Big Sur International Marathon is one of the most prestigious marathons in the country. It’s mentioned in the same category as the BIG names; Boston, New York and Chicago.
Known for its gorgeous views and it’s multitude of hills. Taking place 2 weeks after Boston, it even has a special Boston 2 Big Sur option for those lucky runners who are registered for Boston in the same year.
To get into Big Sur, you must enter a lottery in which only 4-5,000 are accepted. There is also a strict 6hr time limit for the marathon, due to needing to reopen the road to the public.
I had heard of Big Sur in the past, but knowing I never wanted to run another marathon, I just wrote it off as one I’d never experience. Last year, I was following the race announcer (the amazing Fitz Koehler) and learned that there were other race distances available. In addition to the marathon, there is a 21 miler, 11 miler, 12k, 5k, and marathon relay.
After researching the different courses, I realized if I wanted to run over the Bixby bridge (one of the course highlights), I would need to run the 21 miler. It might sound crazy, but this sounded more manageable to me then the full marathon. It wasn’t that much shorter, but my training runs would not have to be in the 20s, which was a huge mental stressor for me when thinking about running a full.
Leading up to the race, I packed my schedule full of training races, because if I was needing to run 13 miles or more, I needed a medal for it. Traveling to Kentucky for a race, was particularly helpful in training me for how I wanted to prepare for the hills.
While I was getting through my training runs, my body really started feeling burnt out. My muscles weren’t recovering the way they should and I went from a great race in KY, to an awful race in GA the next week. I was trying everything I could to keep my body together (foam rolling, grastin with the chiropractor, cupping, acupuncture, and massage), and just hoped I could hold on long enough to get through my BIG race!
Leading up to the race, I was really nervous I wouldn’t be able to finish because my body just wouldn’t hold out. I told myself that it would be ok to stop if I was in pain, and just do what is best for me, it’s only a race. Knowing this, I knew that I had 6.5 hours to finish, and to walk up as many of the hills as I needed to.
All of the races are on the same point to point race, they just start at different points on the course. The 21 miler starts at about mile 5.2 of the full marathon course.
Starting the race was the worst part for me. You have to get bused out to the start at 4:15am (for a 6:30 start) due to how far the start is from the parking, and the windy, dark road. I was on the first bus (never get on the first bus), and our driver missed the start line and was driving us to the full start. He tried to turn around twice, on a narrow, windy, dark road! Just a little scary! Finally, I got to the start line and they had coffee, bagels, water, and yoga (which was a little too hippie for me). They start you at the bottom of a steep driveway type road, in this big holding area, yet the timing mat is on top of the steep hill. Once I got to the timing mat, I was so out of breath, I had to wait a minute or two before I crossed to start the race!
For the 21 miler, our first 4 miles are slightly uphill, with the big Hurricane Point starting around mile 7. I took it easy for the most part, and just kept a steady pace. the road is very windy, so you can’t always see what is coming next. There is nothing between you and the ocean other than a cliff and rocks. Most areas do not have a guard rail. I tend to run on the left side, and let me tell you that more then once, I needed to move over from the edge because it was just a little too close for comfort!
The mile markers were definitely a highlight of the race. Something to look forward to each mile, was what was the next one going to say. They were all distanced for the full marathon, which I did and didn’t like. I wish there were markers specific to my race, but having to do math kept me occupied for a few seconds if not a minute later on in the race.
About mile 6-6.5, you get to the top of a small hill and start to see Hurricane Point. From here is doesn’t look too bad. I was thinking “ok, that’s better then I thought, this should be fine.” The closer you get to the top, the more you can see that you go down hill pretty far before you start that climb for Hurricane Point! This realization just washes over you of “oh, it really is going to suck!” This was about the time that the lead full marathoners caught me.
Hurricane Point is a 500’+ incline that lasts about 2 miles. It’s pretty steep and goes on forever! I was perfectly happy to walk this whole time, and just take in all of the amazing views! I had one person ask how I was doing at this point, and I just smiled and said “oh I’m fine! Just walking up this hill!” I felt so happy that I was here and doing it, and felt good! A lot better then I thought! A cool part of the uphill climb, is that they had these female drummers, that echoed through the valley! It was a great cadence to keep and keep spirits high.
Getting to the top of that hill was so amazing! I knew the hardest part was behind me, and I literally got to run downhill for a few miles! Being so high up gave you even more access to the views!
Coming down the hill, you see Bixby Bridge in the distance. This is the main reason I did this distance, was to be able to see Bixby Bridge. There is always a grand piano on the other side of the bridge, and the music just echos through the valley. I felt so free crossing this bridge, being so close to nature (again, no guard rails). Those who are close to me, know that I not a very emotional person. This moment however, was so incredibly emotional! Standing at the other side of the bridge, listening to the music, and looking back up at the massive Hurricane Point, was such an emotional feeling of peace and accomplishment! Words really can not explain how amazing that moment was.
A few miles later, I hit the halfway point. I was very confused at this point looking at my watch and trying to do the math. I was WAY ahead of pace. If I kept this up, I would finish in about 5 hours, which couldn’t be right, because I thought I was going to be lucky in 5:45. After a minute of being totally confused and trying to recalculate, I realized that I was doing a lot better then I had planned. Walking up the big hill, didn’t slow me down as much as I thought, because instead of doing my normal intervals, I ran pretty much the whole way down. It was here that I realized that I really was going to do this!
Another aha moment for me, was getting to mile 21 of the marathon course, mile 16 for me. This is the strict cut off spot, in which you will be picked up if you are not here by a certain time. I looked at the clock and again got emotional. I was doing so much better then I thought I would be and was so overwhelmed with excitement, pride, and being grateful. I felt strong, like another 5 miles would be nothing.
Weather wise, it stayed cloudy for the whole race, with it drizzling/raining on us twice. It was in the low 50s, so I kept my jacket on for the majority of the time to stay warm. Being right on the water, we had some strong wind gusts, and wind going against us for at least half of the race.
Something that the race tells you in the race guide, is that cell reception is extremely spotty on the race course. You are basically in the middle of no where, so it’s to be expected. I knew people were tracking me, but I wasn’t able to send or receive any messages to tell people how I was doing, which I normally do during races (on my walk breaks of course).
No cell reception also affected the motigo app that was partnering with the race. This app allows friends and family to leave you recorded messages that will play at whatever mile they select. I had put out a request that people leave me a message since I was so nervous about this race. I knew there would be a handful of people that would do this, just based on their personalities and always being there to motivate me. The app lets you know how many messages you have recorded for the race, but doesn’t tell you who they are until they’re playing.
I was able to get the app working about mile 16, with my first messages being at 17. The first message was from someone that I assumed would leave me a message (and I think he left me about 7 messages to keep me motivated throughout the race). It was no less special, and was exactly what I needed, but the second message is what really touched me. It was from someone I would’ve never guessed would’ve left me a message, and to know that even more people believed in me, and wanted to support my success, was such an amazing feeling. A tear or two might’ve been shed at this point. Since the miles weren’t lined up, I was able to listen to all messages when I was back in the room, and it was one of the best parts of the experience. If a race you do ever partners with Motigo, use it, you won’t regret it!
Back to the race! I kept waiting for my calf to seize up, or my hips, or anything really considering all the hills. Surprisingly, that never happened. Cell reception came back about mile 22, so my 17, and I was able to check in with people. I messaged a few key people to tell them I felt great and was going to finish early! Passed by my hotel at mile 23 (If you’re ever able to, stay at the Tickle Pink Inn, you won’t regret it!), and knew that I would be done soon! This was the only part of the race course that I had driven on, so I knew what to expect.
With 2 miles to go, I was still feeling great, but decided to walk the rest of the way. I had nothing to prove, and was just soaking in the experience, as well as hoping my friends doing the marathon would catch up to me.
With one last hill on the last mile, I knew that I was almost there. Fitz Koehler was the finish line announcer, and I got the BIGGEST welcome into the finish line (the race actually sends you a finish line video once you’re done, which is so awesome)! It was such an amazing feeling to be done! I felt great, better then I have felt after some of my halfs.
My body knew that this was the end of my journey and just totally relaxed. I can’t really explain it. Seeing my chiropractor after, she confirmed that my body was better after the race then before (makes no sense, I know).
The medal is super unique, and is hard carved by clay every year. I love that the 21 miler was purple this year, and our shirts were purple to match.
This race is so special, and I highly recommend it to anyone. If you are worried about the full time limit, the 21 miler is a total win. You get the majority of the course, with a bigger time cushion. The views are just so unbelievable, that it’s no wonder this race is one that people talk about as one of the best in the country.
If you are unable to do the race, but would love to see the amazing views, take a drive on HWY 1 from Carmel down to Big Sur. You really won’t regret it.