Scenes From A Marathon: 2007

The 22nd running of the Big Sur Marathon is history, and it was a fantastic morning for everyone involved. We’re leaving it to the legitimate reporters to tell you about the winners, while we’re reporting some “inside stories” from the middle of the pack that otherwise might have fallen through the cracks.

Here are some scenes from the 2007 Big Sur Marathon:

Test that toothpaste!: About 15 minutes before the race start, one of the female elite runners was spotted vigorously brushing her teeth in the bushes on the side of the road – for about 10 minutes. If she had won the race, we would have been suspicious of something besides fluoride on that brush. We’d also be trying the same thing ourselves next year.

We’re all doves: Big Sur has the classiest opening ceremony of any marathon we’ve seen. Between the Marine Corps color guard, the bagpipe player, the benediction, and the National Anthem, it’s a guaranteed goosebump situation.

They also release 26 doves, who take off and circle the canyons of Pfeiffer State Park. When they leave the box, the birds almost seem disoriented, which makes us wonder about what kind of morning they’ve had. Sure, everyone worries about the runners, but those doves also had to get up pretty early, and they too are facing a long journey to get back to their homes.

These are the kind of thoughts runners distract themselves with at the start line, instead of thinking about the 26 miles of road ahead. That is … until the gun goes off.

It’s nice to have big, fast friends: Our friend Andrew McClelland is over 6’ tall, and blazing fast. He decided to take it easy during the first miles of the race, so Donald tucked right behind him and drafted his way to the smoothest, easiest 6-minute miles he’s ever run. Andrew was also wearing an orange shirt – more on this later.

Obvious advice: During mile 5, Donald was in a pack with two other runners – one from Chicago, one from Maine. Neither one had run Big Sur before, which led to this conversation …

Chicago runner: Do either of you guys know about the course?

Maine runner: I think there are some hills. (To Donald) What do you think?

Donald: Um … yeah. It gets harder from here.

Put bib numbers on them!: Near the Point Sur lighthouse, the cattle were restless. More than 100 cattle were running north and south in the large roadside pasture. When Donald came by, the cattle were headed north – at a faster pace than he was. It’s not exactly encouraging to get outrun by a 700-lb heifer.

The new black?: We couldn’t help but notice the large amount of orange clothing this year. The mens’ race shirts are rust orange; the new race uniforms of Monterey’s running club are orange; and we counted a ton of orange jerseys by Asics or Nike. In fact, this was a topic of conversation between us while waiting for the morning bus – Donald hates the new shirts, while Mike likes them. Does the Herald have a fashion columnist? We need a tiebreaking opinion on this one.

Editors are pretty smart: Herald sports editor Dave Kellogg ran last year’s marathon, and did the 10-mile walk this year. When Mike passed him this year, Dave shouted, “The 10-mile is easier!” Observant guy, that Dave.

Convincing evidence that not very many people read our column: On Saturday, we pleaded with spectators to not yell “Almost there!” when runners went by. Sadly, we heard a ton of “Almost there!” cheers throughout the course – even as far south as Point Sur.

On the other hand … : We also suggested that “Nice buns!” would be a great cheer, and each of us heard this several times from race walkers along the course. We may have created a monster with this one.

Take nothing for granted: At about mile 17, Donald ran alongside a friend of his who was working as a bicycle medic. They had the following conversation:

Medic: Are you doing the whole marathon?

Donald: Well … so far I am.

Our favorite signs: At the finish line, Mike’s 3-year-old grandson Jeremy held a sign that said GO on one side, and STOP on the other. He turned it from Go to Stop when Mike crossed the line.

Donald’s father-in-law is a contractor. So when he saw his three kids standing on the Carmel River Bridge holding GO DADDY signs made of reinforced poster board fastened with galvanized nuts, washers, and bolts to a broomstick, with handles made of pipe insulation wrapped in electrical tape, he knew right away who helped the kids make them.

Where’d all these sharks come from?: Last year, Donald ran 3:01 and won an age group award. This year, he ran 2 minutes faster, and finished 7th in the same age group. On Sunday, Mike broke the course record for 60-year-olds, but came in second to his friend Chuck McDonald, another 60-year-old who ran six minutes faster.

The Big Sur Marathon used to be a nice small-pond event for local runners to collect some awards and feel like big fish for a day. Now it’s like there’s a new inlet to our little pond, and a lot of big, fast fish are swimming here from out of town and eating up our shrimp flakes.

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Actually, we don’t have any hard feelings about getting beaten at our favorite race – because it doesn’t detract at all from the enjoyment and satisfaction we find on race day.

Congratulations to everybody who completed the marathon on Sunday. You all have reason to be very proud. Let’s do it again next year!

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The Spectator's Guide to Spectating

As much as we’d like everyone to experience running the Big Sur Marathon, we realize that not everyone is able to line up with us this Sunday. We even understand that some of our readers are (gasp!) not even runners.

But that doesn’t mean you can’t be part of our favorite race. It’s actually quite easy to be a spectator. While the runners invest several months preparing for race day, all you need to do is spend a little time learning how to be a good fan. It only takes a few minutes – by coincidence, about as long as it takes to read this column.

Spectators are an important part of the race, and the things you yell have an impact on runners. Although we might not always respond, we can definitely hear you.

Your comments and encouragement can push us forward with renewed vigor and enthusiasm – that’s the good news. The bad news is, if you say the wrong thing, it may plunge us into the depths of despair. (Not to put any pressure on you or anything.)

Whether you are rooting for one particular runner, or just out watching the masses parade by for entertainment, we want to help you scream the right thing. More importantly, we want to make sure you don’t screw up our race. So we’ve created a spectator’s guide for yelling at runners.

First, understand that positioning is key. Most people like to stand within sight of the finish line to see their runners come in. But with so many people yelling, it’s very hard to hear familiar voices – and honestly, at that point, it doesn’t matter what you yell. By the time we’ve reached the finishing chute, we’re pretty certain that we’re going to finish – even if we have to crawl across the line.

If you want your runner to hear you, and really want to assist them, move on down the course. Shouting some encouragement with about a mile or half-mile to go can be a lifesaver at times.

Also, if you’re one of the volunteers or spectators further down the course (like Carmel Highlands or Palo Colorado) with runners passing you on lonely stretches of road, you have a powerful voice! Utilize your position and make a runner’s day.

(On a similar note … we’re making a plea to the power walkers: We both know that Highway 1 is a beautiful, but often lonely road. There are many miles when you walkers are the only spectators to be found. So please don’t hesitate to shout encouragement to runners going by. And in return, we’ll try not to bump into you on our wobbly legs when passing on the right.)

Here then, are our guidelines for responsible cheering:

COMMENTS TO AVOID:

ALMOST THERE! From a runner’s standpoint, this is as depressing as it is common. Here’s the thing - we know how far there is to go, and we don’t consider ourselves “almost there” until we see the finish line banner.

YOU’RE LOOKING GOOD! You lose all credibility by shouting this – it’s the biggest lie a spectator can utter. We know that we don’t look good. (Unless you happen to find sweaty, salty, smelly, drooling, glassy-eyed runners particularly sexy – in which case, feel free to drop us an e-mail sometime.)

ONLY x MILES LEFT! where x is anything over ¼ mile. There is no such thing as “only” in a marathon when it comes to distances. No matter what the x is, we know those last x miles will probably be painful. Yes, under normal circumstances, 2 miles doesn’t seem very far – but after 24 miles of running, it can seem like an eternity.

Plus, people have difficulty in estimating distances. What you think is 2 miles might actually be 2 ½ or 3. There’s nothing worse than hearing, “Only two miles left!”, running for about five minutes, then hearing someone else shout “Only two miles left!” Runners have nightmares about that sort of thing.

THE BEST THINGS TO YELL:

GO MIKE! GO DONALD! This happens to be our favorite one. A personal touch is always nice – so if you know a runner’s name, shout it out as loud as you can. If you don’t know the name, then shouting a bib number is OK. You can also yell something from their shirt like “GO Monterey!” or “GO Canada!” or “GO Team!” (for Team in Training shirts).

In fact, here’s a fun game you can play: when a big group of runners approaches, just shout common names at random. There must be a Mary or Bill or Jose in there somewhere. You might give someone a nice surprise.

YOU RUNNERS ARE AWESOME! or WE ARE PROUD OF YOU! are great things to yell. They sound nice, and since you’re just saying what you feel, there’s no way for us to cognitively disprove it.

GREAT BUNS! We’ll be honest – this took us by surprise last year when some female walkers shouted it to us as we ran past. But then we spent the whole year remembering it fondly. So obviously this is a pretty cool way to leave a positive impression.

(We know some women will be offended if this is shouted by men - but believe us, the men enjoy this kind of yelling from the women.)

BEER AND SOUP AT THE FINISH! Most runners will warm up to any mention of the comforts awaiting them at the finish line. Just don’t tell them how many miles away it is.

So there you have it – now you can go out and make a difference when watching the Marathon this Sunday. Have fun, do some cheering, and appreciate the huge number of runners going by. They’ve worked hard to earn the honor of you shouting at them.

Good luck to everyone who is racing on Sunday. We’ll see you at the finish line.

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Through the Darkness

If you want to call yourself a marathon runner, one thing is certain: you’re going to suffer for it.

Suffering just comes with the territory. It’s part of the deal that you sign up for when you choose to take on this particular event. And it doesn’t matter how fast you are. To some degree or another, everybody – from the 5-minute milers to the 15-minute milers - goes through an extremely difficult stretch sometime during the marathon. If you are working hard and pushing your limits, you are bound to suffer.

At Big Sur, it’s no surprise that most people run into trouble at the same part of the course – miles 21-23 through Carmel Highlands. It’s a backbreaking stretch of rolling hills that can completely demoralize the best of runners. It’s the place where inner demons emerge, and our bodies cry out against the pain we inflict upon them to continue onward.

We’ve both had stretches through the Highlands when it feels like we can barely keep our legs moving. Sometimes, we give ourselves a visible target to reach before stopping for a walking break: just make it to the next cone, the next telephone pole, the base of the next hill. The marathon becomes a continuous series of 50-yard efforts, and it’s all we can do to move from one to another.

Runners often call it “the wall”, but it’s also like entering a long, dark tunnel, where all of the bright, pleasant reasons you had for doing the marathon are blocked from your mind. Your focus becomes isolated on all of the negative signals your body is sending to the rational side of your brain. The only way through the darkness is to keep moving forward, and the only person who can get you there is you.

Again, this happens to virtually everyone. At Big Sur, the two of us have nearly killed ourselves on that road. We’ve run when our feet became torn up, our calves and quads were on fire, our stomachs were cramping, and it felt like our legs were made of lead. And to various degrees, on race day, three thousand other people were doing the exact same thing. For some runners it’s only a temporary slowdown; for others, it’s a complete collapse.

Yet somehow, we figure out a way to will our bodies onward, and eventually cross the finish line just like we knew we would all along.

Then a curious thing happens: in the aftermath, runners often talk about how disappointed they are to have succumbed to hopelessness and despair during those dark miles, even if they only faltered to a slight degree. But honestly, it’s pointless to question it.


Because the real question should be, why wouldn’t somebody’s thoughts turn a bit negative under these circumstances? We can’t imagine somebody going through similar conditions and being able to completely block out all of those physical alarms.

It’s almost like a chicken-and-egg scenario: do our thoughts turn bad because we are struggling physically, or do we struggle because we lose our psychological focus?

The most sensible answer goes something like this: our physical training before the race prepares our bodies to carry us through the most difficult stretches of a marathon. The better our training is, the more efficiently we’ll get through those dark miles (i.e., without losing too much time). But that doesn’t mean we won’t encounter self-doubt or other mental anguish along the way. That particular obstacle is unavoidable, no matter how well-conditioned someone is.

But here’s the funny part: going through that darkness is the part of the marathon that many runners appreciate the most.

Those of us who are hooked on this sport know that there is nothing more rewarding than working our bodies to the brink of failure and staring down our inner demons, then somehow pulling ourselves through to emerge triumphantly on the other side. Some finishers will tell you they don’t even know how they get through those critical patches, yet they always find a way.

And every time we go through that fire, we gain a self-appreciation and self-respect that is (as MasterCard would say) truly priceless. What’s more, we’re thankful for the hardships that helped us earn such awareness, because it’s not so easy to find in our everyday lives. Many people become addicted to the feeling, and start looking for another race to renew the fight all over again.

Those people are called marathoners.

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Taper Time!

First things first: we want to wish “wind at your back” to all our local friends, including Mike’s son Bryan, who are running the Boston Marathon on Monday. If you want to follow them on the Internet, go to www.bostonmarathon.org. The race starts at 7AM West Coast time.

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Closer to home, only 17 days remain until the Big Sur Marathon, and that means one thing – it’s taper time! If you’re preparing for the race on April 29th, your actions over the next two weeks are crucial to your marathon performance.

Tapering is a period of “active rest” when your body recovers from all those weeks of hard training. It’s a delicate balance between running and resting that brings you to the starting line fresh and ready to go.

The process is tricky. If you run too much, you’ll be overly tired on the starting line. If you rest too much, you won’t feel sharp on race day, and may not run as effectively as possible.

In other words, there are lots of ways to screw things up. So we’ve compiled out best advice for tapering between now and April 29th, to maximize your chance of race day success.

No more long runs: Your final long run should be no less than 14 days before the marathon. If you’ve missed some of your scheduled long runs, it’s too late to make up for it now. Anything above 15 miles now will most likely hurt your performance on race day.

Cut back the mileage: Decrease your total weekly mileage by about 40% in the upcoming week. During race week, reduce your overall mileage by at least 60%. For example, a runner whose weekly training mileage peaked at 60 miles should run 36 miles this week, and no more than 25 next week.

During the last four days before the marathon, don’t do any runs of more than 3 miles. If you’d rather take the last two days completely off, that’s OK too. Don’t worry about mileage during race week – you’ll get your fill on Sunday morning.

Maintain the intensity: Even though you are cutting back on your mileage, it’s important to maintain the intensity of these workouts. Run at close to marathon pace, so your body is accustomed to the effort level you will demand during the race.

Avoid the hills: Don’t run any hills during race week – it helps your legs recover more quickly. It’s just like with the mileage: you’ll get plenty of hills on race day.

Choose your weapons: Decide now what clothes you will wear on race day. Pick comfortable shoes, socks, and running clothes that you’ve already worn on a long training run. DON’T wear anything new on marathon day, unless you want to have a graphic chafing story to tell your family about afterwards.

Gain a few – but not a lot: Since you are running less, pay close attention to your diet now. It’s normal to gain a few pounds as your muscles stockpile the glycogen they will need during the race. But gaining more than five pounds will make you feel heavy and sluggish. Eat a bit less than usual, with well-balanced meals, and don’t start any fad diets this week.

Remember, carbo loading doesn’t mean overloading. The night before the race, just eat a regular sized meal with a higher percentage of carbohydrates than usual. On race morning, eat a small portion of a bagel, banana, or oatmeal to top off your tank – but don’t load your stomach to the brim. 26 miles is a long way to run with a stomach cramp.

Wake up early: If you’re not accustomed to running in the morning, try a couple of morning runs, so your body gets a taste of exercising at that time of day. Marathon start time is 6:45 AM – and if you’ve never run at that hour, it can be a bit of a shock. You might as well get it over with prior to race morning.

Eliminate extra activities: If you do any cross training activities, don’t do them during race week. Don’t do any unusual activities that might cause muscle soreness afterwards. This isn’t the time to catch up on housework or repair projects. If you have extra time on your hands, just get more rest or take a nap instead.

(We know this rule isn’t popular with spouses, but we’ll take the heat on this one. Tell your spouse we said so, and he or she can write us an angry e-mail instead of venting at you. After the race, however, you’re on your own.)

Cut your toe nails: Do it 5 or 6 days before the race. Trust us on this one.

Be paranoid: It’s fairly common for runners to get minor illnesses while tapering, so stay away from sick people. Wash your hands after touching anybody. Just make like Howard Hughes for a couple of weeks, and you’ll be assured of staying healthy.

Visualize success: The mental side of marathon running is extremely important. Beginning today, picture yourself running relaxed and strong, and having a great race. Repeat this scenario each day. Be confident in your ability to succeed!

Enjoy yourself: Yes, you should take the precautions above – but don’t get so overwhelmed with worry that you forget to enjoy the experience. Think of how far you’ve come in your training, and resolve to have a great time on race day.

And then all that’s left is to go out and do it!

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