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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World's Hardest Run

There is a lot of debate in the running community about the world’s hardest running course – but today, we’re ready to settle the issue conclusively.

The hilly, treacherous Big Sur Marathon, with its 560-foot climb at Hurricane Point, is considered one of the hardest marathons in North America – but it doesn’t even make the “A” list of toughest running events.

Three local runners - Ingrid Aquino, Ben Balester, and Brad Van Dalen - are in Hawaii today preparing for the “Run to the Sun”: a 36-mile race climbing 10,000 feet up the Haleakala volcano on Maui. However, their efforts barely register on the degree of difficulty scale.

One of the oldest and most challenging races in the United States is the 7.1-mile Dipsea trail race in Marin County, traveling up the outskirts of Mount Tamalpias and down to the sea at Stinson Beach. But runners always clamor for more, so naturally there became a Double Dipsea (going out and back on the original course), followed by a Quad Dipsea, and finally something called the “Dipsea ‘Til You Drop” which leaves just one runner standing at the end. Now we’re starting to get real difficulty.

Donald is training to run the Western States Endurance Run in June, a brutal 100-mile trail run from Squaw Valley to Auburn, which features over 23,000’ of elevation change. And while that sounds difficult, among ultra runners, Western States is considered a relatively “easy” 100-miler.

There’s a marathon at Mount Everest and one in Antarctica. There’s a 135-mile race through Death Valley, and a multi-day race where runners cross the Sahara Desert. It seems there’s no limit to the insane conditions runners will subject themselves to.

Dean Karnazes from San Francisco has run over 300 miles continuously, just to say he could do it. He has also run 50 marathons in 50 states in 50 straight days. Several runners (including Dean) have made like Forrest Gump and run across the United States, averaging 50 or 60 miles a day.

So with that partial list of nominees, our submission for the hardest running course on Earth will undoubtedly surprise you. The hardest running course known to man could be (drumroll, please) THE FOUR YEAR OLD RUN.

This is the name Mike uses for a typical run with his two 4-year-old grandsons. Jeremy lives in Oakland, and Devon in Sacramento – and although the houses are different, the running events are remarkably similar.

It always starts the same way: “Come on Grandpa, let’s go for a run!” And the little ones immediately take off running from the living room as fast as their little legs can go. Mike gives chase, and the race of survival is on.

“You have to jump over Elmo!”, they say, as well as about 10 other toys randomly assorted around the carpet. Then it’s a few steps on and over the ottoman and into the dining room.

“You have to spin three times!”, is usually the next comment. With spinning out of the way they crawl under the dining room table and chairs, waiting impatiently for Mike’s bigger body to squeeze underneath the chairs. Then for good measure, it’s around the table 5 times, until Mike is wishing he was running up Hurricane Point or across the Sahara Desert instead. “Come on Grandpa!”

Exiting the dining room, a complicating factor is added. The family dog is now yapping joyously and getting tangled in Mike’s feet as he continues trying to catch the 4-year-olds.

Then it’s on to the kitchen part of the run. “You have to slide like this”, they say, with hands out for balance, and socks sliding on the kitchen floor. Hips become sore from banging on the cabinets as Mike slides back and forth across the kitchen several times.

Then it’s back to the living room and over the toys to complete the circuit. But wait! There’s more torture coming. “You have to do this Grandpa.” Mike watches incredulously as they jump as high as they can in the air, throw both feet straight out in front of them, and land flat on their little butts.

“I can’t do THAT”, he pleads.

“You HAVE to do that,” they repeat. So Mike does that as best he can without causing severe butt and spinal damage.

“No, you didn’t do it right.”

Mike tries to do THAT several more times until he’s given a reluctant passing mark, given more out of the kids’ boredom than respecting the quality of the jump. As he lies in pain on the floor, he knows from experience what is invariably coming next.

“AGAIN!” The dreaded “again” means that another circuit is starting with another furious sprint and jump over Elmo. The “agains” can be infinite and don’t stop until Mike is mercifully saved by his laughing wife, saying “Let Grandpa rest. He seems really tired.”

Mike rests on the floor exhausted, realizing that it’s a blessing that the Running Life keeps him in shape to do the 4-Year-Old Run. It may be one of the most difficult events around, but he wouldn’t have it any other way.

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