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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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!
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. ;-)
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.
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!
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!
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.
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.