In July 2017, I joined a group hoping to get into the Big Sur marathon via team lottery. Since they needed people and I was already preparing for the Pikes Peak marathon, it seemed like a harmless idea at the time. I even signed my husband up thinking that if we went, it would at least be a nice California vacation for us both. A week later, to my surprise (horror?), we actually got into the race. Then I actually ran the Pikes Peak marathon and at the finish line, swore off marathons altogether, as I typically do every time I complete another one. However, I was committed to Big Sur so I made some random, lurching attempts to train, but never very seriously as my body found ways to sideline me every time I thought I was making any degree of progress. In hindsight, it was perhaps a lot of self-sabotage, if even unconsciously on my part. Still, the fact remains that race day rolled up and I was woefully under prepared. I have five previous marathons to my name though so I felt confident I could do it, albeit very slow and resolved to keep my eyes on Plan B which was to simply enjoy a sunny weekend vacation with my husband, who also was noticeably under trained for reasons of his own.
We flew into San Jose on Friday and had an amazing lunch at a vegan place called Good Karma with an even more amazing beer selection, to which we were overjoyed. We bought far more bottles to go than we should and managed to max out the weight limit on our return bag so we could share our newfound treasures with friends back in Colorado. I felt the trip was already a success.
We made the hour and half drive to our Airbnb which was only 10 minutes from our scheduled race shuttle, which left at a horrid time of 3:30am on Sunday so the convenience was both planned and appreciated. We dropped our bags and headed out to check out any local breweries in Monterey and take a quick stroll through downtown. The Airbnb came with two free passes to the Monterey Bay Aquarium so we decided to do that on Saturday morning before heading to the expo to pick up our numbers. We also hit up a nearby Goodwill with the intent of getting some cheap goods we could discard after the long morning wait at the start line. I was hoping for a thick, full length bathrobe that could double as a blanket and sleeping bag, but not finding one, settled for a small fleece blanket and throw pillow that I knew would do the trick.
After that, my husband found a small farmer’s market directly across from Post No Bills (another cool brewery we found) and he assembled some ingredients to make our own pre-race meal of bowtie pasta, avocado sauce, some mild peppers and kale. It was deliciously perfect and something we both knew wouldn’t upset our stomachs during the race, based on past experience.
We were already operating on a sleep deficit for the week so even with the plan of a morning nap on the bus or at the start line, we went to bed early knowing that the wake up would be brutal. That turned out to be one of our better decisions as I was actually wide awake with anticipation even before my alarm went off at 2:45am and was excited to get started on what I’d heard was such a wonderful course and what I knew would be a long day ahead.
The bus ride was quiet and a non-eventful hour to the race start where I was grateful for my little throw pillow which made it easy and comfortable to relax and get some rest on the way. Once at the start line, we found a somewhat secluded corner with less runners than other areas and I spread out my blanket, curled up with my pillow and started to rest but no sooner did my head hit the pillow than the sound system cranked up, music began to play at what I perceived as an unnecessarily loud level for 5am (should ANY music be loud at 5am?) and the announcer began what for others might be construed as motivating pep talk, but for me was simply an annoyance to my quest for a bit more sleep. We still had at least another hour and half until the race start, so I knew I’d have to suck it up and rest as best I could, curled up next to my husband and occasionally sitting up and trying to choke down another Gatorade he’d brought along for me to drink.
I didn’t get to rest that long since the announcer started herding the last wave of runners up the road about an hour before the race start and since I was simply hoping to finish under the race cut off of six hours, I knew I had to get moving because those were my people. I was grumpy at having to leave the comfy little cove I’d established but was able to say goodbye to my precious little pillow (farewell, faithful friend), though still kept my blanket to find a spot in the back of the herd and once again sit down and relax in a thorny ditch. That part wasn’t too bad, except the race made what I felt was a rookie error in sending well hydrated/hydrating runners up a road and asking them to sit around for an hour with no restroom in sight. The only restrooms were at the original start area so by the time the race started, all of us slow schmucks had to pee so bad that we frantically shuffled our way to the start line, did the pee dance while the announcer gleefully made encouraging chit-chat only prolonging our start, then once told GO, all made the quarter mile sprint to the first port-o-johns in sight and jumped in line. I was only a few minutes into the race and already sidelined on the road waiting in line to pee. Not quite the exciting and happy start I’d imagined, but it was necessary in order to start enjoying the actual race. Several runners decided they could no longer wait in line and simply hurried behind the port-o-potties but I remembered the warning of poison sumac in the area and decided to steer clear as I didn’t need those issues making my day any harder.
The first five miles were pleasantly downhill, and as promised the scenery was spectacular even if was mostly lined with some majestic trees without expansive views. Around mile six, it opens up to your first glimpse of the incredible views that make the Big Sur a bucket list for many. Since my legs were still fairly fresh, I barely noticed the gradual climb between miles six and nine. However, my untrained legs were on to my nonsense by mile eight and while I knew I had plenty of running left in them, I also knew they weren’t going to make this easy and I needed to conserve energy, be very careful for any desire to push and simply enjoy the time with my husband and take some fabulous photos along the way. And we did. My husband carried a water bottle which he would sprint ahead to water stops and refill, which meant I didn’t need to navigate the thirsty herds crowded at the stops and could simply stay to the right and cruise past the masses while he kept me hydrating and cruising along without unnecessary delay. In exchange, I had our ample supply of Honey Stinger gels and ensured that we both consumed a few every hour or so to keep us fueled in addition to hydrated. We must have a done an excellent job with this method since it’s one of the few races where I not only didn’t experience any significant dehydration issues, but actually had to stop to use the restroom later in the race, something I can’t remember ever doing during past marathons.
Around mile nine, there is another nice, gradual downhill to enjoy, but the gray skies that had been present all morning began to seem a bit drearier. My legs were getting increasingly tired and a mist was threatening enough that I was forced to put away my phone so as not to get too much moisture on it which I feared would prevent me from getting photos later on the course. Add that you could see the beginning of the infamous two-mile Hurricane Point climb on the horizon and it suddenly became a mental game with my tired legs and guilt over lack of training for this section. Still, I was enjoying the newness of the course along with the general energy of the group and decided to reach into my gut and take on the challenge with as much positivity as I could muster.
It was around this time I discovered that my new best friend, Vasoline, was present at the beginning of every water stop and since I detected some very early signs of chafing, I made sure to swing by and grab a dollup or two for both my legs and arms, which did a fantastic job of keeping me comfortable both during after the race – many thanks and kudos to Big Sur for this service!
With the first big hill approaching, I told my husband to keep an eye on his watch since I’d forgotten to wear mine altogether and instructed him to make sure that once the hill started, I didn’t walk anymore than two minutes of any stretch. I solidly resolved to put in some strong intervals for the occasion if for no other reason than to remind myself how I tough I could be when my mental game is on point. I definitely needed a mental win going into the halfway mark of the race knowing full well there was still so much work ahead. As it turned out, the beginning of the climb was the only significantly steep part for me and it became evident that I would be able to run a bit more than I’d expected and didn’t need nearly as many walk breaks as I thought. Mental win! However, since it was incredibly windy and cold with a very light rain, I was anxious to push through Hurricane Point, gave up on photos for the time being and simply rushed to get down the hill as fast as I could and get to the iconic bridge I’d seen in all the race photos.
Coming down the hill, there it was! I was so excited I busted the phone back out (now that the rain seemed to vanish), forgot about my tired legs and started strategizing where I would stop for photos and/or fun videos to capture this part of the race. My joy had returned due to the breathtaking beauty, followed by the amazing piano player midcourse which we all stopped to hear and photograph to remember that point in time forever. It seemed magical. I was smiling from ear to ear and not just because I knew the race was now halfway over.
The second half of the race is really just a series of rolling hills that honestly wouldn’t have been much of an issue if I’d bothered to train, but by mile 18 I was having to take some brief walk breaks here and there to let my quads calm down and prepare for the next little jog. I insisted we jog past EVERY photographer no matter how much it hurt and looking through some pretty unflattering race course captures, I’m not sure I succeeding in fooling much of anyone. Nonetheless, I was still smiling and in awe of the scenery. I used every necessary walk break to capture the beauty that surrounded me and even gave my husband a pep talk here and there now that he seemed to be a bit disturbed that he, too, was undertrained, more uncomfortable than he wished to be and was ultimately struggling with the idea of finishing in what would be about two and a half hours past his marathon PR.
We spent the last few miles leapfrogging each other as he would lag behind, catch up, and then I would either lag behind or stop for a pee break where I swore that the port-o-potty seats were unmercifully lower than usual and very taxing on my angry quads. There was at least once that I feared I wouldn’t make it off the seat and would be stuck in the bathroom, unable to move until the crew came to retrieve the port-o-potty off the course. Alas, I made it out and hobbled/jogged my way to the finish.
At mile 25, there is a somewhat deceiving/insulting arch that looks like the end of the race, but it is only announcing one of the most steep hills of the course that can be a bit deflating if you are someone who isn’t trained for the race and just wants to finish without incident. It was steep, but not long, so we decided to walk up that hill since we both knew there was only so much “running” left in our legs and I was damn sure going to be running across that finish line.
We continued to shuffle along until I could finally hear the finish line celebrating and once spotting the actual finishing arc, we started our little jog to the finish. I grabbed my husband’s hand and with a big smile, lifted our arms in victory and headed straight for the snacks where I was disappointed to find that the bags of chips had already been depleted, which was the one snack I had been craving for the last six miles. Still, I settled for a bagel, got my free beer and we declared the day a success.
As I look back, it might have been my slowest marathon to date, but the entire experience with my husband was one to remember. I saw the race as a mini-example of our lives. We started and ended together, struggled a bit along the way, saw drastic changes in weather and scenery but managed to hold each other together and work to achieve a goal that didn’t come easy. I’m not sure I’m up for any more marathons in the future as I keep trying to retire from these endeavors, but I fear that if someone ever asks me to do Big Sur again, I’d have a hard time saying no.