Thursday, May 3, 2012

Big Sur: Spectacularly Relentless or Relentlessly Spectacular?

7th state conquered
When I decided to run 50 marathons in 50 states (thanks Dean Karnazes), I knew that for California I HAD to run Big Sur, one of the top 10 marathons worth traveling for, where “you can race through stunning scenery in a far-flung locale”. I would’ve loved to run Long Beach, city I know like the palm of my hand, and where I have run every inch of it, but the spectacular views that Big Sur offers are second to none.  Forbes is right when describes it: “California’s most beautiful drive is the route for this foot race. You’ll hug the coast on Highway One from Big Sur all the way down to Carmel. The hills and the headwinds are difficult, but the gorgeous views of the Pacific Ocean serve as inspiration to keep going. This point-to-point course sells out year after year, so…” to be able to conquer this hilly terrain I registered on opening day, 9 months before, mid July 2011. It was sold out in a month.

I had a couple of marathons to run before Big Sur: Dunedin, NZ, and Houston, TX. So, my formal marathon training for Big Sur would be a 13-week training immediately after Houston (Jan 15). My decision of training really hard was due to Big Sur marathon profile. Steep hills (up and down) plus headwinds. I was not planning on PRing but just on being able to handle the course with grace. I planned to take a camera with me during the race (I never do this) and take as many pictures I could. It would be a run for fun and beauty. But my training dictated different. It was the perfect training, in both, quantity and quality, achieving amazing PRs in every distance I raced during the 13 weeks. From the 2-miler to the 20-miler, all my races were beyond fantastic. Then, “run-just-for-fun”, was radically changed to “run-the-best-race-I-can-run.” No camera, no photos, but race.

I was very nervous. Though I live surrounded by steep hills, Big Sur hills intimidated me, especially, the 2-mile uphill, 500 ft climb from mile 10 to 12. I read tons of reviews, and 90% of people agreed that the hills were hard. 10% of reviewers mentioned that were not really the hills but the wind. The race director mentioned both. I learned the profile by heart. I mimic the hills running them even steeper. If Big Sur 10 to 12 miles hill was 4.8% I practiced 2-mile hills at 6%.  I practiced, practiced, and practiced.

On 4/27 I was completely ready for the “battle”, and boarded my airplane, Seattle-Monterey. I stayed at my dear friend Helena’s home. Helena made this trip memorable. We went to the expo where I stayed the minimum possible time (not fond of spending neither money, nor time at Expos). There were only two things I needed: 1) My bib and bus ticket to Big Sur 2) Meet up with Bart Yasso as planned. After 1) I went for 2) and there he was and exclaimed: Lizzie! We hugged and he told me: “Lizzie, you have broken all your PRs this season, you’ll PR, you’ll do fantastic”. I gave Helena my camera to get a picture with Bart, and he told her: Yes, we have a lot of pictures together! 
With Legend Bart Yasso.
Helena and I quickly walked the expo, and had to stop in 2 additional stands. The piano: One of the superb things Big Sur has is the pianist at mile 13 playing the most amazing music on a grand piano. I stopped and told him: I will enjoy your music on Sunday for sure, but I am not planning on stopping to take a picture with you, so let’s do it now

With 13-mile pianist. In the back you can see the majestic grand piano and the pianist performing during the race.
Next stop was for that delicious liquid that girls like so much: wine, from Ventana’s vineyard. They didn’t have cups but handled me the bottle that had left about half a glass. I drank the wine in a not ladylike way, but that was OK. Helena, as a good girl scout, built her own paper cup with a Ventana flyer. 

On Saturday, a sunny day, 50F/10C, at 9am we drove the course. I normally don’t like to see a course beforehand, but I really wanted to have my own pictures. I am a photo-geek, and not having pictures of that scenery would’ve disappointed me. It was beautiful. The views were amazing. I took some pictures from the car, but there was one spot where I wanted to get out. And… the truth was in my face. The wind! There were a couple of runners also driving the course, and they were more than concerned; they were from Florida… yes, you know what it means. They have no hills at all. Good luck.

We stopped and go. Helena was so amazing and patient. We drove hills down and up and up and down. I was in a continuous OMG attitude. We got to Big Sur, and now we drove the course in the way it was to be run. I checked the points of concern, of easiness, the 500-ft climb in a shot, the 500-ft decline in another shot, more uphills, more downhills, an American flag completely horizontal for the high winds, and I only had to summarize it as “The course is indeed HORRIBLY HILLY and the wind is HORRIFIC.... Horrific with capital HHHHHH!!!! Cliffs, coast... you know, translates to wind... But regardless, it's the most spectacular course I've ever seen.”

Helena hosted other two Washingtonians who arrived from Port Townsend on Saturday afternoon, Scott a runner, and John a hiker/skier. We had a wonderful dinner at home, amenable conversation, and ridiculous laughter. I retired early, 9am, our bus to Big Sur would depart at 4 am, race start time 6:45 am.

Though it took me one hour to fall asleep I had a good night. Got up at 2:50 to have my coffee, prepare the oatmeal that I would take with me, and got ready. Average temperatures at Big Sur at 4ish am are in the low 40’s, so throw away clothes are indispensable. I had two bottom layers, sweat and windbreaker pants, and three top layers, 2 fleece sweaters plus a coat with fleece inside. Two pair of gloves. Scott and I boarded the bus and had a good talk for about 15 miles. Then, we both felt seasick, shut up, and rested until we got to Big Sur.

The excitement was obvious when we got to Big Sur. We went immediately to the porta-potties. After that we had hard time to find a spot on the sidewalks to sit. Every inch was already taken, and not all the buses had yet arrived. It was 46F/8C and I only needed one sweater and the coat, so I have a sweater to spare. I offered it to a girl that was shivering. Some people were not warm enough. I don’t understand this, as this is a must in all marathons where you have to wait for the start of the race a couple of hours at night in the cold. I assumed they learned the lesson.

I ate my oatmeal about 5 am. Chatting with Scott made the time fly. I wasn’t even thinking of the race; no race jitters whatsoever because I was very distracted with our conversation. At 6:15 they started calling people to the start line, starting with wave 3 (self-seeded). I would seed myself in wave 2. We made a second line to the bathrooms at 6:15 thinking we would have quite a line, but no, only took 5 minutes. And as a “typical girl” after that, I made the line again, what the heck. Scott waited. At 6:30 I got my GU and went to my wave area. There was Bart on the “scaffolding” with the race director. He saw me and said Lizzie! Good luck, he blew me kisses and extended his body down to reach my hand. 5 minutes of fame, and Scott mentioned “ How cool was that!”
Scott & I in a long wait for the start
Scott and I split and wished the best to each other. Talked here and there with a couple of Seattleites just behind me; national anthem; getting rid of my throw-away clothes; ready, set, go. Crossed myself 3 or 4 times, nerves?

As I am over analytical, I had studied everything I could about that course and had a strategy that I had practiced to perfection: To run by effort. Now was the time to execute it on race day:

·        75-78% miles 1 & 2
·        80-85% from mile 3 to 10, hold that HR as much as I can through miles 10-12
·        85-88% through miles 12- 18
·        See if I can sustain 90% from mile 18 to 24
·        Whatever is left for the last 2 miles.

Here is how the strategy worked in each of the sections:

Strategy: 75-78% miles 1 & 2
The first two miles were downhill. People were flying. The race director highly recommends to pace yourself for the first half of the race. You don’t know what is coming; and if you think you know what is coming because you’ve studied the profile and have driven the course (i.e: Me), you don’t know what it means; and if you know what it means is because you’ve run it before, and you are not flying these miles.

My HR was at 77% and I kept it for 2 miles. I got an expected pace for the effort for the first mile, but it’s beyond me what happened at mile 2. I noticed I was going slower, but I was at 77%, so I decided not to over think it and kept the effort. I had 24 miles ahead of me to be worried for. 

1-      10:09 - 77%
2-      11:08 - 77% (???)

Strategy: 80-85% from mile 3 to 10
Miles 3 to 6 were very easy. Per race director this is where most people have their faster times, it’s fairly easy to go for a faster pace, and there is the reminder: Pace yourself for the first half of the race. You don’t know what is coming. At mile 6 we were starting to feel the heat. The shade of Big Sur trees is gone and is sunny. It’s around 53F/12C. I tossed a pair of gloves, and my hand warmers. I am concerned, if this is at mile 6, I’ll be fried at the end. At mile 7 I see a grey cloud coming toward us from the hills, it looked like a huge mosquito cloud. When I got to it, it’s dense fog, I feel a nice breeze that cools me down. I am thankful until… the nice breeze became a savage wind of 30mph. And it’s cold, and I asked “why did I toss a pair of gloves?” Worse, “why did I toss my hand warmers?”

I get to mile 7 with 2 cows welcoming it (Las Vacas de Helena). We’re running by beautiful cows’ pasture that I knew it was there only because I saw it the day before. On race day, you could see nothing. It was completely foggy. In my battle with the wind and fog, I see a familiar face passing by me, I recognize him:  Dino!!!!!!! He turned and he said Hi!. We met in Seattle a couple of years ago. He is the one that led and inspired me to 50 marathons in 50 states. We talked about this being the 7th, only 43 to go. And he said: “You picked the right one for California.” My reply, indeed I did. He said “Good luck, and BTW, I love your style”, referring to my “stars and stripe” marathon uniform. Thanks Dino… And he took off. One of the fittest men in the world: Dean Karnazes.

My splits during this section were:
3-      9:02 - 84%
4-      9:52 - 84%
5-      9:39 - 85%
6-      9:50 - 86%
7-      9:59 - 85% - first wind battle
8-      10:07 - 87%
9-      11:00 - 84% - huge wind battle. I intentionally kept the lower effort.
10-     9:26 - 88% (The 2-mile hill from 10-12 really starts before mile 10).
Strategy: Hold that HR - 82-85% - as much as I can through miles 10-12
I got to the beautiful expected feared 2-mile climb at mile 10, a climb of 500 ft (4.8%) It was foggy. I simply told myself: 2 miles Lizzie, just 2 miles. That’s it. I started climbing and though I elevated the effort more than I wanted, I never felt aerobically tired, so I decided to keep it there, 90%. I was very, very focus on the uphill and the wind. For mile 11 to 12 I drafted behind 2 big guys (not fat but tall and with wide back and shoulders). They were running together, so they build me a nice wall for me to draft. I was literally on their toes, to the point I had sometimes to step back because I was going to be all over them. They probably hated me. It worked well. Though I was in 90% it didn't feel bad. I ran those 2 hills with good form, and never felt exhausted or desperate. When I arrived to mile 12 I screamed like King Kong at the top of the Empire State. It was like conquering the summit, thinking the rest of the hills was not going to be bad at all and that I would chew each of them. If I was wrong.

11-     11:06 - 90%  
12-     11:18 - 92%

Strategy: 85-88% through miles 12- 18
Mile 13 is a brutal downhill, the same 500 ft we climbed, now 500 ft down, but I was not scared at all. I knew I had power. I had worked legs extensions for three months to be ready for these kind of hills. I learned how to run downhill fast and leaning forward. I was ready.  I flew the decline, 8:12 min/mile. I was happy. There was no much to see, it was very foggy. Then the fog started to go away and Bixby Bridge was there. At its very center is the very half of the race. Goosebumps. The amazing music, the grand-piano, the pianist in his tuxedo, the ocean can be seen now, at my left, it seems unreal, sub-real, but is real, is all mine, and I am in heaven.

I continued my journey. At mile 16 I am in good shape. There was a climb, but I have kept overall a 10 min/mile for a 4:2ish race. At mile 17ish I felt a school of fish behind me. It was the 4:30 pacer with tons of people in a cluster. I didn’t mind. I was not even tired. My legs were fine. I was in complete synch. I knew I had what I needed to pass them later. But then, just then, the headwind slashes back and I started losing ground. 

13-     8:12 - 91%
14-     9:28 - 89%
15-     10:08 - 86%
16-     10:29 - 85%
17-     10:42 - 84%
18-     11:15 - 83%
Past mile 13. Bixby Bridge in the background.
Strategy: See if I can sustain 90% from mile 18 to 24
The answer to the strategy was no. I still was 8 miles away. I would not be able to keep that HR with that wind. I could not afford to bunk at mile 22-23, so I decided to keep the effort close to what I had had throughout the race. At mile 19, there was an uphill that couldn’t even be noticed in the profile. And that’s when I realized what the 10% of the reviewers said: The enemy is not the hill, is the wind. The headwind at this spot was a constant 40 mph. BRUTAL. It made any hill "un-runable". I looked right and left and everybody was walking. I decided to spend less energy walking than trying to jog that particular hill. If I would've known about this mile 19 wind, I would've stayed with the 4:30 pacer and her mass of people and draft at the back, but I let them go because I was feeling good and confident I would pick up the pace and pass them later. But it is all would've, should've, could've. Crystal balls were not part of my marathon training kit.

It was hill after hill after hill with wind, and wind, and wind. I had given up battling hills after the 19 one. So every time one came, I just swallowed it, kept going, and pushed downhill. Hamstrings and calves started to be sore about mile 20 but found a table with Bengay and put a ton on the back of my legs; it helped a lot. Mile 22 was horrific. At mile 23 we were spoiled with the famous strawberry ladies, and tons of fruits. I grabbed 5 and ate them along a mile, little by little, pretty much only extracting the juice. It was getting really hot but I was not going to drink more water. We probably were now in 60F/16C. When I finished this section, I was ready for the last two miles and my final strategy.

19-     11:49 - 85% (brutal wind)
20-     11:53 - 84%
21-     11:11 - 81% (I was distracted here)
22-     12:23 - 85%
23-     10:37 - 87%
24-     11:27 - 85%
Yes, it was hard.
Strategy: Whatever is left for the last 2 miles
I knew there was an uphill at mile 25 that looked no big deal the day before, but today was going to look like a mountain, but I knew I had the marathon in my pocket. I had some stuff left in my tank. I crank it up and raced those 2 miles with power, though my speed was never the same I have at that HR. It was 2 min/mile slower. At mile 26 I saw John (hiker/skier) with his camera waiting for me. This was so sweet of him. I saw him running by the sidewalk to catch these mementos. It made me feel so grateful that there was a man that I had only known for 24 hours, running after an injury to take pictures of his new friend. Then I saw Helena, she was there with a camera as well. I blew her a kiss. And there was the finish line, I felt as glorious and victorious as any marathoner is while crossing that magic line. And Bart was there, and hugged me tight and told me “great race. PR!”

25-     10:48 - 85%
26-     10:24 - 92%
26.2-    2:05 - 95% (10:00 min/mile)

With Bart: You PRd Lizzie!
I couldn’t be happier. Because during this training season my Half was 1:56, and 20-mile race was 3:10 with tired legs, my expectations were in the 4:20ish. But as I said in my last blog: “There’s No Formula ButRace Day.” Race day is the real thing. I had the 4:20ish pace up to mile 18 and was feeling strong and sure that I was going to pick up the pace, but the wind chewed me after that.

I never had sore quads what tells me I definitely know how to run downhill. They were pretty steep. Never felt too tired or spent, but with all and all it was hard to battle the wind. I am really happy I ran by effort because if I would've tried to hit paces that would've killed me earlier. For fueling I had what I had practiced for the whole training season. I got Gatorade about mile 4 and 8 (or whatever those stations were), skipping the ones in between. At mile 12 (summit!!!) I got a salt stick, got GU about 16-17, and at 21 another salt stick, just in case. 1/3 banana offered at mile 14ish, and the strawberries at mile 23. These fruits were just a treat.

I don't usually buy pictures of the races (I'd be ruined) but I think the official photos covered my Big Sur story pretty good, so I will invest on them. In the meantime here are the proof pix; they will be replaced them when I have the originals. 

Recovery & Thanks
Scott (who ran a fantastic 3:35), John, Helena, and I had a wonderful celebration at Helena’s home with a lot of wonderful food, more nice conversations, and more ridiculous laughter. It was a fantastic team, two runners and two crewmembers to drive us and spoil us.

I flew back home same Sunday afternoon, got home at midnight, slept 6 hours, and went to work on Monday. I felt a little bit sore, not much. Slept 7 hours and got at 4:45 am on Tuesday for a 5 mile run with my friend Michelle. After the run I was really tired. I decided to skip my Wednesday run to be able to sleep in. I got up after 12 hours of sleep and felt brand new. No soreness whatsoever. I concluded that I ran with very good form as I didn’t have back or hip pain during or after the race.

Thanks to all my friends that shared the training journey with me, but special thanks go to my running partner Michelle, who was instrumental during my endurance build-up; to Helena for being such an amazing host offering her kindness and warm home, meals, and friendship; and last but not least, actually, first than anybody else, to my adorable Hubby Randy, who patiently accepted me being away in the mornings, afternoons, and weekends for the past 3 months to run and be prepared for the conquer of California. 

To run a good Big Sur requires hard training. There are many words that describe it, but for me there are only two, Big Sur: Spectacularly Relentless or Relentlessly Spectacular?


Ginger said...

Lizzie, you ran a spectacular race after months of perfect training. Could not be happier for you!

Ginger said...

Lizzie, you ran a spectacular race after months of hard training. Could not be happier for you!

CewTwo said...

You are not only a marathon runner, you are a scientist about it.
What a report!
It almost makes me want to run another! (Almost...)

Susan Stout said...

Oh LL! Spectacular! You inspire me so! I, too, hate winds... even worse than hills. But this one is my CA pick. Dean and Bart -- oh you lucky gal!

Backofpack said...

Lizzie, you did all the hard work, all I did was show up to run with you! Looking forward to lots more of that, too. We'll still be hobbling around in the dark when we are 75!

Petraruns said...

Lizzie Lee I thought I had commented on this but I hadn't. What a race. And the Bart! And Dean! Girl you are incredible - such hard work and it's all paid off!