Sunday, September 07, 2008

Big Bear was a bear

Big Bear is a mountain lake (elev. 6,750') in the San Bernardino mountains of Southern California. It's a resort area for winter activities such as alpine skiing and summer activities such as boating, fishing, and hiking. For runners, it's famous as being the hometown of Olympic marathoner Ryan Hall.

This is the inaugural running of the Big Bear Marathon. For a first-time race (actually 3 running races and a bike tour all on the same day) in a small town, it seems to have gone pretty smoothly (at least from my meager perspective). Here's the article in the local newspaper about the race.

• Drove up to Big Bear.
• Heard Mickey Hall (Ryan's dad) speak at the expo. He's a well-respected pillar of the community... the cross-country and track coach at Big Bear High School. He talked about his experiences doing an Ironman triathlon and how he overcame some serious setbacks in that event (such as breaking his right-pedal clip at the start of the 112-mile bike leg).
• Ate spaghetti at a local Italian restaurant.
• Drove the marathon course to see it for myself... dang, this is gonna be tough... it's like a freakin' roller coaster... much hillier around the lake than I remembered it from a couple of years ago when I was up here.
• Camped on the south shore of the lake… found a great camping site (Yellow Post #26)... no one else around... didn't even use my tent... just slept in my sleeping bag on a ground cloth under the stars. Gorgeous night. Slept like a log.

• Caught the shuttle bus to the starting line in Big Bear Village.
• Temps around 50s... very chilly as I waited, but absolutely perfect weather for running a marathon.
• Start of race was delayed by 15 minutes as a few roads were still being cleared.
• Supposedly ~300+ of us were running the full marathon. (There was also a half and 5K that started later).

Story of my race...

I was running this marathon blind. I had no idea what kind of pace per mile I should be running since it involved hills at altitude. I was going to have to run this one purely on feel, and not worry about what my watch said. I also knew that all my acclimatization to high altitude from Colorado at the beginning of August had long worn off before the start of Big Bear.

Opening mile. Running with four guys with four others that are ahead of us a ways. The race director, Josh, who is a friend of mine, spotted me at a street corner and cheered me on.

We go up and down on the hills of Hwy 18 along the south shore of Big Bear Lake. I'm taking it easy on both the uphills (to not spike my heart rate) and the downhills (to not destroy my quads). This is one gorgeous place to run a marathon... and it's nice that the most scenic miles were in the opening half before we marathoners get tunnel vision.

We cross the dam and we've all spread out and I won't see many more marathoners until the closing miles.
I'm out there by myself. I think I'm in 7th or 8th place overall, but I'm not for sure. I'm so separated from those running ahead of and behind me that I don't even hear aid stations cheering on anyone other than me.

The aid stations have different themes. Around mile 7, I come through the tiny community of Fawnskin on the north shore. The theme at their aid station is Christmas. They have Christmas decorations and festive music playing and I'm greeted by Santa Claus. Nice touch.

I'm amazed by the number of local people who are out on the road to cheer on us runners.
Seems like everyone has come out to see the runners. Great community support. This is the community that had a huge campaign, "Move a million miles for Ryan (Hall)" (by running, walking, and biking). There are signs saying, "Run Ryan Run" still all over town.

At mile 12, Ryan Hall's dad has his High School Cross Country team manning the aid station. He offers me a gel pack, I politely mention, "That's ok, Mr. Hall." It was kinda cool being greated by the dad of an Olympian at an aid station.

The thin air at 6,750' doesn't seem to be affecting me too much. My legs are wanting to run faster, but I don't think I could keep my HR and breathing in check if I went any faster. I hope I'm not overdoing it, but so far so good.

I know the first half of the race is much easier than the second half so I had planned for a slight positive split. I come through halfway faster than I anticipated (1:33:57), but so far so good. I know I'm gonna have to back off the pace on the long four-mile climb going up to mile 20.

Around mile 14, we start running through the last of the half marathoners. The half marathon course followed most of the second half of the full marathon course. By the time we get to the finish line, us marathoners are outnumbered 20:1 in the midst of the half marathoners (at least at that point in the races).

Around mile 15, I can start to feel my old nemesis Mr. Sidestich starting to make his presence known. I haven't felt one of these in a long, long time. I back off the pace some and hope it won't be a problem.

We're now going uphill towards the ski resorts. I'm thinking: "Note to self: Any time a marathon course runs directly by two ski resorts that's not a good thing… they build those things high in the mountains for a reason." Exhausted self takes note.

Even though I had slowed considerably on the long uphill in thin air, around mile 19 I have to take a walking break.
This was really, really disappointing to me. I wanted to run every step of this marathon, even if it was a slow pace on the grueling uphills. But I had no choice. I was now battling side cramps on both sides (I'm not sure I've ever felt that before) and my HR was sky high (in more ways than one).

In miles 19 and 20, I end up getting passed by two marathoners. One was the eventual women's winner. She's from Idyllwild (elev. 5300') so she's more acclimated to thin air than I am... but she also paced herself much better than I did to conquer this course. She ran a great race.

At mile 20, we finally reach the highest point on the course at the base of one of the ski resorts. There's lots of downhill ahead, but my side stiches hurt so bad I can't take advantage of those downhills. I even have to walk and stretch out the cramps on a few downhills of all things.

I'm struggling just to hang on in those closing miles. Around mile 22, I still manage to pass a marathoner who's been ahead of me since the opening couple of miles. So in the closing miles, I was passed by four marathoners and I passed one. Losing 3 spots was not the way I wanted to finish this race.

Finally, I hit the last stretch down Hwy 18 and run up to Big Bear Village and the finish line in 3:21:31... yep, a 14:37 positive split (1:33:57/1:48:34)... way bigger than I wanted. Never been more glad to finish a marathon in my life. It's been a long time since I cramped up that bad and felt such pain in a race. Those last 7 miles were agonizing. It would have been a great 30K race (18.6 miles)... but there was still 7.6 miles to go at that point!

Here's my splits (based on my watch):

Notes about my splits:
• Mile marker #8 was way too early which made mile 8 too short and mile 9 too long. So I divided miles 8 and 9 equally.
• Mile marker #18 was way too late which made mile 18 too long and mile 19 too short. So I divided miles 18 and 19 equally.
• I missed the mile marker at mile 21 so I divided miles 21 and 22 equally.
• I ran what felt like a very even-paced effort for the opening 15 miles. The differences in splits has to do with uphills and downhills.
• Miles 17, 18, 19, and 20 were almost all uphill.
• Miles 21, 22, 23, 24, 25, and finish were a grueling struggle, even though much of those were downhill.

I didn't publicize any goal of mine ahead of time because I honestly wasn't sure how my body would respond to this tough course in thin air. My goal was sub-3:20. I thought that would be a challenging goal. I had run 3:27 at the Crater Lake Marathon a couple of years ago which had a similar altitude (but with more downhill miles). I thought if I was having a really good day, I might get as low as 3:15. My consolation goal would be 3:29.

Since the race offered a good bit of prize money, some fast runners from Los Angeles showed up. I had to leave before they posted the full marathon results but I did see that the top 2 times were 2:41 and 2:48 (but those two guys normally run marathons in the low 2:30s). 2:40s is just crazy fast on this course. I ended up finishing 10th overall.

I had to rush off from Big Bear without waiting around for results or the awards ceremony (even though I now see that I finished 3rd in my age-group, M40-44). I drove back to Riverside and got there just in time for my son's basketball game (which they won). And I returned home to a very happy wife... not because of my marathon, but because she had finally received word through the mail that she passed her comps... the very last hurdle for her masters. I was very, very glad to hear that.

Big Bear was a tough marathon in one of the most beautiful places of Southern California. I'm so happy I ran this one... my first marathon in 17 months (since my debacle in Boston '07). I just wished I had paced myself a little better on that opening half so I wouldn't cramp up so bad on the last half. Oh well. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.