Two weeks ago I had the chance to run my fourth full marathon at the Big Sur International Marathon in Monterey County, California. This is one of the preeminent marathons in the country for good reason. This was my first year running Big Sur, but it definitely won’t be my last. I can sum up the Big Sur International Marathon is three words “BEST RACE EVER.” Period.
A couple girlfriends and I used the race as an excuse for a girls’ weekend in Monterey. We headed down to Monterey on Friday afternoon and with a little traffic we arrived at our hotel around 6:30pm. We went to dinner at Tarpy’s Roadhouse in Monterey (great food BTW – don’t let the name fool you; this place is classy). After some good food, lots of laughs and maybe a beer flight, we headed back to our hotel and turned in for the night.
The next morning was Saturday, the day we went to the expo to pick up our race packets. The expo was held at the Monterey Convention Center. There were perhaps 70-80 vendors at the expo. Of course there was a bevy of race organizations, various running supply stores (I scored a brand new GU flavor – Big Apple), Lorna Jane, Running Skirts, Endurance Sports, Newton’s and others you’d expect to see. Asics was the major sponsor this year, so in addition to having them produce the race premiums, they had a HUGE pop up store with all sorts of Asics branded BSIM clothes and such. We spent about 90 minutes at the expo walking around checking out the vendors. The actual packet pick-up was super smooth and quick.
After some relaxation back in our hotel room we drove over to Cannery Row and checked out lots of little shops. We also spent a little time just watching the ocean. The day was gorgeous. Sunny, not too hot and breezy. Dinner was had at the Sardine Factory (another one with an unassuming name = this place is FANCY).
Back at the hotel we all hurried to get ready for our 8:15pm(!) bedtime. One thing you need to know about BSIM if you want to run any of the longer distance races (full or the 21 miler) you have to board a shuttle in Monterey at an ungodly hour. In fact, I had to be ON the shuttle at 4:15am (my BRF’s who were running the 21 miler did not fare much better and had to board their shuttle at 4:30am).. We woke up at 2:45am and sent the next hour getting ready. An hour later and we were walking in the pitch black early morning to the shuttle staging area. I had to wait in line to board a shuttle for about 10-15 minutes. Once on the shuttle it was a long nearly one hour ride to the full marathon staging area about 30 miles south of where we started, and started the long more than one hour wait until the race start at 6:45am.
The staging area was CROWDED beyond belief. And it was COLD. Thankfully I had been warned about the long, cold wait and had a space blanket, a sweatshirt and hat that I planned to toss once the race started. I tried to avail myself of the advertised free coffee at the start line, but unfortunately the coffee was gone by the time I managed to eek my way to the front of the line. I had to settle for hot water and dry bagels.
As 6:45am drew closer we were advised to begin loading up into the shoot. There were 3 start waves that assigned based on projected finish time (sub 3:45, 3:45-4:45 and 4:45+). Waves were on the honor system, but I figured I was planned to finish somewhere between 4:30 and 5:00 and decided to line up with wave 2. I had just come off the Oakland Running Festival full marathon (5 weeks earlier), Livermore Half Marathon (4 weeks earlier) and Ragnar SoCal (2 weeks earlier) so I was not expecting, nor attempting to PR this race, but felt relatively good about my chances of finishing under 4:45.
Standing in the chute was pretty epic. Me and 4,000 of my closest friends piled onto Highway 1 in the middle of the redwoods. The Star Spangled Banner was sung, everyone got ready and we were off. As I ran down past the start line I spied Bart Yasso on the sideline and ran up to him giving him a high 5! EPIC!
The first 5 miles of the full marathon are essentially downhill. There are short and pretty easy hills here and there, but an overall elevation loss of about 300 feet. For the most part you run through a redwood forest. The coast line is barely visible except for little peeks here and there. I ran the first 5 miles without music at all because I was just enjoying the sounds of the birds, other runners chatting and the quiet pitter patter of tiny (and not so tiny) runner feet on the asphalt. It was glorious. The weather was perfectly cool, but not cold and there was nothing more than a gentle breeze.
I planned to try to hold myself to about a 10:00-10:15 pace over these first five miles, and ended up with splits of 10:01, 10:01, 10:00, 10:05 and 10:07. I was feeling great!
The next five miles are where you hit the coast. I knew the biggest hill was coming up at mile 10 so I wanted to conserve energy and aimed for a 10:15-10:30 pace. Suddenly, somewhere in mile 6 my stomach felt kinda icky. I stopped at the 5.7 mile aid station, used the porta potty and walked a moment. I felt a little better, but I knew my stomach was not right.
As I was finishing up mile 10 and heading towards Little Sur Bridge I knew I had to make another pit stop. My pace suffered both stops, but I felt much better and was able to carry on.
Over the course of these five miles of rolling hills 12:06, 10:34, 10:35, 10:47 and 14:54.
What’s that sound in the distance, just past the 10 mile marker??? Taiko drummers! They apparently made their BSIM debut in 2015 and they were awesome. Can we talk music for a moment??? BSIM had more than 20 musical acts on the course – the most I’ve ever seen. Everything from the taiko drummers to a classical pianist (more on that later) to rock ‘n’ roll. The music gave me a boost when I was feeling less than stellar.
After the taiko drummers we ran over Little Sur Bridge and saw hell on earth.
A HUGE HILL. Quite possibly the biggest and LONGEST hill I have ever run or will ever run. This hill spanned 2 miles with a total elevation gain of roughly 500 feet. I decided to do intervals on this hill as I knew for certain that, despite all my hill training, if I tried to take this mountain in one shot, I’d burn out my legs and my spirit. I went for a 3:1 interval which worked out really great. On the run part I passed TONS of people and on the walk part not many people passed me as so many other runners walked the hill too.
At the summit of the hill (the end of mile 12) we reached Hurricane Point. It ain’t called Hurricane Point for nothing. The headwinds started around mile 5 and were nothing to sneeze at, but mile 12 leading up to and including Hurricane Point was downright nasty. WINDY. I stopped at the top of the hill to take a few pictures of the view including the next highlight of the race: Bixby Bridge!
Bixby Bridge! Yes! Total highlight of the course. If you don’t already know Bixby Bridge is one of the most iconic features of the Big Sur International Marathon. It is routinely featured on the race premiums and promotional materials. Once you cross the bridge you come upon Michael Martinez, an expert pianist, playing a Grand Piano. I had to take a couple of shots , but also saw others taking selfies sitting next to him (not to self: take a selfie sitting next to Michael Martinez next time).
After the massive hill behind me, I knew that the hardest elevation work was done. I settled into a decent pace, keeping a run/walk method on the longer hills (ended up walking perhaps a minute of each mile over the next 8 miles or so.
In past marathons I have had a hard time getting past mile 19 without throwing in the towel mentally. I have stopped really trying to finish strong and resorted to full on run/walk intervals at miles 18, 16 and 19 of past marathons. When I got to mile 21 of BSIM without being spent yet, I knew I had a PR on my hands. More about what that meant later…
My splits from miles 11-21 were as follows: 12:26, 11:12 (the HILL!), 11:02, 9:51, 10:23, 10:07, 10:41, 10:22, 11:01, 10:36, 10:09.
It finally hit me at the mile 21 marker – stomach problems coming on again. Another unfortunate pit stop and I was again on my way. I played yo-yo with a couple of people on the course, easing up for a while as they charged on ahead, then catching up to them when I felt a burst of energy. I walked through every aid station and ate bananas, oranges and strawberries (thank you berries from heaven at mile 23.5) and pushed through, running and walking only very sparingly on hills.
Somewhere around mile 23 the 4:45 pace crew caught up to me. The pacer, very motivating to some I am sure, kept talking and almost yelling. I did not want to hear that when I was ready to be done, so what did I do? I hit the gas! I started charging up hills I would have walked on a normal day. Within a few minutes the pace crew was in my rear view and I could not hear the pacer any longer (I am sure this type of pacing strategy works for some, but just not me).
I cruised the last mile or so and my Garmin read 25.6 miles. I had less than a mile left, but I knew my Garmin was slightly ahead (as it turned out it was 0.18 miles ahead). We started the climb up the final incline and there was a whole row of who I assume were BSIM officials dressed in blue (or were they green?) jackets. A couple of them gave me high fives and one older gentleman with especially good taste told me I was the best dressed runner he saw all day.
Finally, I saw the finish line. I knew I had about 0.15 miles left to go and I was so close to finishing sub 4:45. I really floored it and broke out into what felt like a sprint (though in hindsight it was not exceptionally fast, it just felt like it was after having run more than 26 miles!).I crossed the finish line in 4:44:47.
My splits over those final 5 miles were: 14:21, 10:06, 10:04, 9:50, 10:14 (and 3:18 for the final 0.38 on my Garmin).
Overall I was happy with my performance. While time-wise I did not break any records, I did set a new PR that day – a personal record for feeling awesome after a full marathon and for keeping a positive “can do” attitude throughout the race. I don’t feel I hit any walls (though I did experience fatigue it was not debilitating) and I felt good the entire time. No cramping, no self-doubt and no thoughts of “why the heck did I do this?” Definitely a PR for me.
Following the race my legs were tired and I stumbled to the shuttle that took me back to downtown Monterey. A short 20 minute ride and I found myself carefully walking back to our hotel. After a quick shower and packing up our things my friends and I went back down to Cannery Row for lunch at the Fish Hopper Restaurant (OMG! If you like Bloody Mary’s you need to try the Loaded Bloody Mary (with three shrimp) or the Ultimate Seafood Bloody Mary (a crab slider, oyster and bacon wrapped prawn accompaniment). So GOOD!) After a relaxing lunch, we headed home. Thankfully my friends took turns driving home so I was able to stretch out my tired legs in the back seat for the 2 hour ride.
That night I slept like a baby.
Because I had such a great time I’d have to say that BSIM is my hands-down all time favorite race. Period. Not my favorite full or my favorite long-distance race. My favorite race ever. The course was beautiful, the swag and medal were top-notch, on course support was on point, basically everything and anything you could ever want from a race….BSIM provided.
Though I know round two of BSIM is not in the cards for me next year, I will definitely run it again. Next time, maybe a time PR, but if not, at least I know I will have a fabulous time!