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Big Sur Marathon Race Report

Posted May 08 2009 11:39pm
“It’s a beautiful day – don’t let it get away …”
-U2, “Beautiful Day”

For me, the 2009 Big Sur Marathon wasn’t supposed to happen. I had prepared to sit out this year’s event in favor of my ultramarathon schedule for the spring – but then I became the beneficiary of good connections and good luck, and a race entry basically fell into my lap.

Given my history with this race, this was an offer that was pretty much impossible to decline, but I didn’t want to disrupt my overall training buildup by doing a taper or having an extended recovery period afterwards. I also knew there wasn’t a chance that my long, slow trail mileage (or last week's 50-miler, for that matter) would enable me to run Big Sur at nearly the pace I’ve kept in the past. In other words, I had to take things pretty easy.

So my goals for this race – and for this report – were pretty straightforward: run in a way that wouldn’t destroy me, and try to capture some of the sights (and sounds!) that make this one of the most wonderful events in running. Remember how I said that John Steinbeck often referred to the epic East of Eden as his love letter to the Salinas Valley? Think of this as my love letter to the Big Sur Marathon – except with about 1000 times less writing talent.

However, what I lack in literary merit, I’ll try to make up for in photographs. On that note, we may as well jump in. As usual, click any of these to enlarge:

Probably the worst aspect of running Big Sur happens right off the bat: the long wait at the start area in the pre-dawn darkness. The logistics of getting hundreds of schoolbuses up and down a 2-lane coastal road dictate that runners are dropped off in Big Sur as much as 2 hours before the 6:45AM start time. If you’re looking to have a good race, you have to find a place to huddle from the cold and conserve your energy as much as possible while killing time before the race begins.

On the other hand, if you’re an ultrarunner who’s just looking for a high-volume training day …

You take off running. I estimated how much time I had to burn, then ran from the start area in my warm-ups, eventually making it about a half-mile past this marker before turning around.

One huge benefit of running three miles down the road before the marathon is that there aren’t any lines for the porta-potties.

When I returned to the start area, there were signs of life, but I still had about 20 minutes to kill, so I did another mile before stripping off my sweats and hopping into the start corral.

8 miles down, 26.2 to go. Life is good.

This girl inspired my favorite comment from the first mile, courtesy of my friend Bill: “Whoa – I almost wore that exact same outfit today!”

The first miles are gently rolling, but generally downhill through the redwood forests of Big Sur. If you didn’t know what lies ahead, you’d be tempted to push the pace and knock out some fast split times. Some folks do that anyway … they’re usually the same folks you see walking during the last 10K.

I like this shot: runners exiting the shade of the redwoods, heading to the wide open, sunny pastures that lie ahead. Of course, at Big Sur, “wide open” also means “this is where the headwinds start slamming you,” but it sounds much more enticing the first way I said it.

Emerging from the trees, runners see the first of an endless series of ocean vistas. They need all the serenity they can get, because …

… this is where the race becomes very challenging. Most of miles 7 and 8 are a long, gradual climb into the wind. On the plus side, the historic Point Sur Lighthouse remains in sight on the left throughout most of this section. And on the right …

… cows! I’ll just go ahead and make a rule: if I see cows during a race, they make it into the race report. I’ve mentioned before that I like cows, haven’t I?

By mile 9, you crest a hill and get your best vantage point of Point Sur – but if you look farther down the road …

… you get your first glimpse of the climb up to Hurricane Point. The good news is that you’ve got a mile of downhill to rest up and build your courage for the challenge ahead.

You’ve also got the taiko drummers – and this is the first of a few video clips I’m including to provide a better sense of the race day energy:

I absolutely love these drummers. I’ve written a whole article about them. In my mind, they’re the defining feature of the Big Sur Marathon - even more than the Bixby Bridge or Hurricane Point. Here’s what I wonder, though: do you think any of these songs have names, or sheet music? It seems like every song could be called “The One Where We All Drum Quickly in Rhythm”.

The drummers sit at the base of the climb, so their drumbeats help motivate you while pushing up the first portion of the hill. Before long, though, you realize how lengthy this 2-mile climb really is.

What’s worse is that the road bends around so many curves that you always think you’re getting near the top, only to find that the hill just continues around the corner. If you’re not expecting it, this stretch can be quite discouraging.

Approaching Hurricane Point, the road barely hugs the slope of the hill – in many ways, it’s amazing that they can build and maintain a road along this kind of topography. Above is a shot looking up the hillside …

… and here's one looking down. Not much margin for error if you’re a reckless driver or meandering cyclist.

At the summit, headwinds were sustained at about 20mph – which is about average by Big Sur standards. Occasionally, the wind up here is so bad that it knocks people sideways. The winds and the exposure also make this section very cold …

… as these two poor volunteers will tell you. If you ever think calling out split times is an easy gig, come volunteer at Big Sur someday.

It’s from the top of Hurricane Point that you get your first glimpse of the Bixby Bridge, and the long downhill plunge you’ll take to get there. Heading down the hill, you’ll start to hear notes from the grand piano across the bridge drifting closer in the breeze.

Bixby is the Big Sur Marathon’s most famous landmark, as well as its halfway point. Once you cross the other side, you’re on your way home. But if you’re not in a huge hurry …

… you can have your picture taken with the piano player. They actually have a team of volunteers assigned to do this for you. And if you’re REALLY not in a hurry …

… you can stop and listen to the music for a while. As my luck would have it, “Chariots of Fire” – one of my favorites – was playing right as my batteries went dead. By the time I changed them, he was on to Simon and Garfunkel. Kind of disappointing - but that’s just me being picky.

Leaving the bridge, there’s another long downhill stretch ahead, but you can also see the road climbing again in the distance. Although you’ve gone up and over the biggest hill, the roller coaster has just begun.

At least you’ll have great views to keep you company the whole way.

You know how some people like to leave presents for Santa Claus? Sometimes I like to send photos to the Marathon Foto people. I e-mail them a very small, grainy version of a shot like this, and tell them that I’ll send the full-size picture if they send me 30 bucks. So far they haven’t bit, but maybe one of these days I’ll get lucky.

Usually by the time you cross the Garrapata Creek bridge at mile 17, one of two things have started happening: you’re either running strong and trying to plot out your strategy for attacking the final 10K, or you’re starting to feel the effects of the miles and the hills – the first wobbles of wheels that are coming loose and threatening to fall off a few miles down the road. Or perhaps, a combination of both.

Fortunately you've still got musical accompaniment along the way:

This is a group of middle schoolers playing some pretty tight classical tunes. (That’s what the kids say, right? Tight means good, doesn’t it? I’m pretty sure that’s it.)

Here’s where the real challenge begins: Carmel Highlands, where the hills get steeper and the miles get longer. Logically, only one of those things is true, but it sure doesn’t seem that way when you’re out there.

The views are still pretty through the Highlands – but by this time you’d gladly trade them for a glimpse of the home stretch.

The houses are fairly nice, too – although a lot of the neighbors aren’t home today …

… because they’re all at the neighborhood party, hosted by the local convenience store. You know why they pick this spot for the party?

Because it’s across the street from the strawberry aid station! The owners of the gas station and residents of the Highlands all pitch in to buy the strawberries and staff this heavenly waypoint on the toughest section of the course. It’s independently owned and operated; during my few minute visit there, I tried to talk these kind folks into franchising out to serve some nearby ultras – sadly, I’m not sure that I convinced them.

Eventually you leave the Highlands – and when you start seeing Carmel Beach in the distance to the left, you know you’re finally getting close.

This lady is at Big Sur every year, and I’ve tried to describe her before, but words never seem to do her justice. That’s why I was glad I brought my camera:

I look forward to seeing her every time I run Big Sur – because aside from the obvious reason, it’s also an indication that you’re almost home …

… but you still have one good hill left to climb. That’s the mile 25 marker, with “D Minor Hill at D Major Time” in the background. I’ve walked up that hill far too many times than I care to admit; this year, it felt great to cruise to the top of it with a spring in my legs and a smile on my face.

Just a little farther along, and you’re there! The finish chute is always a huge celebration – but at Big Sur, it seems all the more dramatic because of the noticeable lack of spectators during the previous 25 and a half miles. But all of a sudden the road is packed with fans, you can see the finish line, and you feel like an absolute rock star.

In fact, the only thing that could make you feel better is …

A massage! Remember last year, when I was denied admittance to the massage tent because I had only run 23 miles as part of a relay team, instead of being an official marathoner? Well, after 34 miles of (mostly) official marathoning under my belt for the day, this massage felt amazing.

Perhaps the feeling was mutual – was I accidentally giving off some kind of vibe? - because my massage therapist told me I had “well-trained legs”, with very nice muscle tone. Then she gave me her card and told me to call her sometime. I’m pretty sure she meant for a massage.

Regardless, I had exactly the kind of morning I hoped for: a big mileage day, and a memorable run on one of the most beautiful roads in the world during one of the greatest endurance events in the country, in a manner that didn’t leave me completely debilitated. This week it’s back to training as usual, and my attention turns fully back to preparations for Western States at the end of June.

I’ve been fortunate enough to run this course more than a dozen times – and each time, I’m completely inspired by what a wonderful event we have right here in my backyard, and grateful for all the experiences I’ve enjoyed here over the years. I don’t think that Big Sur will ever be on my “must do” list again, but it will always have a special place in my heart.

Whether I’m racing or just cruising along, whether I’m gunning for a PR or just shooting a lot of pictures, any day that I can spend at the Big Sur Marathon is a beautiful day indeed.


U2, “Beautiful Day” (click to play)

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