Big Sur Race Report

I’ve posted a Big Sur race report. My intention when I write such things is to share something of use to those who might run the same event, or approach another from a similar angle. (This race’s angle: watchless running.)

Big Sur International Marathon, 2011

with the Runner’s World Challenge

Running this gorgeous race, on a special out-and-back course (a landslide took out a bridge on the Pacific Coast Highway, forcing a reroute of the usual point-to-point course from Big Sur to Carmel), was a highlight of my athletic career, inasmuch as I have one. In a preemptive strike on aging, and in service of my intention to enjoy my training and my racing, I’ve begun choosing events based on joy rather than time.

Watchless Running

As a coach, I do like data. There’s so much fun tracking and useful information to glean from the maps, graphs, and charts I look at on Training Peaks. As a yogini, I know the importance of listening to your body instead of your watch. An equipment issue gave me an idea. My sage-green Garmin 405 is breaking (the plastic that houses the strap connector is on the verge of complete failure)—conveniently just as the new 610 model is rolling out. A thought wormed its way into my head, and I tossed it back and forth on a walk to get the girls from school.

“What,” I asked myself, “if you were to run this marathon completely free of external feedback?”
“Very cool,” I answered. “Oh, but then I wouldn’t have my mile splits!”
“Exactly. That’s the point.”

My strategy in previous races—Kiawah, where I ran my PR; Boston, where I BQ’d—has been to run conservatively and systematically at my goal pace, stepping it up at the end if I have anything left. And with successful execution of the conservative plan, I do. It’s not the very fastest way to race, but it is a surefire way to feel good during and after the event.

A race like Big Sur, where the hills seem to preclude a PR and the scenery demands your attention, seemed like just the place to try out watchless running. I managed to talk some of my friends into joining me watchless: Tish Hamilton, Runner’s World’s executive editor, had just run Boston; David Willey, editor-in-chief, was game, too.

Others were too attached to data, or feared that they’d run too fast in the first half without the watch to slow them down. I figured it came down to two questions. For the first half, “Am I running too fast?” and for the second, “Am I running fast enough?” On the way to the turnaround, then, I’d consider, “Should I run slower?” On the way back, “Should I run faster?”

It turned out to require less thinking than that. I just ran. Free, watchless, happy. I had a few pleasant miles with Nils, above left, and many pleasant miles with watchless David, above center. We ran a glorious negative split, and if we’d had data, I’d bet nearly every one of the last six miles was faster than the one that went before.

Only once did I glance down at my empty wrist. Just after the turnaround, I pulled ahead of David at an aid station, and thinking I was alone, I caught myself looking for my time.

What You Notice When You’re Free of Time

A great part of the joy was the freedom to notice the course itself: a feast for the senses. There were glorious views everywhere, mountains, sea, beaches, rocks, trees, creeks, beautiful homes. We saw large wildlife and a tiny ruby-throated hummingbird. There was music of all kinds, including the race-signature grand piano, but very little spectator noise on the closed course. There were marine smells and eucalyptus groves. There were fresh strawberries, an explosion of flavor and texture, at mile 22. And there was the cool morning air that warmed in the sunshine, the sea breeze, the road camber, the feeling.

Nature’s Ice Bath

What better ice bath than the ocean? David put his watch back on and we stood in the Monterey Bay for ten minutes. The Pacific is cool but not freezing. I thought of my friend Charlie Engle, who used to live in Monterey. He told me he’d finish every long run at the beach to stand in the water. You can see his recovery advice in The Athlete’s Guide to Recovery and read about his new endurance event—a stint in federal prison—on his well written blog, Running in Place.

The Runner’s World Challenge

A huge part of the positive experience was visiting with the fantastic people of the Runner’s World Challenge. The staff does a wonderful job upgrading the entire race experience, from training to packet pickup to pre- and post-race parties. I had the pleasure of speaking on the panel at the strategy session (complete with a restorative yoga demo using the pillow from my hotel room!). It’s such a treat to connect with the Challengers. I hope you will join us at the Philadelphia Marathon and Half Marathon on November 20. The course is fast—it might be time to see how watchless racing can lead to a PR!

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