Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Racing the Cliffs of the Big Sur Marathon

Last Sunday, I joined 5,000 runners/walkers for the 22nd running of the Big Sur Marathon in Big Sur, CA. This epic course runs along hilly Hwy 1 up the coastline from the redwoods of Andrew Molera State Park all the way to Carmel, CA. I have always wanted to try this race, so when it landed on the same day as my 38th birthday I signed up right away and hoped that Christi, Sophie, and Rocky the pug would be up for a long weekend. Cool and foggy temperatures made for a great day of racing, and the sun came out for the remainder of the weekend to make for a wonderful b-day retreat. I would highly recommend this race!

We stayed in Carmel, CA, at the Cypress Inn, one of the many cute Carmel hotels that cater to dogs and people alike. In fact, one could argue that owners play second fiddle in this dog-obsessed town where it's hard to find a restaurant that doesn't take pets. Rocky even got his own menu at The Forge, where the chef is happy to prepare a dog-sized portion of entrees such as oven-roasted chicken and filet mignon. Sheesh, who's birthday is this anyway?!? I don't think Rocky's doughnut-shaped tail stopped wagging all weekend.

The family wisely slept in as I crept out at 3am Sunday morning to catch the bus to the start. Nervous first-timers were bright-eyed and ready, eager to get any advice from the more experienced runners that were trying to sleep. It was an international event for sure - I sat with folks from France, Canada, Kansas, and China, all of whom were coming back for their 3rd-5th time. The bus rocked back and forth slowly as we made our way through the dark.

We stepped off the bus to the sound of bagpipes, and found some places to stay warm for the hour before the race. The buses were unloading thousands of runners, walkers, and relay runners. I'm not sure why I had the impression this was a small race - it's huge! The race management was handling it well, and before we knew it we were taking our places in the start corral around 6:30am. The fog was still thick, but it had warmed to 50 degrees. Not bad for running!

(Bagpipes greet us at the start)

Since it was my birthday, I was hoping to have a mellow run down the coast with lots of pictures, a few new friends, and be coherent enough at the end to drink beer (and thus become incoherent...well, it made sense at the time). I figured I would shoot for a 3:30 finish time, which was easy enough to smile, but fast enough that I would still have to climb hard at Hurricane Point, the big climb at mile 11. I taped up my feet, finished up my coconut water, slipped on my Injinji's, and decided that a hat and gloves would suffice to stay warm and dry. When I heard the call for "3:30 runners", I made my way to the start.

(Thousands of runners lining the start)

The race was delayed a few minutes to get us in line, but at 6:55am I heard the collective "bleep" of everyone setting their watches and we all headed up the coast. The first couple of miles were a nice, easy downhill. It was hard to go any faster than the crowd, so I just did my best to relax even as I heard the mile splits of "8:30/mile" that made the devil in me swear I would never line up in the back of a race again. ;-) Relax, devil! No need to go fast on the birthday.

(Blues band rockin' out at mile 3)

The redwoods were beautiful, towering up on either side of us beyond the fog ceiling. At mile 3, we passed one of many bands that came out to support us in the wee hours of the morning (thanks, guys!) and the sun began to peek through in places. The ocean came into full view at one point, and none of us could take our eyes off the waves lit up by the morning sun. This is truly God's country.

Then a 30 mph gust brought the fog bank right into our chests. God's country, indeed! And he/she has one helluva pitching arm. The gusts didn't last long, and calmed to a 5-8 mph headwind that kept the fog in our faces like a cooling fan. Much like the Boston Marathon two weeks ago, the cool weather allowed everyone to pick up the pace.

(Brian Hans and Philip Yim battle the headwind with laughter at mile 5)

Now that the runners were spread out, my legs wanted to go-go-go. Please! It's our birthday too! I picked up the pace to a 7:20 min/mile, racing along with the hawks hunting in the nearby fields. We approached the first relay handoff with great fanfare, and within 100 yards, the ranks were flush with fresh legs that could keep the 7:20 min/mile pace.

(Running along the ocean, photo courtesy of BSIM)

I caught up to a group of New York Harriers who were already looking forward to their "mile 27 aid station at the pub". They were smiling ear-to-ear and having a great time. As we ran together, we came upon Dean Karnazes, who was doing a double (start at 2am and run Big Sur backwards, then run the marathon with us normal people). I didn't recognize Dean at first since he's sportin' thick locks of hair these days and is looking very lean, but sure enough, it was him. I chatted with Dean a bit, and as we were talking, one of the Harriers asked me, "oh my God, you aren't Dean are you? We love that guy." I said "no, but HE is Dean." She recognized him and started jumping up and down, asking if anyone had a camera. Dean said, "that's why you need to meet Scott too - he definitely has a camera." With one quick pic, we captured the energy of the moment, and I raced forward with a smile. I love it when that happens!

(New York Harriers Lucas Hoogduin, Emily Gannett, and
Nargus Harounzadeh join Dean Karnazes for a few miles)

At mile 8, we began rolling up a slight hill into the cloud of fog above us. This seemed to be a telling moment for many runners as some eased up to save their energy while others seemed to go even harder, confident they have trained for the hills. I began thinking that the cloud cover was helpful for psychological purposes - if you can't see the top, you don't know to be worried!

(Heading up into the fog at mile 8)

I ran with a gentleman from France who was training for the Tour de Mont Blanc, and asked him how this course was helping. He said, "because it's fun?". Gotta love the ultrarunners. ;-)

(Here comes the Hurricane...)

At mile 10, the relay runners swapped for fresh legs, and we began the 500' vertical climb up Hurricane Point. This climb doesn't ever get outrageously steep, but the headwind got stronger as we got higher, making it all the more difficult. At the top, it was blowing a solid 15-20 mph. This was a good test of will for all the first-time marathoners, and I was impressed that hardly anyone was slowing to a walk. I leaned forward and threw my arms as much as possible to keep my pace.

(Ryan Adcock and Jessica Self tame Hurricane Point at their first marathon)

As we all exchanged high-fives at the top, I felt a surge of energy and really cranked it up for the downhill. The mile marker folks said "3:23 pace" at mile 12, so I was definitely making up some time. But best of all, it just felt good to run fast! How lucky am I that I can spend my 38th birthday doing this? Thinking about it just made me want to run even faster. The theme from Chariots of Fire was running through my head, and then I realized it wasn't in my head - it was coming from the grand piano on the bluff! Such an odd sight to see Michael Martinez in his tux cranking away on a full-sized grand piano in the middle of nowhere. I just had to get a pic!

(I visit Michael Martinez, adventurer/pianist)

Ocean waves crashing, jagged mountain-scapes, and live music created a Zen state of inspiration that made me want to sprout wings and fly. Isn't running as fast as we can how runners bear witness to the beauty of a new course? Must...go...faster. I pushed my strides a few inches farther, and let my pace creep up to 6:20 min/mile. Aaahhh, me like it!

(Volunteers from a local tribe keeping our spirits high)

As if I needed one last boost to go fast, my camera died with a whimper at mile 20. That's it, birthday boy, nothing to focus on but running. I did the math in my head - I could do 3:10 if I held 6 min/miles for the remainder of the race. My legs and head agreed - a Boston qualifying time is something to be proud of on this course, and a worthy birthday present. I picked up a beat from a Native American drum circle and channeled it through my feet.

I found a lane on the far right, and went hard. I ran past fellow ultra runner Kevin Swisher, who was fresh off his 8:20 finish at the American River 50 and looking good for a sub-3:15 finish here. I was leaning forward, kicking hard, throwing my arms, and taking the aid stations at full speed (quite unsuccessfully, I might add). The predicted finish splits were getting closer..."3:14" at mile 23, "3:13" at 24, wait...oh, crap. That's not fast enough. At mile 25, I did the math to the seconds - I needed a 5:55 min final mile to get 3:10:59.

I don't know about you guys, but I don't run 5:55 min/miles very often, and certainly not at the end of a marathon. But here I was, needing one, and having a slight downhill grade to give me a boost. Who said I can't get faster at age 38?!? Damn it, I was running against Father Time and if it was up to me, he was about to get chumped. So I just closed my eyes and ran, trying to keep my form as much as possible. The cheers of the crowd brought me in, and I looked up at the finish - 3:10:58 - made it by one second! And I felt surprisingly good. Once again, it appears our limits are largely self-imposed.

(Sophie and Rocky, sporting the finisher medal, meet me at the finish with Mom)

The family was waiting for me at the finish (to you family supporters, this means A LOT!), where the sun was beginning to finally burn down the fog. It was such a glorious day, and it was only 10:30am! We still had time to go to the beach, hit the Monterey Aquarium (definitely Sophie's favorite stop), and enjoy dinner at Casanova's. I sure hope the Big Sur Marathon lands on my birthday again next year, for I will certainly be back. My thanks to the great race directors, volunteers, musicians, and fellow runners who helped make this such a great day.

- SD


  1. Congratulations and happy birthday! I love reading your race reports - they just make me smile!

  2. Hi Scott,
    Firstly congratulations! Rina from HornetJuice.com. I can't seem to find the "contact me" link to your blog? Are you up to giving product reviews? If so, I'd like to send you samples of our sports drink Hornet Juice. Please email me at rina(at)hornetjuice(dot)com with the subject like "Hornet Juice Review" and we'll take it from there

  3. Wow, Scott, what a great effort!
    Thanks for the nice race report and congratulations with your 38th birthday.
    Keep outrunning Father Time!

  4. firstly, happy birthday! and secondly what an awesome report, really made me want to attend that race in the future. looked like a lot of fun!

  5. Scott- what kind of camera do you use? I'm looking for something small and lightweight for my runs! Happy birthday again!!

  6. Happy Birthday! Great race report and pics were awesome! I'm training for my 1st marathon now. We are shooting for Austin in 08'. Just finished my 1st 10k trail race. Just letting you know, your blog has really inspired me to run trails. I love your attitude towards running. What did you mean in your write up about taping your feet? Do you do this a certain way, and still wear your Injini socks?

  7. Like Laura, I'm curious about the camera situation as well. I saw from the EXIF data that its a Sony DSC-P200, but I'm more curious about how you carry it. Do you carry it in hand or do you have a pouch on a belt ?

    I've been reading your blog for a while now and I love your reports. I'm still waiting to hear that the Nut-Tsak has been picked up.

  8. Thanks for stopping by, everyone.

    I use a Sony Cybershot DSC-P200, which I believe has been discontinued, unfortunately. I found that it was pretty close to the size of a Gu bottle for the Amphipod fanny pack (their Gu bottles have little cages to hold them in). With a little extra elastic around the cage, I can slip the camera in/out. It is attached horizontally on the front of my belt.

    That being said, it's a still a tad clunky. It rarely falls out, but it does bounce up and down when I go fast. I have assembled the same cage on the shoulder strap of my Camelpak, and it works much better. I use this for the 50-milers and beyond.

    I've also used my wife's Sony T-3, which is shaped a bit more like a credit card. If you experiment with large strips of elastic (you can get this at Michael's or other craft stores, or just cut up the elastic belt of an old fanny pack), you can make a pretty good holster for any small camera.

    Be sure to master the ability to switch between "scenery", "sport", and "normal" focal settings on the fly. Some of the pics above are blurry becuase I forgot to set it to "sport" while running. Darn. ;-)


  9. Ryan -

    Congrats on your trail run and upcoming Austin Marathon! I look forward to hearing how it goes.

    Regarding "taping my feet", this is a common thing for ultrarunners to do. It probably isn't needed for marathons, but I've really gotten used to it. Most of the techniques are covered in the book Fixing Your Feet, which is essential reading for ultras.

    I buy my foot care goodies from ZombieRunner, an online store with everything you need for ultras. I use their large foot care kit with some extra 4" Elastikon tape and do the following:

    1) Rub tincture of benzoin over the base of my foot, from the balls of my feet to my heel. I go up the sides of my feet about 1". Give it a minute or two to dry and get tacky.

    2) Take one big piece of 4" Elastikon and cover that area, including up the back of my heel about 2". Use the line on the tape to go down the middle of your foot, then press out from there to apply with no seams. Trim the excess tape around the balls of my feet so that it fits the form. Pinch the excess tape on the sides of my heel and cut it away. It should be smooth, no seams, no folds.

    3) With the micropore tape, I tape the edges of the Elastikon.

    4) I don't tape my toes, since the Injinji socks work well for keeping my toes blister free. But fyi, a lot of folks wrap each individual toe.

    I've been surprised at how well the tape holds up - even running in the rain doesn't destroy it. I wrap for races, and for long runs that may have lots of water or steep terrain.

    Hope that helps. If it wasn't clear and others want to know, I can take some pics and show you how I do it. I learned most of it from asking other runners, much like you're doing!

    Cheers, SD

    PS - Hornet Juice, bring it on! I will send you an e-mail.

  10. Oh, yeah - thanks for the b-day wishes everyone!

    One good side effect of running is I'm actually looking forward to turning 40 so I can race in the Masters groups. How many hobbies have you looking forward to 40? ;-)


  11. Congratulations on a terrific run. I hope to that marathon someday. Also, congrats on the birthday. It must have been special having your family there waiting for you. Peace,


  12. Thanks for the reply. Funny, that the only time I've used tincture of benzoin is in my dental practice with extraction sites, or denture sores. Don't think I'll mention to my patients, that it works great on feet also. I ordered the book though, and will check it out.

  13. Awesome race report Scott! Great pics.

  14. Great report, Scott. You captured a lot of the things that us "locals" love abot our marathon.

    I'm glad you weren't racing hard, otherwise you would have blown past me in the final miles!

  15. You continue to inspire and amaze! Awesome job with the negative splits. You are unstoppable!
    Happy Birthday!

  16. Those are the best photos!

    I'm interested in how you tape your feet, too.
    50k is what I've been doing. Injinjis + 2nd pair over that have been all I've needed so far. My first 50M is in a few days.
    Not sure I need or want to tape my feet, but I'm training for the Leadville 100 this August, so I guess it would pay to at least check it out.

    Also, I'm 47. I don't want you in my age-group, dude - you're too fast! LOL But soon I'll be half a century old and won't have to worry for several more years.

    Thanks for that report.

  17. Scott - First of all, a happy belated birthday!!Also, congratulations on your finish. We hope that you will come back and run Big Sur again. The BSIM race director sent me your site and told me that I'd find my picture there. What fun!! I was the one covered with feathers and sequins. I have been dancing at the Big Sur Marathon for 18 years. It is great fun but a workout even for those of us who do not run it. You have a fantastic attitude. Hopefully, we'll see you next year!

  18. Scott- Happy Birthday- awesome run! Great idea abou taping feet- I LOVE my Injinjis- and that is a good idea to wear 2 pair. Speaking of age groups- hooray- next year I move up into the 55 and up age group- that will be nice!

  19. Great recap! Running a BQ while stopping to take photos is quite impressive. Your "final mile quest" reminds my of my trail run last weekend, except that it was just a 5-miler and I was striving for a sub-8:00 mile!

    I'm glad to see that Rocky got to be part of the family outing - that says a lot about you and the Big Sur community.

  20. Nice run. Sounds like a great way to spend a birthday. Don't know that I'll ever qualify for Boston. It's fantastic that you did it so soon after having run the historic race itself. Take care.

  21. happy birthday!!! what a great run!

  22. Dean Karnazes is a normal runner. Just because he ran the marathon twice does not make him special. Running a long time does not take talent. Remember, any of you could do what he is doing.

  23. Happy belated birthday!!! What a great report and a great run. I love that you were able to go from planning an "easy" 3:30 (not too many people can call that pace easy!!) to ending up with another BQ on a relatively challenging course. Glad you had such a great birthday weekend. The picture at the end with your little ones is great :)

  24. Thanks again for the b-day wishes, everyone!

    I hope the BQ stuff doesn't sound too braggy - it just so happens that a BQ time is usually just out of/within reach for me. It wasn't that long ago that sub-4 hours was a big deal, so I understand that any arbitrary time goal that is just out of reach is a great motivator. When you have to dig deep in that last mile, you'll find you have more courage than you imagine!

    I have pinged a few ultra runners about taping techniques, and we'll do a write up on it where everyone can share their lessons learned.

    And thank you Samba Dancer for braving the fog for us!


  25. Wow, great race! Nice recap with the pics.

  26. Scott - Why are there never pics of your wife? Does she not come to the races?

  27. Hey Scott,
    Great Job at BSIM! I really enjoyed your Blog on the race. You've shown that there is no finer marathon for a negative split than Big Sur.
    Happy Birthday!
    BSIM Webmaster
    BSIM Grizzled Vet

  28. Great report. Love the pictures as usual. What's great is that I find out about the other folks through your reports. Kevin Swisher and 8:20 at AR50, he's getting faster. Met him at Ohlone 50k last year.

    Great time for you and family. Belated Happy B-day.

  29. Your race reports are so great, I love the pictures and how you manage to meet so many people while running. The pic with Dean and the New Yorkers is brilliant! Also, if there's one thing you NEVER come across as, it's "Braggy." You have the best attitude! Thanks for sharing so much from your experiences, I feel like I was there!

  30. Love reading your blog. Great race report, this is the best one I've read in a while of a race report on any of the blogs I read. Love when pictures are added too and congrats on the BQ time!!! That's awesome to do on your 38th b-day.

  31. Scott,

    Your run must have been a fantastic one!! Congratulations to you.

  32. Belated Happy birthday! Congratulations on your run! Congratulations on a great blog!

    So many greetings for a first time commenter :)

    I love your blog. And i'm jealous at your ability to carry the camera, take great pictures, run a great race, and post amazing reports!

    Hope you dont mind I placed a "My Races" list on my sidebar too. It's a great motivating factor for me to train for the race when I've announced it to the world :)

  33. Go nuts, Jaymie. You are welcome to grab anything from my template to help you get started.

    If you would like to tip your hat to this blog, just put in a link on your sidebar somewhere. Thanks!


  34. Scott -
    Just stumbled across your blog today... the day after I registered for BSIM 2008. Thanks for the great photos and race report!
    Jeanne in Ohio


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