The Big Sur International Marathon is a bucket-list road race on what is picturesquely billed as the ‘ragged edge of the western world’. It’s a point to point 26.2 miles along California’s Pacific Highway 1 from Big Sur to Carmel and is regarded as one of the most scenic road races in North America. The highway is life to the residents and is closed for only 6 hours on race day. Supporters cannot access the course leaving only the locals to sparsely populate the route. The natural beauty and wilderness feel of Big Sur is the polar opposite of the New York marathon’s urban grandness and record crowds.
Last weekend I ran Big Sur for the first time. It was the culmination of 16 months of work. In 2016 I won a lottery entry to the race with my old friend Tanja. I trained the majority of that cycle running what felt like endless loops around Central Park’s Harlem Hill before developing a knee injury. Two weeks before race day an ultrasound confirmed a torn meniscus and my race was over before it started. I got to drive the route, see the views and support Tanja. I’d just had my first back to back marathon training cycles and two consecutive meniscus tears. Perhaps I wasn’t built for this. I needed to find out. A full year later, with a second (and injury-free) NYC marathon behind me, I was back on a plane to San Francisco.
If I thought I’d had a tough year it was nothing compared with the residents of Big Sur. During the Autumn of 2016 the area was ravaged by wildfires that became the costliest fire containment exercise in US history totaling over $200 million. Homes and lives were lost. Then as 2017 got started so did the rain. Storms brought unprecedented rainfall triggering floods and mudslides. At the time of the race Highway 1 was still closed and inaccessible at 4 separate points south of the course. The course itself had one short stretch where the seaward lane of the highway had entirely vanished. Everyone had reason to celebrate this 32nd running of the race.
An early Sunday alarm (03:30) had us boarding the bus with coffee in hand for the 04:15 drive south from Monterey along the full length of the course. Due to the highway closures busses dropped us a half mile from the start at the Ranger station. It was still dark as we got off the bus and were hit by the strong pine scent from forest floor.
At 06:45 the national anthem had been sung and the first of 3 waves of runners started out just five minutes apart.
The first 4 miles the through redwood forest are downhill. Going out to fast could be costly. If you’re struggling to find a comfortable part of the road to run on you’re not alone. There isn’t one. Highway 1 has a crazy camber to it with very few points where it’s actually level. I swear that in places there’s a three foot height difference between the edges of the road. You’d better get used to it. My best tip is to stick to the left. If nothing else at least you commit and free your mind to focus on the distance and your form. If you don’t you’ll rack up unnecessary extra distance in a side to side search for a level patch of tarmac.
Flattening out at miles 5 and 6 you enter pasture land with cattle grazing in the meadows to your left and the ocean views greet you. The first rolling hills tease what is to come. I was apparently oblivious to the breaching whales that others stopped to photograph.
At mile 10 the single biggest climb on the course begins. Two miles of winding, uphill slog climbing 500 feet. Keep your eye on your watch distance and don’t be fooled by what feels like a series of false summits. This is Hurricane Point and the highlight of the elevation map. As the name suggests it can be windy here. Last year runners were literally being blown off their feet here.
Mile 13 is a beauty, if you like downhills, and takes you over the stunning Bixby Bridge. The first half of the race is behind you, and the second is going to be harder. If you’ve looked in detail at the elevation maps and ignore Hurricane Point you’ll see an agonizing second half of long rolling hills. It’s been easy going so far…
Quoting from the 2017 BSIM program,
“…most people run into trouble at the same part of the course – miles 21-23 through Carmel Highlands… Your body is worn down and your mind isn’t yet convinced that you’ll make it to the finish. And then you hit the Highlands, where the steepest climbs of all await you… The Highlands are the place where inner demons emerge and your body cries out. Sometimes if feels like you can barely keep your legs moving – and more often, you wonder why you’re even bothering to try.”
On the positive side you’ve already invested so much there’s no way you’re going to quit now and it’s downhill to the finish!
[Big Sur and New York City marathon elevation comparison]
It’s worth looking through the BSIM course virtual tour to get a good flavour of what awaits.
Dotted along the course are several local bands playing excellent music. In NYC the bands are helping the crowds generate a buzz. At Big Sur they’re there just for the runners.
- Mile 8 : Point Sur Lighthouse
- Mile 9 : Taiko Drummers
- Mile 13: The piano man
- Mile 21: Fresh strawberries
- Mile 25: Belly dancers. (I swear I saw them, but maybe I just hallucinated it).
For the first time this year the water stations featured a BYOB (bring your own bottle) refill. That translates simply to constantly filled jugs of water to enable a speedy refill of your own hand-held water bottle. It reduces the environmental impact of paper cups and makes for a speedier water stop. It’s a great idea.