My personal Big Sur Marathon race review - what was this iconic race actually like?
We had wanted to run the Big Sur international marathon ever since seeing it on a "bucket list" of marathons around the World. It is run from south-to-north from Big Sur on California Highway 1 up to Carmel, near Monterey. (Carmel is also famous for having Clint Eastwood as its Mayor for some years).
This is a spectacular coastal course with stunning views of the Pacific Ocean, and some unique features, such as crossing Bixby Bridge at the Halfway point, where you come across a tuxedo-clad pianist playing a Yamaha baby grand piano!
However, this is probably not a marathon for first-timers; there are some challenging sections (such as the 2-mile climb up to Hurricane Point), the probability of strong winds, and a strict 6-hour cut-off. Any runners not maintaining a 6-hour finish pace will be stopped and transported back to the finish.
This race is also an official Boston Marathon qualifier. If you can do the qualifying time at Big Sur, you will have earned it!!
But first, let's look at how we got to the Start line.
First off, the race is limited to a maximum of 4,500 runners. There are several methods of applying for a place, such as the "First come, first served" entry, the Charity Donation option, and the Boston 2 Big Sur Challenge. You can read all about the various entry options at the Big Sur International Marathon page HERE.
We applied for entry as "First Time entrants", and were lucky to both get places!
Entry fees are a bit higher than for most marathons we have run. If you are a US resident, it's $175. If you are from overseas, it's $200. If you are applying as a Charity Donation runner, it's over $300 - but half your entry fee goes to charity.
BUT I have to say you get A LOT for your money. Before I made the trip to California, I was thinking that this was going to be an expensive race to take part in. But after taking part, and totting up everything we received included in our entry fee, I think it is excellent value for money.
Here's what you get;
1. A high-quality long-sleeved tech shirt, in mens or womens cut, with an original design.
2. A unique ceramic medal if you cross the finish line in under 6 hours.
3. Food and drink at the start and the finish of the race. This includes water and coffee before the start, plus doughnuts. I've done another marathon anywhere that offers so much food and drink BEFORE the start!
4. A souvenir race program and weekend race guide FULL of all the information you need - and a lot more that you don't need, but is really interesting anyway.
5. A full race expo (in Monterey) with MANY exhibitors and information race clinics. Lots of gear to inspect, try on, and buy! Mogsy bought some SunWise race sunglasses that have been excellent! You can also meet the tuxedo-clad pianist who will be playing at Bixby bridge, get your photo taken with him, and even buy one of his recordings.
6. Bus transport from various points on the Monterey peninsula and Big Sur to the Start area, and afterwards from the Finish area back to your collection point. In fact, this bus transport is compulsory, because Highway Number 1 is closed to private vehicles, and there is no parking and no drop-off area at the start. You get your bus ticket at the Expo.
7. Results and classification online, and also published in Monday's Monterey County Herald.
SO, we had our entry confirmed. Now we had to arrange to get there, from Spain, and organize accommodation.
Finding flights was straightforward enough, using SkyScanner search, and then comparing the results with an alternative search engine such as Kayak. As usual, the cheapest fares involved a few more stops and a circuitous route, but we were in no hurry, and I was able to offset some of the long-distance discomfort by paying a bit extra to reserve extra-legroom seats.
We got a local flight to Madrid, and then on to Los Angeles with Iberian Airlines. Our return flight was also from L.A., but with British Airways on the A380 super-jumbo, to London. And then from London back to Madrid and then home to Alicante.
Accommodation was a bit more awkward. I just googled "accommodation Carmel" and then "accommodation Monterey". At first, early on, I had found a very nice room for a good price at Carmel Mission Inn, which is VERY close to the finish area, and also close to a bus pick-up location for transport to the Start. Unfortunately I didn't book it at the time, and when I went back a few weeks later, it was sold out!
So then I looked more closely at Monterey, and found a motel on the main road from Monterey to Carmel. It was a gentle 15-minute downhill walk into central Monterey, and also to the bus pick-up point on the morning of the race. For this reason it turned out to be a good location!
After the race, we were dropped off at the bus point in central Monterey, and got a taxi back up the road to our motel. After a shower, a protein shake and a can of beer (to re-hydrate), it was back into a taxi, headed to Fisherman's Wharf. This is a nice seadront area of Monterey, with restaurants and bars to relax in.
SO, It's OK to stay anywhere in Monterey, as long as it's within 15 minutes walk of the bus pick-up and drop-off points. You can check the areas by looking at the official map HERE.
On the morning of race day, we were up at 3.00am for our porridge and coffee, then it was a 15-minute walk into town to the bus pick-up. There were hundreds of people queuing up, but I was amazed. Everybody was in good humor, everybody made an orderly queue, and buses were turning up every minute, it seemed, making a queue of their own.
Boarding the bus was fast and organized, and before I knew it we were off to the Big Sur start area, in the dark. We didn't see much on that trip as it was so dark, but it didn't seem to take long to cover the 30 miles.
Again, the drop-off procedure was fast and organized, with everyone taking their turn to get off and moving away quickly for the short walk to the start area. There were some porta-potties set up at the drop-off point, which was a little distracting. Some folk thought they were the only toilet facilities, and started queuing up - only for marshals to advise them that there were many more porta-potties at the start area.
It was about a 5 minute walk to get to the Start area proper, where we had a doughnut, drank some coffee, and made our bathroom break. Then it was time to take off our track-suits and long tops, bundle them into the bag, and deposit at the bag drop-off.
Then we had a gentle 2 or 3 minute walk up the hill, from the start line. We and NOT fast runners, and so we had to make our way back up the hill, to allow space for the faster runners. We had a smart phone with us, for photos, and as we were taking some selfies before the start, we found everyone around us to be super-friendly and offering to take photos for us. I got the feeling this was going to be a FUN marathon!
With a limit of only 4,500 runners, this is not a big, busy race like London or New York. It was super-relaxed, very friendly, and extremely well organized.
As the Start gun went off at 06.45am it was getting light, and we could see the forest that we were running through for the first few miles. I noticed that there were a LOT of porta-potties along the route, with 6 to 8 cabins at each location. This is WAY more than I have seen at any other marathon, and proved to be a welcome feature - due to the multiple coffees I had before the start (sheer gluttony) I had to make no less than SIX comfort stops through the race! LESSON: Don't drink lots of coffee at the start!
The energy stations/water stops/toilets were situated every 2 to 3 miles along the route. This was very frequent, and is a great feature. There is Gatorade and water at every stop, and later stations have fruit and GU gels.
As we neared the coast, the sun was up, and we had spectacular views of the Pacific Ocean. Almost around every bend and every crest, there was another view. Lots of people (including us) were stopping and taking photos and videos.
This is NOT a course to attempt a Personal Best Time - too hilly, too windy, and too many wonderful sights to photograph!
At the bottom of the valley just before the 2-mile climb up to Hurricane point, there was a spectacular drumming group just after Little Sur River Bridge, which gave us inspiration to tackle the "mountain" in front of us. Of course, I stopped for some photos and a video.
We had read about the climb to Hurricane Point, and it was a section of the race we were a little worried about. In the event, it wasn't that steep (but steep enough), and we were able to keep up a steady pace for the ascent. The higher we went, the more the wind got up, and as we approached Hurricane Point, I had to hold my running hat on with my hand, as it was in danger of blowing away!
And sure enough, at Hurricane point itself, it felt like we were running into the teeth of a gale. This is the highest point on the course, at 560 feet. But as soon as we rounded the point, the wind started to drop miraculously, and within minutes we were in more comfortable conditions, making our way gradually down towards Bixby Bridge, which marks the Halfway point of the course.
There were some bends and twists in the road, and as we got nearer and nearer, we could hear a piano playing, from almost a mile away! Obviously, the wind was blowing in our direction. Eventually Bixby Bridge came into view, and sure enough, there was the tuxedo-clad pianist at the black Yamaha baby grand piano, playing "Annie's Song".
Of course, we had to stop for a photo opportunity. I thought I had made a bad mistake when I ran over the timing mat next to the piano, then ran back over it to get my photos, only to run over it forwards again. I thought I might have been disqualified - but it didn't register on the timing equipment as a problem. Phew!
And so it was on to Soberanes Point and on to Carmel for the finish. A nice feature was fresh strawberries a few miles or so before the finish. Big, juicy strawberries! After 23+ miles of running, it was a welcome treat.
As we approached the finish line, we were able to summon up a slightly faster pace for the cameras, and made a spirited crossing of the line!
Our medals were given to us quickly, but without rushing, and we were quickly into the refreshment area, where we also collected our drop bags. All so highly organized!
We got out of our sweaty running tops, and put on dry tops before finding our bus for the trip back to Monterey. Of course, this was only a few miles from the finish area. Once back in Monterey, we found a taxi to take us back to the motel - we had left a $20 bill in our drop bag for the purpose.
As mentioned above, the location of our motel on Munras Avenue proved to be quite convenient, at an economical price. We had a shower, a protein shake, and a beer, then got a taxi back down to Fisherman's Wharf for a late lunch. Perfect!
As you can see from the photos, Big Sur International Marathon is a truely spectacular course, but it's much more than that; it is supremely well organized, and you feel "looked after" every step of the way. The whole event is friendly and good-humored, and very enjoyable. We highly recommend Big Sur as a great event if you're looking for a relaxed marathon in a scenic location, without race pressure to do a PB. The only thing I would say is that you must be comfortable doing a street marathon in under 6 hours, preferably 5 1/2 hours, so that you don't have the pressure of trying to beat the cut-off.