Strawberry Runners Forever

It’s springtime in Monterey County, which means one thing for local runners: an abundance of fresh strawberries.

OK, that’s not entirely true – it also means warmer temperatures, extended daylight hours, and making final preparations for the Big Sur Marathon in April. But runners also have plenty of reasons to celebrate the local strawberry bounty.

Strawberries are one of most prominent crops of the Salinas Valley from April through September. They’re also a nutritional superfood for athletes, with many restorative benefits that help us with our training. And if that wasn’t enough, they play a starring role in the most beautiful marathon in North America.

Nutritional Benefits

Each serving of our local strawberries provides a full day’s supply of Vitamin C, and powerful antioxidant protection to help the body heal and repair. Strawberries are a rich source of phenols that help strengthen cell structures in the body and prevent cellular damage in all of the body's organ systems. Distance running typically causes chronic, microscopic damage to muscles, ligaments, and other soft tissue structures in the body; the antioxidants found in strawberries help to counteract this.

The phenol content of strawberries has also been shown to decrease the risk of heart disease and certain types of cancer – but the most remarkable medicinal quality is their role as an anti-inflammatory agent.

Healing properties of strawberries include the ability to lessen activity of an enzyme called cyclo-oxygenase. This enzyme is usually referred to as COX, and is responsible for inflammation and pain, especially in people who suffer from arthritis. Strawberry phenols naturally inhibit production of this enzyme.

If this sounds familiar, it should: most COX inhibitors are better known by their pharmaceutical name – non-steroidal anti-imflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) – or by brand names such as Advil or Motrin. So the next time you’re feeling sore after a hard workout, a tall, cold strawberry smoothie may be the perfect concoction to decrease soreness and help your muscles recover quickly. (Not to mention, they taste fantastic.)

Marathon Refreshment

It’s a fitting combination then for Monterey County’s finest crop to team up with its finest road race – the Big Sur Marathon, on the last Sunday of April. The wonderful strawberries make a most welcome appearance at the most difficult point of the race.

Experienced Big Sur runners grow to dread one portion of the Marathon above all others: miles 21-24 through Carmel Highlands, where the road rises and falls mercilessly, and when runners are in their most fragile mental and physical state. It’s the stretch of road where enjoyable or successful marathons can rapidly unravel.

There is, however, one outpost of comfort and relief during this daunting stretch of the race: the strawberry station at mile 23. A group of Highlands residents stand alongside race volunteers to hand out fresh strawberries to weary runners struggling towards the finish line.

Runners who know of the strawberry station speak of it in reverential tones, like travelers journeying towards a holy shrine. Those who don’t know the station is coming feel their hearts leap with joy and hope when they come across it. Afterwards many runners report that the strawberries were one of the most pleasant experiences of race day.

Of course, some marathoners feel too hurried to stop for the berries. They may be wary of eating something unfamiliar, or paranoid about losing precious seconds by slowing down to indulge. Or maybe they’re fearful that if they stopped, they might enjoy the moment so much that they’d decide to kick their feet up and stay a while.

Those runners are missing something truly special. Almost everyone who has stopped at the strawberry station considers it one of the highlights of his or her race. The thought of fresh berries in the distance helps keep them moving through the hardest miles of the race, and once they recharge their batteries with nature’s superfruit, they have more energy to conquer the final 5K.

Thankfully, runners who skip the aid station won’t completely miss out on the strawberry bounty at Big Sur – because one of the things awaiting them at the buffet table in the finisher’s tent is an enormous stack of strawberry crates. So in addition to bagels and water and energy bars, all runners leave the course with a full basket of Monterey County strawberries.

The strawberries are usually the first items we consume, and they never fail to be absolutely delicious. Maybe it’s the circumstances of complete exhaustion or post-race satisfaction, but those post-race strawberries are always among the best things we’ve ever tasted.

So this spring - whether you’re racing a marathon or not - be sure to incorporate this powerful little berry into your running routine. We’re certain that you’ll be happy with the results.

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