The Big Sur Marathon report

This blog post was written during the summer of 2019 even though I am just now publishing it.

Running the Big Sur Marathon stands as a major personal achievement and a day I will always cherish. In spite of some brutal stretches, the whole day was smooth and unfolded exactly as planned. I ran 9:01-minute miles to finish in 3:56:22, just under my four hour goal. This all happened back in April 2019.

This well organized race offers a glorious and challenging marathon experience. 5000 runners shuffle onto 4AM buses which drive 26 miles of beautiful coastal Route 1 in the dark to drop us off shivering at the start area. There were not enough porta potties at the pre-race holding area which seems an insurmountable problem for large races. Pre-race marathoners are obsessed with bathroom needs and you can’t rush thousands through their hopes of evacuating unnecessary weight. I waited in line but eventually gave up with fantasies of shorter lines on the course.

We had ideal weather for a marathon – especially for the Big Sur course. It was overcast in the 50s with hardly a breeze. While we missed the sun, we were spared the accompanying strong headwinds. I enjoyed every bit of the gorgeous course and appreciated the major landmarks which indicated progress. Around six miles you see the ocean for the first time. A grueling two-mile uphill leads to Hurricane Point which crowns with a bend that reveals Bixby Bridge and the triumphant half-way point. Later, the hills at Carmel Highlands look terrifyingly steep while also announcing the last two miles.

The course never levels off and the downhills eventually prove more painful than the uphills. IF life had allowed for a more detailed and intentional training regimen, I would have run a lot more hills! They say marathons are easy until mile 20 and then the race becomes a monumental struggle through the last six miles. Yup! Things hurt like they had never hurt before and I thought I would have to walk at mile 24. Stubbornness and the guilt of the accumulated training miles kept me going. One of the steepest hills arrives at the last mile and its first vision sparked dread. It just sucked! Yet, somehow I had just enough energy left for a weak sprint in the last few yards. Crossing the finish line I thought “thank God I can finally stop running!”

Immediately after finishing I got water, a medal, and some selfies. While sitting on the grass with the food care package, I worried I might never get up. I did get up and made sure to walk for 30-minutes as a warm down. And that was that. I felt fine by the afternoon and even went back to the coast for some light hiking and photography. In the evening I went out for the most expensive burger I could find in Monterey; including 48-hour sous vide bacon, a fried egg, three appetizers, and dessert. My running app claimed I burned 3,243 calories. That ought to cover dinner.

Within a day I thought, yeah, I’d run another marathon. Good thing because I had already paid the fee for the NYC marathon in November 2019. In one day I had become a marathoner and saw no reason to stop in the foreseeable future. Maybe one a year? Pick some great race and treat it as a short holiday weekend. Las Vegas, Disney World, Acadia National Park, Paris, London, Chicago – all great marathons worth traveling for.

The NYC marathon is now less than two months away. Life remains full and it seems all I can do is keep my weekly miles high. I’ve had no formal training plan other than one long run every Saturday, and to amass 35-40 miles every week. NYC will almost certainly be a faster time than Big Sur, but I don’t have big goals. Central Park is my primary running territory and it offers a lot of hills. 

At its core a marathon is a ridiculous manufactured challenge for goal oriented people who might have disposable time and resources. But running has been a blessing and marathons are a nice way to focus the activity. Some of my best thinking still happens on long runs.


Why a Marathon? – Part 3: Big Sur and NYC

When the marathon bug first grabbed me I knew I wanted to run the NYC marathon first. New York is our favorite city in the world and Central Park is where we got engaged. I could not imagine a more enjoyable locale and a triumphant run. The run ends in Central Park not far from where relatives live who surely would come out for some cheering. I started entering the lottery four years ago and was rejected every single time. “Buying” your way in by raising $3K for charity seemed an eventual possibility. I wasn’t ready to ask friends and family for contributions so I patiently waited to see about the regular lottery. After three steady rejections I began to look elsewhere. I did not know if I only had one marathon in me so I wanted something truly special. I wanted an epic run that seemed worth every bit of resource required.

Three years ago we camped throughout California for three weeks. We spent time in Santa Cruz, Monterey, Big Sur, and the area near Hearst Castle. We enjoyed this area and spent lots of time driving up and down the coast to explore state beaches, high vistas, old forests, and the like. Steinbeck, a favorite author, writes about this part of California in many stories. He has described Point Lobos State Park as the most glorious meeting of land and sea. I agree. The Pacific, breaking surf, light, fog, hills, cliffs, and wildlife make it some of the most spectacular coastline in all of America. The idea of the Big Sur Marathon captured my fantasy soon after that trip. I could not imagine a more scenic run. Some investigation confirmed the overall wonder of this particular event. Not only do you run 26.2 miles of this coastline while it is closed to cars, but they put a pianist on Bixby Bridge just for selfies. The route also happens to have 13 hills and around 2000′ of total climbing. Add that to variable conditions, like the good chance of a strong headwind for part of the run, and this run classifies as one of the more challenging marathons. While it is not a good course for a fast time, I imagine it to be the most epic run I’ll ever have embarked upon.

Marathons have become so popular that even the Big Sur Marathon has a lottery. The odds are much better than the NYC Marathon and I got in first time. The timing is a bit tricky, right at the end of the spring semester. But, it is a Sunday race and I had hopes of visiting this area to film the ocean for a multimedia piece under construction. I could get in my film work and run a marathon in a long weekend without missing any teaching. What could be better!

So here I go – my first marathon – The Big Sur Marathon! Because it is a one-way race that starts at the remote Big Sur Station, they have everyone load onto buses at 4AM in Monterey. Presumably we arrive by 5AM and then wait nearly two hours in the cold pre-dawn. I’ll buy some sweats at a second hand shop and shed them into clothing donation bins right before the race. I’m currently playing with what nutrition will best serve me on the run. I’m pretty nervous about that. Unexpected bathroom needs or hitting the “wall” can make for an unpleasant experience. But I’ve given up any goal for a strong time. Common wisdom suggests that the only goal for a first marathon is to finish and to finish without excessive displeasure.

My desire to run the NYC Marathon did not abate when the Big Sur Marathon sent me the confirmation. I figured I should keep entering the lottery and sooner or later my ticket would come in or I’d ask everyone I know to chip in $25 towards cancer research and buy my way in through charity.  Then life took a big turn and I applied for a job leading Young Concert Artists in NYC. That position became a reality when the board unanimously voted for my hire at the end of February. A few days later I received the good news that I was accepted into the NYC Marathon through the lottery. Now I get to run the marathon as a brand new New Yorker. How cool! And, I can treat Big Sur as a warm up and see what kind of time I can pull off in NY. This is presuming that my first marathon experience leaves me high and wanting more. After my successful 20-mile run a few days ago I think I’ll be able to survive 26.2 miles without crawling or “bonking”.

Not too long ago I came across a humorous short video poking fun of how people preparing for a marathon have to tell everyone all about it. Naturally, there is no worldly significance to an individual deciding to run 26.2 miles with a few thousand other people. It is a self-imposed goal with an ironic modern tie to an ancient morbid story. But I am quite happy to tell people about my marathon goals. It feels big, really big. And, running a marathon is much better than any number of other common mid-life crises at age 43. Only a few more days to go till I make a 26.2 mile journey at 6:45AM from Big Sur Station to Monterey along the extraordinary Route 1…


Why a Marathon? – Part 2

My return to running came as a direct result of a ridiculous bet that included male bravado, beer, Joyce’s Ulysses, and a group trek to Steamboat. After a few weeks of running every other day the initial pain and discomfort subsided and the “drug” of outdoor exercise took over. This all happened in the first year after my mother’s premature death at the age of 69. Like many other adults, I was completely blindsided by the loss of a parent. Nothing prepared for the sorrow, anger, and rudderless existence that marked the period immediately following Mom’s death. Running became a subtle but reliable balm. Time outdoors, an elevated heart rate, favorite music playlists, and the runner’s high made me happy. The activity helped regulate emotions and offered a healthy salve for darker days. And it was a simple activity requiring little beyond physical effort.

Running soon brought about all of the other positive effects that regular exercisers love to tout. Better sleep, more overall energy, slimmer pants, and greater mental clarity were all benefits. A day that started with a good but ambitious run left me feeling great for hours. The discipline of running also brought other disciplines into greater focus. Soon my creative efforts were fed by the same energy and positive benefits that got me hooked on running. I investigated a range of books that explored the connection between exercise and mental focus, exercise and the formation of good habits while losing bad habits, exercise and emotional health, and exercise and aging. As has been famously articulated, whoever captures the positive effects of regular exercise in the form of a pill will make an instant fortune.

Haruki Murukami’s book What I Talk About When I Talk About Running solidified the connection between my own running and a larger life desire to grow as a composer and live better. He found running early in life when he needed to give up managing a bar and embrace the daily discipline that helped launch a major writing career. Soon running was the most natural extension of his creativity in a symbiotic relationship. His running shoes might take the same importance as a typewriter or computer. He simply could not succeed as a writer without regular running.

My runs steadily became longer and invited journeys further from home. Eventually I explored the variety of trails in our area and found magical moments passing through high prairie grass with expansive views of purple and white mountains at first light. I’d carefully craft playlists and got to spend time with an eclectic array of composers including Meredith Monk, Vaughan Williams, Judd Greenstein, Thomas Tallis, and others. A two-hour run through farmland and rolling hills became an absolute highlight of my week. It also required careful planning and structure. Two hours of running in the Colorado summer required start times around 6AM. This fed a growing commitment to sleep, early rising, and early composing. I finally became a morning composer and contemplated how I could fine-tune my life for better creativity and productivity. My university work required increasing attention and this newfound discipline became essential to remaining active as a composer.

Running often promotes my best thinking. Problems get turned over and over in my mind and solutions emerge or a clear passion for an idea grows. I don’t come home with new wonderful tunes but I return with a belief that I will soon find the great material I have been dreaming about. Running has also become a destination activity. I travel everywhere with my running gear and love finding great trails throughout the world. Fifteen mile runs in Central Park, 10 mile runs over the Golden Gate Bridge, 12 mile runs along the coast in Barcelona, and barefoot runs in the waves along the Pacific have created some of my best experiences of new places.

Murukami quickly grew into running marathons. For many runners the long run provides the meditative and lasting high that proves most satisfying. Long and slow. Everything else from life fades away and the rhythm of the body and the steadily accruing miles simplify everything. Murukami found great pleasure in running marathons. It was a sizeable but manageable challenge and it gave his running peaks and direction. Since marathon goals are all self imposed and have no importance to the larger world, they act as a way to shape the effort of running as an interior and evolving action. Running now has a larger purpose and one engages in the planning with bigger vision and zeal.

When a new runner begins investigating the world of marathons, you quickly learn how satisfying an accomplishment it is for almost all finishers. This crowning achievement sits large for the people who do it. It is a whole package. The preparation often represents years of running and months of focused efforts. One reads, buys special gear, follows training plans, talks about it to whoever will listen, and allows the weight of the event to build to mammoth proportions in one’s mind. The event often involves thousands of people and makes for a singularly spectacular running experience. I’ve completed shorter runs, like the Bolder Boulder with 50,000 participants, or the New Haven Half Marathon, that left me elated for days.

After five years into this new chapter of running I am poised to run my first marathon. It feels like a natural outgrowth of recent activity and a healthy way to continue to funnel energy towards good living. I’ve taken the steps towards a marathon quite slowly. My mileage has built with great patience over five years and I’ve transitioned to minimal shoes and have gradually increased the strength of my knees, bones, and muscles.


Why a Marathon? – Part 1

In a handful of days I will run my first marathon – The Big Sur Marathon. This rather epic run marks my multi-year journey back to running and a renewed interest in how the rhythms of daily life feed my creative work. This journey brings me to a particularly grateful state where I am more fit and thin than at age 18. Only a few days ago I completed my final long run in preparation for the marathon. The Boulder County trail system offered 20 glorious miles filled with sweeping mountain views, rolling prairie hills, and a meandering creek lined with cottonwood trees. I also slogged up one of the large hills on highway 36 between Denver and Boulder and finished just under three hours, which puts me on track to finish my first marathon under four hours.

I feel ready even though I am still playing around with nutrition and hydration options and still deciding which pairs of shoes will make the journey. I’ve kept up a steady running schedule and racked up 167 miles during the month of March. Early ambitions of a rigid training agenda evaporated because life has taken an unexpected turn over the last five months. Our family suddenly finds ourselves wrapping up a 14-year stint in Colorado and relocating to NYC so I can lead Young Concert Artists in the heart of Manhattan. Plans for careful sets of speed workouts, hills, tempo runs, and strength training never got off the ground. All I could muster was a steady accumulation of miles over five weekly runs and one long run every Saturday. Yet, I am far ahead of the average first-time marathoner and believe I will mostly enjoy this experience.

High school included a brief two-season running career on the cross-country team. I had modest potential and could clock consistent 6:15-minute miles for a 5K as a freshman. Nothing spectacular – but a nice starting point. Running was good and it was a special pleasure to be outside in the Connecticut fall weather everyday after school. Ongoing hip pain and an increasing commitment to music ended this activity by junior year. Thus began a twenty-year running drought.

About five years ago I suffered an unexpected return to running when I lost a bet to a friend. I had been decidedly intellectual in my life’s pursuits and was not a regular exerciser. When out with a few friends for a beer one night, our dyslexic friend Will announced he had made a list of six masterpieces he hoped to read in the next year. If reading required a painful and slow effort, he only wanted to spend time with revered tomes from the canon. His list included James Joyce’s Ulysses. I chuckled cruelly upon this announcement because I knew very few people who had ever read and understood Ulysses. They all had PhDs in literature from schools like Yale or Stanford. Ulysses contains some 30,000 separate words spanning a few languages and plays with time and tangents in confounding fashion. Most should never attempt to read Ulysses. Certainly a severe dyslexic could not wade through the impossible morass of Ulysses and my worst un-PC self said so.

My rather elitist diatribe sparked another friend to challenge us to a bet. If Will could read Ulysses in three months, I would have to sign up with the group for the Steamboat olympic distance triathlon scheduled in 10 months. In a moment of weakness that played upon all clichéd male insecurities and group pressure, I consented. I went out for a jog the next day and slowly became a regular runner. Early six-mile runs left me wrecked and my knees and ankles ached. Slowly things felt better and new shoes and running shorts supported the transformation.

It’s hard to say if I won or lost the bet. Will combined listening to an audiobook and reading to complete the book. He did read everything he listened to but it seems the parameters of the bet were not clearly established. Either way, I assumed I would be participating in the triathlon and began to run immediately following the ridiculous bet. The overall training for the triathlon was spotty and I resisted my least favorite event – the bike leg. I completed the race in just over three hours and counted it as a damn hard experience. Yet, there was a great sense of accomplishment and I had returned to running. Following the triathlon I dropped the swimming and biking.


Marion Fellowship #3: What Did I Accomplish at Chautauqua?

The Marion Fellowship requires that the journey of creating the project begin at Chautauqua. They ask that you identify a themed week that ties into your subject. I chose to straddle two sessions as it fit into other travel plans – The Arts and Global Understanding & The Forgotten: History and Memory in the 21st Century. Both happen to fit my subject well. I’m creating a multimedia theatrical piece that reflects on the dark episodes of Chinese communist history that my wife’s family lived through before leaving China to make a new life in the United States. I will unpack that in a future blog post.

I approached my time at Chautauqua as a space to listen, learn, reflect, and create. I took in a healthy amount of the cultural events and made sure to attend the events most relevant to my project. Outside of events I spent a lot of time thinking and drafting ideas. While the larger structure of my piece is established, the nuts and bolts of each movement is largely undetermined. The subjects are complex and do not present an obvious path towards artistic expression. For example, one movement is a reflection on The Great Famine. This three year famine killed anywhere between 15 and 45 million people. It was caused by a complex set of factors and contained a variety of horrific experiences. How exactly to I create a 10-minute movement for live instruments, dancer, and film? What can I express with these elements to capture some aspect of the pain that defines the famine?

This is but one example of many questions I have related to my piece about Mao’s China. How do I capture some essence of these tragic and often epic episodes in recent Chinese history in a relatively short breath of artistic expression? I specifically did not require any answers to these questions while at Chautauqua. I simply sat with the questions and created space to ask more questions. This week, which flew by, fulfilled a simple need to have space to contemplate a myriad of questions, ideas, intuitions, and other sparks of creative energy driven by this project. I believe I used the time well with the full intentions of the Marion Fellowship. Many who embark upon the fellowship are forging new paths in their own creative journey. In my case, I am tackling a darkly complex subject with three mediums that are new to me (electronic music, film, and dance). Space to sit was an incredible blessing.