Running on Tilt

What Now? Part II

Big Sur race report, part II

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My split at the 10K mark was 43:00, or about seven minutes per mile. I was on a three-hour pace. So far, so good. I had resisted the urge to blast the downhill, and if all went according to plan I would pick up the pace at mile 12, and would give her my all for the last 10K.

The Point Sur lighthouse made a postcard of the sea view, and walkers started to appear on the side of the road. There are several different walks along the marathon route during the race. In lieu of fans on the course, the walkers offered company, and contributed a laid back sense of organized chaos that seemed distinctly Californian to my East Coast sensibilities.

Dominating the mental landscape was the two-mile hill that leads to Hurricane Point. At the bottom of the big hill I popped two more shot blocks. A group of Taiko drummers wearing blue sleeveless tops was doing its thing, and an ambulance passed by and proceeded at a horrible slope upwards.

The woman in the white cap and blue top was now beside me. “That was inspiring” she said. “The drummers or the ambulance?” I asked. I’m generally not chatty in races. “I’ll let you know at the top of the hill,” she said.

We slogged up that hill in a small pack, flanked on the left by walkers and on the right by a caravan of slowly moving vehicles, including one driven by my wife, with a clear view of our struggles. Driving the course the day before, I had made a note of the many false peaks. When we finally reached the top, I let out a small yelp, and the woman in the white cap and the man in the blue long-sleeve tee-shirt took off like banshees on the downhill, leaving me behind.

If the Big Sur Marathon were a luxury hotel, the tickling the ivories on Bixby Birdge would be its infinity pool. The bridge is at the halfway point, and some runners stop to have their picture taken with the pianist playing the grand piano. I suppose I heard the piano, but the wind drowned it out somewhat. I did hear my split for the half, though, at an hour thirty four minutes and change, four minutes slower than my first half in the two New York City marathons I had run, but about where I wanted to be.

The two mile hill is followed by another hill, and then another. After each slow uphill I would regain pace on the downhill until the next climb. During the second or third repetition of this cycle, a young runner who was listening to headphones passed me, and I passed him back, but I came to the realization that we weren’t moving that fast and the only people we both were passing were the walkers. At the mile marker, the young’ins were now saying 3:09, and soon they would be saying 3:10.

I popped another shot block and took a cup of Gatorade, but some of the salty drink splooched into my eye, stinging it a bit.

I did not capitulate to a shuffle, but nor did I pick up the pace as I had hoped. It wasn’t until the nineteen mile mark that I shook this slump, gaining ground on individual runners ahead of me. My time at twenty miles was 2:26:35. Three hours was out of reach, but Boston was still in play. I inserted two orange caffeinated shot blocks into my mouth.

The last 10Ks of my two prior marathons had been disastrous, as both times, in states of delirium, I had been passed by hundreds of runners in Central Park. But this time my head was still screwed on tight. The pack that had left me at the top of Hurricane Point had broken up, and its detritus was coming into view. First came the runner in the blue long sleeve tee-shirt, and then the woman in the white cap. “Good to see you again,” she said, with improbable cheer, as I passed her.

Though the thickening crowd of walkers made it difficult to pinpoint exactly who I was competing against, the walkers offered encouragement in the latter stages of the race.

At the mile splits my projected finishing time was 3:13, then 3:14. I needed to put a cap on this incremental rise, but there were still a few miles to go, including a final uphill.

I was not having difficulty breathing but I was having a hard time moving. My legs were heavy as if daubed in enormous vats of peanut butter, and my hips felt somehow detached from my body. The road became maliciously tilted, like a fun house track banked the wrong way. The ankles appreciated it not one bit. I rallied on the thought that the distance left was now no longer than a run home over the Williamsburg Bridge, a run I had completed countless times.

To initiate her kick at the Boston Marathon, Kara Goucher literally threw down her gloves. With a mile to go at Big Sur, I spit out my shot blocks. My body responded. I passed one marathon runner struggling on the last uphill, and when I reached the top of that hill and sighted the flags near the finish and the finish line, the shackles were cast off my legs.

As I accelerated over that last half mile, surging with adrenaline from seeing the finish line and from hearing the crowds, the race DJ declared that some runners were trying to beat three hours and fifteen minutes in order to qualify for Boston. The clock said 3:14. He announced my name, and I crossed the finish line with a chip-time of three hours, fourteen minutes, and eight seconds. The last mile was my fastest, at 6:31.

My sister, who was slightly distressed at the start because her GPS watch was not working, would finish the race in 4 hours and 14 minutes, besting her PR from the 2002 New York City Marathon. During her race she had seen cows, horses, and a runner who was felled by the wind at Hurricane Point. My sister has run in all of the marathons I have run (plus a few more), and our races have been in synch—both of us ran well in 2002 and at Big Sur, and we both were disappointed in 2006. My wife was able to catch the race from the hotel at which we were staying near the start, at the finish line, and from the unique vantage point of the caravan.

There are different expressions in running for giving it your all. “Don’t leave anything on the track” is one. “Balls to the wall” another. The 6:31 final mile indicates that I may have had petrol to burn at the end. Miles fourteen through eighteen were mentally the toughest, or where I may have lost focus. To get too analytical about it would be a mistake, though, as a marathon is as much an art as a science.

To use racing vernacular from prior episodes, I had sting in this race, but not quite the bite I was hoping for. I did not run a negative split, but nor did I shuffle. I did not bonk. When I missed qualifying for Boston in 2002 by a minute, I didn’t think much of it, but I was very thankful this time around that I was a minute under rather than a minute over. It had made all the difference.

In the medical tent after the race, a fellow runner told me that he had run Boston the prior week. I asked him which was a tougher race, Boston or Big Sur. He said that he ran five minutes slower at Big Sur, and that Big Sur has more hills, but that the hills in Boston hit at the most punishing times. He asked whether I would be running Boston the next year.

Having just completed one grueling course, I couldn’t fathom it. I thought back to what the sales clerk in JackRabbit Sports had said, that Big Sur is a race you only do once. Though I wouldn’t rule out running it again, I understood why she had said it.

If I were to train for Big Sur again, I would amp up the hill training with long runs over the George Washington Bridge and into the palisades in New Jersey. When I ran with Team For Kids in 2006, we did a training run there on a hot summer day, and it was as traumatic experience.

So, “What now?” With the race a few weeks in my rearview, the mental and physical focus of marathon training seems to me extreme, not in a good way or a bad way, just extreme. I think of adults on running teams chasing each other around the park or the track at night and there is an element of craziness to it. But so it goes with any serious pursuit or faith.

It has been my custom after marathons to take several years off before lacing up again, but this time I won’t forfeit my fitness. I plan to tiptoe into the next stage of running with the low-key Media Race series in Central Park. I plan to rejoin the workouts with the Central Park Track Club in a few weeks, and I may run a fall half marathon or full marathon, either in Rochester or here again in New York City. I’d also like to break five minutes in the Fifth Avenue mile this fall. But talking about all this future running and doing it are two very different things, so we shall see.