I ran leg three of the Big Sur International Marathon team relay as part of “TokBox Too”. To get an idea of what that means check out this map of the course below, and focus on the dip between miles 9 and 10, and follow the route all the way through 17.

My race went as follows:

  • The first mile was too quick. I got excited by the energy of being at a race, and did the first half mile too quickly up a very steep slope, and found myself hitting the one mile point, and taking a 200-yard walk.
  • The second mile was much easier than the second half, and I had completed the 2.2 mile initial climb in approximately 23 minutes. At that point I was really excited about my chances to have a good race.
  • The third mile is a descent equivalent in heigh of the previous 2.2 mile climb. Both Jim, who ran the same leg for the opposite TokBox team, and I found that on the downhills, the best strategy was to let yourself go, and just “fall gracefully”. Doing that, I covered the 3rd mile in 8 minutes, well ahead of pace, and definitely did not exert the energy necessary to do an 8-minute mile on a flat surface.
  • The next little bit was flat with a slight climb to it. The climb was one that I knew was coming, and so I thought that I handled it well. At this point I was well into my ABBA “Euphorics” album, which is a techno remix of ABBA classics. It was really interesting music to run to because it allowed me to be neutral as to pace, but every now and then I’d belt out a chorus just to keep my energy going. I also developed a water station strategy of pouring a cup of water on my head to keep cool, and then taking one sip of Gatorade as I passed the second half of the water station. It really kept me even and pushing forward.
  • My next big challenge was the climb from mile 15 to mile 16. I wasn’t expecting it at all. I just did a bad job of scouting out the course, the result of which was too aggressively climbing the hill, and still having almost a full mile to go before the next relay exchange point. It was just poor planning on my part, and I was really disappointed in myself at that point. Had I handled this piece of slope better, I really believe that I could have finished in under an hour.

As it were, I ended up finishing the race in 65 minutes which put me at a 9:24 minute pace. Really A+ on paper, but I really wanted that one hour, 7-mile run.

All of that said, the thing that I learned the most from this race is the immense challenge of organizing something for thousands of people with the severely limiting constraint of only having one entry path and exit point to the whole ecosystem. The Big Sur International Marathon is run along CA-1, which is an absolutely gorgeous stretch of highway. However, it’s also the only way to get to Big Sur where the race started, and the only way to get back to Carmel where the race ended.

So here’s the dilemma… You need to let thousands of people run a marathon, 21-miles, marathon relay, and two other races, but you also need to let basic health and safety services patrol the route as well as take people who are at check points behind the main pack back to the end gate. The solution provided today was to have everyone behind the main pack wait until the main pack had gotten beyond the 20-mile point, and then to start shuttling people back. That meant that the members of the TokBox teams who finished the first leg didn’t leave their exchange point for almost four hours. After waking up at 3:30am to make it to the race in the first place, this just felt like poor customer service. I’m sure there were safety concerns to consider, and I’m sure that after 25 years, that the organizers of the marathon have a much better idea of how to run their marathon than I do, but this really felt like they missed something.

So what could have been done differently? First, and foremost, I think that they needed to communicate better to the relay teams what was going to happen. I don’t think anyone realized that there was going to be a four hour wait to get back for the first leg runners. That’s a really easy win. Being more upfront about “broken windows” is something that I really think more organizations need to be on top of. After waiting four hours, one immediately sees that the food isn’t that great or that the buses are cramped. One keeps finding things to complain about, whereas I think the organizers would hope that the runners would be reminiscing about how great an experience they had just had.

Another easy win may have been to just get people further up the line. Maybe by the time I’m at the third or fourth exchange station I can say to myself that I’d rather run the last 10 miles or 5 miles as opposed to waiting another 30 minutes. Give me that option. Let me feel as if there’s an escape from the time trap in which I’m caught. I just think that you need to let people escape from the idea of being trapped. Don’t make it difficult for people to figure out where they are, what their options are, and how they can best get to where they’re trying to go.

Finally, I think the biggest piece may have been to simply close the right lane off to runners, and have the shuttle buses going back and forth. When a bus is full, then it moves forward, and you have as many safety officials as needed behind the pack to make this possible. Even if all this does is move people from exchange one to exchange two until there are more safety officers, what it allows is that as soon as the ability to get back is there, then it will happen. Be able to deliver upon the message you gave in a bare minimum form.

I do have to say that I had a great time during my run, and that I would definitely do it again given the chance. My form really impressed me, and I had a really great view of some of the most beautiful coastline in the world. I also learned a thing or two about setting expectations, and making sure to deliver against them.

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