This past Sunday, I ran the 2015 Big Sur International Marathon, and it was incredible. I’m still glowing from the experience.
I’ll provide a bit of background, outline my training, and talk about the race weekend, but you can click here to jump right to the event summary. I’ve also embedded my running playlist at the bottom.
I’ve always been drawn to Big Sur. The first time I visited California, my friend Joe and I spent a night camping there, and I’ve been in love with the area ever since. There’s something magical about the redwoods and ocean air that keep me coming back for backpacking trips, concerts, and anything else even remotely interesting. I don’t need a compelling reason to visit Big Sur.
Needless to say, the Big Sur Marathon has been a bucket list race for a few years now, and I was lucky enough to secure a spot during the signup window. I convinced some friends to join me as well. It would be their first full marathon for two of them.
The Marathon Training Plan
I have done 2 marathons in the past (Honolulu in 2013 and Los Angeles in 2014). I followed Hal Higdon’s “Novice 2” training plan for both of them.
For the Big Sur Marathon, I decided to kick my training up a notch. I felt comfortable with a higher weekly mileage, so I decided to follow Hal’s “Advanced 1” program. I knew it would be challenging, but I liked that it had three 20 mile runs as opposed to just one. If I could pull it off without injuring myself, I figured I’d be in great shape for Big Sur.
The Big Sur marathon route is notorious for it’s hills, particularly the segment known as “Hurricane Point”. As such, I modified my training plan to include one day of hill training each week. I’d drive up the PCH to Temescal Canyon Road on Thursdays, park my car on the shoulder, and run up and down the road like a maniac.
These hill training days were a bit unpleasant at first, but I quickly grew to enjoy them as they were a nice break from my standard running days.
Aside from the hill training, I wanted to focus on finishing the marathon in less than 4 and a half hours.
There is one particular training run worth mentioning. My first 20 miler was on a Sunday with some unusual weather (for Los Angeles). It was pouring out. I sat inside for an hour or two waiting for it to slow down, and then I decided to suck it up and just go, figuring it’d slow down eventually.
Well, not only did it not slow down – it actually got crazier. This was a torrential downpour that turned into hail. This was hands-down the craziest weather I’ve ever experienced in my 5 years in LA. I ran past a few other runners, and high fives (acknowledging the mutual absurdity of running through this weather) happened each time. It was nothing short of epic, and my trusty Bose IE2 headphones held up through it all.
The rest of the training went smoothly as well… It’s hard to get tired of running along the beach, and most days I really looked forward to my runs.
The fact that all of my training went smoothly had me feeling pretty confident when race weekend came. My family was flying in from the east coast, and my fiancé and her daughter would be there too, so I was really looking forward to it. I wasn’t nervous at all – just excited.
For my last 2 marathons, I ended up getting something like 4 hours of sleep the night before. I was hellbent on getting a full night’s rest this time around, to the extent that I even went on Yelp to find the quietest hotel. I didn’t want all of my hard training to go to waste because of a sleepless night before the race.
We had an early dinner the night before the marathon, and I managed to make it to bed by around 7:30.
My alarm got me up at 3am and I flew out of bed like a kid on Christmas morning. I had all of my clothes and gear laid out the night before, so I didn’t need to turn my brain on just yet. I inhaled a banana and some almond butter, grabbed my stuff, and ran out the door.
The marathon starting point was at Big Sur Station, and the only way to get there was by shuttle. When I arrived at the shuttle boarding area, seeing hundreds of people already in line got me excited. I spotted my buddy Dave and we both hopped on a bus.
It was still dark out, and the buses were slowly rolling down the PCH. The sky was full of stars, and I could vaguely make out the ocean to our right. I looked out ahead of us and noticed that the tail lights of 20+ buses were winding downwards… Way down. At this moment I realized just how much we’d be climbing on this race, and my stomach dropped. This was my first nervous moment.
I was able to distract myself by talking to Dave about other stuff, but for the next few moments I was feeling some mild doubts about my hill training. “I should have done 2 hill days per week!”
After about an hour long ride that felt all downhill, our bus arrived at the starting area. It was still dark out, but there were thousands of people there, and there was no denying the excitement in the air.
Dave and I met up with my friends Andy and Joe, and took the obligatory prerace photo.
We were in the prerace area for about an hour and a half before it was time to line up, but the time really flew by. Before I knew it, the sun was coming up over the horizon, and it was go time.
The 4 of us made our way over to the starting line, and someone with a serious set of pipes belted out the Star-Spangled Banner while a drone hovered over us. It was both beautiful and ominous.
I snapped a few pre-race photos, and before I knew it, the crowd was moving!
The Main Event
The first few miles of the race were great. We were still in a wooded area, running in the shadows of big beautiful redwoods. The weather was perfect: the air was crisp, the sun was shining, and the temperature was in the low 60s. Spirits were high – everyone seemed to be in a great mood and in awe of the beautiful surroundings.
The course was different from others I’ve run in that there was no room for spectators on the side of the road… Just rolling hills and natural beauty. At one point, cows were slowly running through a field next to us. We were treated to the serenity of our surroundings rather than roaring crowds with funny signs and people in costumes. This resulted in a totally different vibe.
About 6 miles in, the scenery changed a bit. We had seemingly left the redwoods behind us, and were running past green pastures and cows. I believe it was around here that the wind really started to pick up. We started to make our way up a gentle incline, and the wind seemed to be blowing directly at us.
I did a great job pacing myself for the first half of the race. I knew that the incline from miles 10-12 would be challenging (600 feet over 2 miles), so I ran at a very comfortable pace (roughly 9’45”) and was able to talk to my friends while we ran, which made those first 10 miles fly by.
As we approached Hurricane Point at mile 10, I felt totally up to the challenge. You can see the beginning of this portion off in the distance of this photo:
I was ready. About a dozen people playing taiko drums at the base of the hill got me pumped for the ascent. I got my headphones ready, started my marathon playlist, and began the climb up the hill.
Naturally, I snapped a selfie on the way up.
The climb up Hurricane Point really wasn’t as bad as it looked to be, and I found myself passing people left and right on my way up, as the sweet and soothing sounds of Bone Thugs n’ Harmony accompanied me. My only real challenge with this section was the wind, which was aggressive enough that I was concerned my race bib might rip off.
Those 2 miles of elevation really flew by. I was 4 songs deep into my playlist, and with the notorious Hurricane Point section behind me, I was feeling excellent.
At that moment I felt that my hill training had paid off, since the elevation didn’t take much out of me.
After those 2 miles of climbing we were treated with a long, winding downhill mile leading up to the famous Bixby Bridge.
Bixby Bridge marked the halfway point of the marathon.
I took my headphones out, as I knew that I would be passing the “grand piano man” soon, and I wanted to enjoy his music. I heard him playing “Chariots of Fire” which put a smile on my face. I didn’t stop to enjoy his music for long, as a large crowd had gathered around taking photos. People were lined up to get a selfie with him!
I slowed my pace a bit to enjoy his music and then continued on my way.
Continuing along the course, there were plenty of small hills, and I felt slightly less enthusiastic about them which each new one that I encountered.
At this point, my friends and I had all split up. We’d pass each other once in awhile, but were pretty focused on the race. Andy and I stopped at one of the more stunning vistas for a quick photo.
I’ve heard marathoners say that mile 20 is generally when you “hit a wall”. That didn’t really happen to me until around mile 22. It was also around this point when the angle of the course started to bother me. It felt like the road was tilted 10 degrees off center – just enough to be mildly annoying.
A bit down the road at mile 21, someone had set up a table and was handing out enormous strawberries. I don’t think I’ve ever been happier to eat a strawberry in my life!
My recollection of details in the last few miles of the race are pretty scarce. The “mental game” was in full swing, and I was fighting with myself to not stop and stretch. I was “in the zone” and totally focused on finishing the race in less than 4:30, so I wasn’t really taking in all of my surroundings. I had no idea how my timing was looking at this point, but I knew that the 4:30 pacer group was behind me.
There was one final hill with about 90 feet of elevation just before the finish line. This was challenging because of it’s placement, but I mustered up the strength to power through it.
As the finish line came into view and I saw the clock that said 4:30, I began to sprint. That old familiar feeling was back, a sort of agony and ecstasy. The body wants to quit but there’s too much adrenaline pumping to slow down. It looks like I’m about to have an accident in my pants here, but…
I felt a strong sense of accomplishment when I crossed the finish line. Not only did I shave over 30 minutes off of my previous marathon time, but I also felt great. I knew that my training and discipline had paid off.
My family was waiting for me at the finish line, and we made our way over to the finishers area to relax and enjoy some drinks.
I finished in 4:25:33, which was my only real goal for the race, so I was elated.
It’s hard to imagine that there are many marathon courses more beautiful than this one, though I’d love to be proven wrong. I’ve heard the Kauai Marathon is incredible, so perhaps that one should be next on my list?
Needless to say, if you’re a runner, this event deserves to be on your bucket list. Make it happen!
Having done all of that training, I am considering doing another marathon sometime in the next month. Right now my eye is on the San Diego Rock n’ Roll Marathon.
I spent the last few months slowly but surely preparing a playlist for the run. As outlined in this post, I curated my marathon playlists while I’m out on my training runs… So these songs are all “road tested”. The songs that really got my blood pumping while on my training runs made the cut for the final playlist. I didn’t end up using the playlist much though. Between running with my friends and taking in the beautiful experience, I found that I was happier without my headphones. I did put my headphones in for Hurricane Point at miles 10-12, but once I crushed those hills, I decided to ditch the tunes and enjoy the bands along the course instead.
I really dislike running and a marathon sounds like the worst thing ever but now i want to run this race. Great post John
Thanks dude! They have a half marathon too… I’d highly recommend it. Incredible course. They also go above-and-beyond as an organization… They mailed me a copy of the local paper a week or so after the event which had the marathon coverage on the front page. Pretty cool, and they totally didn’t have to do that.