Hurricane Point earns its name. Classical piano at the halfway point of a marathon can be incredible inspiring in the right setting. It is possible to make a new friend while still racing hard. And Big Sur International Marathon deserves its bucket-list-race status. I learned all of that this past weekend. After a whirlwind two weeks of racing, here is my Big Sur Marathon review: beautiful and brutal.
I’ve seen pictures and read race reports from Big Sur for years, and I’ve wanted to run there for a long time. When I found out about the Boston 2 Big Sur challenge, I decided I would run Big Sur the first year I completed Boston. I’m so glad I did. What an incredible experience and race weekend.
The logistics for Big Sur are pretty crazy. While not nearly as big as Boston (Big Sur has around 4,000 marathon runners and 16,000 total people on the course including the other distances), the challenge is the same. The only route to the starting line is down Highway 1. So that meant I had to wake up at 3 a.m. to be at my designated bus loading zone at 3:30 a.m. That wakeup was not easy. Then we had an uncomfortable, winding road ride to the starting line. After reaching the dropoff zone, we had to walk another half mile to the starting village, where thousands of runners crammed into a tiny area (see picture).
There were plenty of port-o-lets, so the lines weren’t bad. Each port-o-let had a humorous, or helpful, tip written on white paper and attached to the outside door. Mine claimed to be a wifi hotspot (other favorites were “comfy couch inside,” “whales spotted at mile 15 yesterday,” and “blondes only”).
I was freezing cold, so I did a longer than normal warmup of two miles. As I finished, I saw Michael Wardian warming up as well (if you don’t know about him, just google his name and be amazed). He nodded to me and said “good luck!” A few minutes later, I watched as he greeted many other runners and race officials. He went on to win the race, but more about that later.
Unlike Boston, Big Sur’s starting situation was quite open. I was able to line up right in the front, and I was able to sink into a rhythm immediately.
The first few miles are downhill. I made sure to conserve energy and run in a comfortable zone.
Through the first 10K, I couldn’t help but think about all of the differences between Boston and Big Sur. Each is amazing, but the energy is polar opposite.
If Boston were a song, it would be (appropriately) “Shipping up to Boston” by the Dropkick Murphys. So what would Big Sur be? After a lot of thought, I’m going to say “Across the Universe” by the Beatles. “Jai guru deva om. Nothing’s gonna change my world.”
In Boston, we had people screaming almost every step of the way. In Big Sur, most of the course was secluded. And, until the last few miles, the people along the course spectating didn’t make any noise. The entertainers along the way were almost all playing relaxing, calm music. That, mixed with the stunning scenery, gives Big Sur a serene vibe.
When I ran Boston two weeks ago, the race started at 10 a.m. in the blazing sun. Big Sur started at 6:45 a.m., in the shade. I didn’t have a ray of sunlight on me until mile six. That was also the first point where the runners can see the ocean. From then on, the race was an up-and-down rugged tour of what the race officials called “the ragged edge of the western world.”
As we started mile seven, we began our first significant climb. At the top of that hill, we began facing significant headwinds. The resulting downhill felt like a giant wind tunnel. There were several spots along the course where I felt stronger winds than any race I’ve done before.
In mile 8 we began to pass people walking the 21-mile race. All of the events start at the same time, and the faster marathon runners end up passing multitudes of walkers. Much of my race involved cutting back and forth and around walkers, and at one point, I ran into a girl who was pausing to take a picture. She wheeled left and into my path out of nowhere, and I caught her with a brisk shoulder. We both felt bad, but I have a feeling it hurt her a lot more than it hurt me.
As we approached mile 10, we rounded a corner, and I could see the climb to Hurricane Point ahead. Those two miles may be the toughest I’ve ever raced.
With a stiff headwind and a steep uphill grade, Hurricane Point is the stuff of nightmares. I won’t take more time to complain about it, because I knew to expect an incredibly tough course, but those two miles were by far my slowest and most difficult.
As I rounded the top of Hurricane Point and saw the next mile and a half, mostly downhill, in front of me, I thought back to Boston. I know I will never have another race so rewarding and meaningful as that first Boston was for me. But remembering how I felt while running through that city helped me take a few moments to appreciate Big Sur. I wasn’t stressed about my pace or time. I was still running hard and wanting to do my best. But after Boston, I no longer have the immense, self-inflicted pressure to perform well on my shoulders.
Iconic Bixby bridge lies at the bottom of that downhill. You can actually see the road winding down to it in the main photo for this story. As soon as I rounded that corner, I could hear faint strains from the famous pianist. Bixby marks Big Sur’s halfway point. Each year, a classical pianist sets up a grand piano just across that bridge. And he plays music for hours (with a little help from a sound system and speakers). I know he doesn’t play the same song over and over (although he might have a tight rotation), because I watched several videos runners uploaded after yesterday’s race. But as I ran across that bridge, the Pacific crashing to my left, he played “Chariots of Fire.” My heart grew, and I found my legs that I had lost on that two-mile climb.
Earlier in the race, I had noticed another runner wearing a Fleet Feet Sports singlet. We passed each other back and forth a few times, and he caught back up to me around mile 14. I had passed him on the long climb. I normally don’t talk to other runners when racing, but the Fleet Feet logo sparked my interest. So we started a conversation. His name is Robert, and he works at the original, 40-year-old Fleet Feet in Sacramento. He’s originally from Austria, and he’s lived in the USA for three years.
He is also a big reason I didn’t fall flat in the final miles yesterday.
For the final 12 miles, we were never more than 10 meters apart. I encouraged him and help set the pace for several of those miles. He encouraged me and led the way for the other half. It worked perfectly (even though we were in the same age group and technically racing each other).
We shared different parts of our running stories. We shared some pain on the final miles of hills as well. I’m grateful for Robert, and I’m not even mad that he beat me by 3 seconds.
The final 10K was almost as difficult as the two-mile hill. Each sharp incline came with a severely cambered street. The exaggerated slant made each step hurt more and more. I started feeling a sharp knot in my left quad with 1.5 miles left, and I knew I was going to cramp up soon. Thankfully I was able to run right through it and finish.
I entered Big Sur in fourth place in the Boston 2 Big Sur challenge (the top 5 men and top 5 women receive awards), and I wanted to hang on to my position. Thankfully I did. I ended up finishing Big Sur in 2:51:37, just 34 seconds slower than Boston. My combined B2B time was 5:42:40. I finished in fourth overall in the Boston 2 Big Sur Challenge and ended up fourth in my age group and seventh overall at Big Sur.
After the race, and a shower/pizza stop, I went back out on the course to soak up a little bit more of the Big Sur coastline. The scenery is unmatched. As I drove the winding roads back to Bixby, I listened to acoustic songs and couldn’t stop smiling. Roo Panes “I’ll Move Mountains” came on, and it was perfect.
The rugged cliffs and pounding surf. The relaxing music. My aching legs making sure I knew they weren’t happy with me for running those hills so hard. Boston 2 Big Sur is challenging. But the reward was well worth the years of training and effort.