In short, here is my Big Sur Marathon race recap: it’s amazing! Suffice to say the course is beautiful, breathtaking, and scenery is hard to beat. Yet, it is a difficult course! ~2,500’ elevation loss and ~2,200’ elevation gain, with a 2.2 mile uphill climb at mile 10 (this is the infamous Hurricane Point).
I was so concerned about the elevation gain, specifically the climb at mile 10, but it’s actually the downhill that GOT ME in this race. The downhill along with the rolling hills in the last few miles of the marathon beat up the quads. Downhills are notorious for fatiguing quad muscles, and it is difficult to replicate the long downhill stretches, at least in Georgia. It’s possible to replicate an elevation gain at minimum on a treadmill (if you live in say, Chicago), but treadmills don’t provide a downgrade.
Big Sur VIP Program
But, I’m getting ahead of myself, let’s rewind to registration. My friend, Michael, and I opted to register through the VIP program. The cost is $500, and is open to I believe 450 runners (which is ~10% of race entrants). My vote it is definitely worth it. Why? Race registration (this year) is $175, however, it is a lottery entry and difficult to get in. Secondly, you receive weekly VIP emails and a training program (three different training programs available), which begins early in training cycle.
That, combined with receiving VIP race merchandise valued @ approx $125, a pre-race pasta dinner ($25), and a VIP tent area post race with a full brunch and bar. This year’s VIP race merchandise contents are a great gear bag, a ¾ zip long sleeve VIP long sleeved tech shirt, and running socks. There’s more… you have special designated buses for transportation to start line, a VIP tent area to keep you warm at start area (with hot drinks, bagels, bananas and VIP porta-potties) and a designated packet pick up at the expo. All of the staff associated with the VIP program is top-notch as well, professional, friendly, and helpful.
Big Sur Logistics
While the race is exceptional in so many ways, you must know this is not an event where friends or family will be able to watch you on the course. The vast majority of the course is closed, leaving only the finish to race watch. Yet, the finish line also is not exactly easily accessible either, due to limited parking options. If family/friends want to see you finish, advise them to leave with ample time to find parking. Our friends searched for a parking spot for at least 30 mins, and we finished the marathon at approx 11:30 a.m.
Big Sur Marathon Hotels
The official race hotel, Portola Hotel, is very nice, and if I run BIg Sur again, I likely will book there. It is centrally located in Monterey, where you can walk to shops and restaurants, and easily walk to the bus for race transportation. The race expo is in the adjacent Monterey Conference Center. It is more expensive, and sells out fairly quickly, so move fast if you plan to book there.
However, there are many options for hotels in Marina, Monterey and Carmel. We stayed in Marina at a Marriott Springhill Suites. It is nice enough, rooms are spacious, and provide microwave, mini fridge, and breakfast There’s also the benefit of a washer/dryer on main level (I washed my race clothes on Monday morning). A number of shops and (mostly) chain restaurants are across the street; namely an REI, and a Target if you need last minute supplies. (Note, staying in Big Sur is also an option with limited shuttle service available, but getting back to your hotel (near start line) post finish may be logistical challenge.
Big Sur Dining
It seems the largest variety of great restaurants are in Carmel. If you’re interested in a nice lunch or dinner (dinner especially), book a reservation at least a day or two in advance. One of our favorite places was Big Sur Bakery. Highly recommend it, and prepare to wait, but it’s worth the wait. The staff is oh so friendly. And, there is a lot to look at outside the bakery!
Big Sur Expo
Fairly compact, but nice with lots of race merchandise. We went on both Friday and Saturday, and Saturday was much more crowded. Plenty of official merchandise remained on Saturday, but last minute race needs (GU, blocks, etc.) were scarce. Note!! The race shirts this year (2019) ran very small. I am normally an XS-S, and sized up to a medium.
I do recommend driving Hwy 1 the day prior to the race if possible. It is beautiful, and it gives you a better sense of what you’re “in for” on race day. There are many places to stop, and see along the drive. However, Big Sur is becoming increasingly popular; get out EARLY if you want to see these two great destinations: McWay Falls @ Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, and Pfeiffer Beach where you can see purple sand! Here’s a link for what to see in Big Sur: Top 11 Things to Do.
The Big Sur Marathon RACE Itself
Race morning – you must ride a bus to the start! Most bus pick up times range between 4:00-4:30 a.m.! If you’re not staying at a hotel where a bus is picking up, you need to arrange to get to the bus stop, so plan accordingly. There are six bus locations between Monterey/Carmel; you will need to get to one of those! The bus ride to start area takes about one hour, putting you in the start area about 60-90 minutes before race start. It is often chilly, so bring an extra layer that you can store or chuck early on.
Note, the marathon only had three corrals (A/B/C), with first corral starting at 6:45 a.m., and then each corral five minutes apart.
The Big Sur Marathon Course
This is not a mile by mile description of the course; a detailed overview is on the Big Sur Marathon website (BSIM course tour). Yet, I will go into some detail on what surprised me about the race, what I learned, and some thoughts for you, if you decide to tackle this race. Also, this is my 11th marathon, so I do have some experience, and typically train well for my races, and this wasn’t an exception, with focus on hill training each week.
In terms of training, you need to do hill work! This is a VERY hilly course, and if you live in an area where it’s flat (Chicago, Houston, etc.), then hop on a treadmill if possible to incorporate some hill training. (They say 6% grade for two miles will replicate the climb at Hurricane Point.) I live outside of Atlanta, and there are PLENTY of hills. The issue is there are no areas where I can encounter 3+ downhill miles like on the course, and that is what got me during the race. I did a lot of leg length training, and I know it helped!
Again, the area most runners are concerned with is the 2.2 mile climb at mile 10 to Hurricane Point. It is difficult, but doable. My friend and I ran a 4:1 split (run 4 mins/walk 1 min) for that portion of the race, and it worked very well for us. We only did run/walk split on long climbs (here, and a few other spots). The run/walk breaks up the long climb; I was surprised when a volunteer said Hurricane Point is “just ahead.”
More Big Sur Marathon Course Highlights…
The TaikoDrummers at mile 10 are a great send-off as you begin your ascent up Hurricane Point. You can hear them as you approach/leave that section, and it puts some much needed pep in your step. Then, once you crest Hurricane Point, and begin your descent, you will hear beautiful music (thanks to speakers) played on a Yamaha baby grand piano.
Broken record… the best way to prepare is to incorporate hill training! In terms of race strategy, do not go out too fast in the first six miles (much of which is downhill)! When you crest Hurricane Point, do not “take off” on the downhill. It’ll crush your legs well before you are close to 20 mile point. There are many rolling hills in last four miles with some steep climbs, and you will feel it. Lastly, this is not a marathon you can skimp on training, or you can, if you’re agreeable to having a very uncomfortable race!
Other Notable Big Sur Marathon Notes!:
There are only 11 aid stations, which is fewer than some other marathons. There are porta-potties at each of these stations (plus where the relay exchanges occur). You may want to consider bringing your own hydration storage (vest, belt)!
Gatorade Endurance is on the course. If you don’t drink it often (most of us don’t use it unless in a race), then consider bringing your own hydration/isotonic. Some people have GI distress with “GE” as it is more concentrated than Gatorade. I use Tailwind (powder form, which makes easy to travel with), and LOVE it.
We were lucky in that we had a tail wind for most of the race; this is unusual. Sometimes the wind is very strong (cross or head wind); be forewarned!
VERY limited cell coverage throughout the race; almost non-existent until the last few miles of the race. Have friends/family track you as you won’t be able to contact them until late in race. The tracked markers are: miles 5, 9.8, 13.1, 15.6, 17, 22, 24, and the finish.
Certain sections (quite a few) have steeply banked roads, so be mindful of how it may affect you over multiple miles (look for flatter sections along the road).
The Finisher Medallion – is awesome; handcrafted by the same individual (Kathleen Kelly) since Big Sur Marathon’s inception 31 years ago. Composed of clay, they are breakable, so be careful! Kelly states “I touch every piece,” and delivers the medallions to the event every year. Says Kelly, “I usually have two people who help me in the process. It’s all in my garage.”
IMPORTANT: My last tip is to remember to take photos!! Turn around and look what’s behind you – you’d be amazed, especially when you get to peaks of a climb!