Had the Big Sur Marathon on Sunday and again, for the second year in a row, we could not have ordered better weather.
The actual marathon was a modified course since a portion of Highway 1 had been washed away a few weeks ago. Instead of a point-to-point from Big Sur State Park to Carmel along Highway 1, this year the course was an out-and-back, starting and finishing in Carmel. And although the rumor was the course was more difficult this year, I had many runners hang with the 3:30 group into the mile 20. Last year, I really had only a few stick with me after mile 20.
When gathering at the starting line and looking around at the faces running with the 3:30 pace group, it’s hard to determine which ones will be around at the final miles. The lean, fit and chatty triathlete may look promising, but somehow fades in the middle miles. On the other hand, the short, stocky, fullback-looking, salt-stained runner struggling on my left somehow hangs on mile after mile. It’s hard to know which ones not only have the physical strength, but also the mental strength, to push through those final miles. I always enjoy talking with some of the runners but have to remind myself not to wear someone out over a conversation that may run over an hour with the same runner. Usually at the start I give a disclaimer when pacing a 3:10 or 3:20 group that I will keep my chatter to a minimum. And the one piece of advice I always give right before the starting gun goes off is that this race is as much mental as physical and they need to stay mentally strong and mentally positive. The term is self-efficacy: believing in yourself, believing that you can accomplish your goal, believing that you are going to succeed. And when you know you can accomplish your goal then you’ll likely persist through the temporary pain. Whereas the minute you are battling doubts and your mental state goes negative (“I feel awful”, “My legs hurt” or whatever the excuse), you’ve opened the emergency exit door, an escape clause for not succeeding. And once that door opens even a crack, it is almost impossible to get it closed again. You have to believe that it is possible to accomplish your goal.
One of the guys running with my group was James McGaugh and he had told me he once weighed 330 pounds. I looked over at him and honestly said, “No way!” He looked about half that weight now. He also said he averages about 4 hours sleep a night and I think he said he was the trainer for the Cal Berkeley football team. He kept cruising along with the group mile after mile but somewhere around mile 20, he started to trail and I eventually lost sight of him.
One of Phil Hann’s favorite lines is “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.” Whether it’s finishing a marathon, qualifying for Boston, running a 50K or 100 mile race, at some point it’s going to feel hard, maybe impossible. But you have to break it down, “one bite at a time”. You could see this at Big Sur. At mile 20, the pack starts to thin. You can hear some on the edge, their breathing heavy, the salt stains forming down the sides of their faces. Now they are trying to eat an elephant and they just need to take one bite at a time. Just get to the next mile. Pick an object off in the distance and run toward it. Then pick another one. Simplify the task. Small goals. Manageable targets. Keep moving.
At this point the goal of pacing is to push those with some gas in the tank ahead and keep motivating those already redlining, nudging them forward one step at a time. At mile 24, there was a short section through Point Lobos State Reserve where we were running out of the park while runners were coming into the park. I spotted James McGaugh still running and looking strong. By this point, I had sent most of the pack ahead as they were gaining steam and we neared the finish. I had a couple of runners with me, including that short stocky guy on my left that I would have never picked to finish in under 3:30. But here he was. We had one more hill at mile 25 and as we started up the hill, he started to slow down, about to start walking. But one more “C’mon. You are almost there!” and he caught himself and was next to me, stride for stride until mile 26 when he sprinted across the finish line.
After I crossed the finish line, I immediately removed my chip tag and then turned around and ran back out to catch my real Biggest Loser runner. I waited just after mile 25 and then joined him for his last mile, and caught his finish on video. This is what Clif Bar Pacing is all about.