On April 27th, I ran the Big Sur International Marathon, a.k.a., marathon #4. Usually, I’m eager to write a recap and analyze every little detail and feeling I had during the race. This time, however, I felt fairly satisfied with how things went… which means that I’m, for once, hoping to make this relatively short and sweet. (Spoiler: it is definitely not short… whether it’s sweet is up to you to decide!) If you’re looking for the TL;DR version, I suggest you read my dailymile recap.
Why I wanted to run this race, goals, etc.:
Last spring, I read that Big Sur is one of the most amazing and beautiful marathons in the world. Since I live less than a 2 hour drive away from the finish line, it seemed like a no-brainer to try to register for it. I’m glad I signed up the minute registration opened in July, because the marathon was sold out in a record 59 minutes!
My original “goal” was to simply enjoy the course, i.e., to run at a leisurely pace and take a ton of photos. However, as race day approached, I couldn’t help but feel like I should race it, especially since I had trained (if a bit haphazardly) and was going into the race sans injury. As for photos, I reasoned that I could take pictures of the coast any other day of the year. Moreover, when Mike mentioned that he’d be racing with a Go Pro, that sealed the deal — I’d have access to race footage/photos AND be able to race. Win-win!
(Update: You can live vicariously through Mike’s recap and GoPro footage of the race. Experience the Big Sur Marathon while sitting in the comfort of your home!)
I had time goals (A: PR, sub 4:32; B: sub-4:36), but what was important to me was to follow my race strategy of starting out conservatively for the first 20 miles and then hopefully have something left in the tank for the last 6.2. As always, I hoped to enjoy the experience and to be grateful to my body for being healthy and strong enough to run 26.2 miles.
Race week and taper went well. I ran easy 3 times at 3 miles each in the week before the race. I fat loaded, I carb loaded, I slept as much as I could, and I hydrated. Saturday morning, the Gypsy Runner and I drove down to Monterey, where we ate a delicious lunch at Hula’s Island Grill (highly recommended!) before hitting the race expo, where I picked up my bib, bus ticket, and shirt. Then, we went to spend some time with our toes in the sand at Monterey State Beach, where it was sunny but crazy windy. I desperately hoped that the wind would die down by the next morning, or the race would be brutal.
The rest of the day was very chill. We checked into the Mariposa Inn (one of the few hotels without a 2- or 3-night minimum) and eventually headed across the street to the Whole Foods for an early dinner. Then it was back to the hotel room where the GR watched the Sharks playoff game while I prepared for race day. I couldn’t decide whether I wanted to bring my hydration pack, handheld bottle, or nothing at all. After much internal and external debate, I opted to bring my water bottle with me in the morning. That way, I could make a last-minute decision to either race with it or leave it in my drop bag.
I somehow managed to be asleep by ~9:15-9:30 p.m., with 3 alarms set for 2:55, 3:00, and 3:05 a.m. (Did I mention I was afraid of oversleeping?) After waking up at 2:55 (good God, that was early!), I got dressed and picked up some breakfast from the hotel conference room — an English muffin with PB & J, a banana, and some water. The GR drove me 5 minutes down the road to the shuttle pick-up, where I got in line, boarded a bus, and arrived at the start of the race with plenty of time – all without incident. This was notable, as it was the first time I’ve experienced flawless pre-race shuttle execution, so kudos to the race organizers and to the bus driver!
The 26+ mile, hour-long ride in the yellow school bus felt a bit surreal, as we traveled in darkness for over an hour, climbing up and down the hills we would eventually have to run. Any inkling of motion sickness from the curvy roads, something I was concerned about beforehand, was quelled by a combination of the dark surroundings, sitting in the first row, and the slow speed of the bus.
The start village was very crowded and slightly disorganized. Lines had formed for porta potties and food/coffee, and it soon became confusing as to which line was for what. To make matters worse, people sat down wherever there was space, since there was over 90 minutes to kill. I sat down too close to the edge of one of these groups and had visions of being trampled on, so I moved in toward the middle of the group and eventually befriended the runners around me.
The original plan was to kill time with Mike at the start, not with random strangers. We planned to text each other; however, neither of us realized that there was no cell phone reception. D’oh! I randomly spotted friend of blog-friends Otter on his way to line up for the porta potties, but only because he had informed Mike and I that he would be wearing a tan blazer acquired from Goodwill. I then went to explore the other side of the village and realized it was much less crowded there –> Pro-tip: bear left instead of right when getting off the shuttle. The lines for everything are shorter and there was ample space to relax. Looking back, I wish I had spent 5-10 minutes jogging and doing a dynamic warm-up. There was very little to no space to do that in the start village, but there probably some room along Rt. 1 at that point. Oh well. When they announced that Wave 3 needed to line up, I filled my handheld with water and took off my sweats. One thing I really appreciated about Big Sur was that they had a “last-minute” bag drop area, where runners could dump their bags on the way to the corral. Wave 3 runners had a big U-haul truck at the very end of their corral to drop their bags. It was great; I don’t know why more races don’t do that.
I found the 4:30 pacer and lined up a little bit behind him. Shortly thereafter, Mike found me and we chit-chatted until the corral started to get really crowded. We wished each other good luck and he moved up to the 4:00 pace group. Deena Kastor was the honorary race starter, which was pretty exciting. Dean Karnazes was also in the crowd, having already run 26 miles from Carmel to Big Sur, halfway through his double marathon #2 of the week (he had done the same at the Boston Marathon 6 days earlier). Wave 1 (elites & up to sub-3:45) started at 6:45, with Wave 2 (3:45-4:45), which was my wave, starting 5 minutes after. Just before the Wave 2 start, the most horrible pre-race song came on… and I say this because: (1) the lyrics are awful as a pre-race anthem (“Wake me up when it’s all over”?? Really??), and (2) this was also the start song at the Marine Corps Marathon, so there’s an unhappy association in my brain. I tried to quell any superstitious feelings that I had about the song being a jinx and focused on positive thoughts. Same song, different race, and hopefully a very different experience at the finish!
The race started at Big Sur Pfeiffer State Park, where both lanes of Rt. 1 were closed for about 2 miles. Almost immediately, I had to abandon the 4:30 pace group because my shoe came untied. And I thought I had double-knotted it! I had no choice but to spend about half a minute on the side of the road retying my shoe. On the bright side, at least my dollar store gloves didn’t impede my dexterity. Once I rejoined the runners, I tried not to get rattled by the unplanned break and focused on my game plan to stay relaxed.
Big Sur was definitely the most trail race-like road race that I’ve ever experienced. The first 5 miles were very quiet as we ran along the tranquil, Redwood-line road, with only the sound of our footsteps echoing through the crowd. The aid stations were spaced more than 2.5 miles apart for the first 10 miles, with very small pockets of spectators along the way. As we passed Big Sur Village, I recalled our bus driver saying that the onion rings at the Big Sur River Inn were to die for. Mmmm, onion rings… we shall have to meet another day….
Even though it was cool (mid-40’s) and overcast at the start, I warmed-up quickly. I could tell it was going to be a humid day, but luckily, not very windy. I was glad that I had my handheld bottle with me, as I was already covered in sweat after 2 miles. Throughout the first section of the race, I regularly checked-in with my effort level, especially since I was wary of running too fast during the first 4 miles with a slight downhill. (Which, looking at my paces, I definitely did *not* go out too fast.) My effort “test” was to breathe with my mouth closed for a few inhalations and exhalations, which should be doable if I was running easy. I felt really good during these early miles, but I almost always do, so that wasn’t too big of a surprise. The challenge would be later on in the race.
I hate to be a whiner, but I admit that I got a little bored of the woods after 4-5 miles — I was ready for some ocean views! Somewhere around the first relay exchange (mile 5), we finally got our first glimpses of the ocean. Even though I’ve been to Big Sur 3 times previously, the beauty never ceases to amaze me. I made sure to look around and admire the scenery every few minutes. Not having headphones on, I overheard another runner saying, “Look behind us – it’s gorgeous!” So, I did and it was! Behind me, the headlands were topped off with slivers of clouds. To my left was the breathtaking coastline, and to my right, rolling green hills. It was the very definition of picturesque, and there I was, running a marathon through it all!
Miles 1-6: 10:44, 10:34, 10:18, 10:20, 10:27, 10:12.
The next section was filled with more beautiful scenery, one very loud cow on the hillside that “cheered” us on, and gradual inclines and descents, which is my favorite type of running terrain. One fellow runner lamented that he wished it was windier, so that he could have the full-on Hurricane Point experience. I jokingly replied, “Speak for yourself, buddy!” It was a relief not to be facing headwind, though I had been on the lookout for some big guys to draft behind, just in case it got blustery.
The first sizable hill was around mile 9, which served as a little warm-up for Hurricane Point at miles 11-12. At the base of Hurricane Point was the 2nd relay exchange and a large set of porta potties. TMI section (i.e., skip ahead if you don’t like bathroom talk): starting at mile 2 or 3, I felt like I could’ve used a pit stop, but it wasn’t an emergency. Although I was in that quandry for a while, I also didn’t want to waste time waiting in line for a porta potty. Looking back, I think I would’ve been more comfortable and may not have lost too much time (or perhaps I would have run faster?!) if I had made use of one the plentiful porta potties at the 2nd relay exchange. Oh well!
Taiko drummers provided the rhythm to propel us runners up Hurricane Point. After all of the talk of the immensity of Hurricane Point, it really boils down to one mile of 5-6% grade followed by one mile of moderate ascent. I made slow but steady progress jogging up the hill, passing many who were walking. I’ll confess, I felt quite smug about my hill training going up Hurricane Point. I knew from the course preview video that there are several false peaks, where you think you’re at the top, but you still have a bit more to go. So, I made sure not to get my hopes up at each turn, and when I finally got to the true pinnacle, it was very exciting! I looked down to see one mile very steep descent ahead and the infamous Bixby Bridge, marking the exact halfway point of the marathon. I had survived Hurricane Point – woohoo!
Miles 7-13: 10:10, 10:21, 10:34, 10:19, 12:07, 11:16, 9:53.
13.1 split: 2:19:51
At the other side of the iconic Bixby Bridge is another truly unique feature of Big Sur — a baby grand piano played by Michael Martinez. It was very surreal! I didn’t stop to take any photos, but there are several good videos online. I’ve read race recaps where the music could be heard from the top of Hurricane Point, but perhaps due to the nearly windless conditions this year, the music was very faint until I got closer to the piano.
The next 6 miles went by pretty seamlessly. More beautiful coastal views accompanied by continuous ascents and descents. Each aid station was full of enthusiastic volunteers cheering on the runners by name, which were printed on our bibs. The miles were ticking by rather quickly. I hadn’t felt that good past mile 16 in a marathon since CIM, which made me even happier. Around mile 19-20, however, I began the first pangs of fatigue, but I was still optimistic that my race strategy of starting off slowly would pay dividends in the last 10K. At least I wasn’t succumbing to the emotional downward spiral that hit me at MCM. Mentally, I still felt strong. Yay for small victories!
Miles 14-20: 10:03, 10:14, 10:25, 10:02, 10:34, 10:31, 10:58.
I had prepared a special playlist to spur me on in the last 10K. When I passed the mile 20 marker, I felt a little cocky, thinking that I didn’t “need” the playlist and that I could gut it out. However, the sun decided to make an appearance and the sudden change in weather also warranted a pick-me-up. Earbuds in, playlist on!
Approaching the 21 mile marker, an ambulance passed on the right side of the Rt. 1 (the left or northbound lane was closed for the runners, while the right lane was for official and emergency vehicles). Soon after, we were diverted to the right lane for a short span. As we passed the detour, I saw a man collapsed on the road, who I assumed was a fellow runner. (Later, I learned that the man was a bicycle course marshal and had suffered a cardiac event. He died later that day.) It was an alarming and unfortunate sight to see. It was also sort of ironic, given that one of my mantras leading into Big Sur was to race like the GR’s dad RC, who really gets into the zone during races. By that, I mean that RC is capable of suffering A LOT during races… so much so that he collapsed at the end of a 5K last year and couldn’t recall the last mile he ran before collapsing. (Thankfully, RC was fine.) So, I thought that I should run like RC, but hopefully avoid emergency medical attention.
Many Big Sur race recaps and veterans say that miles 21-23 are the hardest part of the course, due to the steep rollers and cambered roads. And guess what? They’re right! It wasn’t as terrible as I had imagined, but it’s a tough section after 20 miles of continuous hills. I had my first short walk break at ~21.5. Unlike my walk breaks at MCM and Oakland, I was able to stick with predetermined break lengths or distances and only on uphill sections. The one exception to this rule was Strawberry Hill at mile 23, where I grabbed 4 huge, juicy strawberries and allowed myself extra time to savor them. BEST AID STATION EVER.
As much as I wanted to run hard, my legs were feeling so heavy by this point and my calves had started to cramp. Like at Oakland, they would come on whenever I turned up the intensity just a tad, which was frustrating. However, I only cramped about 2-3 times, and they went away quickly after short 5-second walk breaks, so it definitely could’ve been worse! Despite feeling physically worn-out, I was still very sharp mentally and upbeat emotionally. Whereas in previous marathons, I would’ve lamented, “5K more to go?? Ugh.”, this time, I thought, “Only 5K more to go! I’m almost done!” I credit 3 things for this positive change: (1) my race strategy of starting off conservatively, (2) keeping on top of my fueling strategy (4 Gu’s consumed during the race – a fueling PR!), and (3) my playlist. In particular, I think Salt n Peppa’s “Push It” may have been responsible for a much faster split in mile 25, along with the net elevation loss.
There was a nasty hill at the beginning of mile 26, which was only nasty because it was so late in the race, to be honest. The nice part was cresting that hill and cruising downhill all the way to the finish line. I kept looking for a sign of the finish, which finally came into view as we made a turn in the road. That finish arch was a sight to behold! I picked up the pace and looked for the GR among the spectators and finally saw him with about 100 yards to go. Miraculously, the calf cramps stayed at bay for the home stretch, kicking in just as I crossed the finish mat. Also quite miraculously, I actually remembered to put up my arms for the finish line photos, but I must’ve done it too early because there are zero photos of me with my arms up. Oh well. One of these days, I’ll master the fine art of the finish photo! I was so happy to be done. One important lesson that I learned after MCM is that every marathon finish should be a place of gratitude and pride. Take joy in the moment!
Miles 21-26.3: 10:15, 11:17, 11:26, 11:42, 10:29, 12:00, 9.40 (for last 0.3).
2nd half split: 2:20:17 (26 second positive split)
Official Time: 4:40:06 (10:41/mile)
Standings: 117/295 AG, 661/1642 F, 1650/3334 overall
Race Data: Splits & Elevation v Pace
- 1 Clif Blok at miles 7,13, 19.
- Caffeinated Gu at miles 4, 10, 16, 22.
- Water throughout.
I stumbled through the finish area, picking up my ceramic finisher’s medallion, taking an official finisher’s photo, and grabbing tons of food and drinks from the food tent. Then I reunited with the GR, who acted as my post-race sherpa — I handed him my things in a discombobulated state, trying to figure out what I wanted to do. We met up with Katie and I decided the priorities were to hit the bathroom followed by a short post-race massage. The massage was just okay (what do you expect from a free massage?), but at the very least it felt good just to lay down and take my shoes off. We eventually reunited with Mike, who ran a terrific race despite almost not making it to the start line due to plantar fasciitis. After cleaning up, the four of us celebrated with delectable sandwiches from Ike’s.
Summary of #ALLTHEFEELINGS:
Well, I may not have met either of my time goals, but I definitely had a much better racing experience at Big Sur than I had in at MCM and at Oakland. I haven’t had a good long run this whole training cycle, so it felt great to still feel relatively upbeat and energetic as late as mile 21. I honestly feel like I gave Big Sur a very good effort, and if I had been this smart about racing at Oakland, I most likely would’ve had a much better 2nd half of that race. Big Sur ignited a feeling that I could actually RACE a marathon and not just run it… though next time around, I’ll opt for a flatter course! I definitely enjoyed the race and savored the finish — both worthy goals not to be overlooked. Last but not least, thanks to those who sent me good wishes and congrats before and after the race, to Mike and Katie for their company and for sharing photos, and to the GR for being the best chauffeur, spectator, and post-race sherpa there ever was! Cheers!
About the race:
- Organizers: Big Sur International Marathon
- Cost & Registration: $160 (including Active.com fees). The race is limited to 4500 participants and this year’s race sold out in 59 minutes. In May, they’ll announce whether they plan on changing their registration methods (i.e., move to a lottery system).
- Course: Scenic and hilly. My Garmin registered 2000′ gain/2300′ loss. It’s been rated by many publications as one of the most beautiful and must-run marathons in the world.
- Parking/Transportation: There’s plenty of parking in downtown Monterey close to the shuttle pick-up pre-race. After the race, shuttles transport runners back to the Carmel/Monterey areas. The GR dropped me off at 3:45 a.m. about 2 blocks from shuttle pick-up without any problems (i.e., no traffic congestion).
- Aid stations: 14 in all. The first 4 are spaced about 2.5 miles apart, and then less than 2 miles apart for the remainder of the course. They were very well-organized, with volunteers on either side of the road handing out water first, then Gatorade. At the end of every other aid station starting at mile 10, there was a bottle refill station sponsored by Camelbak. Also starting at mile 10, they had bananas at every aid station. Gu was offered at miles ~12 and ~18, and the flavors were announced well in advanced, which I appreciated.
- Bathrooms: There were 3-6 porta potties at every aid station, 10-20 at each relay exchange, and a random one here and there between aid stations. Plenty of porta potties at the start and finish.
- Swag: Gorgeous, distinctive ceramic medal on a leather strap/rope. Attractive, long-sleeve technical t-shirt. Virtual goody bag, filled with coupons.
- Post-race food and drinks: A wide variety of drinks and food, including water, Gatorade, chocolate milk, pineapple orange juice, Michelob Ultra, fruit, cookies, bagels, and pretzels.
- Other notes/summary: Lives up to its reputation as a gorgeous and well-organized race. Highly recommended!