The beautiful scenery and crazy hills of the Big Sur International Marathon

Wow.

A fire official on the course snapped this picture of me during the race.
A fire official on the course snapped this picture of me during the race.

Wow to the amazing views off the Pacific Coast Highway on the path of the Big Sur International Marathon.

Wow to the hills that I couldn’t have adequately prepped for in Salisbury, Maryland.

Wow to the awesome experience, from the music along the course to the strawberries near the end of the race.

I finished the Big Sur International Marathon on Sunday in 5:18:04. I’d chosen the course after reading about it and seeing photos, and I’m glad I got in the first year I attempted to sign up. I enjoyed my time in California, making a vacation out of the trip.

Here's a shot of some of the scenery from the course of the Big Sur International Marathon. (Vanessa Junkin photo)
Here’s a shot of some of the scenery from the course of the Big Sur International Marathon. (Vanessa Junkin photo)

I had done some hill workouts to prepare, but I figured I hadn’t prepared fully for what I’d face in California, and I was right. I decided to not focus much on my time, and instead just enjoy the course and stop to take photos.

The day before the marathon, I went to the race expo and listened to a couple sessions, including much of the one from Jeff Galloway (I arrived a little late) and the one with some Runner’s World staffers offering tips.

After attending these sessions, I decided to get a throwaway shirt from Goodwill. I hadn’t been too worried about the cold, but I decided it would be a good thing to have. I ended up with a funny long-sleeved shirt that said “Because I’m MATT, That’s Why” for $4. I also made the decision to bring something with me to eat before the race began, as I’d be boarding a bus three hours before the race start.

The morning of the race, I had to board a bus by 3:45 a.m. in downtown Carmel-by-the-Sea for the one-way run. Thankfully, this wasn’t as bad as it sounds, because on the East Coast, that’s 6:45 a.m., and I hadn’t adjusted to the time on the West Coast. I woke up before 3 a.m. Pacific Time and got ready, ate some oatmeal and started drinking water. I brought a couple bottles with me on the bus, drinking three bottles of water before the race began.

It wasn’t a far run to the bus pickup area, so I ran there, holding two water bottles, two packs of Clif Shot Bloks, a banana and my phone. I don’t normally run races with my phone, but I wanted to be able to take photos, and I’m glad I brought it.

I took this photo after the halfway point of the course,  and feel it helps represent its beauty. (Vanessa Junkin photo)
I took this photo after the halfway point of the course. (Vanessa Junkin photo)

When I arrived at the Carmel Plaza, I didn’t see the line that I expected to see — it seemed empty. I arrived probably around 3:30 a.m. or so, maybe a little earlier — I wanted to get there early in case people started lining up far ahead of time. I kept running a little bit, but didn’t see anyone, and turned around. When I returned to the corner, a few other people were there, and I figured that was good. It ended up that we were the front of the line, and other people soon arrived. We were on the first bus, and started the drive south to Big Sur Station.

It was dark, so we couldn’t see the course. Like another runner noted later during the run, I mostly just felt the uphills during the ride — which would be downhills on the course. But I certainly felt the uphills during the race.

After we arrived, we had about two hours before the race began. I made sure to go to the bathroom a few times, but I still ended up having to stop at three portable toilets within the first 10 miles, which is unusual for me. Thankfully, I wasn’t concentrating too much on time.

Another runner took this photo of me. I believe this was at Hurricane Point, which was after a huge incline. (Vanessa Junkin photo)
Another runner took this photo of me. I believe this was at Hurricane Point, which was after a huge incline. (Vanessa Junkin photo)

I started in the second wave, having predicted my finish time at four hours and 30 minutes. I signed up after my first marathon, in which I ran 4:17:45, and figured my second marathon would be faster and then I would add time to allow for the slower course. But my second marathon was actually slower, and I didn’t realize how much time the hills would add to the course.

There had been a good amount of warnings not to go too fast in the beginning, and my first five miles were not very fast — probably mostly due to the bathroom stops. According to my results, I actually had a negative split — my second half of the race was faster than the first half. I finished the first half in 2:41:28. I also took fewer pictures during the second half of the race, figuring I’d pretty much gotten the ones I wanted, and I also wanted to be done.

I took this picture after I finished the race in Carmel. As you can see, Big Sur is 26.2 miles away — someone added the ".2." (Vanessa Junkin photo)
I took this picture after I finished the race in Carmel. As you can see, Big Sur is 26.2 miles away — someone added the “.2.” (Vanessa Junkin photo)

I didn’t wear a watch, because I haven’t been wearing a watch during races, but I did check the time on my phone sometimes. I wanted to make sure I didn’t get close to the six-hour time limit — something I wouldn’t normally be worried about, but given the tough course, I did want to make sure I made the cutoff.

I wore a Maryland-centric outfit, with black shorts featuring the Maryland flag design on the sides, along with my red shirt from last year’s Ocean City, MD Island 2 Island Half Marathon, which has the Maryland flag design on it in an “X” to celebrate the race’s 10th anniversary. Early in the race, another runner said “Maryland!” She was wearing a Maryland flag running skirt, and said she was from Annapolis. Nearby were I believe two runners from Crownsville.

Here's just one example of some of the live music on the course. (Vanessa Junkin photo)
Here’s just one example of some of the live music on the course. (Vanessa Junkin photo)

Later in the race, a runner asked if I was from Maryland, and I said I was and asked her where she was from. She was from Westminster — which is crazy — I’m from the same county, in Hampstead. It was surprising to meet someone from Carroll County on the course.

Also a key part of my outfit were some compression shorts I’d bought recently — not for the compression but to avoid chafing on my legs. I tried them out on a 20-miler and the recent Run for the Animals half marathon, and they have worked great.

Here I am with the piano player on the course. There was a woman taking photos of runners here.
Here I am with the piano player on the course. There was a woman taking photos of runners here.

Along the course, I enjoyed lots of live music. I had heard about the piano player on the course — which was awesome and provided a unique feeling as I ran toward the music. But there was plenty of other music on the course, too, which was great.

There weren’t a whole lot of people watching the race, and probably one main reason for that is the road being closed. But near the beginning, there were people with their hands out to slap for high fives, and there were occasional people supporting runners on other parts of the course.

In the general area of Mile 6 — I don’t remember the exact spot — a group of brown cows started running next to us, the opposite way. That was cool. The mountains on the right side of us included what appeared to be a good amount of farmland.

In addition to providing water and other items, volunteers would say encouraging things using my name, which was really cool. This was only the second race I’ve done in which my first name was on my race bib, which I like.

I got this photo of the Bixby Bridge while on the course. (Vanessa Junkin photo)
I got this photo of the Bixby Bridge while on the course. (Vanessa Junkin photo)

The climb to Hurricane Point was a struggle. I never wanted to quit the race, but I hadn’t expected to walk so much. Over 2.2 miles, the course rises by 510 feet. (Here’s a map with elevation.) Although I knew it was a big hill, I wasn’t really sure what to expect — just hearing a number didn’t equate to what type of hill I’d be facing. It felt so good to be able to get to the top of that hill and enjoy a downhill portion afterward.

One of the Runner's World panelists talked about her Bixby Bridge selfie, and I decided to get one, too. (Vanessa Junkin photo)
One of the Runner’s World panelists talked about her Bixby Bridge selfie, and I decided to get one, too. (Vanessa Junkin photo)

At about the halfway point of the race is the famous Bixby Bridge. The piano player was also in this area.

The hills continued during the rest of the race, but by the time I got to the Mile 22 marker, I felt more secure. I’d read that runners who didn’t make it to that point in five hours wouldn’t be allowed to finish the race. I made it with a decent amount of time to spare — 4:28:35, according to the results — and started to feel close to the end.

Throughout the race, each mile had a fun, illustrated sign, and I enjoyed seeing what the next one would be and reading those.

Although I had gotten sore relatively

early on — actually, my butt had hurt before I even started, likely from doing some hills in a short run the day before — I didn’t really feel like I hit the proverbial wall. Maybe it was because I was going pretty slow and walking a decent amount, and taking in all the scenery.

Where I was in the field of runners, the majority of people seemed to be walking up the hills, which helped.

Although there had been a hill near the end of the race, the last half mile was not uphill and seemed to go especially fast. My boyfriend was there waiting for me at the finish, and I crossed the finish line and got a unique medallion. I proceeded through a line to get a box of food, and also had some water.

Here are my personalized race bib and the medallion I received for finishing. (Vanessa Junkin photo)
Here are my personalized race bib and the medallion I received for finishing. (Vanessa Junkin photo)

The food was too healthy for what I wanted after a marathon; while I liked some items like a bagel and banana, I really wanted something more unhealthy after my 26.2-mile feat. I was able to get a cookie, and enjoyed more food later in the day.

This was my first destination race, and in addition to an awesome experience at the race, I had a great vacation exploring the California coast. I’m especially glad I made this my year for Big Sur, as next year, the entry system will be a lottery rather than getting in based on when you click.

Interested in running this race? Here’s the race website.

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