“After climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb.” – Nelson Mandela
English is my first language but often that doesn’t make communication any easier. The Webster dictionary defines “Idiomatic Expression” as a type of informal English that has a meaning different from the meaning of the words in the expression. A good example would be the expression: “It’s all downhill from here”. Every long distance runner knows that this phrase doesn’t necessarily mean the hill is sloping downward; finding the TRUE meaning is a little more nuanced. Should you hear someone say this phase, they could be trying to tell you a few different things. Best to ask for clarity. From my extensive linguistic research, here are a few common definitions:
- Definition #1: From this point forward, everything is going to be “OK”
- Definition #2: From this point forward, everything is going to NOT be “OK”. You’re going to get flushed down the drain like a turd on a mission.
- Definition #3: From this point forward, the road will slope downward for a short while, then will go up again, then down, then up, then down – mostly, it’s downhill.
- Definition #4: From this point forward, you just call me a jerk. I’m jerky-jerky Mc-Jerkface. I talked you into this race and now you want to kill me. Friends?
- Definition #5: From this point forward, why don’t you stop being such a pussy, eat some strawberries and finish the race. I mean, COME ON – it’s only a marathon. That woman was 64 years old and just chic’d you on the bridge – seriously, grow a pair!
The Most Beautiful Trail (*cough cough* road ) Race In the World
Big Sur, California is the reason people drive the length of California. It’s the reason people dream about heading West. US Route 1 hugs the bosom of the Pacific Ocean, it’s rocky, gorgeous shores and clear blue waters reaching into your mind and massaging away the toil and trouble of every day life. And if you’re in a car, the gently sweeping hills, corners and vistas make the California traffic not just bearable but pleasurable; any excuse to stop is an excuse well worth making. In 1986, someone had the bright idea to shut down the road for a Sunday in April and put on a Marathon. Beautiful the long, winding road may be, but on foot it’s something else entirely.
The race runs like a trail race. Here are some of the similarities:
- Real Food: the aid stations have wonderful amenities like bananas, strawberries, and more. Yeah, they have gels too but really it’s also a lot of real food. The strawberries at mile 25 were so good – I grabbed a handful, ran 10 yards, stopped, turned around, got some more then kept on going. Worth it.
- Local Feel: because Route One shuts down for most of the morning, everyone that lives along the route makes the day into a block party. Tons of people were out – which was surprising given that getting around on Sunday is a little “tricky”
- Light Mood: Not only did the mile markers have some amazing signs, but the bathrooms had epic jokes. Some of my favorites: “Tesla Charing Station”, “Under-40 only”, “Co-op for rent” to name but a few. Seriously, how much is it going to cost me to live in that toilet. Seriously. Rent is out of control over here.
- Hills: I counted 26 hills in the GPS tracking. That’s a lot of hills for a road race. Hurricane point, the largest, seems like it’s the main obstacle but I think that one is really almost the easiest ( if the wind wasn’t blowing so damn hard ) given it’s just up and over.
- Elements: High winds and rain, very common. This year, the head-winds of 15 mph NNW ran over 66.6% of the course. That’s a LOT of head-wind. The wind was so loud you couldn’t even hear the drums echo north from the bottom of hurricane point (you normally can all the way up to the top).
- Camber: Running on a road at a 30 degree angle just messes you up. Your hips are not aligned. Your ankles are compressed. It’s everything you’re not supposed to do. And over a long race you just know you’re going to be paying the price (my guess, your masseurs condo bill).
- Crazies: ultra-races have them – here, you have the boston-to-big-sur team and the relay teams – all doing the “wrong thing” because it seems cool, fun, and well..crazy…not because it’s practical – my people…
- Early Start: The marathon starts at 6:45AM. So if you’re coming from the east coast that’s a 3AM wake-up call to get the shuttle to the start.
- Dangerous Animals – I counted two dead snakes on the road and at least two bumble bees. Seriously, people. Bees.
- Slow Times: the lead woman won the race in 3 hours flat – 30 minutes slower than her normal marathon PR – 30 minutes for an elite is like an hour for a normal person – it shows how the level of difficulty plays out in the results. My time placed me in the top 25% of all marathon finishers that day and that doesn’t even include the number of DNFs ( high for a road race ) – and it was still 5-6 minutes off my PR.
To Know Thy Course, is to Know Thy Self
Knowing the course is 75% of getting the pacing right. Knowing what to expect really puts your mind at ease on when to pull back on the effort and where you can make up time (like crushing a downhill). Now a normal person would have looked in detail at a course profile before starting the race. But I am not normal. I am an idiot. And like an idiot, who thinks they’re being smart, in reality they are shook with the realization of their idiocy only at the point where it’s too late to do anything about it.
My wife started making pace bands a few years back – they are an easy way to keep track of key points in the course. Strap it to your wrist and hold on tight. Unfortunately, there was a little bit of a difference between the posted elevation chart on the Big Sur web site and the REAL elevation changes on the course. See if you can spot the differences:
Yeah…. big big idiot.
Training for a Spring race is always a challenge in New England. The long, cold winters were relentless this year. Still, the training was really race-specific for me with a few key tweaks:
- Ran NYC Half last minute as a race-tune up. It was a minute off my half-marathon PR pace (a real confidence booster)
- Ran CAUMSETT 50K as a marathon pacing tune up. As planned, pulled the plug early – just wanted to practice going 9:00 pace for 21 miles. Done and done. The course is awesome – I thought a 5K loop would be obnoxious but it was actually a great training run. Also a great exercise in PATIENCE – not continuing past 21 miles was tough but that’s what we agreed. Not only were there plenty of familiar faces from the area and Trail Whip Ass community but when you have a simple course, practicing consistent pacing effort becomes really great training. Would like to do this one again and maybe race the whole 50K distance next year.
- Lots of hills. Even the weekend before I did hills on Saturday and Sunday. Think just getting these low gears tuned up really helped on the day.
- Less Trails. I kept to roads (mostly). It was sad but given the road-specific course, I opted for training specificity over joy. Glad that’s over.
- Low heart rate training and low sugar training – a new variation. On my 2-3 hour long runs I’ve been trying to go at a pace where I don’t need much except water and salt. Let the engine get used to accessing the fat stores. Yeah, I’ve got tons of those.
- Push Ups – I really wanted to increase my core stability for this race so I started doing significantly more push-up sets in 2016. I’m convinced this is the perfect exercise that runners undervalue. Upper body strength and core strength makes you more efficient, especially running uphill.
- Nut Butter – Lots of nut butter. All of the nut butter.
There’s no “best” way to run a long race – however, there are some general guidelines. Starting at a modest effort and keeping an even pace until about 21-22 miles sets you up to finish strong. Starting too fast, and you risk switching to accelerated sugar burning way too early – this has the effect of accelerating the glycogen burn way before you really need to – and crash goes the race-car. So, let’s say you start your marathon by running really fast – like way too fast to be sustained for 26 miles – well, that can’t end well. Or at least, it’s a little bit crazy.
So, that’s what I did. As requested by the “We Be Crazies” relay team, I joined one of the several marathon relay teams taking part in the race. The way this works is as follows: you have 4 people in each relay team. Each person in the relay team runs about 1/4 of the race and passes the baton to the next team-member. If you’re in the first leg, you can then continue to run the entire race if you so choose. So instead of running an even 9:05 the whole way, I would run the first five miles as fast as possible and then the remaining 21.2 miles hanging on for dear life. This is NOT the way to run a strong race. It IS a way to have a good time. The team kicks much ass.
I did, however, get two medals for my trouble. And the wife’s team got 2nd place – podium finish is always amazing (or so I hear). Team-work makes the dream work.
This is an amazing race – run it. I said run it! That said, it’s brutal. Although I felt not too awful after the race (quads totally fine – what’s up!), I’m pretty sure that I haven’t felt that wrecked in the days that followed in a long time. Can’t wait to run this one again when the weather is a bit more cooperative. Now that I know what to expect, I’m sure it’ll all be downhill from here.