Being the barrier in the Big Sur Marathon

So far 2014 has been filled with many challenges. Despite the road blocks along the way, I have been able to learn and grow from these moments. It has been a winding road that was not without help from several people (of which I am eternally grateful).

On the road to Big SurI encountered a bit of a minefield leading up to the 30K Around the Bay 2014 road race which was thankfully successfully navigated. This was very fortunate indeed! Not just for the successful race experience itself but also to be able to run well in the Big Sur marathon.

We often look outside of ourselves when faced with challenges in life that are out of our control. In those moments, the unknown can be overwhelming. Equally, it is in these moments that we are able to make the biggest leaps. Providing opportunities where the filters and impediments are revealed for what they are and the dance of life continues in a new direction.

This past April, I was one of a few thousand lucky people to have the opportunity to visit Big Sur in California for the 2014 Big Sur International Marathon. The race sold out within one hour of registration opening and required some quick keystrokes to get registered.

2014 Big Sur International Marathon RouteAs part of the training leading up to this event, I joined a running group called the Connor’s runners. They are a great group of runners together making the impossible possible for many people. The positive energy shared by fellow group members has been really empowering and the group’s mantra of “Be Awesome” is a really awesome way to be. It was fun to train with them through the cold Southern Ontario winter to get ready for the race.

The Big Sur marathon is a point to point run that starts in the redwood forest of Big Sur and travels along Highway 1 all the way up to Carmel. It is billed as one of the more scenic marathons in the world, and as my first travel marathon, this seemed a good place to start.

The Ginger Runner did a great job of video taping the 2014 Big Sur Marathon so for those interested in the Big Sur experience, this is worth a few moments.

Carmel HighlandsFor the last few years, I have been on a journey — in part — to learn how to become a more efficient runner. There are so many different books, magazines and online resources that often can point in different directions. Due to this, it can be difficult to know which perspective is “right”. Through practice and study, I have found that some basic tenants do emerge and I share these below in hopes that it helps provide clarity to other people doing the same.

Pacific Ocean

For the longest time I could not fully understand why there is such reluctance in the running community to educate people on their running form. I am of the mindset that cause and effect can not be ignored and that injuries for the most part, are caused. Its karma unfolding in real time…

Big Sur Redwood ForestSo why not learn from these inefficiencies and avoid getting injured in the future? In the past, when I faced running related challenges, it was a source of disappointment to find so many running books and other resources lacking on providing the answers I was seeking.

The laws of physics “dictate” that there certainly is an optimally efficient way of moving. Its just science. The problem with many static models of this sort, is that the assumption about the variables in the equation being unchanging. In fact, we individually change moment to moment more than we realize.

Big Sur - Pacific OceanThe main reason I see why there is no “one-size-fits-all” running form is that we are not all the same. That seems such an obvious statement that it might be able to go without saying, but it is a key aspect to consider in how to successfully navigate the path of training to become a better runner.

Clearly, we are not all the same. Each body is inherently different at the structural, facial, muscular and soft tissue level. On top of that, if you take into the other factors required for maintaining the homeostasis within the body, it is staggering the number of different areas that one could consider. The way we stand, the way we sit, the way we walk, the way we breathe are all different. These differences have a very large influence on how well the body travels when moving.

A crow flies in Big SurA case in point to consider is the hours one spends sitting in a chair each day. Over the course of many years, this can create structural changes and ensuing bodily compensations that have a direct impact on what is possible when we move and how the different muscle groups function together.

Doing a few stretches is not going to fundamentally change our habits, conditioning and overall movement pattens. This is just one aspect of daily life that can have a big and lasting impact in life. It is only one of many, and some of these learned habits can have quite negative results over the course of a lifetime. That is, if they are left unchecked, and not properly balanced.

Western Coast in CaliforniaSo while there is no perfect running form for everyone, there definitely seems to be one for each person. Of course, this should be broken down to what is possible or perfect in each moment and what is possible over the course of thousands of moments which are strung together over years. Hitting this moving target is quite a challenge to do without embodying the fundamentals. It is with this focus that I embarked on my journey for the Big Sur marathon.

It’s all in the moment

Big Sur Marathon BridgeAfter many years of practice it has become evident that the process of becoming an efficient runner can only really be developed in the moment. That means no junk miles! I hesitate to intellectualize this point as it too will just become a thought. As such running fundamentals or focuses are best treated as landmarks; signs along the way that can be helpful. However, if they create separation then they too become a barrier to success. This ultimately means being completely connected with the experience at hand and not thinking about it.

The race plan for the Marathon was to be present in each moment.

Bridge north of Big surBeing present reveals the beauty inherent in the experience that flows right in front of us. When we separate ourselves from the moment, we put filters that get in the way of this magnificence. I previously illustrated this in a past post about being in the moment: it is epitomized by the words of the late Zen master John Daido Loori Roshi, “You waste the moment and you waste your life“.

It’s what makes the Conner’s running group declaration of “Be Awesome” so pertinent. It embodies the mindset of success, intention and in being present in the moment. We miss so much of life when we are stuck in reflection, planning, how much farther we have to run, etc..

The Pacific OceanSuffice to say, there is a different way but it has to be experienced and not thought about. It really is nothing special and that is what makes it so great! But we do have to choose the path we want to travel on…

It was with this focus that I started the day early by getting up at 3am and having a big oatmeal breakfast. It was only a short walk to the bus pickup spot where we were bussed from Monterey Bay to Big Sur at 4:15am in the morning. The bus ride was dark and the mystery of this course loomed as we traveled along the western coast of California. I had a nice time chatting on the bus with a fellow runner and was quite relaxed. I finished my homemade chia seed energy drink 2 hours before the start time.

Pacific Ocean Coast south of Monterey

The actual drop off area in Big Sur was a bit chaotic due to it being quite packed with people in a fairly small space. It was great to take advantage of some free sunscreen while I “waited”. The bag check was well organized and it was really easy to drop off my bag. The race started at 6:45am in Big Sur with the sun already up but hidden behind the local mountains. Running through the forest with the sounds of a trickling stream and many different birds was a really fun way to start a marathon. Before I knew it, the forest was gone and the the landscape opened up.

Here are a few pictures showing the Cabrillo highway and the surrounding forest that the marathon travels through while in Big Sur.

Here are some photos taken the morning of the Big Sur marathon.

Looking out to Point Sur LighthouseThe Big Sur marathon course has a fair number of hills in it. The more challenging ones clearly are in Carmel highlands due to them being towards the end of the race. The biggest and longest hill was in the climb up to Hurricane point. That was really awesome!

So in Big Sur, I made an extra special effort to drop the filters and enjoy the moment. Granted the camera got in the way a bit, but that was figured out early in the race.

Running north of Big SurThere are many different focuses that can be attended to while running to ensure that the body is moving well. This is in part what makes practice so important. Ultimately, for them to work and fully function with movement they really need to be embodied. I have found the process of integrating these focuses can become fairly reflective until a certain level of mastery is achieved. As such, I like to think of these running focuses as pointers. Much like sign posts or gates we encounter as part of the practice. It will always be a practice and that is what makes the journey so much fun! We decide how awesome it can be with each step.

Heading down before the Hurricane point hill climbThink of the power that this provides when facing challenges and barriers. Part of the major difficulty we all face when we hit a wall is the ensuing separation and doubt that arises in the mind. Any time we are thinking about how much farther we have to run, how hard the experience is, how tall the hill is, we are separated and the challenge in front can become substantially harder. So the expression “Don’t make a mountain out of a molehill” seems perfect even if it is a mountain you are climbing.

Pacific OceanWhen it is cold, be the cold. When it is hot be the hot. When there is a hill to climb make it GREAT. Take it all in and the hill will literally disappear despite the chosen effort at that moment. Granted it may still be hard if you are pushing the pace, but it can become an “easy” hard.

Exploring what works and does not work over time and having fun with it is critical and key to success in the long run. The headings below are just a summary pointer for each item. A point of caution–any change in running style should be made very slowly.

Running up to Hurricane PointEven with a truism, if it can not be integrated or requires time to integrate through bodily adaptations, then it still is not true in this moment. As such the entire journey must be treated as a practice.

It takes a long time for the muscles, brain and tendons to adapt to change through incremental challenges along the way. Make the challenge too big and its entirely possible to get injured. So, if some bigger changes are required then they are best left to the start of a training program or the “off” season.

Below are five summary “landmarks”. Embodying each one has been instrumental in helping me over the past few years. I hope they may be of help to other people on a similar path.

Nearing Hurricane Point in the Big Sur Marathon

1) The run or race will be over when it is and not one step earlier. And, trust in your training…

Looking down near Hurricane PointWhile it helps to plan different segments of a race as part of an overall training plan, I find the focus of running by feel / effort level works best. Ultimately, you choose how hard you want to run, train for this by doing it in segments (if it is really beyond current levels, breaking it into chunks works well with active recovery between the segments) and allowing the natural wax and wane of energy levels to be part of the entire experience. Its what makes the “trust in your training” so powerful. Drop all the splits and just run the best you can on that day. You will be guaranteed the best time on that day if you are honest about it. In essence, every day and moment can be a personal best if you approach it this way. And one’s best can be defined in so many ways; it is not just limited simply to clock times. Of course it’s great to get faster, but I find that it is best to make this a secondary “bonus” brought forward by the training.

2) Listen to the body & active recovery is your friend

Hurricane PointIf I am going to race for a time that is on the edge of what is possible, then that means listening to the body during the entire process. If I am facing a really hard patch, I usually will refocus on the breath (posture, depth, etc..) to ensure I am able to fully process as much oxygen as possible. The point of this is to challenge the conditioning we are all subject to; to question the nose ring of life that guides us.

It is quite natural when facing a barrier to pull back from it. When we face stress or challenge, commonly we are conditioned to tense up and pull back from the experience.

One option is to cut back the intensity. Even with only a temporary 5-10% reduction in effort level, real benefit can be seen in course of the long run. I consider this like an active recovery and — like everything — it can be trained / improved such that you do not have to have a huge difference from your optimal effort level to the level of your active recovery.

Oxygen is no doubt a big part in limiting how fast we can run on the edge.

3) Don’t be afraid to stop or walk a bit

On top of Hurricane PointIf it is a physical problem then an honest appraisal needs to take place. The more you run and the more small mistakes you make the more you are able to rely on experience to learn the current boundaries. Some may not be boundaries at all, and some may be critical and require immediate attention.

There have been a few times in the past few years when I just had to stop running right away. Honestly recognizing these moments – despite how rare they may be — is equally important. This hopefully will be a rare event in our running lives but it seems key to recognize and take appropriate action and that is why I include it.

I hope these events are very rare but if they occur, study every moment. Much can be learned from it to empower yourself and also avoid making the same mistakes that led to the problem.

Oh and if you climb a mountain, it does not hurt to turn around and enjoy the view.

Big Sur was not a race to be rushed for me, and as such I stopped to appreciate the course in many spots. That — in part — made for my most enjoyable marathon yet.

4) Follow the energy flow and know where you are at every moment

Back down the other side of Hurricane PointAny energy that does not propel you forward in the direction you are moving is essentially wasted. That means the arms, legs, core, vertical movement, everything. One key aspect to this is your ability to know your position and manage the energy flow. That takes a long time to develop.

So for Big Sur, one area to focus on doing really well is definitely downhill running. Many of the downhill portions were more gradual than the climb. By using gravity, running downhill becomes easy. Some key points to consider are:

Big Sur Marathon Bridgea) Avoid striking the ground hard. One way to do this is to start to pull up as the leg as it is dropping (or falling) as part of the circular spinning of the legs.

Essentially, you can start the cycle in advance of the touchdown. I find that due to the natural increased leg turnover when moving faster, my reflexes are not able to respond in perfect timing to land very softly.

So by pulling up the leg early as it is dropping, the arc determining the moment of impact is seemingly smoothed out. This method can be used to train the tendons and muscles to both respond faster, feel the flow of energy, and avoid breaking and slamming into the ground.

Heading north on Highway 1They key here is to feel that your landing is as soft as possible with no breaking.

Its almost like landing a plane as a pilot and you don’t want to startle the passengers (aka muscles) or they will become tense / upset and waste energy and fatigue the muscles.

So, I often focus on having no noise when landing. Start to become aware of this with the runners around you. What sort of noise do you hear? This can be a great pointer to understanding how you are landing and if there is room for a slight adjustment.

A farm along the courseAlso, if too much speed is an issue, then adjusting the lean can help slow the body from moving too fast.

b) be relaxed; again, this goes at the same point in a different way. What is generated in an electronic circuit when there is resistance? Heat is created. I see no reason why the muscles don’t work the same way. The more tension in the muscles (apart from that which is necessary to keep your form) then the more energy that is wasted as heat. Over a long run that can be huge… When running downhill this is totally key. The more relaxed you are the better. It makes it easier to turn over the legs and teach your body to run faster without the effort.

Walkers are here....I like to align my hips and have them mostly parallel to the ground when going downhill. As long as your lean is only slight this can almost seem like you are riding a bike downhill — in the sense that you are going downhill with no effort and using the pull of gravity to take you down. I have found to learn this it is best to start with hills that are not too steep to train your legs to move faster (without going too fast). And, you get to run closer to interval paces without the effort…

Bridge on the courseSo, don’t work at all at running when you go downhill. Relax and let gravity do the job for you. Your only “job” is to control your posture to optimally allow the energy to flow. This is how running downhill can be a break when running longer distances.

As the crow flysc) allow your stride to lengthen naturally behind you but be sure you maintain as much alignment with the three pendulums (the arms are one pendulum, the legs another and the hips the third and the key to your energy source). This provides endless opportunities in itself to “put your mind” in different places like your Hara (core area) and even in the other spots to just inspect how well the alignment of these pendulums is working. I like to try not to force it here, but to allow the flow and then just get a sense for how well it is working.

Inspect how the energy is flowing through your legs, through your core and ultimately pushing you forward up your back and through your arms. Awesome volunteers and lots of Goo..Think of your back / spine like a musical instrument and see how it is functioning without making any judgements. How does the energy move through the legs? Do the quads / hamstrings have to tense up or are they mostly loose. Tendons can be charged like springs but they do have to be trained to handle the load over time. Again, it is a process of managing the energy flow and inspection of this in real time can provide clues to places that small adjustments can be made. It may be as simple as asking the body “permission” to relax a certain area that seems too tense. Often we tense up when we are uncomfortable, so inspecting this may also be part of the process.

Getting close to 10k out..d) When your legs are tired it is generally harder to do the above but this can be a great opportunity for getting faster and becoming a better runner by training this aspect. This part is usually HARD but it can be fun if you accept the challenge…

5) Learn from your mistakes to avoid the same thing in the future

This is the secret to success in every aspect of life. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. Be resolved to never repeat the same mistake twice. This is what makes the experience of running so incredibly worthwhile! It provides endless opportunities to practice this.

While I find I am just a novice in this regard, I now make this a cornerstone in anything I do.

Carmel HighlandsWhat an experience it was to run in the Big Sur Marathon and to spend a few days afterwards to explore this beautiful part of the planet. Leaving the forest was momentarily hard to do and much like tearing off a band-aid, it had to be done quickly and without reflection.

Be the barrier and you never know how far you might be able to go.

Exploring the Big Sur area after the Marathon was really something; these are a few of the still points while climbing down the mountain.

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2 Comments on "Being the barrier in the Big Sur Marathon"

  1. Julie
    13/05/2014 at 12:08 pm Permalink

    Love this post, your philosophy, running tips, great video and your awesome photos. Thanks for sharing it.

  2. runningsamadhi
    16/05/2014 at 3:50 pm Permalink

    Hi Julie,

    Thanks for your kind comment. Much appreciated.

    You guys run an AWESOME race! By the way, the volunteers and people helping out on race day were first class. Everything combined together from the volunteers, well stocked aid stations, easy bag check, amazing course, funny mile markers, and a small race feel made it a very special marathon.

    Keep up the good work.


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