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Big Sur Marathon Report

On April 25, 2004, Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche completed his second 26.2 mile marathon, running the distance in a time of 3 hours, 21 minutes and 17 seconds.   The Big Sur course is renowned for both its beauty and its difficulty.  The course includes many steep hills, including one hill of two miles in length.  Due to its difficulty, a much higher percentage of runners do not complete the race.  Those who do finish the Big Sur Marathon require an average of 20 minutes longer to complete it than they need to finish other marathons.  With this in mind, we can appreciate that Rinpoche ran a truly amazing race.  First, Rinpoche actually ran faster than he did at his first marathon last fall in Toronto!  His finish in Toronto placed him in the top 13 % of all finishers, whereas Rinpoche finished in the top 4 % of all runners at Big Sur!

Perhaps more impressive than his finishing time was the way Rinpoche ran the race.  Rinpoche reported feeling strong from start to finish.  Rinpoche said he was comfortable throughout the race; he never felt overextended or out of breath, and he finished the race smiling and waving.  Rinpoche also remarked that the experience gained from his first marathon gave him the confidence to exert himself further within his range of effort.  Rinpoche said he didn’t feel he ran harder than he did in the Toronto Marathon, but his running fitness has improved due to his disciplined winter and spring training. Most of Rinpoche’s and the team’s recent training has taken place on softer trails so they noticed the change to running on hard pavement, often with steep cambers.  Nonetheless, he was able to run faster on a more difficult course with the same amount of effort.

Rinpoche’s race strategy was to tackle the course in thirds.  He planned to run the first third conservatively, the second third at average effort, and then run the final miles hard.  Running the race with Rinpoche were his kusung Nick Trautz, his personal trainer Misty Cech (who is also a sangha member), and Misty’s husband Eric who has connected with our community and who has also been helping with Rinpoche’s training.  Sangha member Amy Conway ran with the group during the early miles. 

Nick reported that Rinpoche implemented the strategy perfectly.  The team started the race running at a 9 minute per mile pace, somewhat slower than intended due to congestion of runners near the start.  As the crowd thinned out, they were able to cruise through the middle section at a 7:30 per mile pace, before finishing the last series of hills at a 6:35 to 7:10 pace.  Running the last miles of a marathon faster than the earlier miles is quite unusual, and it speaks to Rinpoche’s patience and discipline as well as his strength and conditioning.  The runners all noted that Rinpoche was completely sure of himself and never wavered from his strategy.  Eric said that Rinpoche ran with “a gentle confidence”.  Focused and relaxed was how Misty described how Rinpoche ran.

Along the way, the team enjoyed a sense of camaraderie with the other runners.  Nick said it was like taking a journey together.  The experience was heightened by the dramatic vistas that unfolded after every turn.  They ran along steep cliffs which dropped precipitously into the surf below.  Although there was no time for close inspection during the race, several whales were seen during the drive home afterwards.  The water was a brilliant turquoise and the cool air was fragrant with the smell of the ocean and of the many spring flowers.  There wasn’t a cloud in the sky and the day was warmer than usual.  The heat tended to slow most runners, especially during the latter miles of the race.

The event was serious and festive at the same time.  A variety of entertainment was provided every three or four miles along the course.  There were high school bands, classical orchestras, and jazz and funk ensembles.  Rinpoche especially enjoyed the Japanese Taiko drummers that met the runners at the bottom of the famous two mile long Hurricane Hill roughly halfway through the race.  The pounding beat invigorated Rinpoche’s squad, and they cruised up the hill passing masses of winded runners along the way.  But Amy seemed a little disturbed by the drummers when she came upon them a few minutes later, thinking that they were perhaps playing a death march.  When Rinpoche reached Hurricane Point at the top of the hill he yelled out “Ki Ki So So!”

There were aid stations roughly every two miles along the course where rows of volunteers held out water, Gatorade, and cold sponges.  The scene at the aid stations was chaotic yet exciting.  Cups went flying and water splashed in all directions as the runners scrambled to get their fill.  One member of the team would stop to refill Rinpoche’s water bottles then scrambled to catch up as Rinpoche continued on without without stopping.  Sometimes the volunteers cheered loudly for Rinpoche, exclaiming how strong he looked.  In the final miles even exhausted runners who he was passing expressed their support and admiration for how strong and smooth Rinpoche appeared. 

Late in the race Misty dropped back a little, while Eric and Nick struggled to match Rinpoche’s blistering pace.   By the time the finish line came into view the road was lined three or four deep with spectators cheering the runners in their final push.  It was a big thrill for everyone to run this gauntlet and then cross the finish line as the excited announcer’s voice boomed from the loudspeakers overhead.  It was interesting watching Rinpoche as he neared the finish.  As they near the finish, most runners are so excited by the excitement and competition that they sprint the last few yards.  In contrast, Rinpoche didn’t change his pace.  It didn’t matter if he was passing someone or being passed.  There didn’t seem to be any sense of competition.  He ran his own race from start to the very finish.  At the finish, Eric, Nick and Misty looked as though they had,…well… run 26 miles.  Rinpoche, on the other hand, looked fresh enough to put on his robes and give a three hour long seminary talk.

Understandably, Rinpoche was delighted with how well the race went.  He commented that the service of his running support team was impeccable, making sure he stayed properly hydrated and fueled, and protecting him from the masses of runners around the group. In turn, the runners felt nurtured and inspired by Rinpoche.  The local kasung also did an excellent job providing security and assisting with the many logistical considerations involved in such a public event. 

Sangha seemed to be the undercurrent of this event.  Rinpoche was understandably very joyful when he finished the race, but he was even more elated the night before the race when he received news of how successful fundraising was going for the rebuilding of Düdtsi-til Shedra at Surmang.  The support of the sangha for Rinpoche and this cause was on everyone’s mind throughout the weekend.  If it were possible to convey just one aspect of the experience of this event it would be the appreciation and inspiration Rinpoche and the rest of the team felt knowing how strongly the sangha was supporting what they were doing.  It was clear that many, many more people were running this race with Rinpoche.  That love was very powerful.

So what is next?  Another marathon seems to be on the horizon, perhaps as early as this fall.  Rinpoche is curious about just how much he can excel in this activity.  How fast can his body take him?  If his progress from his first marathon to his second is any indication, he still has a ways to go to find out just where that limit is.  

Report by Jon Pratt

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