Tuesday, May 3, 2011

How to Run a Sub-4 Marathon (Race Recap: Big Sur International Marathon)

More details will come re: the rest of the Big Sur Girl's Getaway weekend, but for now, I will recap the race itself in a few short words.

How to run a sub-4 marathon (condensed version)

1. Don't actually follow a marathon training cycle. Train loosely for a 21-miler.
2. Upgrade from the 21-miler to the full marathon 12 days before the actual race. This will ensure you don't have time to panic about the efficiency of your training cycle, but instead about your sanity... and your choice in friends. ;)
3. Make sure the marathon you are about to run is the hilliest one in the states.
4. After gagging from nerves a number of times in a Safeway before the race even starts, get out there and run (here's the shocker) conservatively.

And now, the part you don't really want to read!

How I ran a sub-4 marathon (longer version)

If I haven't made it overly apparently by now, I have been signed up for the Big Sur 21 Miler for months. My plan was to use it as a training run for the San Francisco Marathon this summer. 12 days before Big Sur, my friend RoadBunner talked me into upgrading to the marathon. I pondered her idea, thought it would be a silly challenge, and emailed the race director asking if I could do it. The next morning, I learned I was running a marathon.

Big Sur is known to be one of the most beautiful courses in the U.S. -- and one of the most challenging. Due to a landslide and road collapse in March, the 26th presentation of this 26.2-mile race was changed to an out-and-back, adding an additional 700 feet of elevation climbing, for a total of 2,400 feet. (Read: That's a lot of big hills to run up in the span of 26.2 miles.)

The 26th Big Sur Marathon from the side. :)
I went into this race thinking of it as a training run for SFM. A marathon-lengthed training run. I wanted to make it to mile 21, and anything after that would be "bonus" miles. My only rule was that I didn't want to stop to walk until mile 21 -- and after that, I would only stop to walk if I absolutely needed it. I wanted to go into the race paying attention to my body, tweaking my fueling/water needs, and enjoying everything that was going on.

I ended up carrying a lot of stuff with me and made the decision to keep my camera behind, so thanks to my friends for letting me steal their pictures. :)

Mile 1 (9:10), Mile 2 (8:40), Mile 3 (8:50), Mile 4 (8:48), Mile 5 (8:40)

Jessica and I lined up in Corral B, just behind the elites and the people expecting to do sub-4 hour marathons. I knew a number of people in the race, but I didn't really want to feel like I was running with anyone -- I wanted this to be my own training run. (I guess I should have told Jessica that when I ran away from her, huh?)

Starting line
Me & Jessica
Mile 6 (8:53), Mile 7 (8:53), Mile 8 (8:45), Mile 9 (8:48), Mile 10 (8:51)

At mile 8 I came up behind the 4-hour pace group. I wasn't sure if it was a smart move to pass given my history in marathoning, especially since it was so early in the race, but I decided to go around them rather than stay with them. My pace felt steady, I felt strong, and I was running faster than the 9:09mm the leader was setting. I didn't want to slow down yet.

Somewhere along this stretch, I put my headphones in. I wanted to have a Zen run, but I realized that I could also have a Zen run while listening to some choice music. The course was beautiful -- I turned off my music to listen to the Taiko drummers and the pianist, but other than that, I listened to a really calm, relaxing, wordless playlist I made for myself. I really believe it kept me relaxed and level-headed, and didn't force me to want to burn up too much energy like what happens when I listen to really intense music.

My average pace was hovering between 8:48 and 8:52 up until this point -- I felt like I could have gone faster, but I actually told myself to reel it in and keep it within that zone, and reminded myself that holding back now would do me well in the last few miles. I think I was right.

I also saw Aron along this stretch of the race! She was kind enough to take a picture of me and my amazing running form.

Me & my solid heel strike
What was I looking at? Oh yeah... this.
And this.
And this.

Mile 11 (8:49), Mile 12 (8:51), Mile 13 (8:46 -- half marathon in 1:56), Mile 14 (8:42), Mile 15 (8:49)

My goodness.

What kind of marathon has a grand pianist, Taiko drummers, fresh strawberries, and whales jumping in the ocean by your side?

The Big effin' Sur Marathon, that's what.

This course was breathtaking (and I hear that the "real" course is even better). At two points I cried a few tears of -- I don't know what it was. I was really overcome with the beauty of everything. I felt so tiny against the sun rising behind the towering green mountains on one side of me, and the thunderous waves crashing along the jagged cliffs on the other side of me. That tininess was an indescribable feeling, but it resembled the strongest feeling of happiness and excitement. Lame mushy stuff. Whatever. It was awesome.

Michael Martinez, Big Sur grand pianist
Taiko Drummers
Mile 16 (9:20), Mile 17 (8:45), Mile 18 (8:50), Mile 19 (8:58), Mile 20 (8:58)

At mile 16, I met up with a fellow Marathon Maniac, Marathon Mitch. We ran together for about a mile, but I noticed that I felt tired when talking with him. I know it's good to be able to hold conversations while working out, but this wasn't working for me and all the hills I was trying to pace myself on. I stopped to refill my water bottle at a water stop, caught back up to Mitch, wished him luck, and went back to having my own run.

I found Mitch afterward. He set a course personal best, cutting 10 minutes off his time from last year!
Mile 21 (9:21), Mile 22 (9:05), Mile 23 (8:55), Mile 24 (9:16), Mile 25 (9:03)

I made it relatively easy and largely pain free (much to my surprise) until mile 21. This was a huge confidence booster, especially considering it was ALL HILLS we were running. My friends were not lying when they said there is no flat part to this course. When you're not climbing, you're descending with full view of the next hill in sight. I was pleased I made it to mile 21 in the same pace I had done my 20-miler two weekends ago -- I considered this race a success by that alone.

Then, I started to struggle. In the past, I would have given up and walked. Instead, I kept setting new benchmarks for myself -- "Just make it to the top of the hill, then you can walk." "Just wait until mile 23, then you can walk while taking a GU." "Holy cow, you only have a 5k left. Just run it really slowly." I always made it to my next checkpoint and assessed how I was feeling, whether it was physical exhaustion or mental exhaustion. Almost always, it was mental. My legs were weak from the hills and I definitely felt tired, but nothing I wasn't able to run pretty slowly on. I never ended up walking.

Mile 26 (9:21), Mile .32 (2:48, 8:34 pace)

I realized that, with 5k remaining, my Garmin said 3:28 and that I could make it in under 4 hours if I ran really, really carefully. I didn't want to push it and burn out (that would cut it too close since I would have to walk), and I didn't want to run it too slow (I just wouldn't make it there under 4 hours, period). I just wanted to take my time and get there in one piece.

I did.


I had a good marathon where I didn't fall apart and wish for death in the last few miles. In fact, I never even stopped.

Bonus that this was one of the hardest courses around, AND that I set a massive PR while at it.

Ta da!
That's all icing on the cake, though. I was so happy with this run, and I couldn't stop thinking about how much I loved the race, how much I love running, and how badly I want to come back to Monterey. The 27th presentation of the Big Sur marathon cannot come soon enough.

EVERYONE at our Big Sur Marathon Girl's Getaway had an awesome race this weekend. How does that happen? Fate? Destiny? Being happy and excited? Eating too much? Check out their reports as well. :)

RoadBunner, Page, Susan, me, Aron, Kristen, Jessica, & Tara -- the ruling ladies of Big Sur.

Official Time: 3:55:16 -- a 29:20 PR?!
Average Pace: 8:56 min/mile
Overall Place: 767 of 3,218
Gender Place: 232 of 1,584
Age/Gender Place: 41 out of 225
Air Temp: 67F

1: 9:10
2: 8:42
3: 8:50
4: 8:48
5: 8:40
6: 8:53
7: 8:53
8: 8:45
9: 8:48
10: 8:51
11: 8:49
12: 8:51
13: 8:46 (half marathon in 1:56)
14: 8:42
15: 8:49
16: 9:20
17: 8:45
18: 8:50
19: 8:58
20: 8:58
21: 9:21
22: 9:05
23: 8:55
24: 9:16
25: 9:03
26: 9:21
.32: 2:48 (8:34 pace)


  1. ROCK STAR!! The good news? Now I have a pacer to get me through the SFM in under 4:00. So proud of you :-)

    All the best,


  2. thats HUGE! you are my hero


  3. Awesome job! Great going!!!

  4. Awesome!!! Accidental PRs are the best - my current marathon PR is that way too. I LOVE the views of the course. I won't lie, I'm a sucker and probably would have teared up at nothing too.

    BTW - Try again, that wasn't wordy at all.

  5. Wow absolutely amazing job!! Who shaves that kind of time of their PR - and on an incredibly hilly course to boot! Way to go! AMAZING!

  6. WOWEE ZOWEE!!! You are so amazing!! Congratulations on a truly extraordinary run!

  7. AMAZING! Awesome PR, awesome race! You are my hero :) Did you end up getting in to Nike? I may have missed it on another post but I was trying to keep my eye out...let me know. I didn't get in, maybe next year now that I know about the whole group thing. Again, congrats on the amazing race!

  8. Fabulous! All in a day's work! I love the descriptions you provided of the course! GREAT Great job you!!!!

  9. Wow - a 29+ minute PR is crazy good! Some of those race pictures look like something from a postcard. What a perfect setting for a race. Amazing job and an amazing experience. I'm jealous of it all.

  10. Dear your Majesty.. Insane, pure insanity, in all its hill glory you ate that race like an ice cream cupcake on a warm summer day, in shorts with the slip and slide at your side.

    Seriously amazing, we know how you got there, and we are going to keep at this body love plan.. P.s.can you please tell me more about this zen play list you have created, I might just need it in 11 days..

  11. WOW!!! That is GREAT!! You seriously ROCKED big sur!!! wow... lol... I can't get over how much you PR'd by ... especially in Big Sur!!! you are AMAZING!!! :) CONGRATS!!!

  12. This was a fun report to read! You did amazingly well at keeping the pace even, and I'm sooo impressed! Considering the number of hills on this course, you now have an even faster marathon time in you. I'm thinking BQ isn't too far away!

  13. So amazing! I need some A-juju for my marathon in June. Please put in mail in mid June to ensure it arrives in time. Thanks.

  14. I can't decide which part of your story is better: how consistent you ran or how you felt near the end. Well done!

  15. What magnificent execution of a race! WOW! You give me hope as I got nauseous just looking at the elevation.
    Congrats on an amazing race!

  16. Wow that is like the perfect example of how to bring a marathon home -- amazingly consistent running! And I can't believe you didn't start to suffer until mile 21, despite all those hills. Turns out living in San Fran is doing you some good ;-)

    Really, huge congrats!

  17. Now that is fantastic! Congratulations! Great report on a great race. You certainly rocked this one in just the right way. Rest well and enjoy the sub 4 feeling!

  18. Un-freaking-believeable!!!!! That's, what, like nearly a half-hour PR for you! If you can do THAT at Big Sur, you're gonna rip SF a new one.

  19. holy cow! almost a half hour PR on that course. unbelievable. i've shed a few tears during marathons before not b/c i was hurting but b/c of what that race meant at the time, etc. congrats on a great race!!!

  20. So I seriously knew you had this in you all along, but I am still super super stoked and proud of you!!! Way to hang tough on a difficult course. I'm hoping this unleashes a whole new realm of goals for you :)

  21. Congratulations! I think you're waaaaay more than average! ;)

  22. I LOVE this report and am so so so happy you had such a great race in Big Sur! I KNEW you had it in you and now you believe it too :) you did AMAZING out there girl! I am so glad you finally got to have a great marathon and cannot wait to see what you can do next time! So fun to be a part of it and loved every minute with all you girls this weekend!

  23. YAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAY! I am so, so happy for you! Getting that PR is like a drug - now you have to have, more, more, more! Enjoy this moment - you earned it!

  24. Congratulations on the PR! An out-and-back and hilly course had to be a challenge. Gorgeous pics.

    And yeah, I don't think you can refer to yourself as an average runner anymore. :)

  25. YESSSSS I am SOOO happy for you girl! I seriously want to have this same experience when I come out to YOUR city :) CONGRATS!!!

  26. Awesome, awesome, awesome! What a magnificent day you had, all the way around. Great run, great route, great scenery, great weather. You should be proud! I think we get to hung up on stringent training plans - you've got enough miles in the legs to go for it and you did. Very neat medals, too. I might try it sometime just to get one of those pieces of art! :-) If Steve and I ever decide to do a pavement course, Big Sur would be it. We love that area! Hope you still have a big smile plastered across your face!

  27. Super congrats on the unplanned PR! Perhaps that was the key...not having enough time to think about it to get nervous (except the morning of...). It was great to spend the weekend with you and to see you smile when you finished! Looking forward to our run tomorrow morning. :)

  28. A!!! How and the hell did I miss this one!?! That is it, I am freaking moving to Cali this minute:) Way to go on an amazing marathon finish! You are awesome and keep getting better all of the time!!! You PRd by so much and I am so proud of you:) In my dreams I would finish in that time! This was a great race report and I am smiling and full of joy for you girl!! Send me some of your mojo for Twin Cities this year. Maybe a little bit of your awesomeness will rub off on me!! Congrats to you super star!

    I am on facebook...look me up. I can't find you...help!

    Love and hugs to you A!

  29. You are such a badass!! Those are some great splits! I can't believe you ran that fast on a course with that kind of elevation chart.... geez! I'm gonna be slugging along on my FLAT race coming up.

    Congrats on such a great time (and what a good race report! thanks for sharing!)

  30. Congratulations, sounds like you had a beautiful experience.

  31. That is an awesome time on a very hard course - I ran legs one and two of the relay and thought I might die. Though as I waited for the rest of the team to finish I got so jealous of the marathoners. It is a great even in general. Very well done!

  32. Congratulations, and a sub-4 hour is a dream come true for any runner! I write a blog too, do read :-) www.teenrunner.blogspot.com

  33. I love. Big Sur. I'm going to run this one. Thanks for sharing. I'm single, are you

  34. I love. Big Sur. I'm going to run this one. Thanks for sharing. I'm single, are you

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