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The Big Sur International Marathon or What's With All the Hills???

A busload of runners
Five days ago I woke up in Carmel at 2:30 in the morning so that I could head to a local middle school and wait in line for a school bus that would arrive at 3:30 and take me 26.2 miles away to Big Sur, just so that I could wait two hours in the dark and then run back along a windy, hilly stretch of highway.

Taken on its own, that sounds like madness. And while I'm not one to dispute that appraisal, I should perhaps add that there were several thousand people taking this journey with me. That many people can't be crazy right? Debatable.

This early morning odyssey - followed by the arduous return journey - is the Big Sur International Marathon, a race that in its three decades of existence (last Sunday's race was the 30th running) has developed mythical status in the minds of most runners of a certain distance. I know I've had my eye on it for several years now. Unlike other well-known races, this one doesn't take place in a major metropolitan area or boast big name runners at the starting line. And it's certainly not known as a course to PR on (in fact, the rule of thumb I heard from several runners was to take your best time and add twenty minutes to it). But it has a course with the kinds of views that you can't find anywhere else in the world.

Views like this one:
Bixby Bridge - just shy of the halfway mark

In the Big Sur staging area before the race
Luckily, after being driven to the middle school by my ever-patient dad to catch the bus, I got to the staging area with two seasoned Big Sur runners (my uncle Jay and a guy named Vince that we met on the bus) who had run this race nineteen times between the two of them. They recommended grabbing a seat on the curb as close to the highway as possible. Expert advice it turns out, as that area fills up quickly, leaving the only other spaces to sit down by the porta potties. Also, from our vantage point we could watch each batch of runners get off their bus and walk into camp. Because the temperatures were fairly chilly (around 48 degrees), this meant we got a great parade of various methods of staying warm, from the ubiquitous black trash bag method to colorful bath robes.

Maybe it was because I had on pants and a warm jacket and maybe it was just the air of anticipation surrounding the camp, but the two hours of waiting seemed to fly by and it seemed like no time had passed when the sun started rising over the mountains and race officials started gathering the three waves of runners at the starting line.

Jay and I headed for Wave 2 and watched a string of runners wander into the bushes to relieve themselves only to be repeatedly warned that the bushes were full of poison oak. I guess sometimes bladder relief now is worth itchiness later...
The starting line at Big Sur - with an unimpressed bystander and a professional photo bomber

The National Anthem was sung, words of encouragement were given and a tiny, remote-controlled quadcopter carrying a camera was flown over the starting line (a runner next to me solemnly declared that he was hiding his face because he didn't want the NSA knowing where he was... I assume he registered under a false name and paid with cash because otherwise I would think they could look him up via his registration data a lot quicker than a blurry shot from a flying camera... but what do I know?).
And then we were set free onto the "ragged edge of the Western world" - also known as a blocked off Highway 1 between Big Sur and Carmel.

The first five miles are (mostly) downhill and through the woods of Big Sur. For most of this section of the race I stuck with the 4:00 pace group, foolishly convincing myself that I was setting a feasible target for myself.

But once we came out of the shade of the forest and started hitting the hills I started backing off from this pace group. I think this was the last I saw of them:
The neon green shirt says "Grizzled Vets" - meaning this woman has run all 30 Big Sur Marathons
One signature thing about the Big Sur course - aside from the incredible views and the rolling hills - is the oversized mile markers with funny messages printed on them. As the mileage increases, so does the humor. This one struck me particularly hard at Mile 7 (mostly because I was definitely not moving very quickly):

At mile 12.2, Hurricane Point is the highest point in the race (560ft). It's also the windiest (hence the name). Eying it on the course map (below) I was a bit intimidated, but visiting it the Friday before the race (also below)... I was even more intimidated. It's a beautiful spot with beautiful views, but it's also extremely windy and the culmination of a number of false summits between miles ten and twelve, which can lead to some false hopes on race day, as runners mistakenly think they've reached Hurricane Point over and over only to see another stretch of ever-rising highway appear behind the next curve.

Hurricane Point - Big Sur International Marathon

Perhaps for this reason, the 12-mile marker sign has one of the few non-jokey statements on it, encouraging runners to "Savor the Moment!" I promise I tried to, but really I was just ecstatic to have made it to the highest point and to be on a downward cycle for a few miles.

Hurricane Point - Big Sur International Marathon Mile 12
Rejoice - it's (mostly) downhill from here!

The sun was out for most of the race - unless you were in the shadows of the surrounding mountains and the wind, though a constant force to be reckoned with, had a not-so-bad cooling effect (temperatures stayed in the mid-50s).

And while the course was punishing - especially for this Chicago runner used to miles and miles of flat land - the views were frequently awe-inspiring:

And if natural wonders aren't your thing, there were plenty of spectator-made views on hand as well:


Miniature horses:

And, of course, the infamous piano player (Michael Martinez) on Bixby Bridge, sending sweet, tinkling piano music onto the course via massive speakers. If you haven't seen a piano player in a tux playing a grand piano on the side of a highway overlooking the ocean while running an internationally known marathon, my friend, you haven't... seen a piano player in a tux playing a grand piano on the side of a highway overlooking the ocean while running an internationally known marathon. Just for your edification, this is what it looks like (though what it sounds like is otherworldly and must be experienced to be believed):

And here's me and Michael at the expo, before I had even heard him play my pain away:

Mile 20 is where most runners hit "the wall" - a made up thing that is not made up at all, in which your body realizes that it does not have enough energy to continue running and typically when you switch from running with your body to running with your mind. In other words, your mind starts telling your body to quit complaining and just do what it says. In typical Big Sur fashion, this sentiment is aptly rendered in the 20th mile marker:

By this point I was slowing to a crawl, and feeling every step of the race. I tracked a few runners and tried to stay with them to keep myself moving but was finding it harder and harder to do that. If I hadn't run 48 miles with Jay in October as part of the Arkansas Traveler 100, I could easily say that this was the hardest race I have ever run. As it stands, I can at least state with confidence that this is the hardest marathon I've ever run.

But this made the site of mile 26 - and it's tongue-in-cheek mile marker - all the more welcome:

I crossed the finish line in 4:39 and have never been so satisfied with a finishing time (except for maybe my 3:59 in New York, because I can forever say I ran a sub-four hour marathon now).

Needless to say, I was exhausted at the finish line. I grabbed the food they gave me, the iconic medal and my gear check bag, and then headed to the finish line to watch Jay finish. And really, has anyone ever looked better at a finish line? Based on how I felt after finishing (and my official finish line photos) it's almost annoying how fresh he looks here. I'm tempted to sift through the records to make sure he didn't hitch a ride at some point. But this is his tenth Big Sur (and who knows what number marathon), so let's just say he's a professional at the finish line photo:

With a little bit of post-race recovery under our belts we turned around and started walking our way back to where we were staying - in the Carmel Highlands neighborhood about 2.5 miles back from the finish line (since the course was still closed we couldn't catch a ride back). At first, it seemed like it would be a slog, but it turned out to be a nice review of the course we had just completed, and gave us a chance to cheer on the runners still coming through. We even saw Vince on his way to the finish line as we passed Monastery Beach - he was injured in February but like a true marathoner decided to make the run anyway. And he finished. That's the kind of guy I'm glad to have met.

And just so I don't give the impression that I'm more hardcore than I actually am, my dad met us at Monastery Beach just as they reopened the highway and gave us a ride the last mile back to Carmel Highlands and up the winding hills of the neighborhood that likely would have left us crawling.

So, it may be demanding. And it may be unforgiving. But by my assessment (and as I indicated in my review for Newcity) the Big Sur International Marathon deserves its coveted spot in the dreams and aspirations of marathon runners around the world. It's unlike any other race out there and it will be forever. Given the restrictions of its course, there's not much chance of it expanding to a massive field of runners like other popular races have done over the last few years. So it's likely to maintain its cachet based not only on its beautiful course, but on its highly sought-after entries.

And, whether the race is happening or not, there's always a reminder of the marathon on this mile marker sign heading out of Carmel. The inspiration for the race itself, the original sign is .2 miles down the road and this one has a tiny .2 added after the 26. Just another example of the quirky nature of this world-class marathon. I hope to see this course again some day.

Mile 26.2 of the Big Sur International Marathon


  1. Big Sur is my bucket list to complete (hopefully) next year! The sights are beautiful! Congrats on your finish!

  2. Wow, great recap. Looks like a spectacular course and I love the mile marker signs! I would like to run this one someday.


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