The alarm was set for 2:45 am, but I was already awake. Full of excitement and nerves, I couldn’t keep my eyes closed a minute longer. So I popped out of bed and began getting myself ready for the day, the one I had been anticipating for months. It was Sunday, April 26th and I was about to run my first marathon, The Big Sur International Marathon. Twenty-six point two miles of mountainous, jaw dropping beauty from Big Sur to Carmel, California.
After brushing my teeth I sipped a small cup of coffee and began putting on the gear I had carefully laid out the night before. The butterflies that usually begin to flutter in my tummy the morning of a race were surprisingly absent. I was feeling confident. The training runs I had done through frigid winter temperatures and snow had me feeling more ready for a race than ever before. At 3:30, ready to go, my husband and I made our way from our hotel room to Monterey Peninsula College where we would soon board a school bus that would take us on the one hour ride down the California coast from Carmel to the starting line in Big Sur. Still three hours until race time we quietly ate our pre-race meal, the same one I eat every time. A whole wheat bagel with peanut butter and a banana.
Driving the hilly 26.2 miles we were about to run was downright intimidating. Luckily it was still very dark so we couldn’t fully see what we were about to subject ourselves to. But we had been here before just last year when I ran 17 miles in the relay. Even in the dark there was no mistaking Hurricane Point, all two miles and 550 feet of it. As we went down, down, down, all I could think of was the tough run it would be going up, up, up, later that morning.
We reached the starting line at Big Sur Station at about 5:00 am where we sat on the asphalt parking lot there in the darkness, the cold mountain air surrounding us. About 4,500 runners chatted, some old friends, some new acquaintances. All excited and nervous to start. At about 6:15 the sky began to lighten and the activity began to build. Runners started removing their warm outer clothes, putting on their race numbers and water belts, preparing for the trek back to Carmel. With temperatures projected to reach 65 and clear skies it would be perfect race weather… except for the 20 mph winds. After dropping our bags in a U-Haul truck we made our way to the starting line.
Highway 1 which runs along the coast is closed down for the race so we lined up in the middle of the two lane highway by projected finish time. A drone with a camera hovered above the starting line as we sang the National Anthem. Finally after months of training, the moment was here. I was about to run my first marathon; 26.2 miles! The excitement and energy was palpable. I was READY! And then, we were off!
The race started on a nice downhill slope. It was difficult to control the excitement, and my legs. The first five miles were some of my favorite. Through the redwood forests of the Big Sur California wilderness, past quaint lodges and cottages we ran, a dozen or so spectators were scattered every mile or two. I started out thinking I wouldn’t turn on my music until mile ten when I would ascend the dreaded Hurricane Point, but I found myself longing for my favorite songs to drown out the clip-clopping of my feet and the voices in my head reminding me that I still had 25, 24, 23 miles to go. Some initial pain in my feet from my bunions haunted me, but eventually went away and never returned. The gradual rolling hills here were pleasant. At just 7:00 am or so, the sun had not yet risen high enough to warm us up. The air was cold, but everything about those first miles was perfect. I was running 8:45 minute miles and while nervous about ALL the miles to come, I was feeling great.
OUT OF THE WOODS
As the road began to emerge from the forest and into a clearing, we got our first glimpse of the ocean. Cows at pasture seemed to watch us go by as if they were spectators. I do believe those are the luckiest cows on the planet, grazing in fields overlooking the Pacific Ocean. The sun felt wonderful, but it’s warmth was negated by the strong, cold headwind. It was enough to nearly blow my hat off several times and even toss me around on the road a bit. I quickly realized how much extra energy it was taking me to climb the gradual but significant hill through miles seven and eight. My pace slowed to nine, then nearly ten minute miles. Feeling cold, but strong I tried not to focus too much on my time, reminding myself to enjoy the unbelievably beautiful course. I stopped for a second and took a couple of photos as we approached the lighthouse. Somewhere on this stretch the four hour pace group passed me. Four hours was my unrealistic, pie-in-the-sky, keep-to-myself goal. They were going much faster than I felt I should go up the hill, so I let them pass. During mile nine we reached the top of that long gradual climb and there we saw it, our first view of Hurricane Point in the distance.
Making the descent into the valley all the way down to sea level, I was mentally preparing for the enormous challenge ahead. The Taiko drums at the bottom of the mountain were beating like our hearts were about to. They were like a drum announcing the battle ahead. At mile 10 we began the ascent. My breathing and my heart rate which until now was steady and calm, began to build. Up, up, up we started. All 550 feet of it. At first it felt beastly, but as I continued to move upward it felt manageable. I refused to walk up this mountain. I had done it last year (this was where I started) and I WOULD do it again. I wanted to know I conquered Hurricane Point. One foot in front of the other, slowly, slowly, slowly I went, like The Little Blue Engine chugging up the mountain. “I think I can. I think I can. I think I can,” I thought. The further I went, the stronger and more capable I felt. I could have sworn I was near the top, but then I passed the sign reading 11 miles, which meant I was only half way up. Still another mile to go. You see, this mountain is a tease. You get to the top of one curve to find only another and another and yet another. I knew I was going slow and my pace was no longer 10 minutes per mile. I tried not to look at my watch to check. To make things worse, the wind was relentless. I turned and said to the girl next to me, “As if this weren’t hard enough!” We chuckled, but she was too winded to say anything back. My legs were tired and I considered whether I should walk a bit to conserve energy, but I refused. Finally, I reached it, the TOP of Hurricane Point. I paused for a moment to relish my success, soak in the insane view and document it with a photo. That’s when the 4:15 pace group passed me. “Damn!” I said, and began running down the other side of the mountain.
Here I realized just how much of a beating that climb had given my legs. My hip flexors were already beginning to ache a bit, my calves, quads and hamstrings tight with fatigue. While I had been looking forward to getting to the picturesque Bixby Bridge to enjoy it’s beauty and celebrate making it halfway, I began to feel worried about the second half of the race. At 13.1 miles, the bridge lies exactly halfway between the start and the finish. After having run five half marathons and some 15, 17 and 20 mile training runs, I know how I usually feel at 13.1 miles, usually still pretty darn strong. Sure, my legs are commonly a little tired, but not like this. It was here that I realized that I hadn’t worked enough steep hills into my long training runs. I had run hills, but not 550 foot, two mile climbs on my longest runs. The hills of the first half and the downright brutal incline of Hurricane Point had taken too much out of my legs.
I tried to ignore the worrysome, negative thoughts and replace them with positive ones. I reminded myself of how much I had just accomplished. I had finished HALF of my first marathon! I ran up a really freaking tall mountain and stood at the top looking out over the steep cliffs falling into the Pacific Ocean! 13.1 Miles my watched blinked. 2:07. My fastest half marathon time is 1:49 and my slowest 1:53. Never had I taken more than two hours to run a half marathon. But I knew that was ok because I also had never run such a tough course. I crossed the bridge to the sound of the piano music echoing against the mountains then stopped for a photo by the infamous baby grand and continued on.
After climbing another large hill I descended the other side, my legs feeling slow. As backwards as it sounds, going down the hills at this point was actually more difficult than going up them. My hip flexors and knees were sore. I was working toward mile 15 as that was the end of the third five mile chunk I had broken the race into in my head; 5, 10, 15… check! Around mile 16 or so my eyes felt sort of cloudy. The strong winds had been blowing dirt into my eyes for over two hours now. I had a big chunk of something in there so I began rubbing my eyes to try to clear them. My left contact got stuck somewhere in my eye. The more I rubbed, the more worried I became that it would fall out into the dirt. So I moved to the side of the road where I stood for what seemed like several minutes trying to get my contact back in place without the heavy winds blowing it into the gravel below. Slowly I fished it out, carefully placed it back in my eye and carried on thinking about how interesting it would have been to run the second half of the race unable to see. I am as blind as a bat without my contacts.
The next several miles are sort of a big blur. While I enjoyed the beauty of the Pacific Ocean to my left and the oceanside cliffs to my right, I can’t say I enjoyed much else about miles 17 to 24. I used a quick porta-potty stop as a chance to rest my legs for a minute. Although hovering over the seat was hardly restful at all and getting sweaty shorts back on is time consuming, isn’t ladies? (One of the few times I wish I were a man.)
My legs were starting to feel really tired and sore, my quads, hamstrings, calves and hip flexors were almost entirely cramped up. Surprisingly, my feet which I had been so troubled by all throughout my training were fine. The toe separators I was wearing for my bunion pain were more helpful than they had been during my training runs. The blisters on both little toes were painful, but tolerable. What I had not anticipated was what the steep mountains and hills would do to the muscles in my legs.
Somewhere around mile 20 my watch battery died. Ironic? Perhaps. I was honestly a little relieved because at this point I was so far off my unrealistic goal time that I wanted to ignore my time altogether. I knew I was moving much slower than normal up the remaining hills. I wanted to focus on the beauty of the course and think only of what I love about running instead of how fast or slow I was going.
On these rolling hills my mind was still strong, but my legs began to fail. My thoughts were still positive, although I’m certain I did tell myself one time that I didn’t plan to run 26.2 miles again. But I had plenty of energy and my breathing felt great. My legs were simply starting to shut down, telling me they couldn’t take any more. My hip flexors literally couldn’t pick up my legs any more. My strategy became to walk through the water stops where they also offered local produce; orange slices, banana chunks and strawberries, a welcome treat. At a couple of them I even stopped for a few minutes to stretch hoping to get more miles out of my legs. Turned out that walking didn’t feel any easier than running. And starting up again after stopping was harder than it was to just keep running. So I kept running, very slowly.
THE MEN FROM THE BOYS
There is no doubt that miles 20 to 26 of a marathon are what separate the men from the boys, as they say. After getting through miles 20 to 22 I was feeling a little more confident. Four more miles seemed feasible. It would just take me longer than I had hoped. With no idea what my running time was, my only goal was to get to the finish line. Just then I was greeted by another steep incline at mile 22 and then another at 23. My strategy now became to walk up the hills and run down them. Feeling defeated walking up them, I was yelling at myself mentally, “You didn’t come here to walk. You came here to run!” So I started running.
At mile 24 I decided no matter what pain I was experiencing, I would NOT stop running until I reached the finish line. So I ran. Down the hill of mile 24, then up the final brutal hill in mile 25. I was uncomfortable, but my mind was so focused on meeting my goal that somehow my brain finally succeeded at telling my legs to shut up and stop complaining. I knew I was running slow, but the others around me were walking, so I felt fast. My speed didn’t matter at that point. I was running. I was about to achieve the goal I had worked so hard to reach.
I KEPT RUNNING
In those last miles I thought about the training runs I had done through snow and rain and through single digit temperatures. I thought about the double digit miles I ran on the treadmill when the temps outside were below zero. This is what I had trained for. Right now. So I kept running. Slower than a snail, but I was running.
I thought about my three precious children from whom I had been away during long weekend training runs and the sacrifices I had made to put in the time and effort to get to this point. I thought of all the hours I had spent running while the kids were at school instead of doing housework and tending to my responsibilities. I thought of how my in-laws so graciously agreed to babysit our kids so we could come fulfill a dream. I couldn’t give up now. I kept running. I thought of the expense of our trip from Ohio to California. I didn’t want to leave here feeling disappointed that I didn’t accomplish my goal. So I kept running.
In those last two miles I thought about the 16 million children in our own country who go hungry and the generous friends and family, new and old, who donated to my personal No Kid Hungry campaign and the nearly 5,000 meals that we helped provide children in need. To honor those donors and those children, I kept running.
Soon, finally, I could see it! Spectators were gathered near the finish line. There were few compared to the number of people at the finish line in New York City where we watched my husband run, but many compared to the rest of this course. I turned off my music and listened to the cheers of the crowd. With each step I was closer to my goal. The pain in my legs was still there, but it had been silenced by the cheers of success screaming from my soul. I could see the clock; “4:41? Really? Wow. Shoot.” I thought. Tears of joy filled my eyes and as if in slow motion, I crossed the finish line lifting my arms to the sky. I’m not sure I can really put the emotions I experienced next into words. Pure satisfaction, pride, love, happiness, total euphoria.
WHAT I LEARNED
After celebrating my finish with my husband who had reached the finish line before me, I slowly munched up my post-race food and we headed back to our hotel for a quick shower. Before setting out on the drive back down to Big Sur where we planned to spend a couple of days of R&R we limped into a cute restaurant in Carmel where we refueled with a delicious late lunch and a beer. I was still sort of in disbelief about what I had just accomplished. The reality hadn’t quite sunk in yet. It all went so fast, well sort of. In many ways it had been the longest morning of my life, but in others it seemed like a big blur. I was very proud of finishing and still in awe of the extraordinary scenery that surrounded me all 26.2 miles. It was an amazingly rewarding and truly awesome experience.
As Andy and I talked through all the ups and downs of our race, I began to fall into my normal, “How did I do?” mode. Since I began running, I’ve discovered that I am more competitive than I realized. My time, 4:41, was far from the 4 hour goal time I had projected in my head. I see now that the only problem with that goal time is that it was totally unrealistic for me for the Big Sur Marathon, full of steep hills and 20 mph headwinds. It was totally unrealistic for my first marathon. I guess I originally figured that if I could run half marathons in 1:50, I could certainly do a full in 4 hours. After all, I had run my 20 mile training run in nearly 3 hours. I realize now that I didn’t account for what those steep hills would do to my legs and how that would affect that last miles of my race. After encouragement from my husband and my running mentors, I began to put things into perspective a little better, but I’d be lying if I told you I had completely let it go.
It wasn’t until I returned home and went for my first post-race run that I had an ah-ha moment. As I ran down my favorite trail through the woods, I began to remember why I started running in the first place. I started thinking about all the many reasons I run and what I love so much about it that made me want to run 26.2 whole miles. I shared those reasons in a blog post called 10 Reasons Why I Run earlier in the year. It includes things like, “FREEDOM, THE GREAT OUTDOORS, I FEEL ALIVE, SELF-DOUBT TO SELF-LOVE.”
NONE of the reasons I run have anything to do with SPEED.
I run because I love THE GREAT OUTDOORS. There is nothing quite like the feeling of my own feet pounding the pavement, moving me through this great planet; over rivers, through forests, past farms, up mountains and down valleys. From one village to the next. I take it all in; the cold air on my skin, the wind in my face, the trickling water, and the singing of birds. Getting outside for a run feeds my soul! At the Big Sur International Marathon, my soul got a huge helping of some of God’s most incredible creations. The breathtaking sites and sounds I witnessed on that long and curvy road from Big Sur to Carmel will keep my soul satiated for a long time to come.
I run because it makes me FEEL ALIVE! During a long run, I am working and feeling with every inch of my body. Throughout my first marathon I asked my body for everything it could give. I ran with blisters on my feet, sweat-drenched clothes, chafed skin, and cramps in every muscle of my legs. Inside I was experiencing an emotional roller coaster ranging from nervousness to complete euphoria. And I persevered through all of it. I’m not sure what else in life can make you feel more alive than that.
I run because there is no better feeling than running through self-doubt, achieving a goal and realizing that you are capable of so much more than you thought possible. It transcends every part of your life. On April 26th, I began my first 26.2 mile race with plenty of self-doubt. Before then I had only run 20 miles and I felt completely spent. I entered my first marathon with fear of the unknown. A big part of me wondered if I could really do it. I realize now it doesn’t matter how long it took me, I FINISHED what I thought was impossible and I turned SELF-DOUBT INTO SELF-LOVE.
On April 26th, 2015, I was lucky enough to spend an entire four hours and forty one minutes on what is perhaps the most beautiful stretch of road on the planet. I was fortunate enough to spend all that time doing something I love in a place that I love. In a pre-race training run I learned that “FASTER IS NOT ALWAYS BETTER.” I was reminded of that lesson running this race. In life, we have to remind ourselves now and then to slow down, to stop and smell the roses. I’ve discovered that we should sometimes do the same when we’re running. The way I look at it now, in the Big Sur International Marathon, perhaps the people who finish LAST are actually the winners, because they get to enjoy all of this vast, divine beauty longer than anyone else.