Race: Big Sur International Marathon, a race that some regard as the most beautiful marathon in the United States
Location: Point-to-point course from Big Sur, California to Carmel-By-The-Sea, California; approximately 2 hrs south of San Francisco
Time of Year: 6:45 am on a Sunday at the end of April, when the flowers are in bloom
Weather: Can be variable, with possibility of fog and/or strong headwinds. For 2017, it was a sunny, not very windy day. Starting temps in the low 50s and ending temps in the 60s. I wore Nike shorts, my Athlettuce tank top from CustomInk, and my Rock Creek Runner hat. I also started the race with my long sleeved tech shirt from Freedom’s Run, but I took it off after the first couple of miles.
Logistics: First step was to get into the race. This race uses a lottery, and I was fortunate enough to get in on my first try. When it was time for race weekend, we flew direct from Dulles to SFO on Thursday night and stayed at the SFO airport Marriott (pleasantly surprising airport). We picked up the car on Friday morning, drove down to Monterey (approx 1.75-2 hrs), and checked in at Hotel Abrego, one of the many race hotel partners. Hotel Abrego was fine for our purposes — seemed clean, had a window we could open for fresh air, was walking distance to downtown Monterey, and had a mini-fridge to hold our goodies. Nothing too fancy. If I did the race again, I might consider the Marriott that is centrally located in downtown Monterey because I have loyalty status there and because of the location. The race expo was at another hotel in Monterey, about a 15 minute walk from Hotel Abrego. We went on Friday just as the expo opened because we happened to be in the area. The space was very small for the number of people, so this was the only chaotic aspect of the race — wait in line to get bib, find the end of the line for a bus ticket, wait in line for a shirt, with all the lines blending into each other. It was not terrible – just a little jumbled – but, on the other hand, the volunteers let me switch out my shirt size without sending me to yet another line. On the morning of the race, I left Hotel Abrego on foot at about 3:45 to arrive at the Marriott at 4 am to catch a bus. Very easy, and there were lots of people around so I wasn’t nervous wandering the streets of Monterey at 4 am. The bus took us 45 minutes south toward the race start. Due to road closures caused by the recent flooding and/or wildfires, we walked about half a mile from the bus dropoff to the race start. I still had over an hour to use the bathroom (OK supply of portapotties) and check my bag. There was also free coffee, water, and bagels available, although I did not have any. Lots of people were just sitting around until it was time to shed our warm layers and line up. After the race, there was a nice finisher’s village with the easiest free beer process I have experienced to date. There were buses available back to Monterey, but my husband came and picked me up so we could grab lunch in Carmel. We stuck around Monterey until Monday morning, then headed back to SFO to fly home.
Swag/Expo: This race uses virtual goody bags — boooo — and the expo was a little messy, as mentioned above. However, I like the long-sleeved tech shirts (size up), and somehow I got a care package from Haribo delivered to my hotel room the day before the race, with a Clif bar, water, and gummy bears. On-course, there was free Gatorade Endurance, two or three spots for free Gu, and a few opportunities for oranges and bananas. There also seemed to be a good amount of aid available on-course — Vaseline, tissues, etc. After the race, we were given typical pretzels, cookies, etc. plus some refreshing pineapple juice and strawberries. And free Sierra Nevada beer! (I had a few sips of the Summerfest, but really cannot drink a whole beer.) I like the medals, which are made of clay and have a fun beachy vibe.
Course: I said “This is bonkers” out loud. Several times. In a good way. The course is about 30% “fine” (think: normal residential or farm scenery, nothing too interesting going on), 40% “very pretty” (rolling hills, trees, ocean views), and 30% “wowza” (waves crashing into cliffs). Zero strip malls. There definitely are hills, although none are particularly steep. I had no trouble jogging them without too much discomfort, although some folks chose to walk. The biggest hill curves up and around the shoreline to Hurricane Point, following a steady 5% grade from mile 9.8 through mile 12. The descents took a bigger toll on me, but nothing too terrible — just a little soreness around the ankles and feet from the pavement. Each mile marker had a cartoon and a theme, often tied to the sponsor or the spot on course. Very cute. No timers at each mile, but who cares on this type of course? Also, there was a fun mix of music along the course, including a tuxedoed grand piano player at Bixby Bridge, jazz, Chinese drums, acoustic Katy Perry, some aging rockers, and a few school bands. My only suggestion for the RDs going forward: it would be great to have a little camera sign or other notation for spots that offer particularly good photo ops. A few times I stopped and took a bunch of selfies, only to find a much more magnificent view a few steps down the road. #californiacoastproblems
How It Went: I had no time goals for this race and instead just wanted to take in the views and enjoy a good long jog on the Pacific. I thought of this as a training run for my upcoming 50k, the Golden Gate Dirty 30 in June. I didn’t pay attention to my pace, other than to check in a few times to be sure I wasn’t accidentally pushing myself too hard or trying to pass people unnecessarily. I kept my heart rate low, took the hills step by step, and finished with only soreness in my ankles and feet from the descents. I fueled with a Stinger Waffle before the race and some Huma gels during, plus a little Gatorade when things got hot. I am usually anti-running-selfie, but in this race, I stopped for photos several times. I also peed 3 times on course (in porta potties!) — not sure what that was about, but since I wasn’t concerned with my time I figured Why not? Also, at one point I came up behind a man I was 90% sure was fellow Wahoo Tiki Barber, who I knew was running the race. I thought about giving him a little “wahoowa” as I passed but then I thought Wait, what if this isn’t Tiki and I say wahoowa to the first random very fit bald black man I see? That would be rude/embarrassing. So I chickened out. Except then when I passed him I was 100% confident that I had the right guy. So of course I slowed way down and walked through the next water stop, hoping Tiki would catch me and I could give him the wahoowa. It never happened. Only disappointment of the race. I finished with a time of 4:26:51.
Overall Impressions: Love it. I can see why this race has the reputation it has. This is a fantastic, challenging course in a beautiful part of the country. The organizers know what they are doing, making the experience drama-free. Given the laid-back, fun atmosphere and photo ops, I would have loved to run this course with a friend or group of friends. If you run this race, be sure to bring a camera, take your time, and look around/behind you periodically for the best views.
What Else to Do and See While Running the Big Sur Marathon:
NOTE: Due to recent weather issues, the vast majority of the Big Sur-area state parks were CLOSED during the 2017 race. This really altered our plans for hiking and beach-seeing. However, we still found some fun and beautiful things to do.
- Drive (or bike) 17 Mile Drive. Pull over a few times and take some photos. Lovely at sunset. I liked the Lone Cyprus, Bird Rock Hunt Course, and Ghost Tree stops the best. Free admission if you are headed to…
- Dinner at Pebble Beach. We had a nice dinner at The Bench after my husband wrapped up his round of golf. Even if you don’t play, this is a nice opportunity to see an iconic course, with dinner or drinks looking out onto the 18th hole. If you want Pebble swag, skip the pro shop and go instead to…
- Cannery Row. Mostly touristy and overwhelming, but we found three spots worth checking out: (1) Pebble Beach Outlet Shop for discounted Pebble Beach golf apparel; (2) Cannery Row Antique Mall for fun finds, such as frameable historic maps and vintage ads; and (3) Pendleton outlet, for rustic blankets and dog outfits. (Speaking of, we saw no fewer than six dog boutiques during our time in CA…). Once you pass Cannery Row, be sure to check out…
- Harbor seals along the Monterey Bay Coastal Recreation Trail. Watch out for bikers and children ringing bells on bike contraptions. Consider going early to avoid crowds and noise. If you want another chance to see harbor seals in a more serene spot, go to…
- Point Lobos. Absolute hands down #1 thing you must do in the Monterey/Carmel area. Get there early. Pay for parking. Walk the big loop. Bring a camera. Be quiet around the baby seals. Look for whales. And the #2 hands down things you must do…
- Get ice cream at Revival. This Monterey ice cream stop is the jam. Try a bunch of innovative flavors, and then get the Bee’s Knees in the most lovely gluten free (I think coconut-based?) cone.
Speaking of, we had a surprisingly tough time finding good food. Like, what’s a girl gotta do for a grilled artichoke on the California coast? Apart from the two food spots mentioned above, here’s a quick summary of what we tried:
- Crepes of Brittany — Fine. Crepes. Pretty self-explanatory.
- Montrio — Yelpers seem to love this place, but we give it a solid 4. Like, out of 10, not 5.
- Alvarado Street Brewery — A good option in Monterey. Nothing mind-blowing. Definitely opt outside. Found an acceptable grilled artichoke. Beer garden in the back looked cool.
- Restaurant 1833 — We didn’t eat here, but I had a nice time sitting on the patio by the fire while my husband had a cocktail.
- Cultura — We got lunch here in Carmel after the race. Clean, simple Oaxacan (not Mexican, they said) food. Free Oaxacan hot chocolate to close out the meal was particularly nice.
- Boardwalk Subs — On our last day in Monterey, we could find nothing that sounded particularly good to both of us, and we were so skeptical of the Yelpers by this point. We went to this casual Atlantic City-themed spot (random!) and I had a fine vegan soup.
We did not try Poke Lab (closed Sundays) or El Cantaro Vegan (closed Saturdays) but both sounded good and were well-reviewed. Also, my husband’s caddy at Pebble Beach recommended Caffe Trieste in Monterey for breakfast but we weren’t able to work it in to the schedule.
Have you run the BSIM? What did you think? Many consider it a bucket-list race — what races are on your bucket-list???