Monday, May 18, 2015

Boston to Big Sur, April 2015 - part 2

Several of my crazier running friends have completed the Boston 2 Big Sur running challenge in the past few years, but I never paid much attention until last year at RunCamp. There, my new and fast friend Neil told me he'd placed 2nd in the challenge for 2014, and that if I could do a reasonable job at both marathons, I'd likely be able to place high among the female finishers. Well, who could turn down an opportunity like that? Certainly not me!

The challenge is open to only 400 entrants and sells out in a matter of hours, so I set my alarm for the wee hours one night in early October and was subsequently quite excited to have secured myself a place in the 2015 Boston 2 Big Sur challenge. All I knew about Big Sur was that it's apparently one of the most beautiful marathon courses in the world, although not exactly a PR course - one look at the elevation profile and it is easy to see why:

Excuse me, there's a large mountain ruining this otherwise pleasant-looking profile.
Could someone please remove it?

The Lead-Up: Big Sur
The concept of 2 marathons just 6 days apart is an interesting one; as I said in part 1 of this post, it certainly seems like a great idea until you start pulling apart the details. I'm still totally gung-ho and enthused, right up until the morning of Tuesday, April 21st, when I wake up in Boston and attempt to hop out of bed. Ouch, ouch, my legs really hurt!

As I hobble to the bathroom I ask myself, can it really be true that I have to run another 26.2 miles on them in just 5 days? Whose idea was that anyway?? "Yours!" laughs Joel from the comfort of bed - but it's far too late to change anything, so apart from taking Tuesday off as a travel day, we spend the rest of the week limping about on 4-5 mile daily "runs" and trying to pretend we're not worried.

On Friday we travel out to California and are met at Monterey airport by Steve, the unflappable and ever-helpful elite coordinator. He installs us at the official elite hotel - a really cool place right by the coast, which we will discover is amazingly scenic - and has even picked up our bibs and goodie bags from the expo for us.

Very elite accommodations.

Pretty soon we are whisked off to a welcome reception on the top floor of the highest building in Monterey (with an incredible view), where we drink beer, eat canap├ęs and hob-nob with some of the craziest runners in the entire world, by which I mean Dean Karnazes, who oddly enough has brought his parents along. Later we drop by the airport again to pick up the legendary Michael Wardian, who turns out to be a really great bloke, before it's time to try to sleep. Sometimes I think a 3 hour time change is more difficult than a 17 hour one, seriously.

Crazy runners unite!

Saturday morning we head to the expo to take part in Bart Yasso's "shakeout run" - I don't really know what to expect but it turns out to be a LOT of fun, in the form of a huge group of runners jogging along the beach at 10:17 pace, snapping selfies with Bart (who is endlessly obliging and friendly) and generally chatting up a storm. There's a girl called Cristie who is sporting a gorgeous INKnBURN outfit - we bond immediately over our shared love of the world's coolest running gear - and the post-run breakfast put on by Runners' World is full of carbohydrates and therefore thoroughly enjoyable.

RW shakeout group at left, INKnBURN gorgeousness at right

We spend the rest of Saturday hanging out with Michael and Neil, either at the Expo or predictably gorging on anything with carbs in it, and finish up once more at the Marriott where the pre-race pasta fiesta is going on; if there's one thing that stands out so far about Big Sur, it's the excellent treatment that I'm getting as an elite (as is Joel, as an Elite Husband). And they're definitely making sure we don't go hungry! I have truly no idea what the next day will bring, but already I'm thinking that the chances of coming back next year are high - it's on the way home, after all.

Race Day: Big Sur
At 5am our ride departs from the hotel with Steve at the wheel and we spend over an hour driving towards the start line along Highway 1, which is in fact the marathon course in reverse. Once the sun comes up it's quite amazing - the description "the rugged edge of the Western World" doesn't do this incredible coastline justice. A group of relay buses ahead of us overshoot their stop and one by one perform heart-stopping U turns that see them practically teetering on the edge of the cliff. Scary stuff!

The wind has come up - as per the Weather Curse it's a headwind (is there any other kind?) - but so far it doesn't seem too bad. At the start line things are in fact quite calm; once everyone is lined up the announcer goes through the elite field by name (including me!) and it's pretty darn exciting. The course slopes downhill at quite a sharp angle away from us - one thing is for sure, it's going to be a fast first mile!

Miles 1-6: 6:31, 6:38, 6;29, 6:36, 6:37, 6:53
A surprisingly large number of runners (both male and female) shoot straight out in front at an implausibly fast pace; it's hard not to go with them and so when I check my watch after half a mile I'm not surprised to see 5:58 pace showing. Joel is right beside me and we discuss pacing briefly - he has decided to pace me for the first few miles at least, like the wonderfully supportive husband that he is - and although I state several times that Benita has suggested 6:50 pace (or so), and we agree that this sounds reasonable, somehow we end up keeping it closer to 6:30. This will turn out to be a key decision that influences almost every outcome of the day, but more about that later.

Everything is going swimmingly - my legs feel okay, definitely not fresh but surprisingly good for day 6 post-Boston - until mile 5, when the trees start to thin out and a sudden gust of wind almost blows us over. "Where did THAT come from??" asks Joel, and I reply "I ordered a tailwind so I have no idea!", but of course we know exactly what it is: the wretched bloody headwind that was forecast. And we're running right on the exposed edge of the coast where there is absolutely NOWHERE to hide. This is going to get nasty.

Miles 7-12: 7:08, 7;12, 7:08, 6:28, 8:20, 7:42
Joel sees me through the 10K mark and then wishes me luck and drops back. The wind is picking up steadily and is basically blowing me backwards - it's awful, but also by now a very familiar feeling. And with all the experience I have at this now, I know not to panic, to just lean into it and keep my effort level steady. I stop checking the mile splits when I see the first one creep over 7:00 pace; today is going to be a slow marathon compared to my usual abilities, but there's no point freaking out now.

A large pack of runners is not too far ahead of me - and I know at least 3 of the women still ahead of me are in there - but much as I'd love to catch them, I'm fairly sure it's not going to happen. Once again I'm left to face the elements mostly alone (although some of the relay runners who have gone out like bats out of hell are now essentially running backwards and providing some intermittent protection from the wind) but I'm in a really positive frame of mind, somehow. Perhaps it's the sheer beauty that is all around me, perhaps it's the fact that I believe at least 6-8 women are ahead of me so I'm not stressing over placement, or perhaps it's just remembering my friend Ron's admonition to "Remember to take in the view", but even the headwind can't phase me today. It's a good day for a run!

Views like this one don't hurt, either.

Mile 10 is a lovely downhill that sees me back on a reasonable race pace, but I know what is coming up: Hurricane Point, a murderous 2 mile stretch of uphill at a ridiculously steep gradient. The headwind chooses this time to make itself felt once again in full force, and I have that strange feeling that you get when trying to go up the down escalator: I'm running my heart out yet somehow not actually moving.

A very cruel mile marker.

When my Garmin beeps I glance at it and am completely horrified to see 8:20 pop up - it has taken me almost 2 minutes longer than it should have to cover this past mile. Suddenly I notice a bloke who seems to be drafting off me - he sees me look around and promptly moves up alongside. To my extreme surprise he then mutters "Come on, tuck in" and surges ahead - not being one to look a gift horse in the mouth, I step up the pace and follow.

He drags me in this fashion up most of the rest of Hurricane Point, and I'm gratified to see that my pace up the second mile of the hill is considerably faster than the first. Towards the top I am starting to struggle - my saviour pulls ahead a little; I thank him and ease up a touch, then finally I'm at the top.

Miles 13-18: 6:14, 6:52, 6:58, 6:55, 7:00, 7:13
Downhill! Wheee!! I put my legs into free spin mode and bomb down the hill like a maniac. Numerous people have warned me not to trash myself on the steep descent that follows Hurricane Point but I just don't care anymore; and thus I am rewarded with my fastest mile of the course. I've also got my eyes on the spectacular sight of the Bixby Bridge, where I'll not only hit the halfway mark but am also expecting to hear some lovely piano music courtesy of the musician seated at the baby grand piano on the far side of the bridge. I hear it, but I never see it - I'm too busy grinning and running and dodging walkers. I'll have to pay more attention next year.

There's another hill coming up, and I don't even care!!

I cross the halfway mats in 1:31:31 exactly - by my calculations, then, a 3:05-3:07 finish time seems likely. There's NO way I'm not going to fade and give back at least a few minutes...or am I?

The rest of the course is pretty much undulating until the final hill at mile 25 (so cruel, I know), and the somewhat-strange-but-somehow-also-cool ElevationTat tattoo that Mike Wardian has given me comes in very handy now: hills are much easier to handle if you know exactly when they are going to end. I find myself looking at it quite a lot more than I expected to, and it definitely helps me mentally as I deal with a never-ending series of small inclines.

My left arm has never been as useful as it is today.

I sort of lose focus a bit during miles 17 and 18, and give back a bit of time. The road is clogged with walkers now, some of them ambling along three-abreast, and I have to exert myself quite a few times to bellow "COMING THROUGH!" or risk a collision - and I've already had a couple of near-misses at water stations and relay change-over points. This stage of the marathon is mentally really tough; it's too soon to think "I'm almost done" but late enough in the game to be seriously tired already. Any small distraction can lead to slowing down without noticing - it's time to get back on point and focus.

Miles 19-24: 7:09, 7:12, 6:58, 7:27, 7:06, 6:57
It takes another couple of miles, but I find myself able to gradually speed up again. Mile 22 has a nasty, sharp little hill but mile 23 is a lovely downhill and suddenly I'm having fun, flashing past walkers like a streak of lightning.

Coming THROUGH!!

Ooh, now I'm starting to pass a few men wearing B2B shirts - they must have gone out way too fast and are paying the price - I'm not really giving this any attention until one of them sees me and yells "You're in 4th! There's 3rd - go get her!" He points, and it's true that I've noticed a woman in grey ahead of me for the past couple of miles; she seems to be going around the same pace as me, or just a touch slower, so she has to be a marathoner. But there's no way there are only 3 women ahead of me! I laugh and tell my cheerleader friend that he's mistaken, but he's insistent and I start to wonder if he could be right.....and whether I really could catch her after all? Probably not - she's got to be over 30 seconds ahead - but the idea will give me power over the final miles, and that's totally what I need right now.

Miles 25-26.2: 6:54, 6:59, then 6:17 pace to the finish
With only 2.2 miles to go I can afford to thrash myself a bit now, so I pick up the effort level accordingly and keep blowing by walkers and relayers as fast as my legs will take me. There's a RIDICULOUS hill that starts right after the 25 mile marker, which is totally unfair really, but at least I know from my informative left arm that it's going to be short.

Staring down the final hill; and then at long last it's almost over. Hallelujah is right!

Grey Girl ahead is ever-so-slightly closer than before but I'm fairly sure I won't catch her; however the idea of it keeps my legs turning over as I drag myself through the final couple of miles. Once I can see the finish I accelerate as much as I can, and I can hear the announcer saying my name.....then he follows up with "And I'm hearing that she's our unofficial female Boston 2 Big Sur winner!!"

I'm so excited and amazed that I charge over the line with my arms in the air and a manic expression on my face - I did it!!

Finish time: 3:03:22 (6:59 pace) - splits 1:31:31 and 1:31:41

Placement: 4th OA female, 1st in AG, 1st Masters female, 1st female Boston2Big Sur Challenge (combined time 5:58:34).

Victory!! And - finally - a post-finish photo together.

I will soon learn that I have secured victory in the B2B challenge by only 3 minutes, which equates to roughly the time I banked in the first 6 miles by running with Joel at around 25-30 seconds per mile faster than I had planned. Phew! And thank goodness for fast runner husbands, eh?

B2B podium, extremely pleased with myself.

I get a bunch of plaques, bottles of wine, shoe vouchers and a Big Sur bookmark in my 4 trips to the podium, then it's time to head back to the hotel. I'm still in shock at my finish time - it came as a complete surprise to realise that I had run an almost perfect even split after how I felt at halfway.  And my legs are not even close to trashed: the next morning both Joel and I will end up running 5 miles along the coast (and get lost in the Spanish Bay golf course, but that's another story) with much less discomfort than either of us experienced after Boston.

For the first time in my life I can begin now to understand those runners who do marathons every weekend or every other day - it's not quite as physically impossible as I thought it was! Which is a very good thing, considering the race line-up I have planned for May. Gulp.

The spoils (we drank the wine).


  1. How did I miss what this actually meant? Wow Rachel, this is a huge achievement. Well done, grats and kudos to you!!

    1. Thanks! I don't think I'll do it again though. It was bloody tough!