May 7, 2015

Race Report: Big Sur International Marathon

April 26th, I ran and completed my first marathon:  the 30th Big Sur International Marathon.  This specific race meant a lot to me.  Four years ago, when I was pretty much on my death bed because of a grossly untreated and misdiagnosed thyroid condition, an advertisement for Big Sur in Runner's World Magazine encouraged me to find a way to get back into running just so I could run this marathon.  April 26th, I achieved this goal.  First of all, wow!  It was much much MUCH tougher than I anticipated with the mountains I had to run up (the course description called them hills, but I'm telling you they were mountains), and the wind--which is saying a lot since I come from one of the windiest cities in the states.  But all that was balanced by the sheer beauty of the course!  The seaside cliffs, the ocean views to the west, the mountains looming to the East, Bixby Bridge, marine wildlife, lush forests, and even all the bands along the route.  Now, let me start at the beginning before I get too ahead of myself...
I don't usually fly, since it can get pricey when you travel with a child, but since Grandpa wanted some quality granddaughter time, I had the weekend to myself.  Although I missed her dearly, it was nice to not have to drive the 22 hours to get to Monterrey, California.  Traveling still wasn't that easy though.  I get very airsick, so I usually like to break my air travel into the shortest flights possible  This time however, I had a 1-hour flight from Amarillo to Dallas, then a 5.5 hour flight from Dallas to San Jose (it had a stop in Austin).  Ouch that last leg hurt!  Once I landed in San Jose, I still had just over an hour's traveling left.  So I rented a car and drove to Monterrey, with a quick lunch stop on the way at Togo's.  When I travel, I like to eat at places that aren't in the Panhandle of Texas.

Found my name on the marathon banner
After a quick check-in at the hotel, and a quick unpacking, I headed off to the Big Sur race expo at the Portola Hotel.  First stop was the Runner's World Challenge private room to pick up my race packet, bib, and shirt.  Although not the biggest, this expo was by far the most well organized, not to mention stocked with the best gear, that I've visited!  I'm just glad I reigned myself in and kept my purchases within my budget:  a new pair of 2XU compression socks (great for recovery! I wore them after the race and the next day traveling), a Big Sur finisher shirt, a Big Sur Marathon everyday t-shirt, and more Gu's.  I also picked up race brochures a plenty at their respective booths.  I swear, every time I attend a good race and its expo, I end up wishing I lived in the area just so I can run all the races that they advertise!  I might now have my eyes set on Machu Picchu, Antarctica, Marine Corps, Disney, and Dublin.  Guess I need to start saving.

After an hour at the expo, then a couple hours walking around Fisherman's Wharf just outside the hotel, I enjoyed a dinner of leftover Togo's (since I ordered way too big of a sandwich), then I took a long nap so I would be ready to pick up my bestie from the bus stop at midnight.  One of the best things about this racecation was that my best friend Jenna came out as well.  She is the best friend ever--she flew all the way from Tampa to hang out and support me at my first marathon!  It was so good to see her again!  But we were pretty tired, so we passed out shortly after getting back to the hotel.
Jenna and I working the Expo

 The next day, Jenna and I headed back to Portola Hotel for a short and easy shakeout run with the editors of Runner's World.  I had a blast running with these awesome people, but nothing can top running with Jenna on the beach.  Coming from West Texas, which has no mountains, hills, trees, or any type of body of water, this run was spectacular.  Jenna and I stopped a couple times to take some fun shots by the water.  A lot of jumping shots.  Running on sand was a new experience for me, but I was pretty proud of myself for keeping the amount of sand and water in my shoes to a minimum.  Those of you who know me, or have been following this blog, know that I put a lot of thought into my running outfits.  I feel that if I look cute, then I run at my best.  Even with this shakeout run, I wore my 261 Fearless Skirt Sports outfit.  With Fearless scrawled across my chest and on the side of my leg, I felt a surge of courage for the physical task that was waiting for me tomorrow.

Runners ready for the shakeout run
Playing around on the beach feeling #261fearless

#runningbuddies #besties #REALwomenmove
After quick showers, we were back at the expo.  I think I've convinced Jenna to want to do some of those aforementioned races with me, hooray!  Throughout race weekend were scheduled a variety of presentations on everything from a course description to a strategy session to what to expect when running.  Jenna and I attended two of these, which were led by the Runner's World editors.  I'm glad I went, especially to the Big Sur strategy session.  The guidance these runners gave were lifesavers when I ran the course.  During these presentations, I had the pleasure of meeting Bart Yasso from Runner's, and Budd Coates also from Runner's World and former 2:13-marathoner.  You know you're a run-geek when you insist on getting your picture taken with incredible runners such as these.

Me and Bart Yasso
Me and Budd Coates
  For dinner, we decided to eat (surprise surprise) some pasta, so we chose a cute little Italian restaurant right across from the Portola hotel.  While we were waiting for our food, we flipped through the Big Sur Marathon Magazine, when we found my picture!  The editors had chosen me as one of the runners featured in the program!

I made the BSIM Magazine!

Since both Jenna and I were still on Central/East coast time, it was easy for us to fall asleep early so we could make our 3:30am wake-up.  Yes, it was an early morning race day since the buses left at 4:15am, but I made it!  Even considering the time I took to make the all-important decision of what to wear.  I chose my Skirt Sports Jette skirt with capris since it is both super cute, and it has huge pockets to stash a phone for pictures and Gu's.  My top was a very bright colored shirt by Saucony, that also had a pocket in the back for some cash and another Gu.

Another perk with the Runner's World Challenge:  first-class buses with heat, cushioned seats, and even TV.  Us runners were a bit too excited to watch any TV though, as we were trying our best to make out the race course in the early morning darkness.  That bus took just under an hour to get us to the starting area--it was a bit intimidating!  I'm glad that the Runner's World group warned us ahead of time about the trip or it would've psyched me out.  Chatting with my fellow challengers made the ride go by a bit faster as well, and I got to meet some really great people.

Beautiful starting area in the forests of the mountains.  And I love my skirt!
Just as light started peaking out from behind the mountains, we arrived at the Big Sur Marathon starting area.  There were literally thousands and thousands of runners!  Waves of them!  It was chilly still as the sun hadn't yet made its way over the mountains, about 40 degrees or so.  Yet again, the Runner's Word Challenge paid for itself with a private fenced-in area complete with heated tents, a full breakfast spread, fast and efficient bag check, and private porta-potties.  After eating breakfast round 2, I might have made four nervous trips to the porta-johns...You can never be too ready!  And soon enough, the announcers were calling for wave 3 (expected times of 4:30 and higher, aka the party wave) to line up.  I checked my gear and ran toward the starting line to line up with the 5:30 pace group.

Now before I go any further, you should know that the four weeks prior to the race, all sorts of issues arose that negatively affected my training.  I injured my IT band and had to completely rest for a week.  Then when I felt recovered enough to ease back into training, I got the stomach flu which plagued me for the next two weeks.  Upon finally getting over that, I got a cold!  When I should've been running my peak mileage (18-20 milers), I was resting in bed.  I was planning on doing hill repeats at that point as well, and yet again I was sick or injured.  In fact, my longest successful run was 16 flat miles.  I went into this race still not at 100%, and very nervous that I wouldn't finish within the six hour course time limit.  I figured that if I could stick with the 5:30 pace group at least for the first half of the race, I could finish in time.

The 5:30 pace group was full of diverse and fun people!  We were from so many different places around the nation, and we all had an encouraging word to say to each other.  The pace leader Lisa was very motivating as she led us through an alternation of 5 minutes running and one minute walking.  The groups was so wonderful in fact, that at each of the famous Big Sur Marathon Mile Markers, one of them would stop and take a picture of me by the sign.  I really wasn't expecting that to happen; I had planned on just taking pictures of the signs by themselves.  This little act of kindness meant so much to me.  And really, those signs were both hilarious and motivational.  I'll include a few pictures of my favorite ones in this post, and you can view all of them along with a description of each one at this link.  Every two miles or so were live bands playing along the course.  I didn't need my head phones or music at all!

A sampling of the famous Big Sur Marathon mile markers

To quickly interlude, my race fueling strategy consisted of consuming a full Gu or Huma Chia Gel every four miles and taking a couple gulps of the Gatorade at every aid station.  I had five energy gels stashed on my person and I carried a hand-held water bottle that I was able to refill at the Camelbak refill stations.  Additionally, the course offered two Gu stops, and all the aid stations after mile 14 or so handed out orange slices and bananas.  I took advantage of all of  these.  I got so hungry near the end!  Anyway, this fueling strategy worked wonderfully.  I'm going to use it on even my shorter runs from now on.

Now back to the race.  The first five miles of this marathon were blissful.  Coming from West Texas, we don't have much green vegetation or very many trees, and these miles were forested.  The trees were so green and so tall and so magnificent!  And the smell of the lush forest was serene.  The fact that these first five miles were slightly downhill also helped with the blissfulness.  The Runner's World staff advised that we run this course as a negative split (I'm just going to confess right now that I did not achieve this) and to let everyone pass you the first few miles.  They said to not push at all on the downhill, but to let the decline naturally pull you.  "Conserve your energy the first 15 miles, then pick up the pace on the rolling hills" they said.  So what did I do?  Of course I pushed it a bit at first because it did feel so easy.  "I feel so good now, how can this feeling not last?" I thought foolishly to myself.  The 5:30 pace groups was also completing their run minutes at about an 11:30 mile pace so that only fueled my mistaken self confidence in my running abilities.  (Is this enough foreshadowing of the final miles of my marathon?)

BSIM course profile
As we were warned in the presentations, the wind really picks up at mile five when the course turns to run right alongside the cliffs of the coast.  I think it was blowing at a minimum of 20 mph with some serious gusts of 40-50 mph (those got worse later on in the course).  Winds aside, the course was amazing.  From mile five to about mile 24 is proof that the term "ragged edge of the western world" is undeniably accurate.  The coastline is ragged; the cliffs are ragged; heck the mountains to the slight east are ragged!  And all this culminated in awe-inspiring beauty.  Once the course turned out to the coast, I was overwhelmed by this gorgeous scenery.  I almost stopped to try and take it all in.  The views from this marathon are rare as the scenic Highway 1 is closed to vehicle traffic from Big Sur to Monterrey.  Sure, on a normal day you can pull off at one of the viewing areas, but to have all of Highway 1 as your viewing area is another experience entirely.  I felt so blessed to be able to have this opportunity...even if it did mean I had to push through 26.2 miles of wind and mountains (no, I don't consider those inclines just hills).

But then, the incline got steeper--much steeper--as we started the run up Hurricane Point (the highest and steepest climb of the course) from mile 10 to mile 12.  I made the brilliant idea to use the porta-potties at the base of the climb, and then to try and catch up to the pace group the whole incline.  It was so steep and the wind picked up so much that I couldn't even keep up a slow jog.  I ended up doing this awkward walk as I ascended Hurricane Point.  My pace group was so far ahead, I lost sight of them.  I'm just thankful for the drum line was beating away at their drums in a steady rhythm that encouraged me to walk to the beat.  At the very top of Hurricane Point, the wind was so powerful it was hard to breath.  As I tried running, again, the wind kept pushing my left leg into my right one and I nearly tripped a half dozen times.  I was exhausted from the climb!  But then, thank goodness, the course took a sharp turn and all that wind lessened dramatically.  Oh, how wonderful that felt!  I conquered Hurricane Point!  And now I had a nice steady downhill to run, a great recovery for my tired legs and lungs.  Soon enough, I caught up to my pace group again.  And we were coming up on the 13.1 mile halfway point.

Running across Bixby Bridge

Right in the middle of the Big Sur Marathon course stands the famous Bixby Bridge.  This was my favorite part of the whole race (except for the finish line of course).  The views were magnificent, awesome, and breathtaking.  It was the prettiest place I've ever seen in person, absolutely incredible!  Once I crossed the bridge, I was treated to the enchanting music of Michael Martinez who was decked out in a tuxedo playing a grand piano right there on Bixby Bridge.  Now that was an unforgettable experience.

 Views of Bixby Bridge, and piano player Michael Martinez

It was also the last truly enjoyable experience for me on the race.  I felt great the next three miles or so, but then started the rolling hills (or as I referred to them, mountains).  With each incline, I found it harder and harder to stick with the pace group.  My IT band injury started flaring up horribly and my diaphragm was hurting something fierce (it still hurt from all the time I spent throwing up with the stomach flu).  I hit the wall hard and just crashed.  I went from kinda-trying-to-run, to a slow shuffle.
I was dying here, about to quit.

I kept going, but boy, I was hurting bad.  My legs, my chest, my hips, my mouth, everywhere!  With the 6-hour course cut off looming closer, I was genuinely concerned I wouldn't make it.  I was worried that I wouldn't even make it to mile 22 before the 5-hour cut off there.  My motivation started to really wane, and I had just about consigned myself to the fact that I wouldn't finish the marathon.  But hey, at least I would have earned the 21-miler medal.

For the record, I have never not-finished a race before.  I hate quitting and I don't usually entertain ideas of doing so, so this kind of shows the level of pain and fatigue I was enduring.  While I was in this state of thinking, about to just give up, I could hear my Mother's voice telling me, "Rachel, don't quit!  Just keep going.  If you quit now, you'll be so angry with yourself.  You can do this, and I will send you help."  An intense feeling of love filled my heart and I instantly felt comfort and peace.  Don't get me wrong, I was still in a LOT of pain and I was still VERY tired, but all of a sudden I felt like I could endure.
Almost there!

Not minutes later, a man who looked almost exactly like my late Uncle Jimmy, except Asian, walked quickly by me.  He slowed, turned to me, and said, "You know, if you just pick up your pace a little, you can finish the marathon by walking."  After he said that, my head was full of a different type of thinking, "Wait, what?  I can finish and not have to try to run again?  I can do that!  I can walk the last seven miles!"  That was all I needed to keep going.  Just like he said, I increased my walking pace slightly and walked right alongside him.

We passed through mile 22 with eight minutes to spare.  We kept walking up and down those rolling hills to mile 23, the strawberry mile.  The race announcers weren't kidding!  Those strawberries were the best strawberries I've ever had in my entire life.  I'm not sure if that's because I had just endured 23 miles of testing my endurance, or if that's really the case.  I guess it could be both reasons.  Oh, one of the perks of being a back-of-the-packer at Big Sur?  You get more than one strawberry since they have leftovers from other runners who missed that wonderful aid station.  I had six.

Crossing a finish line never felt so good!
 Under a 5K left, and I felt my body fill with energy.  That eight-or-so mile walk break really did me some good.  I was actually catching up to people that had passed me hours ago--and I was still walking.  The hills kept rolling on, but I knew to expect this.  Another helpful course warning, "just assume the hills never end."  Before long, there I was at mile 25 and I knew, I just knew, that I could run the rest of the way.  I could feel my Mom beside me the whole way.

I felt great!  I wasn't running super fast or anything, but I was actually running again.  I felt pretty good, probably because my legs had gone numb a few miles ago.  Still, I kept running and like a glorious vision before my eyes stood the finish line!  I was almost done!  I was almost done.  As I ran through the finisher corrals toward the finish, I saw my friend Jenna cheering for me.  I was so happy to see her!  Usually, I don't have anyone cheering for me at races.  She was holding up a couple signs for me, "Taylor Strong" and "One Hot Marathoner."  I love Jenna.

I tried to kick it up a notch and run faster toward that finish line.  Once I crossed, I about collapsed from fatigue, and also from sheer joy.  Tears came to my eyes.  I was just so happy to be done!  I did it!  I am now officially a marathoner!  I just completed 26.2 grueling miles over hills and into the wind!  Words cannot describe the sheer feeling of elation that came over me, just to be done. You marathoners will understand.  I was pretty emotional.

My best friend Jenna was there for me the entire time.
But there was another surprise waiting for me.  My cousins Michael, Sarah, Jenny, and Jenny's wonderful kids were there cheering for me as well.  I was not expecting that at all and I was overwhelmed by the love I felt from them all.  I don't think they realize how much that small act means to me, even to this day.
My cousins surprised me at the finish!

I staggered past the finish line, the exhaustion finally catching up to me.  When that volunteer came up to me and placed the finisher medal around my neck, it felt like I was just knighted.  I felt like I could accomplish anything!  And I'm not gonna lie, I was totally out of it upon finishing.  My brain was in a runner's fog.  All I knew was that I wanted to spend time with Jenna and my cousins, but I also wanted to eat something.  I was so unfocused I almost forgot to grab my gear check bag...which would've been pretty bad as it contained my ID and debit card.  At least Jenna was there to escort me around, making sure I was taken care of and that I took care of everything I needed to.  We temporarily parted ways with my cousins and Jenna led me to the Runner's World Challenge tent, another private area for challengers and their guests.  There, Jenna made sure I ate a little something.  I had a lot to choose from as the tent was well stocked with an entire spread of food:  sandwiches, pastas, breads, salads, fruits, and even Jamba Juice smoothies.  If I had been in more of a thinking state, I would've taken advantage of the free massages they were giving out!  But, I wanted to get back to my cousins, so I limped over to the gear check and grabbed my bag.  Then, that wonderful numbness in my legs started to wear off and my muscles hurt so bad I had to lean on her to walk up the hill to the car.  She is such a lifesaver!

A medal well earned
I had the presence of mind before the race to pack a pair of 2XU compression sleeves and my Oofos flip flops in my gear bag.  Once I sat down, the first thing I did was to take off my running shoes and socks, then change into those.  Oh they were like walking on a cloud.  The way my calves were supported and my feet were supported felt amazing.  I made myself stretch everything out with a series of 60-second holds stretching my quads, hamstrings, hip flexors, IT band, calves, groin, and glutes.  This I completed in the parking garage before we got lunch.

The rest of my marathon day consisted of a lot more walking than I've ever done after a hard race!  The whole group of us went to Fisherman's Wharf for the best clam chowder I've had--served in a sourdough bread bowl.  Sad thing is, my mouth hurt too much to really enjoy it.  In fact, for the next two days anytime I tried to eat anything, my mouth felt like I had just bit into bubbly burning pizza.  I couldn't figure out what was going on until my cousin Michael, who has a background in fitness, suggested it was due to the tissues in my mouth being dehydrated from breathing in the ocean air hard for so long.  He was right, so I just kept pounding back the water and sucking on ice cubes until I got some relief.

You know, aside from some muscle soreness (which really wasn't that bad), my mouth was really the only place I hurt post-marathon.  I had no blisters or chafing (thank you Body Glide!), my joints and muscles had no lingering pain, and I didn't lose a single toenail, or even have one turn black!  I'd say that was the greatest success of all!  I ran a marathon injury free.  Now I'll always recommend and push a post-race recovery ritual of:  thorough stretching, compression, and easy movement (like my walking).  Even with all the sitting on the long, long flights home I didn't have any trouble.  And here I was earlier, assuming I'd need a wheelchair at the airport. 

My favorite medal.  Ever.

Finishing the Big Sur Marathon was the fulfillment of a dream that sustained me through years of recovering from and learning to live with thyroid disease.  Not only did this goal sustain me, but it motivated me to defy the odds my doctors gave me and not only run again, but run better than I have ever run before.  Now, I feel like a real athlete.  I discovered inner strength and determination I never knew I possessed.  I wore that medal all day, and all the next day.  After all, I just finished something that less than 1% of the world has done.  I finished a marathon!  Sorry, I can't stop saying that.  I'm still in shock about it.  I'm also still in some pain from it.  This was the third most painful thing I've done, only following giving birth and completing the Bataan Memorial Ruck March.  It was also just as rewarding.  While I was running Big Sur, I kept repeating to myself, "Last marathon ever.  Never again.  NEVER!"  But of course, two days later I'm already considering signing up for another full...maybe Marine Corps 2016.  And maybe one day, Big Sur again.


Have you ever had a dream that helped sustain you through a challenging time?


  1. I thought I had already commented on this but maybe my comment didn't go through. What a great experience and a really inspiring story. Just goes to show you how determination can get you through. Sounds like a cool experience all around and the photos are great. I never take enough. Glad to be in a group of such strong women.

    1. Thanks lady. It really was a great experience. I agree about the pictures; I wish I had taken more! It was just so pretty!.

  2. Wow - what a great story! It is so hard to train for something and then have injury and delay. Some days you just have to make the best with what you can do. I remember this with my races and training. You train as best you can and go with it on race day.
    Sadie B.

    1. Exactly! That's what I try to do. I'm facing another wave of injury/illness, so I think I'm going to take some time off from the half/full marathon races and instead focus on 5K/10K's. Maybe it will help.

  3. Congrats on your marathon! I have yet to try the marathon but have done a few halfs. Maybe someday!

    1. Thank you! It was definitely challenging, but I'm glad I did it. Just be prepared for the amount of time training consumes with it.


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