There’s always a moment during a big race when you ask yourself just why the hell you signed up for this thing. During most races, that moment comes when you drag your ass out of bed at 4 a.m. and you try not to puke while choking down some oatmeal. During yesterday’s Big Sur International Marathon, that moment came at about mile 20. I had literally never been so engulfed in pain and agony in my entire life, and the worst part of all was that I had chosen this misery.
When we signed up for the marathon in August of last year, it never occurred to me that I would find myself in that kind of mental space. I mean, I knew it would be hard, but I didn’t realize just how difficult. When I missed three weeks of training due to a series of allergies and sinus infections, I knew it would throw me off a bit, but I figured I would improvise with some back-to-back training runs. And I hoped I could adequately prepare myself for miles of hills by running up and down the bridges of Clearwater in 80-degree temperatures. I hoped that my life as a Floridian would not count against me too much on those hills. I had lots of hopes, is what I’m saying.
Runner’s World calls the Big Sur marathon the race everyone should run at least once before they die. Despite the previous two paragraphs, I have to say I agree. The race snakes north from Big Sur along the Pacific Coast Highway and comes to an end in Carmel. More than fifteen miles of the race cradles the craggy Pacific coast of northern California, which is so beautiful I can hardly do it justice with words. We drove the course the day before and the entire time we were like, “Oh my god, oh my god, oh my god.” (And that wasn’t just because of the wind, which mind you, was considerable.) We took a ton of photos with our cell phone cameras and all of them came out beautifully, because how could they not? Its beauty cannot be defeated by even the crappiest of cell phone cameras.
All the beauty could not distract from this gnawing sense of anxiety I’d been feeling in my stomach. I’ve only run one marathon before, the Disney World marathon in 2010, and while that one was notorious for its extreme cold temperatures – it was so cold that water literally froze in our cups at the water stops – it was also really flat. Plus, I used the Galloway method, where I ran three minutes and walked a minute. It was the only way I could psychologically cope with the experience, and it also ensured that I was feeling chipper and springy all the way across the finish line.
This time, I set my sights a bit higher. We had initially thought we might try to break four hours, but when we considered my three weeks of illness plus all of the hills, we readjusted for a 4:15 finish. I had another goal, though, and that was to run the entire thing without stopping. More than anything else, this was the goal that had me so terrified.
That morning we boarded our bus at about 4 a.m. to head to Pfeffier Big Sur State Park, which was about an hour away. I tried to sleep a bit while we were on the bus but the ride was so bouncy that all I could manage was to keep my eyes closed a bit. Once we were there, we settled in for an hour with some coffee and plain bagels, and chatted with a lady from Denver and another one from L.A. (The L.A. lady gave me her spare garbage bag to wear as a make-shift dress, which is standard runner wear but also felt very Debbie Harry. Up the runner punx, eh?) Then it was time to begin.
We lined up in the road, at least 4,500 of us standing amid this forest of massive redwoods, listening to Jeff Galloway and Bart Yasso crack jokes over a loudspeaker. Someone played “Chariots of Fire,” which got me all pumped up even though I know it is also terribly cheesy (but hey, I defy anyone who runs to not get goosebumps when listening to that song!) We tucked in behind the 4:15 pace group, and we were off!
I’d chosen to leave my headphones off, even though I had them with me, because I had this idea that I wanted to soak in the full sensory and spiritual experience of the race. That choice meant I got to listen to amateur comedians crack jokes (“Hey, is this the start of the 5K?” “All right, we’re almost done!”) but whatever, I laughed. We ran easily and downhill for the first few miles, but we realized the pace group was way ahead of pace so we let them go. I was, quite frankly, terrified of burning up my leg strength in the first five miles, and so I was very cautious about my pace.
At mile five, we left the forest and moved out into the open. We had been told, both by the Weather Channel and by the race organizers, that there was no wind on the course for race day. Other years, we were told, the runners had faced headwinds of up to 30 mph. Consequently we were optimistic that conditions would be optimal. That is, until we hit the open part of the highway and found ourselves running into windy fog.
At first, I was like, “Oh, the wind isn’t so bad! It’s like a personal air conditioner!” I got sick of it pretty quickly. Fortunately the sun came out and things heated up really quickly. I took off my jacket and tied it around my waist, where it stayed until we hit the freezing cold fog at mile eight. Back on it went! The fog was actually really beautiful, even though it obscured our view of the ocean. I sometimes even forgot we were running along the ocean until I’d hear waves crash below.
Mile nine was where the notorious climb to Hurricane Point begins, and it was also one of the aspects of the race that had struck the most fear in my heart. The course plunges to 50 feet above sea level before rising to 560 feet over the course of two miles. I read in the program that it was one of the toughest inclines of any marathon. Of course I didn’t need a program to tell me that, especially after I was a half-mile up the hill and already my legs were feeling like pink meat slime.
It was at that point that Brian suggested we ditch our time goal. He heard my breathing, which could charitably be called “labored,” and asked if I was enjoying myself. My answer was a vehement “no,” so we slowed down the pace and just focused on getting to the top.
I’m not sure when we ran into headwinds again, but they made their presence felt. We just put our heads down and ran into them, occasionally turning our heads to look at the water below. The view had a soothing effect that was borderline anesthetic, and I found that by paying attention to my surroundings and allowing myself to experience the full beauty of the moment, I was able to deal with the winds, the fog and the incline.
One of the cruelest aspects of Hurricane Point is that it fakes you out. You find yourself looking at each outward curve, thinking that’s going to be the end point, and you reach it, only to find that, no, you’ve still got more to go. I think it does it like three or four times. And then, of course, once you get to the top, you get blasted in the face with intense winds – hence “Hurricane Point.” Yes, your grand reward for ascending 500 feet over two miles is a blast of gale force winds in your face. Hurrah!
Once we got around the curve, the winds vanished and we found ourselves practically tumbling down the other side of the hill toward the famous Bixby Bridge. A young man plays a grand piano on the other side of the bridge, and you can hear him playing all the way from the top of the mountain. We made it across the bridge – the halfway point of the race – and past the piano player, with just a pause to take it all in. It was so sensuously beautiful in this sophisticated way – the fog, the ocean, the cliffs, the piano – that I felt like I had been dropped inside some kind of wine commercial, or maybe an ad for the Pure Moods compilation CD. Like a big, sappy doof, I started crying. Good lord, I am such a dork.
I had recovered really well by this time and I felt strong and energetic, so we kept running through miles 14, 15, 16, 17. My headphones were still off and my legs, while sore, were still okay. I knew that mythical wall awaited somewhere ahead of me, but a teeny part of me hoped that maybe I’d find out that I had some kind of amazing talent for long-distance running and that the wall just didn’t exist for me. Oh, the hubris of inexperience!
At mile 18, we entered what Brian called the “no man’s land” of the race. It was at this point I realized that we had been running for soooooo long, and yet we still had soooooo far to go. Eight miles! It just seemed impossibly far, and I had no idea if I was going to be able to make it or not. I made the mistake of saying to Brian, “I don’t think I have anything left.” He said, “Yes you do, stop thinking like that.”
We made it to mile 19, by which time I was not only dealing with tired legs and a rebellious brain, but I was also so hungry I could have eaten the wildflowers on the side of the road. I had one more energy gel to take but gah, it just seemed so unappetizing. It was at this point I started grabbing oranges at every stop. I’d never eaten oranges during a race, so I had no idea if this was a bad idea or what, but hunger was overriding all rational thought and so I shoved the orange slices in my face like a ravenous gorilla.
At mile 20, the highway moved through a notch in the mountains. We made the left turn and started heading up the hill, only to be smacked in the face with the strongest winds of the entire course. So let’s recap: mile 20, uphill, gale force winds. I don’t know why the race gods didn’t decide to go full suck and dump rain or maybe even snow on us. I kept trying to run, though, still helplessly clinging to my hope of making that no-walk goal. At one point, I glanced at my Garmin and saw my pace had dropped to 13 minutes per mile.
The worst part of all was the beating I was taking psychologically. Any other day, if you had put me on the road, even a hilly one with wind, and said, “Go run a 10K,” I would have been like, “Cool, NBD, be back soon.” I’m at the point where I can do a 10K relatively effortlessly. But as we passed the 20-mile marker, I was whimpering at the thought of a 10K. It just seemed so far! And so long!
We made it over and down the hill, which got us out of the wind, and all was well until just before mile 21, when we ran into another hill. I tried and I tried, but my legs would not cooperate, and I stumbled to a walk. We walked for a minute and a half, and then went back to running, especially since I realized it hurt more to walk than to run. At this point, we realized that the race course, which is in an area known as the Carmel Highlands, was going to be a series of rolling hills. As far as hills go, they are pretty insignificant, not even meriting a mention on the altitude chart of the race, but to someone who has just run 20 miles, they look positively Himalayan.
Mile 22 passed, and I realized I was entertaining the most bizarre thoughts. Maybe the worst – and in retrospect, the most hilarious – one came when I looked at the center stripe running down the middle of the road, and I thought about how nice it would be to lay down on that stripe. Like, it seemed like a legitimately good idea to curl up in a ball in the middle of a highway and take a nap. I never before understood how someone could go to sleep in a snowstorm and thus ensure they will freeze to death, but now I think I get it.
I realized I’d already blown my no-walk goal, so I figured I’d dispense with the whole “this is so spiritual woo woo” side of things and put my earbuds in. The change was so instantaneous, I was kicking myself for not having done it earlier. Suddenly I had energy to, if not run up the hills, then definitely power-walk them. I ran down the hills and on flat ground at a sub-9:00 pace. When George Michael’s “Freedom ’90” came on, I sang along. I realized I was at this weird place where I had transcended pain. I mean, it still hurt and I was still tired, but it didn’t matter anymore. The only thing that mattered was that I was alive and I was healthy and I was strong enough to run a marathon along the Pacific coast. Everything else was insignificant.
We kept with our new strategy of power-walking up the hills and running the rest of the time, and it seemed to work out well for us, as we passed a lot of people toward the end. When I saw the mile-24 marker appear in the distance, I choked up a bit and felt myself start to cry. It happened again at mile 25. The mixed sensation of relief and pride and happiness was so intense that I couldn’t help it.
We had one last hill – the D Major at D Minor – but we walked up over it and kept running. At this point, I’d skipped my iPod ahead to “Rise” by PiL, which is just the most fitting song for something like this, don’t you think? Off in the distance, I saw a row of flags leading up to the finish line. The sign for mile marker 26 appeared and I burst into tears again. This time I couldn’t stop myself from crying. Brian ran alongside me and pointed me out to the crowd, who went nuts as I ran past. A couple of people jumped out to give me five, at which point I started sobbing even harder.
Brian pointed ahead and said, “Look, the finish!” I had only one thought in my head: “I want to go to there.” I thought I’d left it all out on the course, but I was so ready to be done that I started running faster and faster, until I was sprinting. And then I was done! Brian crossed a few seconds later, and we held each other tightly while I cried all over his running shirt.
The lovely volunteers gave us our cool ceramic medals, and we high-fived one of the race organizers, who stood at the finish line in his blue blazer. All of the pain and misery I’d felt in this five or six miles evaporated the second I finished, and now I was awash with pride and joy. My pride intensified when I realized I’d finished in 4:18:13. I’d taken 35 minutes off my previous PR, just three minutes off my goal. Later, when we talked to more experienced marathoners, including some who had run Big Sur several times, all of them said they had never run such a difficult race in their lives. I felt even better about my time after that. After all, if I could do a 4:18 on a challenging course, there is no reason why I can’t break four hours on a flat course.
I learned a lot during this race. I’d been told over and over again that there comes a point at which the marathon becomes a mental endeavor, that your mind totally rebels against you and you have to be prepared for it. I didn’t understand what that meant until I found myself contemplating a nap on the asphalt. Next time – and there will be a next time, oh yes, I will not stop until I have my very own Boston Athletic Association windbreaker – I will be ready for it. Because there are some things you just can’t understand until you’ve experienced them yourself, you know?
So now I’m nursing my poor quads, which have me hobbling around like an arthritic grandmother, and marveling over the fact that I lost zero toenails during this race and that I only have one blister, on the inside of my left big toe. I’m sure I’ll be limping for a few more days, but as anyone who runs can tell you, there’s a lot of pleasure to be found in this kind of pain.
P.S. I almost forgot to mention, but the lady who hands out strawberries at mile 23? That is GENIUS. Those strawberries were maybe the best thing I had ever tasted in my entire life. More strawberries at races, please!