The marathon route is held entirely on Highway 1 which is mostly shut down for the runners. The only way to the start line is to ride the school buses south. I had selected the hotel I was staying at for its proximity to the race expo and so I could walk to the bus pick up. One less logistic.
The string of yellow buses extended for several blocks, as did the line of runners waiting to get on. When I got to the head of the line there were just a few spots left on the current bus, I almost said I would wait for the next one to ensure I would get a seat up front (motion sickness) but decided not to. After climbing the stairs, a seat up front was waiting. Things were clicking into place.
As I mentioned before, I was not particularly well trained for this race. I did what I could in the days leading up to the race to try and get the best out of what I had. Flying down a day early to provide extra time, lots of fluids and electrolytes the day before to top off the tank, and I shut the lights off at 8:00 the night before to try and get a halfway decent night's sleep. You run with what you have, and I tried not to screw up anything at the last minute.
The buses traveled for ten minutes just to get to the finish line, and then headed south twenty six miles on the very route we would be running on. It was before sunrise so you couldn't see much, but you couldn't miss how often the road climbed and descended. Though I always study the elevation profile to see what is in store, I don't view the actual course ahead of time if I can help it. It can be discouraging to see how long it takes to drive twenty six miles, and that doesn't boost your confidence when it comes time to run it.
This time however I found it helpful. The elevation profile can show only so much detail, and as we drove on through the dark I discovered there were more hills at the end than expected. Better save something in the tank for the finish.
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We were at the start almost two hours before the gun would go off. We each tried to find a spot of grass or a curb to sit on, but many just spread out on the pavement. The time passed surprisingly quickly, except when you were waiting in the porta-pottie lines.
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After mile five the trees disappeared and we were running through more open, pastoral countryside. The sun still had not broken through however. Colors were somewhat muted and fog hugged the hillsides. One runner commented that the green hills and pastures made it feel like we were running through Ireland. We were warned that this four mile stretch would be where the headwinds would hit in most years, but there wasn't even a breath of wind today. The road climbed slowly and the runners began to spread out.
I had no specific time goal this time around. The training was just too spotty and the course too hilly to make much of a prediction. My sincere goal was just to finish and enjoy the day as much as possible. All I had to do was to finish in under six hours to beat the sweeper bus. As I sat on the start line, I thought if I finished in under five hours, I would be happy with that.
I didn't look at my watch much and just ran by feel, but the pacing groups with their little time flags let me know roughly where I was. In the first few miles I passed the five hour pacers, then the 4:45 pacers, and then stayed in the general vicinity of the 4:30 group. I would lose them when I stopped for a drink or more often a photo, but then would catch up to them again. The hills hadn't really begun yet, so it was all sort of meaningless, but the thoughts about time were planted.
After the forest and green pastures, we reached the coast around mile nine. After a steep downhill we were onto the longest climb of the day, Hurricane Point. It was a two mile climb with about 500 feet of elevation gain, the road twisting and turning providing false hope with each false summit. Time to just settle in and get it done.
The first mile of the climb was the steepest. At the halfway point we were not only rewarded by the easing of the slope, but by the Taiko drummers pounding out some motivating beats. Truly a great visual and audio boost. It felt like I stopped for much longer in than this video indicates.
During the course of the two mile hill I bridged the gap between the 4:30 and 4:20 pace groups. This meant I was probably taking the hill on a bit too ambitiously but I was still feeling pretty good when we reached the summit. The shorter hills on the rest of the course would end up being more difficult, so I probably should have taken it easier. I lost the 4:20 group as soon as I stopped for the next picture and did not see them again for the rest of the day.
After a steep mile downhill we were at the halfway point and the iconic symbol of the race, Bixby Bridge. I had seen many photos of it before but it really is something to see it in person. It was already going to be a special halfway-there marker, but there is the added tradition of a a man playing piano at the end of the bridge. I don't know how often he played this song during the day, but he was playing Chariots of Fire when I walked up.
In the race packet description of the course it mentioned that the hill at mile 15 was sort of a barometer of how the rest of your day would go. It was not nearly as long as the climb up to Hurricane Point, but your legs are tired from that previous climb and reality swaps in for excitement around this point. They said if you struggle on this hill, you may be in for a long afternoon. I made it to the top without pause, but only just. I would walk some portion of every hill after that one.
The sun had still not burned through the cloud cover but it was beginning to feel a bit warm and muggy. It always feels like I fail when it comes to nutrition and hydration during races, but I did my best to keep the fires stoked. The elevation profile indicated that it was relatively flat between miles 16 and 21, but it felt like we were always climbing or descending small rolling hills.
Rather than succumbing to the "run til it hurts too much, then walk" pattern that I normally employ, I walked earlier and a bit more often. It felt like I was more in control, this more of a strategy than desperation. I was here to enjoy my experience as much as possible, and I was not going to bury myself in order to save a few minutes or seconds.
As much as I ran for experience over time, I started to wonder what my finish time would be. Just can't help it I suppose. At mile eighteen I started doing a little math, and if I was figuring things correctly I could slow to a brisk walk and still make it in under five hours. I still had a long way to go, but this was encouraging. Each time I slowed to a walk on a hill, I expected the 4:30 pace group to pass by but I managed to hold them off until somewhere around mile 24.
At mile 25 there is this inflatable finish-line-banner-looking-thing put up by one of the sponsors. It is at the base of the last hill before the finish and called the "Time to Fly Zone." There was a DJ blasting out music and a couple people cheering us on.
As I approached, a Def Leppard song was finishing up and the next thing out of the speakers was "Everybody Dance Now!" scream/sung by the woman in the band C&C Music Factory. The woman runner next to me said, "this is the perfect song right now" and it was. The singers voice, the energy, the volume - I got that runners high that only seems to be brought on my music or when my mind is truly in the magnitude of the moment. A tingling wave rushed across my skin and it felt like there was a smile on my soul as well as my face. I would like to say that the song carried me up the hill at a dead run, but my heart felt like it was going to explode so I was soon walking to get it to calm down.
I made it to the top of the hill and a race volunteer told us it was the last one. I seemed to remember from the morning drive in that that there was a climb at the end so I half jokingly asked, "You wouldn't lie to us now would you?" Too many times well meaning spectators tell you that you are "almost there" when the reality is quite different, but the volunteer said it was the truth. Thankfully it was.
Just shy of the finish there was a runner on the pavement getting medical attention. He seemed to be conscious and had the help he needed, but it was a sobering reminder to the rest of us what a challenge to the human body and spirit these marathons are.
Soon the finishing chute was in sight. Suddenly there were hundreds of people cheering us on when we had been mostly alone on the course. There was a particular man that I saw leaning over the railing and clapping his hands. I ran toward him, hand outstretched for a high/low five. He smiled and reached out his hand in response. There is something in the meeting of hands in that moment that crosses all barriers, and once again it felt like my heart was too full and my lungs too empty. I hyperventilated and wept my way across the finish line.
As has been the case in my last several marathons my calves and hamstrings were tight to the point of straining, and my left heel had been hurting for much of the race. That said, I did not bury myself physically as I have in the past. It felt like I ran this race well, and with purpose. Sure I could have shaved some seconds or minutes here or there, but that was not what success meant this time. My body was depleted but not broken, and it was my heart that was properly rinsed from this day.
Still, the clock is always ticking, so once I had regained my composure, I had to check.
My heart is full, if strained, and I loved this day.