Quality time on Highway 1

24 April 2005

I drove up to Monterey on Friday to run the Big Sur marathon, enjoying the coastline as I went north (you get better views going south when you are in the lane by the sea, but north is pretty spectacular too). Didn’t have time to do much but go to bed once I got there.

I was a little concerned about this marathon. I haven’t run one for 13 years (and that one was 3:29:06). I wasn’t able to train properly because my hip gave me problems 2 weeks into training and I had to take about 2 months off — so I’d only been able to train for a month and a half, and my hip still wasn’t well, I could only run on alternate days. And Big Sur is supposed to be a hard course. I hoped I could do another 3:30 marathon (that’s about 8 minute miles), but I wasn’t confident of that. Wouldn’t be too surprised if it were as much as 4 hours on this course.

(3:30 is my Boston qualifying time, so it’s magic)

Would you believe it? It was raining Saturday. The first real rain in 4 weeks. Downpour for most of the morning, drizzle for the afternoon. That doesn’t look encouraging for a marathon on Sunday. But Saturday I could spend indoors at the aquarium.

The next morning I was up at 3, and half the hotel with me from the sound of things. We were all catching an early bus that would take us from Monterey to Big Sur.

The trip was in pitch darkness, so once again we missed the true glory of the coastline (this time we missed it entirely).

The guy beside me in the bus line was Mike from Salinas and he and I got to chatting. We sat together on the bus. Mike had run Big Sur twice before and Boston once. I was impressed, Big Sur is not an easy course to qualify for Boston on. Still I thought, here was someone I could run with who would be keeping a pace similar to mine. If I were lucky enough to go that fast.

Then the woman in front turned around and started talking to us. She discovered I’d never run Big Sur before and reassured me that there was no shame in walking up the steep hills. She was expecting to run about 4:30. I hoped I wouldn’t need to walk. She rereassured me that it would be ok if I did.

At Big Sur we were deposited at a maintenance depot for the Pfeiffer State Park. It was maybe 5:45 now and still pitch black. It felt like a refugee camp — there were about 5000 of us or so crammed into a fairly small parking lot. Harsh electric lights illuminating everything. There were people wrapped up in mylar blankets trying to sleep, people waiting in lines for food and water. People waiting in lines for port-a-potties. And more people crammed in every minute.

I grabbed some water and used a port-a-potty. Then I found a spot to squat where no-one else was, and tried to figure out what to wear. We’d been warned that the temperature might be down to forty, so I brought lots of warm things (leggings, armings, sweatshirts, wind-breakers, etc.). Since the previous day had had a (cold) downpour I’d brought rain gear. Now I had to guess what the weather would be like for the next 4 hours or so.

It was not raining. Thank heavens — I had really dreaded that. The sky had broken clouds just becoming visible, so it did not look as though it would start soon. It was cool, chilly even, but not cold. No wind — at least not here among the trees. I decided to wear shorts, long sleeve wicking shirt, cap, sun-screen (just in case) and a plastic bag.

Then I packed a sack with all the stuff I’d decided against, and decided it would not hurt to stand in line for the toilets again. The lines were now about 12 people long. The one I joined didn’t move. I stood in it for 20 minutes or so and it might have moved by 4 people. I was glad I had gone earlier.

They called us up to the road about then. So I switched lines, and stood in one to toss my sack on a truck (this one moved much faster), then went up to the road. Dawn had come while I waited.

Highway 1 was now closed to traffic — which is rather remarkable as there is no real alternate route, you have to go about 200 miles round. They placed us on the road ordered by expected finishing times. I was surprised to find that I was almost at the start line. Because this is a hard course very few expected to finish faster than 3:30.

We stood. And stamped. And cooled down a bit more. They released a flock of white doves. Someone sang “Oh say can you see” (but we were already standing). A news helicopter droned overhead. A priest murmured an inaudible blessing. BANG!

Immediately we are squeezed a bit as we are forced to run over the chip detector. Then we spread out and cover all of Hwy 1.

The first few miles are downhill (which is bad, I don’t want to start out too fast) and through the Big Sur woods, which are lovely. Immense redwoods shadow the road, small streams cross under it. I was standing beside Mike at the start, but he took off faster than I liked, so I dropped back. I’m still running too fast. My first mile is 7:01 when it should be more like 8:00 if I want to be consistent toward a 3:30. So I slow down on the next mile. 7:17. Not much better. The third mile is even worse: 6:58. Oh well I can handle a 7 minute pace for a while, it isn’t that fast. The first 8 miles are easy so doing them at 7 minutes shouldn’t be bad and then I can slow down when it gets hard. That seems reasonable, and I stop worrying about my speed for a bit.

At each mile there is a sign, and standing beside it a person calling out the time since the race began. Most of the mile marks have a second person about 10 feet along calling out average time (total time divided by miles run) and projected finishing time (assuming constant pace — a ludicrous assumption on this course).

We come to our first band. The bands also have signs so we know who they are. They are playing “Go, Johny, go!” with great enthusiasm. Seems apropos.

As we come out of the Big Sur woods (mile 3 or 4) there is a sign saying “End 45 zone”. This seems ludicrous to me. I’m doing 8.5 mph (about) and am now told I can speed up to 55. I point this out to the people around me, but no one laughs.

We’re coming out onto moorland now and can see the sea. I’m starting to get warm, time to remove the plastic bag. It has served its purpose. I take off my cap (to pull the bag over my head) but then I don’t have enough hands — I need two for the bag and one for the cap. So I put the cap back on. After all, I can just rip the bag off, so I do, and hold it in my hand until we reach a water stand (which has garbage cans).

We pass the first first aid station, and some wit beside me asks them for a cigarette. Someone else points out that the only smokes these people might have would be medical marijuana.

We run through rolling hills of open moorland with a cliff dropping down to the sea (think Devon). In the distance, but approaching is Point Sur. We get there at about mile 7.

Imagine Mont St Michell. Imagine that this rock is bigger and topped by a lighthouse rather than a church. That’s Point Sur. It even has a causeway out to it.

The hills start to get bigger now, and we slow slightly.

There is a spattering of rain, and the wind picks up. Was I wise to throw away my plastic bag? I have no rain gear now… still I’m pretty warm, as long as it doesn’t worsen I should be ok.

But the rain (and wind) only lasts for 5 minutes or so, as we come down our first real hill.

At mile 10 we come to the first bridge which leads up to the steepest and longest climb of the run 564ft in 2 miles. After the bridge is another memorable band — twenty or thirty Taiko drums beating a steady rhythm to help us up the hill. But as I approach they fall silent. I urge them to continue, and after a short break they do. Their drumming looks pretty strenuous, I guess they can get tired too. I mention this to the guy beside me and he agrees, glad he only has to run and not drum.

Some way up the hill is a sign by a turnout. It says “Exclamation Point”. Is this the name of a band that didn’t show? or is it the name of the spot? To be on the safe side I run to the edge of the turnout and look back across the inlet we have just crossed. And I exclaim “Wow!” for the view is stunning.

Then onward and upward. I remind myself that I intended to slow down a bit about now. And I do. But I’m passing people anyway, I seem to run uphill better than most. Well, many will pass me again on the down hill (they do).

This is supposed to be the most grueling part of the race, we have been warned of the wind that will sweep down here. The top is called Hurricane Point. But today there is no wind.

Conditions are perfect for a run. Overcast, cool, no wind, no rain. I’m not sweating much so am not dehydrating much. I’ve drunk some water (sometimes Gatorade too, sometimes GU, later fruit) at each rest stop. I’m feeling remarkably good.

And the view is spectacular. We no longer have the whole highway to ourselves, race related vehicles occasionally go by in one direction or another, but we have the left lane, the oceanside lane. Occasionally there will be a walker there, but mostly I can run right on the edge of the western world and see the ocean crashing on the rocks below.

We turn a corner at Hurricane, and head down into another inlet with the most spectacular bridge. Bigbsy Bridge, a delicate arch across a small river. The far side of the bridge is the halfway point, and there is a gentleman playing a grand piano (how did they get a grand piano out into the middle of nowhere?).

~1:37

I seem to be speeding back up. Oh well. I seem to be doing ok.

Onward and upward again. More beautiful views. But I’m tiring now — I’m not slowing, but I don’t have the energy to look around that I did earlier. So I have to remind myself to look. The course is easier again, the hills are more gentle. More bridges over more inlets, more hills in between. Surf crashing on the rocks below.

About mile 15 I hear sea-lions barking. I can’t see them though. There’s a rock some distance out at sea with the waves crashing on it, looks like a place they might like, but I can’t make them out. Or perhaps on the beach under my feet, close to the cliff where I can’t see either. No matter. Their barking carries me on for another half mile.

Somewhere there is a sign warning us not to pick up hitch-hikers. None of us tries to pick one up. (I guess the road is too narrow and twisty and stopping is just too dangerous — er, in normal conditions I mean).

A little before mile 20 there is a sign: “At this point in his run Pheidippides nearly died.” An encouraging thing to be told as we struggle up this hill.

A little after mile 20 there is another sign: “But he recovered and ran another 6 miles 385 yards”. This makes a good sign, and was certainly amusing as we start down this hill, but I don’t think it is strictly accurate. We don’t really know exactly how far the original runner ran. It’s about 25 miles from the plains of Marathon to Athens — but a plain is not a very precise location, no one really knows what happened 2500 years ago. (Indeed there is some doubt as to whether it was Pheidippides who ran — he ran to Sparta and back but the marathon runner is nameless — or so I have read — haven’t checked the original Greek myself.)

The modern distance is wonderfully arbitrary. The first modern marathon (at the end of the first Olympic games in 1896) was just a long footrace. Nobody measured it as precisely as they do today. It was about 25 miles, about 40k depending on what country you were in. So things continued for a while. Then in 1908 the marathon was in London and the course ran from Windsor Castle to the Olympic stadium. It was also about 25 miles. It happened to be exactly 26 miles 385 yards. And somehow that stuck. 26.2 miles, 42.2k.

At mile 21 I checked my split. 5:59. NO WAY! I can’t have run that fast this late in the race, or if I did I’d be way more tired than I am. Still that’s what the watch says.

A minute and 16 seconds later the mystery is explained. There is a mark on the road that says 21. The large visible sign and the person beside it calling out the time is just in the wrong place (about 1/5th of a mile off). Amusing. Still it would have been neat to have run a sub-6 mile this far along.

And now we are entering Carmel Highlands. The highway leaves the coast and heads into urban forest. Not so interesting. I stop even considering looking around and concentrate on running.

At the penultimate (I think, I may be off by one) water stand there is a couple at the end with a sign “Free Hugs”. Tempting… but I can’t stop.

There are lots of walkers now (these have had a much shorter course than we) and they get in the way. Still some of them cheer us on. Sometimes I cheer back, or at least give a thumbs up, but there isn’t much energy left for anything but running now.

Sometimes I yell at the walkers to move left (they are supposed to be on the left edge of the road), but there are far more walkers now than runners — not many runners ahead of me, and the walkers aren’t paying much attention to us. I suppose that is reasonable, I could run in the center of the road and not bother them. I try this but somehow I drift over to the edge again. I guess I’m used to running on the edge and this late can’t break the habit. No energy for that.

Damn. It’s Carmel Highlands. We’re going up again, steeply. Then down. Then up. Short ups and downs, not the long gradual changes we’ve become used to.

Good heavens there’s a group of belly dancers beside this band. Unfortunately they aren’t paying much attention to the runners either and one is out dancing in the middle of the road with her back to me, she twists and wriggles and as I approach I dodge from side to side to get out of her way but she seems to get back into mine. Then she turns and sees me and scoots out of the way with a few feet to spare.

Oh neat, some of the locals have put up their own refreshment stand and are giving away strawberries. Sadly they don’t do as good a job as the professional stands, and the walkers have crowded around and I can’t get to any without stopping.

If I stop now I shall not start again … probably. Not easily.

3 miles to go. My pace has slowed to 7:30. I try to run harder. It’s downhill for a bit, but I’m not running faster. But I am passing a few people.

2 miles. My legs are really tired. Will I make it at even this pace?

1 mile. I can’t go faster. No one passes me. Up again.

I pass the 26 mile post. Damn those .2 miles the Brits added. I’m really trying hard now.

And they are yelling names now. But not mine. Where’s the finish… walkers to the left (and this time they really do go), runners right (and we’ve taken over both lanes again). Almost. My name!

But where do I stop. There are two mats… which is the chip mat? best to run hard over both. 3:13:48 I think.

I try to turn off my stopwatch — but later find out I haven’t. Don’t know how long it took to run that final .2 miles.

I’m exhausted. I slow, and there are people taking off chips. I sort of collapse on the railing in front of one guy and rest a bit. But he’s done and I have to move off. They wrap a mylar blanket about me and there’s water. More water. Gatorade. Mylar blankets are hard to deal with. They don’t drape on you, the wind wants to blow them away, you need one hand to hold it closed and another hand to hold it in place and a third hand for the cup of water and here’s the food, so we need a fourth hand for the box they give me to hold the bananas and orange quarters and apples and carrots oh and a cookie too. Then I walk out. Foolishly. I don’t realize that I can’t reenter the food tent. I juggle my food as I use my fifth hand to eat some of it while drinking from the cup. Nowhere to sit. I need more water. There doesn’t seem to be any. That’s really stupid. I know, I have some water in a bottle in the sack I packed this morning. Where are the sacks? over there. In a caged area. There seems to be no entrance. I walk all around. Hobble. There is no entrance. But a line seems to be forming at one corner. I join it. Someone tells me I should drink some more water. They let us in, a few at a time. People push me forward (most are walkers, a few are relay runners, they aren’t as tired as I am), kind of them. Sacks are ordered by bib number. I walk up to my row. There seems to be no one there, the guy on the next row pays me no attention. Oh I see, the guy on my row saw me coming read my bib and went back to look for it. And I didn’t realize it. Here’s my sack. Look, over there’s some soup, that sounds better than water. I drink two cups of soup. I’m starting to feel vaguely human again. There’s a large sign that says “Preliminary results”. I wander over. Hobble. No results for the marathon yet. Nowhere to sit. Where’s the bus back to the center of town. I find it. I climb awkwardly on. It’s painful. I collapse in a seat.

Now I can rest. I even have a conversation with the two walkers in front of me. They are feeling a little embarrassed because they only had time to train to walk the 10 mile walking course rather than the longer one.

Back to the parking garage where I left my car. Third floor I think. I can’t remember. No, not on the third floor. Second? Not there either. Did I lock it? No one would want to steal my car. It must be here. Nope still not on the third floor. The fourth floor is the roof, I know I didn’t put it there. Still here it is on the ramp most of the way up to the fourth floor. Whee. Too excited this morning to notice where I put it, too tired now to remember.

The streets of Monterey are dead. I am so used to being surrounded by thousands of runners and walkers and volunteers and bustle and busses. But it’s 11am (not even) on a Sunday.

I get back to my hotel, shower, pack up the car, check out and head south. I get to Carmel about 12:45. They told us we had to be off the road (ie. finished running/walking) by 12:30 so they could open it again, but I guess this takes time. Hwy 1 is still closed. So I drive into the finish area, park (this takes some doing — parking lot is jammed). And hobble around again. I see they have posted marathon results now. How interesting the time here seems to be 20 seconds faster than the time I thought I saw when I crossed what I thought was the chip mat. I shan’t argue.

I search for a Mike from Salinas (in the results, I don’t see him in the enclosure) and there he is with a solid 3:28, just as he wanted. Good for him.

The sun comes out and it is starting to get hot. And they have opened the road now, so I head down south. There are still some people walking on the road. Poor people. They’ve been going for 6:30 hours. They now have sun. They have no more water, no fruit, no spectators, no one offering free hugs. It’s hot. The last one I see looked as though she had about 5 miles more to go. Another hour and a half? In the sun and the heat with no water. Poor thing.

And then I’m out of Carmel and the shoreline opens up in front of me. With the sun shining on it. Beautiful.

But you know? Even in the sun, it isn’t nearly as nice as it was when I was running.

Two weeks before the race they sent a blurb full of reminders and with info we needed. They said that this marathon was slow, we would probably run 20 minutes slower than on a normal course. We were warned: Expect to have the worst time in your life … and the best.

But I didn’t. I only had the best.

Big Sur -> Carmel 3:13:28 (PR)

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4 Responses to “Quality time on Highway 1”

  1. Vj Says:

    superb blog!! u have a unique style of writing.. felt like reading a novel!!

    and congrats on the great run!!

    I have been contemplating big sur for next year… Having read your report I want to do it all the more!!

    -Vj-

  2. Not “the Wall” but “the Parabola” « George’s Meanderings Says:

    […] Ok. That is technically a PR. My best race before this was 3:13 at Big Sur. That is known as a hard course. This is known as an easy course. A ~6 minute improvement is pretty […]

  3. Don’t Race like This! « George’s Meanderings Says:

    […] feel that I made it up to Boston in 2006. I qualified in 2005, and registered for the 2006 Boston marathon, but got injured and could not run it. So I have […]

  4. Brian Says:

    Good work buddy, continue the good work.

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