Big Sur Centipede

One of the more unusual moments in Big Sur Marathon history took place in 1991, when a 26-leg centipede ran the race. At least, it started the race with 26 legs – the rest is something of a story.

Centipedes are typically seen at shorter, quirkier races such as San Francisco’s Bay to Breakers, but rarely in marathons, which are difficult enough for one person without your fate hinging on conditions of several other runners.

According to the International Centipede Congress – yes, really – official ‘Pedes must consist of 13 team members, measure at least 60 feet long, and have each runner connected by any non-polyester material. Twinkie feelers are to be worn on the head of each member, and the person in the rear wears a “stinger of appropriate design and toxicity.” All 13 must stay attached throughout the race and finish together.

Official rules get even weirder: A Lenichi Turn - a 360-degree rotation made famous by 18th-century Eastern European centipeders Oscar and Igatoo Lenichi - must be made twice in the race. One occurs at midrace, and another before the finish; neither of these shall interfere with other runners.

The spirit of the Centipede is best captured in the official motto: “Length, Joy, Togetherness”. Trust us, though - 26.2 miles is a very long way for anyone to be together.

The ’91 Pede was the brainchild of Dr. Marc Lieberman, who gathered 13 runners of various abilities. 12 men - Marc, Mike (your Herald columnist), Doug Colton, Wally Kastner, Don King, Dean King, Pete Sullivan, Jim Eagle, Gus Halamandaris, Skip Latham, Jay Cook, and Charlie Engle – were joined by one brave woman, Julie Lyonhardt. They were tied together with a bungee cord around each waist, with a shared (if somewhat ambitious) goal of breaking 3 hours and 30 minutes.

The Pede started far back in the pack, crossing the start line 4 minutes after the gun. Shortly thereafter, disaster struck: as the centipede reeled in some slower runners, a newbie marathoner stopped without warning in the middle of the road to re-tie her sweatshirt directly in front of the Pede. The 13 runners couldn’t stop and became tangled in bungees, with several falling. Pete Sullivan was injured so badly that he couldn’t continue, and the Pede’s numbers were down to 12, making it “officially unofficial”.

Good miles lay ahead, as the Pede gradually picked up momentum, completed a successful Linichi turn on Bixby Bridge, told jokes, sang songs, talked to other runners and had a great time until about mile 21, when attrition began to take its toll.

Wally and Jim both aggravated previous knee injuries and were forced to unhook. Gus, undertrained but overdetermined, was struggling – so badly that the other 9 runners can still show you their bungee cord burn scars from pulling him up the hills of Carmel Highlands that day.

Eventually, the remainder of the Pede completed another Lanichi turn just before the finish line, and completed the run successfully. In the 1991 results sheet you’ll see 10 runners with times of 3:33:44 to 3:33:47 – but with the 4 minute delayed start (before the era of chip timing), the sub 3:30 goal was met.

An epilogue to the story……Wally is now better known as Race Director of the Big Sur Marathon. Charlie became one of the world’s craziest and most renowned ultra-runners. Mike and Julie got married in 1995. Gus and Pete never ran another Big Sur marathon. Marc put together one more centipede in the 1996 race, which remains the last time a centipede competed at Big Sur.


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