A Tale Of Two Marathons
9 April 2017 – Paris Marathon – 3:32
After doing 3 half ironmans in 5 weeks (Turkey, Tritheos-Pune, and Phuket), the plan was to change focus and attempt a BQ (Boston Qualification) which meant, for my age group, doing a full marathon in 3:10 or less. After many months of relatively slow/endurance training for Comrades, Ironmans, etc, switching the training to develop speed in the legs in a short span of 3.5 half months was proving rather tricky. It was only in the last 4-6 weeks before the marathon that I felt like I was getting my speed and “groove” back. However, it was not enough. Come race day, I could hold the pace for the 3:10 target till 30K, and started fading after that. When you are racing on the edge with a low (almost non-existent) margin for slowdown, 3-5K were sufficient to put the target out of reach. Given that by 34-34K the BQ was out of question, I had an option of trying for a PB and going for a sub 3:15, but I simply did not feel like giving it any more effort than simply completing the 42K. The last 8K as a result were run very easily, trying to enjoy the sights and sounds of Paris, for a total time of 3:32.
30 April 2017 – Big Sur Marathon: 3:39.
Fast forward to 3 weeks later. (Its noteworthy that I was repeating this Paris-Big Sur double feature this year after doing it in 2013.)
I always intended to run Big Sur Marathon as an easy run, no matter what the outcome at Paris. There are many reasons for this: first, Big Sur is not a BQ-condusive course, to put it mildly. In fact, its one of the most difficult courses, with many back-breaking climbs, and strong headwinds on many sections. Secondly, it is not advisable to race full marathons so close together. Third, I wanted to enjoy this course! While being tough, it is also famous for its beauty, being run entirely along the US Coastal Highway 1 along the Pacific Coast. The course is puncuated by many beautiful vistas, bridges, cliffs and overlooks. You must enjoy this course – and there is a lot to enjoy – else this course will just kill you.
While in the USA in the 3 weeks between Paris and Big Sur, I got into maintenance mode, getting in a quick 5K/10K whenever I could, to keep up my fitness. While in Hawaii, I also got in a couple of sea swims at the actual start venue of the Ironman World Championships at the Kailua Pier in Kona; plus a very hot and humid run on the Queen K highway, the bike/run course for the Ironman World Championships.
Come race day, at the unearthly hour of 4am, we were shuttled 42 kms south of the town of Carmel (the finish point) to the start point in Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park. At 6:45am, 4600 runners would start making their way northbound, as they attempted to tackle 42 kms of climbs or descents. This part of the world does not know what it means to be flat, nor do the roads here know what it means to be straight. While downhill running may sound easy and fun, it takes a huge toll on your legs and your muscle endurance when encountered persistently over 42 kms. The cambered roads (necessitated by the winding roads) makes it even worse. Seriously, try it! Running downhill on cambered roads is not my idea of fun.
Compared to 2015 when I saw just one other Indian, this year I saw a handful of Indians running this marathon. The announcers were rattling off some amazing stats before the start. Some 60 countries were represented among the 4600 runners. 62% of the runners were female!! All US states except South Dakota were represented. A handful of amazing runners had run all previous 31 presentations of this race, 2017 being the 32nd year. These “grizzled vets” as the announcer called them were felicitated just before the start.
We were flagged off at 6:45 sharp and immediately started off with 2 kms of gentle downhill, lulling runners into a false sense of comfort. I started off nice and easy, free from the Tyranny of Time Targets, hardly monitoring my pace, purposely ignoring even the lap alerts my Garmin put out every 1 K. Around 3-4K, I joined the 3:35 bus which at that point was 15-20 runners strong. Though I do not like to run in a pace group, it provided a nice human shield against the headwinds which were starting to make themselves felt as we made our way from inside the Big Sur Forest area into the open unshielded US-1 road along the Pacific Ocean. I was not having to speed up or slow down to remain in the pace group; and given that the group was targeting 3:35, I must have been running around 5:05-5:10 per K pace.
Slowly but surely, small climbs started giving way to longer, more persistent climbs, and around the 12-13K mark, I let the pace bus go, opting to run according to my own feel and effort. The series of climbs culminated in a monster 3K-long climb which ends at “Hurricane Point”, so called because of the intense winds often encountered at that point. This is also the highest point of the course. The name was apt, the wind was so strong that my legs were actually brushing each other as they crossed and I had to alter my gait to prevent myself from stumbling.
I crossed the half way point at around 1:50 (which means even splits, yay!) still feeling nice, easy and comfortable. I was soaking in the atmosphere and the scenery. The mighty ocean to our left looks awe-inspiring. We got lucky that day to see a group of whales breaching and for quite some time, many of us were running with your necks turned sideways, as if saluting those majestic creatures in the sea.
The funny mile markers that this race is famous for were present, with some new ones added this year. On one such mile marker, a couple of Kenyans teased us with “In my country, we call that walking!”. The 1 mile marker said “Only 25 more to go”. The mile marker at hurricane point showed a para-glider who said “Do it my way!”.
Without much awareness or trouble, I entered the 30s. The climbs and downhills and the distance in general was starting to take a bit of a toll, but nothing that would hamper my run or my enjoyment of the course. I was running strong, though it may not have felt all that easy at this stage. I passed a lot of walkers and stretchers and shufflers in the last 5K. As the sounds of Carmel town grew louder, I shifted gears and broke into a sprint for the last 1K to finish in a time of 3:39. This is a course PB by over 9 minutes from 2015 when I ran this in 3:48, which was an icing on the cake. A volunteer placed a beautiful ceramic medal (a signature for this race) around my neck.
All in all, this is a iconic, must-do race. If I am ever in the Bay Area around April end, I will definitely be running this race for a 4th time. Yes, its tough, but its beautiful. And tough is exactly my idea of fun 🙂
While Paris 2017 did not turn out to be what I aimed for, I live to fight for the BQ another day. What doesn’t break me, makes me stronger!