Big Sur International Marathon 11-miler: Ode to Running

Sprinting to the finish line!

Count them: five Big Sur International Marathon running events during the past almost twenty years: I walked the twenty-one miler in the early 2000s, ran the 10.6-miler and the nine-miler courses (no longer events), and participated in the 11-miler twice, most recently on Sunday April 28, 2019. Each event was unique, whether because of my particular training cycle, the weather (bright and sunny, foggy and windy, or partly cloudy), the distance, the crowd, my mental state.

Running on the ragged edge of the world has a draw to me, the one day each year to experience — on foot — the raw, undulating, craggy, mysterious beauty of this part of California’s coast, without normal vehicular traffic. Only us runners and walkers (and thousands of volunteers) listening to the roar of the waves, catching the singsong of the birds, in awe of the sighting of whales, rounding a corner to the resounding classical music of a grand piano set high above the ocean, counting the innumerable hills, swooping down the descents and agonizing over yet another hill.

This year’s 11-miler didn’t portend to even happen: ruptured thumb tendon in January with significant surgery in February interrupted my training cycle. I cancelled a half marathon only two weeks before as I hadn’t had enough time to train. I was not rested; my insomnia has come back with a vengeance. I prefer to run in sunshine and warmth; I watched the weather reports daily hoping the projected high winds would subside on race day morning.

Despite or maybe because of my fears, I decided that this 11-miler would not be a race (it is a timed event, but not competitive) but an opportunity to visit the rugged California coast, take my time to enjoy the views, tackle the hills with ease, not pushing too hard up the hills but also being looser on the downhills, e.g., not braking as much with my quads, running “naked” (i.e., I wore a watch but I didn’t look at the pacing or overall time), and, because this time the run had a staggered start, with walkers (supposedly) on the far left of the road and runners on the right, not worrying about the bunched crowd of 1600 participants at the start.

I have been running for forty years, before it was popular or even accepted for women to run longer distances. I ran on forest trails during my early running years in northern California. I’ve met incredible people and made life-long friends as a result of running. I ran short, very-early-in-the-morning runs on New York City streets in the mid-1980s. I ran while pregnant. I took breaks from running instead watching my sons’ joy of running in cross-country and later, marathons. I suffered long-term chronic hamstring injuries from running, which caused years of not-running. I still usually have aches and various pains while running, keeping physical therapists, massage therapists, and acupuncturists on call. Yet for all this I cannot keep running off the mind.

So, thinking about Sunday’s Big Sur International Marathon 11-miler event, the words synchronization and joy come to mind. I hadn’t slept Friday night so was anxious on Saturday that I wouldn’t sleep the night before the race. But I did! I don’t usually “carb load,” but I had a baked potato with lots of butter at dinner Saturday night (it’s been years since I’ve eaten any type of potato). I have a tough time knowing exactly what to wear, especially with temperatures in high forties or low fifties and cloudy, maybe some wind. But I felt comfortable in my running capri-length tights, long-sleeved shirt with vest, and light-weight gloves.

The 11-miler has an ugly start, an immediate long hill. I was rested and fueled, at the back of the runners (our bus was one of the last to arrive, the line to the port-a-potties was long, but with the staggered start, it didn’t really matter). I took my time without struggling for air (it helps, I admit, to live at 5,500’ elevation and run at sea level). I ran the downhills more easily than ever, not flying, certainly, but not braking either. I decided not to bring my cell phone to take pictures, instead keeping the images of the cliffs, the breaking waves, the coves, the meadows in my mind’s eye. I smiled at the mile-marker signs and funny sayings. In fact, the miles melted away, surprising myself when I passed another one. My hamstrings were not barking, my quads were not tightening, my calves were calm. In practice, I often stop every few miles to stretch and do a few squats. Sunday morning, I kept running, only stopping for a few seconds at two of the water stops.

I waved to the bands and high-fived the aid station volunteers. I slowly passed other runners and walkers (many who’d started twenty minutes before me), not talking, not really thinking, just running. The hills were tough: twelve of them (I’ve counted them in the past), always around another bend or across one of the bridges spanning the cliffs over streams hundreds of feet below. The clouds didn’t give way to sunshine, but I felt comfortable, not cold, not warm, just right.

And then, the HOKA ONE ONE sign signaling one hill to go, then downhill to the finish. I wasn’t tired, my legs didn’t hurt, my breathing was steady, perhaps the effects of not pushing myself (could I have run faster?), my mind told me I could do this one last hill, don’t stop, keep going. I continued to pass some people and then, with the finish line in sight, I sprinted! Yes, my pace increased to 7:37 min/ml for the last spurt, faster by a minute than my overall pace for the entire eleven miles!

I love running, each day is different. That Sunday everything worked how it is supposed to work. The euphoria and joy lasted for hours. Difficult to explain given the uncertain lead-up to the event, but maybe my mental state did play a huge part. Regardless, I will continue to do this thing that I love until I cannot do it. I hope to be like the woman who at eighty-nine years old crossed that same finish line! I hope to run with my husband, my sons, my grandchildren, and my friends, and to keep running as a solitary elixir to my daily life.