Friday, May 2, 2014

Now A Marathoner

Bixby Bridge, courtesy Big Sur Intl Marathon.
This past Sunday, April 27, 2014, I rose at 3:15 am, drank some water, dressed in the items I'd stacked in the bathroom of my hotel room and walked down a street in Carmel. The first reminder of the day ahead was a large "Road Work Ahead" sign that I passed while congregating with the passengers on 185 other busses that would drive down to the start area for the Big Sur Marathon.  I sat quiet in the cold and dark for another hour or so, summoning up the confidence or the wherewithal to push my body north back up the highway I had just travelled.

I spoke sparingly throughout the drive and the morning. There were more experienced runners who knew the course and the race well. Others had run marathons and even ultra-marathons and Ironman triathlons.  We all knew Big Sur was something special and I was eager to follow this route to where it would take me and happy to cover territory that I had driven a few times before on holidays to be with the spirits of musicians, writers and photographers, alive or gone, who have been touchstones on several levels.

In the nominal or athletic sense, I had set my sights on Big Sur last May, when I completed a half-marathon in a time that indicated that a 4-hour marathon would be within my reach.  Six weeks later, I took a breath and signed on to do the race during that brief window when registrations were open and available.  I believe the registrations were complete in 53 or 58 minutes and I happened to be among them.

Big Sur held an allure long before that time, however.  My wife and I made our first getaway as a couple there and I immediately felt the attachment or connection to the place that I had anticipated. Tromping around from Big Sur to Salinas, Monterey and Carmel continually brought me in contact with creative giants whom I've idolized: Ansel Adams and Edward Weston both lived and photographed there; John Steinbeck looms large in Salinas; Clint Eastwood still continues to be a strong presence not only in the film world but the area as well; Charles Lloyd, probably my favorite jazz saxophonist, resided in Big Sur and has titled songs and albums in tribute to this breathtaking communion of sea, land and sky.

Each time I have come here I have felt a closer connection to each of these artists.  I encountered those who have aspired to carry the torch for those giants, or somehow gained an appreciation for what inspired them in this place.  Having this culmination of sacrifice and commitment occur in their neighbourhood meant so much more to me than it would if I were to run my first marathon anywhere else in the world.  I made a point of adding Charles Lloyd's calm tones to my otherwise frenetic aural adrenaline boost of a playlist. When I visited the race expo to pick up my race number and other items, I paused to caress a bust of John Steinbeck in the hotel lobby.

So, with that sense of the place and its titans in mind, I sat alone as alone as I could while surrounded by 4000 other runners, all hoping that the forecast rains would not start. I tried not to eavesdrop on those around me and probably succeeded. The plans and goals that other people shared for their respective days washed over me and did not leave a trace.  My efforts to retain my confidence while witnessing more expert regimens of gels, coffees, stretching or light jogs, were not as easy.  The stretching and last-minute fueling rituals indicated a degree of knowledge or experience that I did not have and I felt it would put me at a disadvantage in pursuing my goal.  An odd thought emerged, and the key one that shaped my experience - everyone here was running their own race.  Sure, a handful at the front were running to beat one another, but even they were running for themselves and for the experience that they set out to have. There was a hardy cohort of runners who were daring to run Big Sur a scant (and slightly mad) six days after running the Boston Marathon. A camaraderie, spoken by some and silent among others, held everyone together.  The runners that were with me throughout the race were stories that I wanted to hear more of, not simply people I wanted to get ahead of -- well, except for the purported Frenchman who was in leotards, a tricolour rouge, bleu et blanc wig and a pair of crocs.  Yes, crocs.  Him, I had to finish ahead of.

The first three miles were tricky.  I had lined up behind the 4 hour pacer and in the early going found myself struggling to keep up.  I had a hard time finding my stride in the tight scrum of runners packed together at the start and my body had not quite warmed up for the day.  As the miles clicked by and the first few landmarks and milestones disappeared, I was less likely to get boxed in and settled in to a pace and rhythm I was comfortable with.  The doubts that clouded me during that first half-hour cleared and I was amused to inhale the scent of cow manure as I ran by pastures.  Others were stopping to take pictures as they went along, but I did not feel compelled.  I had photographed it myself in the past, poorly by my own account and my cellphone would not rise to the occasion today. I passed the 4-hour pacer and made a point for the rest of the race to keep him at my back.  A terrible thing to say about a volunteer who is probably putting in more work than most of the other volunteers, but I suspect it is regarded as part of the territory.

The main challenge of the run, Hurricane Point, is a 2 mile climb where you gain about 540 feet in elevation before promptly heading downhill and onto Bixby Bridge, a point of reference that I told people has been likely featured in one of every three car commercials - the ads with the sense of the carefree open road with the top down and a blonde's tresses blowing in the wind.  At the bridge, runners have the opportunity to stop for a moment with the pianist who is tinkling away on a grand piano.  The musicians who dot the course leave me wondering about the blisters they accumulate as they play for the crowds that teem by for a few hours.

I was happy that I had finished the first half in under two hours, especially with the toughest, most time- and energy-consuming part of the race behind me.  Still, I only had a 2 1/2 minutes to play with if I was going to run out of gas in the second half of the race.  I did not at any point in the race have concerns about being able to finish it but my goal was to finish in under four hours.  It was a matter of keeping up a pace that would keep the goal in sight.  As 16 miles turned into 17 and I got a sense that the goal was in range as long as I managed 9-minute miles, I felt I hit the proverbial wall then. Apparently it is something that runners hit at 21 miles, but for me there was a stretch where I felt slow and fading.  I had one of the energy gels that I'd pocketed for the race and made a point of rationing for moments like this and managed to hang in there, but the moment's doubt lingered in my mind for a while.  The more upbeat songs in my playlist helped me break out of the phase and even prompted me to sing out a few lines as I reminded myself to keep my hands low and loose and keep my stride long.

Once I got past the 20-mile mark I felt the goal was indeed in reach, even if I found myself putting in those last few miles at a 10 minute pace, as much as I was against settling for that.  An incredible wave of emotion came over me at this point and I nearly burst into tears at the thought of finishing my race.  I made extra effort not to let up the pace as I reminded myself of my son's birth and how my wife did not have (or ask for) the option of resting toward the end of labour.  With Gabriel's birthdate written on the back of my race bib, I refused to settle for just eking out a sub-4 hour finish and did whatever I could to keep my form and stride strong and intact.  There were a few other near bursts of emotion as I neared the end and closed in on the 24-mile mark and climbed the last hill that I managed to recall other racers mentioning a few hours before.  As the buoyant horn lines of the Tokyo Ska Paradise Orchestra pushed me through the second last mile and almost had me bopping along rather than running, I hit the button to replay the track and bop through the last stretch.

As I closed in on the finish line the race clock read 3:58 and my watch 3:52 and I pushed on to make sure that the "gun time" for the race would indeed be under 4 hours.  As I scanned the crowds to the left and saw my wife and son cheering me on that last stretch, I nearly broke down again, but managed to hold it together.  I did not give a triumphant raise of the hands or a fist-pump at the finish, but merely stopped my watch and went over to my family for hugs and to coax my son through the barricade to hang out with me in the finish area while Nadine brought the stroller around to join me.

After running much of the last 7 years in solitude and regretting an 11K run I did in 2006 in 93 minutes, I felt myself an invested member of the running community.  I paused to look around for the other runners I was with: Jack from the UK who had a shirt that indicated he had run 100 marathons; Atim, who greeted me at the start and was hoping to run in just over 4 hours, the others who my eyes dwelled upon for a while because of the apparent obstacles that had or would have to overcome to finish and continue to make running or exercise a part of a new commitment or sacrifice to improve their health. Even the "Frenchman."

I've been asked a few times in the last few days what my next marathon would be.  After driving the Big Sur highway the morning after the race and finding its telltale winds at full force, I joked that it would not be Big Sur.  The race conditions were likely too ideal to try to recapture.  I am not sure what the next one will be but I know that I am dealing with "when" and not "if." I feel and hope that the training miles ahead will be with a great sense of community with those fellow runners and a sense of belonging that I will feel and intend to offer to anyone I cross paths with the next time I am out on the trails.

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