Race Report: Big Sur Marathon, 2011

Tom Davis

Last Updated: May 4, 2011

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I was planning to try to run a Boston qualifier (3:55) and I knew it would be hard, but circumstances made it even harder this year. The road from the normal start washed out and the new route was basically an out-and-back, with the totally annoying feature that about two miles from the end there is a little extra loop in Point Lobos Marine Sanctuary so it's sort of like Ironman Canada: you're almost to the finish but you have to do a detour (two miles in this case) before you really are heading directly toward the finish line.

Oops! Just realized that the 3:55 qualifier time for Boston is for 2013. For 2012, it's only 4:00, so that changes everything!

It would have been far less psychologically damaging to do that loop on the way out, but I figure they did it for the benefit of the spectators who would prefer to have additional viewing sites in late morning rather than at the crack of dawn.

Another problem is that the new route is a fair amount hillier than the standard one: the standard route has 1600 feet of climbing which is pretty bad in itself, but the new route has 2400 feet of climbing. Finally, the weather forcast was for a hot day. The elevation profile looks like a set of shark's teeth, and now that the race is over, I can confirm that: there was almost no part of the course that was level. I read some estimates that said that given the conditions, you could predict your time by adding 20 minutes to what you could do in ideal conditions: reasonable temperature on a flat course. Here's the elevation profile from the official Big Sur Marathon web page:

I figured I'd take off at a 4:00 pace (convenient because there was a 4:00 pace group) and see how I felt. I did feel a little "rusty" since I hadn't run a real marathon since "La Maratona di Roma" in the spring of 2008.

There was one worrying thing that occurred. I checked my GPS unit that I'd charged completely just before leaving home, and its batteries were low the night before the race. I plugged it in for a complete recharge in the evening, although it didn't look like the power had been accidentally bumped on or anything.

Although I'd been recommended against it, I took a sleeping pill the night before the race at about 8:00 pm, and it seemed to work great! I figured if I woke up at 3:00 or even 2:00 that was more sleep than I usually get, and when I'd taken sleeping pills in the past, they never seemed to leave me too relaxed in the morning. I think I fell asleep at 8:30 and woke to the alarm at 4:00. There was an additional reason for the sleeping pill: I had a big load of coffee in the morning with a huge pancake breakfast (sort of like "carbo loading") and then we met with two different friends "for coffee" at two different times during the day.

Breakfast was my pre-marathon usual: cereal, milk, hotel coffee and a couple of hard-boiled eggs with plenty of salt.

I caught my bus to the start at 4:45 and tried to find my friend Kristen, with whom I'd done almost all my marathon training. It was her first marathon, but she's a great runner, so I was pretty sure she'd do well. In training, we had done a couple of 20-milers together and had been properly tapering from those for about three weeks. The day before the race we agreed to meet at the start "near the coffee, bananas, and bagel give-away at 6:15." But at 6:00 they started getting really insistent about getting into our starting corrals. I did dawdle until 6:15 (the race started at 6:45), but still no Kristen. (It turns out, I later found out, that there were TWO "coffee, banana and bagel" places.) I ate a half bagel and had one cup of coffee when I got there, and later, one Accel-Gel about 15 minutes before the start.

There were three corrals: A ("under 4:00 predicted time"), B ("4:00 to 4:30") and C ("4:30 and more"). I got to the start a bit late and it was too crowded to make it to the A corral, but since all I cared about was chip time, I started in the second corral and figured that might be psychologically better, to be passing folks at the beginning rather than being passed. The corrals started at 3-minute intervals, so we took off at 6:48 and it took me perhaps 30 or 40 seconds to cross the starting line after that. The corrals were all "honor system", but I think most people were pretty honest about them, given that we all had timing chips anyway.

The pace group for 4:00 started with the B corral, and I wasn't sure if they were planning to finish in 4:00, based on the orginal starting gun at 10:45, or at 10:48. I did click on my GPS unit when I crossed the starting line so that at least I'd know exactly where I was.

It was a little congested at the start, and I really did not want to go out too fast, so I think I may have gone out a bit too slowly. I got to the first mile marker at 10-minutes-and-something, and the 4:00 pace group was far enough ahead that I only got glimpses of them on long straight parts of the course since I ran about a minute slower than the required pace and they started right on the front edge of the B corral. After the first mile and a half, I set a goal of running down the 4:00 pace group and it was harder than I thought.

Kristen and I had done all of our long runs using the Galloway system: which is basically, "run some, walk some". Usually we ran for 15 minutes and walked for 1, but at the marathon, we decided to run between aid stations and walk the aid stations. The stations were spaced somewhat irregularly, and we certainly never walked for a full minute, but we did walk each one, at least until the very last station or two when the end was in sight. But the pace group ran at almost a constant speed, and although I made definite progress on catching up between aid stations, the walking let them get ahead again, so progress was slow. But I decided it was more important to keep up the system than to blow it trying to catch the pace group.

It turns out Kristen had started a few seconds behind me and caught me at about mile 3, and we ran/walked together for most of the rest of the race. We had agreed that it was "every man for himself", but as long as we were both comfortable with the pace, we might as well stick together. We seem to be very well matched on our training runs, so running together was probably a good idea.

With the hot weather, I was really worried about getting cramps, so I took a couple of salt tablets in the morning and carried 8 more in a tiny zip-lock bag with me. In fact, that's all I carried. I drank a cup of Gatorade at almost every aid station and toward the end, a cup of water as well. It nice to be walking, since I didn't spill a drop or get any Gatorade down my windpipe. At some of the later aid stations they handed out gels, but I never felt like eating them. (But at about mile 21, they had fresh, sweet, prepared strawberries and I grabbed a big handful, and they were wonderful!)

At about mile 13 or 14 there was an aid station with vaseline and I realized that I'd forgotten to rub the BodyGlide between my legs before I started and so I greased up with vaseline. Later (maybe at mile 15 or 16 or so?) I decided I wanted more electrolyte pills and with the valeline-covered hands, I could not get the zip-lock open, and I slowed down a fair amount trying to do so. Kristen got about 100 yards ahead before I finally got it open, and that was when she caught the pace group, and I still hadn't done so. I finally caught her and them a couple of miles farther along.

We ran at roughly the same speed for about three miles, but hardly ever together: she'd get ahead, then I'd get ahead and back and forth and back and forth.

There's a really nastly hill at mile 20, and I think she over-did it, and I got ahead and never saw her again. I felt very tired, but it was sure easy to tell myself, "You've felt a lot worse than this before: keep pushing!" But eventually the pace group caught and passed me again, and they were a couple of hundred yards ahead when we turned into Point Lobos at about mile 22.5. I thought it would be flat, but no chance: the stinking road plummeted down to near the beach, and we had to climb it all back again to get to the main highway (at about mile 24) after which we were finally horses headed directly back toward the barn (the finish line).

At mile 20, my GPS made a funny sound and when I looked at it, the face was blank, and I figured, "dead battery". But it's not a dead battery; it's completely dead, and thus I have no record for my race.

For me, usually the next-to-last mile of any running race is the hardest, but I felt ok this time, and was running solidly, and even making progress on the pace group. One mile from the end there's the final nasty hill, and I caught the pace group near the top of that, and had a pretty solid run to the finish. Given the fact that I started slowly, I'm positive I ran a negative split, and my final time was 3:58:03. I'm pretty happy with that, even though it wasn't a Boston qualifier (by 0:03:03), because it sure was a tough race.

Even though I ate 7 of the 8 salt tablets during the race, at the end, my legs started giving all the usual "I'm about to cramp" signals, but my wife Ellyn met me at the end and I walked around for a long time, very gingerly, and they never really cramped hard, although there were some spasms and I had to be extremely careful getting into the car. Kristen did great, too. She finished just a bit behind me (at 4:00:57) which is a wonderful result for her first marathon ever, and on a course that's probably one of the hardest road marathons around. My place in my age group was 17th out of 92. Kristen was 50th of 260, so the two of us were each almost exactly at the same percentile in our respective groups.

Here's a photo my wife Ellyn took of me near the finish: