Sunday, April 28, 2019

Big Sur Marathon 2019: some pressure for a first

A marathon, a first? For one thing, I ran Boston 2 weeks ago! And Boston was my 26th marathon, not counting the 163 ultra races since 2006 or cumulated 410 ultra marathons when including the training ones. So what could be new and a first after 20 years of competitive running? Pacing a road marathon!

A few weeks ago, just before Boston, Chris Calzetta called me to see if I'd be open to make up for his partner to pace the 3:10 group at the Big Sur International Marathon. This other runner had injured his foot by doing to much vertical while preparing for UTMB. After the crazy 100K Nationals and Boston double over 2 days, then last week Trail Half Marathon in Napa, it was supposed to be a weekend off, something Agnès was very much looking forward to it, especially before the other crazy 3-peat of May: Miwok 100K next week, then Quicksilver 100K, followed by Ohlone 50K...

And, yet, I did bite into the tempting apple and said yes to Chris. Great opportunity to run Big Sur again, get a redemption after a disastrous asthma occurrence back in 2000 (still managing to walk a lot for a 4:00:25 finish) and, more importantly, help the running community. After all, how hard could it be to run another 3:10 marathon...
By the way, I don't have a great recollection of my 2000 Big Sur Marathon because I wasn't blogging yet, but I went back on the course to run it solo and take many pictures in what I called a marathon-rama (unfortunately, I had put all these pictures into a Picasa album which Google dropped and erased, proving that the Web doesn't remember everything after all in this digital world...).

With this crazy racing schedule, long is gone the time where I was taking a day or two to enjoy the experience including the expo and, in this case, a getaway weekend in such a unique location, Monterey, California. No, we drove just in time for a very short night at Chris', still getting to the Ocean for 15 minutes with Agnès. One of the ugly thing with Big Sur is that you can not drive on Highway 1 to the remote start. The race was starting at 6:45 but we had to hop on a bus at 4 am, yikes! I slept more or less 5 hours and really look still sleepy on that bus (just kidding, I'll blame the flash, it was so so dark outside! ;-).
The bus dropped us at the start at 5:10, we still had 1.5 hours to kill. Well, thankfully, if I dare to say, the lines at the porta-potties were insanely long and slow to move, Yet, there was a good vibe among the 5,000 or so marathon participants in particular thanks to the perfect weather this year: overcast, mild temperature, no rain and, equally important as we found out later, no head wind on Highway 1, phew! The rolling course is challenging enough but it was great to have the weather with us at least!
And the very cool Schnaitter-Winkler couple again, super serious contenders in the running frenzy competition: the three of us ran Boston 2 weeks ago, ran the Napa Valley half last week and now Big Sur!
With our 3:10 signs, we had to make our way through the entire Wave 1, which was defined by anyone aiming at finishing under 4 hours. We ended up 3 rows behind the elite and I managed to get a selfie with the Masters legend of marathon running, Michael Wardian, whom I paced on one of this North Face 50-mile in San Francisco a while ago.
We had a handful of runners who declared their interest to run with us after this 3:10 goal. By the way, that was the fastest goal among the pacing teams, the next one was 3:20, then 3:25, 3:30, and so on until 5 hours I think.
We told them that, given the many down and uphills, we didn't plan on keeping a 7:15 min/mile pace, but for instance start faster in the first 4 downhill miles, to get some slack for the climb to Hurrican Point in particular at mile 12. Chris had also tried a negative split last year but ended up having only one runner with him crossing the line in 3:10 in 2018. By the way, it was Chris' 6th BSIM and he ran a 2:42 on that course in 2015! Oh, and he is also 18 years younger than me... ;-)

Anyway, I took the lead in these first 4 miles and we clocked a few 6:40-6:45 which was actually even less aggressive than in my flight plan. It felt easy and we were definitely not the fastest. Yet, once we were out of the downhills, I felt the pace laborious, even going above 7 minutes, now. At mile 7 and 8, there was a longer uphill and I slid behind the group as I had issues breathing and getting enough oxygen to my quads. Oh my, that didn't look good at all. Thankfully, the next section was a long downhill to Little Sur River Bridge (love the name), before the famous and steepest 2-mile uphill to Hurricane Point.

We were less than 2 minutes ahead of plan and when I admitted to Chris after the bridge that I was falling apart, he said not to worry, he'll wait for me. I replied "oh no, catch up with the 3 guys ahead and get them to the finish!" I slowed down to the 9 minute/mile pace I had in my Excel chart, then more, out of breath, down to a walk in mile 11. At the time I left Chris go ahead, Rob Boyce passed me and started chatting with Chris. I had met Rob at Boston where he ran 3:16. This time he clocked a solid 3:12, great Boston to Big Sur performance!

Before Hurricane Point, when my average pace fell over our 7:15 goal, I stopped on the side to hide the 3:10 sign I was carrying in my light backpack. I actually discovered that I had sweat quite a lot, overheating because of the additional effort without enough oxygen to my muscles.

At the half marathon mark, I stopped to take a short video of the Piano Man. Here is the anecdote about him. In the first 17 years of the Big Sur Marathon, Jonathan Lee was the Grand Piano Man, playing for 3 hours at that exposed spot, above the Ocean. When he passed away, his protégé and prodigy, Michael Martinez took over. Michael was then 15 he is now 29, what a tenure!

At this point, I started walking all the uphills and... I hate walking, I'm so bad at it! I could still jog the downhills but even that was becoming harder with the lung irritation. Not to mention the mental disarray by having all the other pacers pass me: the 3:20 guys were moving very nicely when they passed me around mile 17 I think. The 3:25 pacer had fallen behind. Around mile 20, I was contemplating dropping, wondering if I would be even able to finish. Yet, it looked like I could still break 4 hours if I was at least jogging the down and flat sections, and stopping feeling sorry about myself...

Also, wearing this special Pacing Team t-shirt, the least I could do was also to give encouragements to other runners, those I was passing but also those passing me although they were also struggling in this final 10K stretch. That got me moving, I even gave 2 S!Caps to a runner who was suffering from cramping on the side of the road and distributed a lot of "you can still break 4 hours" messages, although I was even doubting about that for myself! ;-)

Mile 22 has a climb, mile 24, and even the final mile, ouch! I was so out of breath that I had to walk a significant part of the final half mile although it is flat. And I pretended I was still a runner in front of the crowd, finally crossing the finish line in a painful counter-performance of 3:55:50. Well, at least a Personal Best at BSIM...

In my profound disappointment, I was relieved to hear from Agnès that Chris had run a 3:11. He finished with three runners this time. 2 others had actually picked up the pace to finish a few minutes ahead of the goal, while a few others fell off, albeit not as badly as I did.

All results were promptly posted in the afternoon. I will highlight:

  1. Mike Wardian's impressive Masters win and 4th place overall in 3:35:18 (5:55 min/mile)!
  2. Ian Sharman's 13th place overall, after running from Monterey to Big Sur before dawn (double marathon)!
  3. Our M55-59 age group was won by Rami Ghaudour from Los Angeles in 3:05. 2nd place: 3:18, 3rd 3:26, even more regret for falling off the pacing cliff for me...
  4. Gene Dykes, 71, ran a 3:18:07, wow!

Karl was shooting for 3:05 but broke 3 hours with 2:59:34. Through the second half, I was wondering when Simone will pass me, or where I had missed her passing me. She actually finished just behind me in 3:58. And she is on the Miwok 100K entrants list too!!

As for me: 765th overall, 534th in Men, 36th in M55-59, out of 7,795 finishers, dang!

The falling-off-the-pace-cliff chart, when a picture is worth a thousand words...
And a nicer story on's 3D flyover because it doesn't take the pace into consideration! ;-) (click on this link, or the image below to see the animation):

Lungs are still hurting this Sunday evening, making me burst into coughing if I take a full breath. 5 days before Miwok, that will have to do. Last week I also probably made a mistake in doing strength training (for once) on the stationary bike and leg press, both Monday and Tuesday, then run 10 miles on Wednesday with our running club at the office, and 15 miles on Thursday. I'll taper more seriously this week!

It had been a while since I got asthma this way. At MadCity 100K 2 weeks ago I attributed that to the freezing temperatures. This time, I think it was more the stress of making sure I won't miss the pace.

Since Agnès was stuck at the finish, while waiting for me for 45 minutes after Chris' finish, here is a collection of pictures of all the sub-4-hour pacers. Special thanks to The Treadmill in Carmel, which sponsored this Pacing Team program! And, no, it has nothing to see with the French Yellow Vests, duh! ;-)

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