental energy into an event that seems to take forever to arrive but is then gone in an instant.

A little over two weeks ago I culminated a six-month training cycle by competing in the Big Sur Marathon, and in the time since I enjoyed a week-long vacation in California and relearned that I am not good at golf. Before trying to sketch an answer to the “what now?” of my distance running, here’s the report from the race.

Arriving in Monterey, California two days before the Big Sur Marathon, my hopes of running fast were boosted by the air. It tasted better than the New York City air I was used to breathing. I figured it probably had more oxygen in it. Perhaps repeatedly running over the Williamsburg and Queensboro Bridges had been a form of high altitude training – not because the bridges achieve any spectacular heights, but because the car exhaust chokes the oxygen in the air, forcing the runner to become highly efficient at respiration, just as high altitudes do. If anything can help a runner go fast, it’s being good at breathing, and the clean air in Big Sur would make breathing a cinch.

From the airport my younger sister, who was also running the race, my wife and I proceeded to the Marathon Expo where, on a suggestion from a fellow Central Park Track Club runner, I introduced myself to Bart Yasso and asked him about the course. Yasso, a bigwig in running media, was signing copies of his recently published book. He told me that the race wasn’t as hard as commonly thought, especially given the net drop in elevation.

That night I caught a forecast for race morning, which called for mid-40s temperatures and a slight wind from the south. That would mean a rare tailwind. Another good sign. Perhaps I’d have a shot at breaking three hours. In my two previous marathons, in New York in 2002 and 2006, I had run about 3:12 and 3:21.

On Saturday, the day before the race, we drove the course. This was a mixed experience. On the one hand, the setting was as advertised – the hills were as green and glorious as the Scottish highlands and the rocky coast and skinny bridges were heart-stopping. Equally mesmerizing were the occasional houses upon a hill, which, as a friend put it, seem like rockets ready to launch to the moon. As a counterpoint to the majesty, Port-a-Potties stood sentry at periodic intervals on the highway’s shoulder. Some drivers probably wondered why their views were disrupted by toilets.

While the experience of eying this blessed land was a pleasurable one, from a racing perspective the course appeared murderous. I had known about the two-mile hill that peaks at Hurricane Point, but the elevation chart for the race makes the other hills seem meager, which they are not. These hills were of a different scale from those I had trained upon in Central Park. At no point was the course flat. I reset my loose goal to 3:15, the time that I would need to run, as a thirty-five year-old, to qualify for the Boston Marathon. Running a PB or breaking three hours, of course, would be better still.

We hunkered down at a quiet motel in Big Sur not far from the start. Before and after sleeping for a few hours, I fed on bananas, almonds, and Powerbars, sipped water and Gatorade, and went to the bathroom as frequently as possible. It was still dark out at six a.m. when my sister and I boarded a small shuttle-bus to the start.

The starting area was a remote section of Highway One, and the morning light reflected off the surrounding hills. Most importantly for runners, there were plenty of toilets and the lines moved quickly. We were herded from the gathering area to the start on the road according to our projected finishing times.

An announcer informed the crowd that Sammy Wanjiru had won the London Marathon, and it seemed to me a miracle that information about running of all things could make it from one continent to this desolate outpost on another, and then would be broadcast, no less, over loadspeakers at six in the morning. Where else would this happen?

Five minutes before race time, the theme to Chariots of Fire filled the air, affording all gathered a last bit of sentiment over the work put in and the task at hand. I stood a few rows back in the seeded corral, eyeing runners with single-digit bibs. A silver Jaguar was idling on the road in front of the starting line, waiting for the go sign, as a bearded technician fiddled with the electronic timing gizmo beneath the starting mat—what a disaster it would be if that didn’t work. Somehow the issue was resolved and we were off.

Save for the one at the finish, there were no digital clocks on the course, but teenaged volunteers at or near each mile marker yelled out the times and race pace. The first mile split usually takes me by surprise, and I was relieved to hear 6:40. Several runners darted into the woods to pee.

The tree-lined road, the other runners in clusters ahead of me, and the many miles to go reminded me of running camp. My reverie was disturbed when a kid who looked no more than eight years old passed me.

At about the five mile mark the race exits the woods. The propitious weather forecast had been wrong—a headwind blasted rudely. I fished a Strawberry shot block from my RaceReady shorts and slogged up the hill. There was a group of runners ahead of me, but drafting off of them would require me to speed up first, and I didn’t want to disrupt my rhythm. A few had clustered behind me, including a woman with a blue top and a white cap and a man in the light blue Big Sur marathon long-sleeve tee-shirt. Given my slight frame I couldn’t have been much help in shielding them from the wind.