Big Sur: Puppy Kisses and GUs

Big Sur: Puppy Kisses and GUs

big sur marathon 4by Laurie S.

I ran the Big Sur Marathon this year. It was an awesome race for my first marathon and I don’t think I could run a better marathon. So I’m going to retire while I’m ahead.

I attended the race with my husband Drew and our good friends Bob H. and his wife Pat. Bob ran the marathon while Pat cheered us on. It was a fantastic experience, aided by the best weather in years. The marathon was also an excuse for a vacation, so we spent almost a week exploring Monterey, San Francisco and Sonoma Valley.

The first stop was Monterey. I prefer to race early in a vacation, as it is a built in reason to relax, walk instead of run, and try new foods. Our hotel room had an ocean front view, which was a pleasant surprise. I’m from the east coast and I somehow got misplaced into the Midwest. I miss the ocean! At the first opportunity I was out the door and walking along the beach path, smelling the salt air and checking out the dune plants. It was glorious! I stepped out on the beach proper and passed a utility box with “You are at the right place – here!” spray-painted on the side. I couldn’t have agreed more with that sentiment. I could have spent all day on the beach, but the race expo was calling!

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The race expo was pretty standard, well run and well organized but with all the usual items. We picked up our race numbers, t-shirts, and bus tickets. I bypassed the race finisher jacket and the 26.2 sticker, although I was tempted by the “27.8: I took a wrong turn!” sticker.

Drew and I grabbed lunch at Fisherman’s Wharf then headed south to drive the race course. Wow, were there hills! I had been pretty confident of my ability to run the marathon until we got to Hurricane Point. Hurricane Point is at the top of a tall hill, reached by a long road with banked turns and steep cliffs that fall off to furious waves crashing on gleaming rocks. It’s also aptly named, with buffeting winds out of the north clashing with winds off the ocean that combine to stop a person in their tracks. But the view is superb, astounding, spectacular. I don’t think there are enough superlatives to describe that view. The wind and the long winding road to the top dashed my confidence, leaving me unsure of my ability to get through the marathon. Coach Joe has perfect timing, though. A few minutes later, he called for my pre-race check. He restored my confidence by reminding me of the successful long runs and the months of hill workouts on the treadmill, all completed in spite the struggles of a long, cold, icy winter.

Race day started early. While the marathon begins at 6:45 AM, the race is along a two-lane road with few accessible points. There are also multiple races run at the same time: a marathon, a marathon relay, a 21-miler, a 10.6 mile walk, a 9 miler and a 5K. All of those people have to be bussed south to the various starting lines and the buses have to get back to Monterey before the races can start. Once the races start heading north, one lane is dedicated to racers and the other to safety vehicles. So Drew, Bob and myself got on the bus in front of our hotel at 4:00 AM. Coach Joe’s first triathlon lesson of “Always be at transition when it opens so you can get a good spot on the bike rack!” was well learned. We were in the front of the line to make sure we got a good spot on the first bus! And to build on that small successful start to the day, I learned that the guy in front of us in line was joining me in doing his first marathon at Big Sur. Then we rode through the dark on a narrow, twisty, hilly road, knowing that at times, there was nothing but a sheer cliff to the right. Irk! I distracted myself from the cliff by listening to the other racers on the bus. Some slept, some drank coffee, but most talked to their new friends next to them about previous races, training, cross-training, triathlons, running shoes, and most importantly, their goals for this race.

Soon, thankfully, we were disembarking into the chilly pre-dawn at the race start holding area. Drew, Bob and I found a corner and stood talking. Or, rather, they talked while I ate. I had a nutrition plan and I was sticking to it! Bob is a very experienced marathoner, and he gave me some great advice during our time before the race. “Remember that long run that you did in the snow by yourself in January? Think about that run and enjoy what you’ve earned.” We also listened to the race announcers and enjoyed the humor of the race organizers. The announcers cracked jokes, insisted the guys urinating in the trees at the side of the road get back in the portajohn line because there was poison oak around those trees, told us how great their coffee was, re-iterated the warning about poison oak, pointed out the arrival of various important persons, traded barbs with racers in costumes and really, really stressed the message about poison oak! We put our clothes in the gear truck and then split up. Drew and Bob went to get in the front of wave 2 and I headed to the portajohns. The organizers had taped a single sheet of paper to the doors, each with a brief and funny comment. “Elvis was spotted here yesterday.” “No curtains on window.”

By the time I headed into the crowds of runners, the road behind the start line was so packed that I could barely make it to Wave 2, let alone the back of Wave 2. We listened to the arrival of Dean Karnazes, who had run from the finish line, heard an encouraging message from Deena Kastor, and stood silently for the national anthem. Then the speedy people in Wave 1 were off! I readied my watch and tried to wriggle farther back in Wave 2. Bob appeared on my right and said, “So, you’re going to kick it at the start?” Hah! We exchanged a few comments on the perfect weather (low 50s, overcast, slight tailwind from the south), and we were off!

Bob ran about 10 steps with me then picked up his pace. I knew I was in the wrong pacing spot, so I stayed to the side and kept to myself, letting most of Wave 2 pass me. Dean Karnazes zipped by on his second marathon of the day, looking very tan and ripped and shorter than I’d thought. I had decided to start slow, partly to let myself get warmed up and partly to avoid “kicking it at the start.” The plan was to start slow, settle into race pace, slow down for the hills and then settle into a pace that would get me to the finish line. Patience was the cornerstone of this strategy.

The first five miles or so of the course are downhill, sometimes significantly so. It would be too easy to ruin the quads before the real hills. Those first miles are also through the redwoods, so we had some cool, dappled shade to enjoy. I was so thrilled and so excited to finally be RUNNING IN BIG SUR! I had promised myself I’d look around and take in as much as I could. So I did. Each mile marker made me smile, too. The mile markers were big, with large black numbers on a white background on the bottom half and a cartoon on the top.

Around mile 5, the road becomes a steady incline that becomes ever more steep until mile 9. This section of the road leaves the redwoods and heads to the coast. The terrain features gentle hills sloping to the sea, not the steep cliffs found farther north. There are several ranches along there, and around mile 6, we passed some cows coming out of the milking shed at a gallop. The mile marker cartoon featured two cows, both wearing race bibs. “Elsie, I just don’t know if I can do this!” “It’s easy, Daisy. Just keep putting one hoof in front of the other!” Just past that is Point Sur, which has a lighthouse on a point jutting out into the ocean. There was just enough fog to make the inlets and points of land interesting, but not enough to spoil the view. Racers stopped frequently to take photos as we rose well above sea level and the view became more spectacular.

The mile marker for mile 9 is just before a steep banked turn around the outside of a point of land sticking into the sea. The marker’s cartoon featured a diabolical joker telling us that “It’s all downhill from here!” I was passed by a pair of runners who echoed this as we headed into the turn. They really thought it was the high point! Hah! Actually, at mile 9, the road heads downhill, back into an inlet, and then heads uphill for two and a quarter miles to Hurricane Point. As soon as I turned the corner and headed downhill, I could hear the Japanese taiko drums filling the inlet with their beat. I could also see a line of tiny people snaking their way up the other side, very slowly.

The hill up to Hurricane Point starts out steep and then flattens out slightly near the top. All those months of doing hills on the treadmill really paid off. I was able to keep a slow but steady pace the entire climb, passing a lot of people who stopped to walk. I even had the energy to continue looking around and I was thrilled to be gaining on the hill that had dented my assurance the day before! This section of road is deceptive, as you have to go around two points of land and you can only see the first one from the bottom of the hill. There were groans around me as we turned around the first point of land and headed back into a small inlet. The second point of land is imposing, with a cut in the rock to make space for the road and a scenic viewpoint. Mile 12 and the mile marker fall right at the top of this hill, right at Hurricane Point. The viewpoint was full of people taking photos and enjoying the slight breeze from the south. The tailwind and the perfect weather were holding! No fog, no clashing headwinds. The mile marker had a cartoon of a person jumping for joy and proclaimed, “You made it!”

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Right around the corner from the mile 12 marker, the road heads downhill for three miles. The initial descent is pretty steep. I had a huge grin on my face but I wasn’t feeling reckless, so I tried to glide my way down the hill. Two weeks before the race, I’d been talking strategy with Coach Joe and he mentioned that he had often practiced gliding instead of pounding. With three miles of downhill and more uphill to come, I thought I’d give it a shot. It worked! I wasn’t gliding quickly, but I wasn’t trashing my quads, either.

The road curved around a lovely beach and headed toward the first aid station with GU. The aid stations were characteristic of a race that is trying to go green and eliminate their carbon footprint. All of the cups were composted and the only trash was gel and food wrappers. The fluids available were Gatorade, water, and then water in pitchers to refill bottles or Camelbaks. I grabbed a GU and carried on down the hill, enjoying the gentle breeze off the ocean and the sound of the waves.

Around another point of land, and then I could see Bixby Bridge. This is the famous halfway point of the race, known for the classical pianist playing an enormous concert grand piano. Thanks to speakers, I could hear the pianist for at least half a mile before I crossed the bridge. Runners were clustered around the piano, talking to the musician and taking photos of themselves posed against the piano with the bridge and the coastline in the background. As I ran by, the pianist was playing “Bridge Over Troubled Water” and the woman in front of me burst into tears. Still gliding downhill, I took in as many of the sights as I could.

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Miles 15 to 17 head up again and then back down. Miles 17 to 21 are four miles of semi-flat road. There may even have been a few feet of truly flat road! This was our last chance to see the ocean, and in a few points, we were mere steps from a cliff! But it was a pleasant breather with only a few very minor bumps. The mile markers ranged from sponsor advertisements to jokes on hitting the wall. Mile 17’s cartoon showed a magician waving a gold watch. “You will pay no attention to The Wall!” I was feeling good, but the banked turns around the curves in the road were taking their toll. By mile 18, the outsides of my hips were sore. Despite this, I was still having a grand time and felt fine energy-wise. The second aid station with GU was around mile 19. The first volunteer in line stood behind a table covered with cases of GU and a dog bed next to him. “Puppy kisses and GUs! Multiple flavors!” The dog bed held both a yellow lab and a small lap dog that looked like a miniature yellow lab. I thought of Coach Jim but took only a GU, bypassing the puppy kisses. They would have required bending over.

Mile 20’s cartoon showed a guy plastered against a brick wall. “I should have paced myself better!”

Mile 21 coincides with the beginning of the Carmel Highlands, a series of three hills that last until about half a mile out from the finish. Drew refers to these as the “FU Hills.” The road also turns away from the sea and moves into a residential area of spectacular homes overlooking the cliffs. The first hill is long and gets steeper near the end. I was probably one of three people running on that hill, and I reeled in a lot of people since most of the field was walking up the shoulder. Then back down to mile 23, where the mile marker had been sponsored by Harry Chen. The cartoon showed a man with round cheeks and a bow tie, cheering on runners. Right next to his mile marker stood Harry Chen, cheering on runners! The hill at mile 23 was short and very steep and I felt a slight cramp in my right quad. I kept running, or perhaps shuffling, up the hill. Down the other side, almost to sea level, and around past another lovely beach with more spectacular houses.

We went back into some redwoods and past a state park, where tables had been set up to serve strawberries to the runners. I didn’t stop, since I was running so well and I knew I could run to the end. But these weren’t strawberries like they sell in the grocery store, cold, white and crunchy. These were fragrant and a bright, juicy red, large enough to fill the palm of my hand. I kept running, breathing in the aromatic scents and fervently hoping they had strawberries at the finish line!

Mile 25 has the last hill. It’s about half a mile up and half a mile down, and then you get a little flat bit to sprint to the finish line. The mile marker shows a woman crawling up the hill. “This seemed like a good idea last summer!” I made it up the hill, barely. My right quad was just on the verge of a major cramp when I crested the hill. At that point, I knew I couldn’t run another hill, but so what? It was the last hill! I’d run all of the hills! I was giddy on the inside as I glided slowly down the other side and took off for the finish line.

As I headed around the last curve, I saw Bob and Drew walking in front of me. I had a little internal debate: should I run right by them, or go wide to the right in hopes that they might not see me and I could finish ahead of them? I ended up running right by them. I turned and gave them a little wave over my shoulder, and I might possibly have smirked as well. Bob was on the phone to Pat, telling her that he and Drew would be done in about three minutes. I heard him say, “Whoa, Laurie just passed us! Gotta go!” They immediately started running with me, one on either side. I was still mentally present, enjoying the moment and having a grand time, trying to remember every bit. Then there was the finish line. We joined hands and crossed the finish line together, arms raised in victory!

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After the race, we received our medals, which are actually handmade ceramic medals made by a local artist. And the food tent included strawberries. They were amazing! Every race should have fresh, ripe strawberries at the finish line. Pat was there, enthusiastic and cheerful, ready to hear all the details of our races before taking us home to hot showers and cold ice baths. Sunday evening, the four of us went for dinner at a local brewing company. Beer was consumed and I was schooled in proper eating after a marathon. I chose to have some local fish, which was quite tasty. Drew and Bob were shocked and appalled! Apparently one should have a burger after a marathon. Hmph.

I really don’t think I could have run a better race. The weather was the best they’ve had in years and I later learned that many new course records were set this year. That tailwind helped a lot of people! I ran the entire race, only walking the aid stations, and I never hit the wall. I was happy and engaged the entire time. I had a fantastic training plan and enormous support from Coach Joe, and you don’t get anywhere without those. My husband Drew was also tremendously helpful, providing encouragement and ice bath tips and dedicating our travel budget to this trip. Bob and Pat were wonderful! Bob cheered me on during long runs and they both spent time with us in Monterey. The Experience Triathlon family as a whole was supportive and encouraging, although I did get some weird looks at my post-long run food choices. But they all helped me celebrate after the race.

In fact, I hear some of my ET friends are thinking about doing a marathon in Honolulu in December of 2015. I might have to come out of retirement for that one!

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  • Sherri Hansler

    Laurie, you’re my hero. You worked so hard and deserved an awesome race! Congrats!!

  • Jeff P

    Great report, Laurie. Awesome visuals! Makes me want to think twice about racing in the hills or Northern California! Enjoy the post race recovery.

  • Debbie Swerdon

    Congrats on your first marathon Laurie! Way to go!

  • Chilly Pepper

    Congratulations Laurie! What an amazing race…I’ve heard the Big Sur is one of the toughest marathons in the country. So kudos to you for picking a very challenging course for your first marathon. I loved your story, I loved your pictures and I loved that Bob, Drew and you all finished together! WOW!! Congrats and I would love to join you in Hawaii 2015. Woot!!

  • Jim Riga

    Great report and, as you promised, fabulous pictures to see. What a great accomplishment and what a tough course for your first of many marathons :-). After this all others will be easier. What no “puppy kisses” that just doesn’t sound like the animal lover I know. Oh well from the story you had a blast congrats!!

  • What an amazing accomplishment! A shining example of a committed, focused athlete that followed the training/race plan to the letter and cruised right through a super challenging first marathon, making it look easy. Congrats on a fantastic race and journey! So proud of what you’ve done here Laurie and honored to have been part of the path. Thanks for sharing your story with the world. It will certainly inspire others to go 26.2. 🙂