Marathon Route #13: Big Sur Marathon – Big Sur, CA

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According to most polls and publications, the two most beautiful marathons in the U.S. have not changed in 20 years. On any given year, in any given account, the two races vie for national dominance. Some magazines have broken them off in their own category but this only furthers the argument that they are the gold standard by which all marathons are gauged. Of course, I am talking about Big Sur International Marathon in California and Mount Desert Island Marathon (or MDI) in Maine.  I am already registered for MDI in October but I missed the opportunity to officially run Big Sur, so it became one of my banner unofficial routes to run. I had the pleasure of driving that portion of the Pacific Highway over 10 years ago and have memories of being slightly nauseous and extremely stressed due to the hills and tight turns overlooking precipitous cliffs. Other cars sped past at dangerously unbelievable speeds, annoyed that I was driving so slow. In my defense, it was my first time and my rubbernecking tourism slowed me down as I tried to take in every glimpse of magnificence along the coast.

This is the first race where I almost chickened out. As I drove the course the day before my run, all I could see was the very narrow strip of pavement on the edge of each side of the road.  Looking at the most strenuous hills and tightest curves, I consistently saw cars out of control as they rounded a bend or popped over a hill, veering over yellow and white lines with reckless ignorance.  In some areas, I would need to choose between hugging cavern walls where I could be dragged along jagged outcroppings and have minor avalanches dump a ton of rocks on my head (my test drive did include swerving around a pile of such debris, though it was gone the next day) or run the precipice where tricked out metallic imported cars might Tokyo Drift and sweep me out and over the Pacific, tumbling a thousand feet onto the rocky spikes and raging sea below. Needless to say, running the tangents would be tantamount to suicide. All of these death traps were oiled and sharpened the next morning as I was driving to Big Sur Station.  The darkness magnified my fears and highlighted the occasional cars driven by James Bond or Mario Andretti. There were some logistic annoyances that added to my discomfort of the situation.  I was lodging farther away from the race than I normally prefer so I would be up extremely early to start in the morning.  This was my first point to point unassisted running route, so after running 26.2 miles, I would then need to have the mental wherewithal to navigate the limited public transportation back to my parked car at the start line. The morning of my run, I sat in my car for 20 minutes, running all the deadly or debilitating scenarios though me head, thinking about the worst that could happen.  I quickly reviewed options of driving to another race location that day or doing a double the following week, anywhere other than the road that might spell my doom. After going through all the possibilities, the worst of the worst, I remember thinking “Well, at least it won’t be a boring story to tell at the funeral.”  I stepped out the car, strapped on my fuel belt (and my big girl panties while I was at it) and headed towards the start line.

Course Description

I would like to start with a disclaimer.  Any tale I tell about this course would be incomplete without mentioning my true nemesis on this course.  It was not the hills, it was not the incline.  It was not the curves in the road or the canter of the pavement.  It was the wind.  The day I ran, I experienced winds of over 30 knots blowing from north to south while I was running from the south to the north.  We were at odds the entire route.  Anytime I began to feel safe, anytime I would see traditionally safe havens like downhills or long flats, anytime I turned the corner and was glad not to be confronted with the front grill of an F-150, the wind would be there, a Greek demigod of a defensive linebacker, determined to hold the line.  The wind blew so hard that I was deaf for the rest of the day because the howling buffeted my ears for just over six hours.  Any triumph I felt about running the course and feeling the way I did was tempered by a chill and damp wind that stole one foot out of every five I tool forward.  I pray that if ever I run this race again, I should be fueled by a tailwind, even if it brings hot and humid weather at my back.

The beauty of the current Big Sur course is the 5 mile downhill plunge through cool, tree lined roads. just when you feel like things are leveling out, you continue to go lower and lower. This can give you a little false sense of security and ramp up your ego so you are starting a little faster out of the gate than you may want to go looking forward to so daunting hill climbs later. It was a little disappointing to not have a sea view until just after mile five, but when you first reach the sea, depending on your speed, you will be greeted by this amazing haze of color on the ocean, as the sun starts to stretch towards the watery horizon.  Every variance of blue will dance between the ocean and the sky like a complicated prism tarantella of blue.  Miles 6 and 7 are an incline so small it feels flat so this should normally be a good place to pick up the pace, the stoic Point Sur Naval Facility towering over the coast to the west and undulating emerald hills with disinterested cud chewing cows to the west.  Your legs get to work on the first real climb just before mile 8 and after a quick, uphill mile, get to to stretch out as you race towards the base camp of the road’s Mount Everest- Hurricane Point.  Every step you take down in mile nine shows you a new daunting twist and hair pin turn you will navigate as you surmount that peak.  However, as you crest, you have one of the most breathtaking views, sexy topographic curves, leading down to the architectural garter belts of the Big Sur, Bixby Bridge and Rocky Point Bridge. One more hill and you have five miles of private coves and rocky beaches on a mostly flat terrain to rebuild your body in time for the last couple hills as you enter Carmel Highlands.  Although not as high and daunting as some of your previous hills, these are steeper inclines that require more focus and determination so late in the race.  The only disappointing feature of the this course is the finish area being near a shopping plaza, The Crossroads Carmel.  Although it has the benefits of plenty of parking and easy access to services, I do wish the race would end in the more scenic Carmel River State Park across the street.

Lessons Learned

Transportation Back Up Plans

It was a hectic week and with multiple stops in the state, I didn’t get into town until Saturday.  The Montery-Salinas Transit didn’t have customer service agents available to confirm the Off-Season Big Sur route would be operational on Easter Sunday.  Getting back to my car would have cost about $100 by taxi.  Fortunately, this week, I lucked out.  Double checking on public transportation earlier in the week would have reduced some of my stress with logistics for this run.

Double Check Calendars

Not working a 9-5 job or really anything on a consistent weekly basis, I sometimes forget what day of the week it is.  I actually had a host cancel last minute for a family emergency and as I was scrambling for a new host.  I was surprised be how many “No” responses I got.  Everybody seemed to have something planned. Hosts were either away or had a house full of family.  I thought “Wow!  Is there some festival going on in Monterey this weekend?”  Throughout that process I remained unaware that everybody had something planned for Easter Weekend.  The beginning of the week is a good time for me to double check local events and calandars to see if there will be any conflicts with my own scheduled activities.

Physical Review

After five weeks at high altitude, I was excited to get back to sea level and push myself. Even though Big Sur is known as a challenging course, I felt each of my prior races had done well to train me. I had operated with less oxygen. I had climbed daunting mountains. I had run under a scalding sun. It is possible that, now that I am a quarter of my way through my 50/50/50 quest, that fatigue may become my constant companion. However, I feel that my final four miles of this marathon show the strides and strength that I gained from my almost 40 days in the desert. Those final hills were steep and I feel that I ran them with a strength and determination usually found in my earlier miles.  Although my body felt tired and sore from fighting the headwind all day, I did not feel out of breath as I often do in the last couple miles of a race.  Lastly, after the race, I still felt strong and mentally adept.  My body didn’t physically crash as it has after other races and I was easily able to navigate post race fueling and the transit system back to my vehicle. I was disappointed with my time of 6:10:32 but reading many reviews of Big Sur, I see recommendations to set your pace about a half hour slower than you have been running.  Considering my last couple of races were around 5:40, I can’t be too surprised.  Now I know this course and when I do come back to compete I will not be worrying about being under the 6 hour time limit, I will be focusing on shattering my personal record for this course. Thank you, as ever, for joining me on my journey and next week I get to take you to another beautiful place on earth – Maui, Hawaii.  I look forward to your comments and questions.