Running Stories

Big Sur Sunrises

My running partner Kevin Krause had done the Big Sur Marathon in California several years earlier. I had listened to him talk positively about the experience for more than 5 years. Checking the 2010 calendar, I found it was only a month after the March New Jersey event. I thought, “Why waste the preparation?” Big Sur was all hills along the California coast so there would be no PR, just a good day on a great course. I convinced my wife Mary to go along (actually purchased a plane ticket and THEN told her!). I thought we could roll my birthday, a marathon and mini-vacation into one trip since I was “in shape anyway”.

When people hear I am running marathons just 30 days apart, with raised eyebrows, they ask 2 questions: 1 – “Why?” and 2 – “How?”. My answer is always, “Do the math.” A typical marathon plan takes 12 weeks. After you run one, you have a great base. It either goes away or in my case gets put to use, body willing. With a couple days rest after New Jersey, long runs didn’t need to exceed 15 miles. Instead of 400+ miles over 12 weeks, I put in close to 100 miles in a quick 4 week period and felt prepared for Highway 1 along the California coastline. Plus, I saved my body 300 miles of marathon preparation!
Mary trumped my plane ticket surprise with a decision to bring the kids along. Zach, our oldest, wasn’t able to make it due to college and work. So, we got a ticket for Andrew and Collette. I decided we would keep our convertible rental car and the 4 of us would enjoy the California sun even if we would have to squeeze together a bit.

We had a 6 a.m. flight out of the Detroit Metro airport on Thursday, April 22. I ended up with an important meeting for work on the 21st and did not get home until almost 9 p.m. This meant we had to drive through the night to get to the airport for the early flight. We left the house after 11 p.m. and arrived at the airport at 3:30 a.m. TSA wasn’t even open! At 4:30 a.m., they opened for business and we boarded our first flight about 90 minutes later as the Michigan sun was coming up.

After a few naps sitting up on the plane and a short layover in Houston, we arrived in San Jose around 11 a.m. PST. The convertible ended up to be a Mustang. Luckily, we got everyone’s luggage in! We then drove the 70 miles south to our hotel in Carmel.

Our hotel was the Carmel River Inn located less than a half mile from the marathon finish line. While the location was perfect, the quality of the room was a bit questionable. The price was too expensive to call it cheap so we decided to go with “quaint”. It was quiet, peaceful and relaxing so I decided to not worry about the bill and just enjoy the open half door and fresh air.

After a short nap, we decided to take the Mustang to Big Sur and check out the race course along the way. The views were as advertised, rolling surface and massive views of the ocean trimmed with rocks and lush green coastal pastures. Kevin had told me about the hills but driving them for the first time, I thought, “Holy crap, he wasn’t kidding.” Mary even started laughing and wondering if I could handle this course. I reassured her but inside the butterflies began to circle.

We also spent a little time on Thursday at a beach close to the hotel. It was named Mortuary Beach because the surf coming in was treacherous: if you went out too far or were brave enough to try scuba diving in the area. The undertow had claimed more than a few lives over the years. Two days out from the toughest marathon course I had run thus far, I was hoping the term “mortuary” was NOT a sign of things to come.

Friday, we decided to take the kids to the Monterey Aquarium. It is a massive complex full of sea otters, jellyfish, penguins, sea turtles, sea horses and a wide variety of fish. It was full of other tourists and cameras were going off all around us. We got our fair share of pictures as well.

Afterwards, we had lunch and did some browsing in the shops on Cannery Row near the aquarium. We then drove over to the Monterey Bay marina area and took a whale watching boat out to sea. Mary and I just smiled when the guide said it would be a “3 hour tour”. We had grown up with Gilligan’s Island after school in the 70s. We knew what a 3 hour tour could turn into! Nevertheless, we took our seasickness pills and boarded the boat along with 30 some other passengers.

As we slowly made our way out of the harbor, we passed a breaker wall covered with harbor seals. There must have been several hundred! There wasn’t much movement, simply piles of seals lying around and napping in the afternoon sun. We were off on the longest ocean voyage of our lives (also the only ocean voyage of our lives thus far!). The only send off we had was from slumbering seals that could have cared less.

The temps were in the 60s as the boat rolled up and down some good swells. We passed a few pods of dolphins but were hopeful for something bigger. We found it outside the harbor about 10 miles into the Pacific. The guide on the loud speaker instructed us to look out on the horizon and watch for the spray. I thought to myself, “Spray? What in the heck does she mean?” I wanted to see a whale not some spray of water. Then it dawned on me, the spray was from 2 whales breathing at the surface. The boat made a beeline for the spot which was also being watched by another tour boat.

The whales turned out to be humpbacks. They would surface for a time then go under for about 10 minutes. You never knew quite where they would come back up but they always came back up. We got relatively close and it was quite special to see the big beasts break the surface and dive down with the classic shot of the tale or “fluke” being the last thing you saw as they went below for more food. At one point, they surfaced right next to the boat with one even passing underneath. We watched and followed the pair for an hour before heading back to shore. Unlike the journey of the U.S.S. Minnow, we had a great day at sea.

I had 2 goals on Saturday, getting my race number and staying off my feet. We made it over to the expo before lunch. It was larger than most but nothing special. Shoes, shirts, races and stuff to eat, been there and done that many times now. They did have a good lineup of speakers but my crew had other plans so I passed them up. Race bib in hand, goal number one was accomplished early in the day.

Mary and the kids wanted to check out the local mall so we headed over there. I was going to take in a movie while they shopped but nothing appealed to me so I took the “get a book and wait on the nearest bench” method of shopping. I did go into the Apple Store to watch Andrew agonize over whether or not to spend some of his earnings on Apple’s new Ipad device. When he finally decided to make the purchase, he was let down to find out they didn’t have the one he wanted in stock.

Next, we went back to the hotel for some lounging and napping. After the naps were done, we took the “17 mile drive”. It is a toll road that winds past public beaches and expensive ocean view homes of Pebble Beach. We were able to put the top down as the speed limit was lower and the sun was shining. We stopped at a couple of the beaches. Mary and the kids took some short hikes while I either searched for a rest room (one problem with being well hydrated the day before a marathon) or sat in the sun watching the surf roll in. It was a very relaxing and enjoyable few hours to close out a good day around Monterey and Carmel.

Big Sur is a point-to-point marathon. This means it is necessary to take a bus out to the start line in the tiny community of Big Sur. Because Highway 1 is bordered by the ocean to the west and rugged terrain to the east, there is no alternate route to get the buses back without using the course. This means they must be off the course prior to the 7:00 a.m. start of the race to free up a lane for emergency vehicles. SO, this means all participants need to get up well before the sun to catch one of the many buses. My bus left the Carmel Plaza at 3:45 a.m.!

Sitting in the dark on the bus, an older gentleman stepped on board, looked at me and said, “Aren’t you from Traverse City?” There I was almost 2,000 miles from home, in the dark and on one of hundreds of buses and somebody recognizes me. He was Frank Butz, a retiree, who lives on Old Mission Peninsula near Traverse City. He had heard my January speech at the TC Track Club event where I explained the Marathon4Kids project. He was running his first marathon in almost 20 years. We visited about running, family and the day ahead as the bus twisted and turned its way to Big Sur.

My new friend and I found a spot to sit in the waiting area which was partially lit but fully stocked with coffee, hot chocolate, bagels, bananas and the ever important starting line porta-potties. It was a comfortable 47 degrees as we watched the sunrise over the surrounding mountains and trees. The national anthem was worthy of the all American surroundings – crisp, clear and inspiring.

While standing in the starting line, I spotted a young lady with the 4:30 pace banner. This was a goal I had not shared with anyone. I thought it was doable but after driving over the hills I began to concede that maybe 5 hours was more in my range. Regardless, I was going to keep this lady in range as long as possible and see where I was at near the end.

Frank was going to try to run/walk the course and invited me to join him. I started out with him for the first couple miles but when I began to see the 4:30 group slipping out ahead. I gave a quick apology , wished him well and forged ahead. I was actually feeling good as the sunshine was warming up the day and the field of runners was stretching out ahead. Having found myself in a slow moving bathroom line at the start that I had to abandon, I made a quick pit stop at a tree (yes, runners were streaming past but “when in Rome”) and began to slowly reel in the 4:30 group.

Mile 1 and 2 with Frank were 10:19 and 10:04 respectively. Running past cows and pastures, I posted a 9:12 and a 10:03 to catch the 4:30 group near the end of mile 4. The 4:30 gal was yapping a stream of encouragement and Big Sur background trivia while I made my way past. Still feeling good, I decided to try to build up some distance between me and the group.
Now out of the trees and hugging the coastline, I encountered a trio of red shirted ladies from the Phoenix area. They were all running their first marathon. I quickly learned they had a coach who helped them mimic the course during their training.

They were also using Ipods with music specifically timed to correspond with difficult parts of the course. I was carrying a camera and phone and randomly taking pictures of the amazing course. If I heard someone say “wow” once, I heard it a thousand times. I spent a good part of the day running with or leap frogging this group. It is always good to have someone to visit with but at Big Sur it was particularly helpful to have an extra set of hands to snap your picture at one of the many “Kodak moments” on the course.

I averaged well under 10 minutes per mile for the next 5 miles while the hills kept rolling up and down the coast. Near the end of this 5 mile stretch, I could begin to hear the drums. Looking at the coast to my left and the mountains to my right, I was waiting for a native attack until they came into view. There must have been 20 large kettle drums near the 10 mile mark which was at the bottom of the day’s longest climb, a 2-mile 550-foot vertical ascent to the course peak appropriately named “Hurri-pain Point”. Mile 10 ended at 9:26. I would not do a mile that fast the rest of the way.

I simply looked out to the ocean and began the upward chug. An 11:10 mile 11 would be the slowest of the day. It leveled out a bit before heading up again. Mile 12 was a very respectable 10:42. The mile 13 time of 10:06 included a photo with Michael Martinez, who was playing a grand piano in the middle of Bixby Bridge, the traditional halfway point in the race. There was actually a line to get your picture taken but I nudged into a corner handed by camera off to the nearest person and moved on.

With the 4:30 group nowhere within ear shot, I maintained a steady but leisurely pace. It was simply a beautiful day and I was enjoying every minute. I was taking HEED from a bottle on my belt every mile supplemented with an occasional glass of water from the well-manned water stations plus a packet of hammer gel every 5 miles. Steady on the uphill and controlled on the downhill, miles began to click by, 10:16, 10:19, 9:47, 9:34 and 10:21. I had 18 miles behind me and was in the area where the wall and crash usually occurred. Happily, it never did arrive.

My attitude at the start was to not worry about the time and let the race be whatever it ended up to be. Certainly the preparation and hydration were helpful but I attribute 90% of my Big Sur experience to the positive “enjoy the day” attitude. My unofficial motto is best summed up as “run for the beer tent, not the medical tent”.

The hills just kept coming but all one had to do was look left at the massive ocean and rolling surf and the chore of grinding up another hill was seemingly reduced to child’s play. Another 4 miles went by at 10:23, 10:35, 10:27 and 10:42. At water stops, I was now hearing the chatty little 4:30 lady sneaking up from behind. She and her group of loyal followers would be within ear shot, walk through the water stop behind me while I chugged on drinking from my bottle. I was impressed with the ability of the lady to still be talking so much. She was literally in my ear near the end of mile 22. She was urging her group on like a great coach and leader should. This was as close to a wall as I got. I decided I could either give in while listening to her fade away out front or I could suck it up (just a little mind you) and put her out of ear shot.

I decided to try and put her behind me. I put together a very tightly spaced final 4 miles. Mile 23 was 10:09. Mile 24 was 10:07 (I never heard the 4:30 lady again). Mile 25 was the last hill and a 10:07. Mile 26 was yet another 10:07. I coasted past Mary and the kids over the final, all-important .2 miles with plenty of energy to give them a large “woof-woof”. It was the most family I had ever had at the finish of a marathon and it brought a lump to my throat.

I officially finished in 4:27:57. I was ecstatic. I was spent but felt great. More than 5,600 people had registered for the Big Sur marathon but only 3,448 actually finished. I was 1,526th overall, slightly above the average. In men of all ages, I placed 1,030 of 1946. In my 45-49 age group, it was a near middle of the pack 153 of 287. When I looked back at all the stops, hills and Kodak moments, I was still very pleased with the results. “Run for the beer tent” – the attitude had produced good results. The finisher medal conveyed a true sense of the laid back California “hippie” reputation. It was some sort of pottery material on a leather neck chain, definitely unique.

I quickly found Mary and the kids. I grabbed something to eat and drink, then waddled back to the hotel. After making sure I was safely into the shower, the family headed out for another shopping trip. They went over to Carmel’s downtown shopping district to window shop the Rolex watches and other high end merchandise. There was no debating what to buy. It was simply a trip into a different venue to people watch and check out high end shops.

After knocking off the sweat, I went over to the pool to soak my tired legs. Our hotel was so close to the finish, I could hear the announcer calling off names as the later arrivals streamed across the line. I also made some calls to Zach and running pals, Jim, Dean and Kevin. Back in the room, I posted an update to the Marathon4Kids followers on Facebook and Twitter.

When the family returned a few hours later, we went over to Point Lobos State Park. It was only a couple miles from the finish line and when I ran by earlier a park ranger was shouting to the runners to come back to see the baby harbor seals. So, that is exactly what we did. There were several mothers and babies lying on the beach soaking in the sun. We also got to watch a couple pairs swim in and come on shore. Surprisingly, I felt good enough to take a hike along the trails overlooking the coastal areas of the park. Here we found more beautiful views of crashing surf and open ocean water. It was a fitting end to an awesome day.

We passed a couple on the hike. The man was wearing a Big Sur marathon shirt that matched mine so we naturally struck up a conversation about the day. They were from California and thanked us for making the trip from Michigan while commenting that we were in one of their favorite California spots. I gave one last look around, nodded and silently hoped we too would make it back in the future.

Monday morning was another early, early morning. We dropped the rental car at 4:30 a.m. and boarded the plane about an hour later. I think everyone was able to sleep well on the flight to Houston. We arrived in Detroit around 5 p.m., stopped for dinner on the way north and arrived home around 10 p.m. It was almost 120 hours since we had left home. We had packed as much as possible into an all-too- quick 5 day vacation.

A few days later, I was surprised yet again when a copy of the Monterey County Herald arrived at the house. It contained all the marathon coverage including the individual finishing times. Frank from Traverse City, whom I had met on the early morning bus, had finished in just over 5 hours. There were 12,000 participants in the marathon, relay, 21-miler, 10.6-miler, 9-miler and 5K. It took 2,800 volunteers to serve 85,000 cups of Gatorade on the route and after the race, 25 kegs of beer, 2400 bagels, 72 gallons of soup and 100 cases of bananas. I wondered what engineer determined that 365 porta-potties were enough for 12,000 participants! Oh well, the tree I needed had worked just fine!

We had watched the sun rise 3 of the 5 days of the Big Sur vacation, slept when we were tired, cruised with the top down along the coast, chugged out to sea into a cool ocean breeze with our hoods up, shared a marathon as a family and arrived home with a different attitude about California. The marathon had been the “excuse” to take a family vacation but we ended up relaxing and simply enjoying the time away together. In the future, another vacation may be an “excuse” to run a marathon.