Elevation Confusion

“You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.”
- Bob Dylan, “Subterranean Homesick Blues”

Any runner will tell you that it’s incredibly easy to realize when you are running into a headwind, or whether you are headed uphill or downhill. You can also be relatively certain about the distance you’ve traveled, especially if there are mile markers on the road or if you’re wearing a GPS.

But how high are the hills you climbed? And how much climbing have you done over those miles you’ve measured? Answering those questions sometimes requires an advanced degree – and even then, you’re probably not certain of your accuracy.

Case in point: prior to our Big Sur Marathon preview article, we attempted to quantify the differences in climbing between the traditional course that features Hurricane Point and the out-and-back course that includes the rolling hills of Carmel Highlands twice. Researching the subject was one of the most mind-boggling ordeals we’ve experienced lately.

We started with the elevation profile on the race website, which indicated that the total climbing over the new course was 2400 feet. The data came from a Naval Postgraduate School scientist who used a USA Track and Field website mapping tool. He explained to us that the elevation information is stored in US Geological Survey NED database tables, and then extrapolated over a known distance (in this case, 26.2 miles).

Another tech-savvy friend of ours used his Garmin GPS watch for two previous Big Sur Marathons as well as this year’s modified course, and shared with us his GPX files, which plot latitude and longitude points alongside data from the USGS database. His readings showed approximately 1750’ of climbing for the standard course, and 1630’ on the new course. He also explained that handheld devices rely on triangulation of satellites in the “GPS constellation” for accurate position reporting, and visibility of a 4th satellite to add the elevation component – and it was right around here that our heads started to spin.

That’s not all, however … because our friend’s data from his two Big Sur Marathons on the standard route also deviated by about 100’ from each other. We asked him to explain, which opened the floodgates to a whole world of fractals, calibrated barometric variables and fluctuating weather permutations, smoothing algorithms, and numerous other scientific conditions that we couldn’t begin to comprehend. Suffice it to say that any elevation data you see in course profiles is going to have a degree of uncertainty – in some cases, quite a significant amount.

Fortunately, none of this distracted from the task at hand on race day for our tech-savvy friend Brian Rowlett, who ran 2:53:05 for 15th place overall last Sunday, using his Garmin GPS watch as usual. It’s worth noting that his time this year was virtually identical to his personal record from the standard course, even though there was (according to his watch) slightly less climbing this year. External conditions such as wind and air temperature might have made an impact as well, but honestly, who the heck really knows?

All that the two of us learned for sure in this process is that we like to stick to simple considerations like knowing which way the wind is blowing. From now on we’ll just refer to our local marathon as a hilly, challenging course, and leave the elevation data for the scientists to figure out.

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Scenes From A Marathon - 2011

This year’s Big Sur Marathon was somewhat strange – and we’re not talking about the revised course. Rather, it was because neither of us ran in the main event; Mike was busy fulfilling his board member duties, and Donald ran the 5K with his daughter. However, hanging around the expo and marathon village all weekend gave us plenty of interesting stories to share.

JUST RUN 3K: The festivities started on Saturday with a record number of kids and a magnificent day at Lovers Point. The marathon was proud to give $12,000 to local schools based on participation.

Largest Fitness Expo ever: There were 70 exhibitors this year – the most ever – and some very interesting new additions to the bunch. Perhaps the most intriguing was the Regenerect booth, where visitors could win samples of an herbal non-prescription product that is “better than Viagra”. They claimed their product helps male performance on the road as well as the bedroom, but cautioned, “if take it before the race, make sure you in the front instead of behind anyone.” We swear we’re not making this up.

“Just the 9 miler” syndrome: A lot of runners at the expo, when asked what event they were doing the next day, had a tendency to look at the ground with hang dog expression and say, “I’m just doing the 9 miler,” or the 10-miler, or even the 21-mile walk. To all of those participants: there’s no reason to apologize for your event, so be proud of whichever one you’re doing. It sure is better than sitting on the couch.

Toughest Double Award: About 10% of the starters (322), in this year’s marathon, had run the Boston Marathon 13 days before - but we’re awarding our “toughest double” award to local CSUMB Corporate Relations Officer John Houseman, who completed the half ironman Wildflower Triathlon on Saturday, and finished the Big Sur Marathon in 4:00 on Sunday. He looked great after the race as well.

The Out and Back: We spoke to several experienced runners after the race to get their opinion on the differences between the “regular” course and the “out and back” course used this year. Mark Ferlito of Carmel who ran 2:31 at Boston and 2:47 at Big Sur, Ian Hersey of San Francisco who has done 9 Big Surs, and Aracelly Clouse of Santa Cruz who finished 6th woman, all agreed: this year’s course is a minute of two slower for the “good” runner. The uphill start, rather than the downhill first 4 miles in Big Sur, have you mentally struggling to make up time. The beauty and difficulty is about the same. They all enjoyed the “mental diversion” of Point Lobos as it was new scenery near the end of the race.

How do you say chafing in German? We met Mario Peschke, who came from Munich to run the marathon and stay with his friends, local runners Bob and Linda Bebermeyer. Mario ran the race in lederhosen and when we asked him why, he answered in broken English, “Because een Germany it ees not funny to run in lederhosen, but in California eet ees.” Mario ran 3:50 on a day that ended up very very warm.

The Reale/Lohrmann family: 6 months ago Bob Lohrmann passed away at age 45 from cancer. His wife Allison, son Peter, and nephew Robert Reale, from Connecticut were inspired to train for the Big Sur Marathon and ran in Bob’s honor. It was Robert Reale’s first marathon and he ran 4:50. Son Peter ran an inspired 3:10 in his father’s honor.
We were honored to meet and talk to them.

LEI Day: We learned from Melanie Block of Carmel that May 1st is Lei Day in Hawaii. Every year Melanie and 4 friends compete in the relay under a different themed team name. This year it was The Wicked Wahinis in honor of Lei Day. Last year they were Gang Green for environmental reasons.

Best Predictions: We have two friends who proved to be somewhat clairvoyant. Brian Rowlett of Carmel Valley predicted he would break his own Big Sur best of 2:53:14 and ran 2:53:05. Nick Fleming of South Carolina wanted to break 3 hours at both Boston and Big Sur and ran 2:59:30 at Boston and 2:58:57 at Big Sur.

Hospitality: We want to thank Jefferson Seay for being hospitality manager for Big Sur events. It’s a big job to feed 14,000 people. Among some of the items: 350 gallons of coffee, 24 kegs of beer, 100,000 compostable cups, 275 dozen bagels, 75 gallons of hot soup, 9000 boxes of raisins, 1,725 artichokes, 11,000 juice boxes, 100 cases of bananas. You’ve earned a break, Jefferson! But don’t rest too long; it’s almost time to start training for next year’s marathon.

Likewise, to everyone else, we hope to see you all again next year.



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