Race Review: 2017 Big Sur International Marathon (4/30/2017), or: “Secluded in the canyon, lost within a turn of fate…”

“So here’s the deal, Hokeydude. Are you in any way interested in running what could be THE most beautiful marathon on the planet? Oh and by the by, it will also be one of the most trying, challenging, and arduous courses you will ever run? They’ve got strawberries…”

The things we do for fruit…

The 2017 Big Sur International Marathon represented a bucket list item for yours truly, and now having run it (over three weeks ago as of this writing, making this the longest time-span between race and review in nearly 5 years of Hokeyblogging), I can honestly attest that training for races with significant elevation shifts and variances is fundamentally impossible when you live in South Florida. And believe you me, I spent months prepping for Big Sur. And “Prepping for Big Sur” meant dragging my tired tukhas every Saturday morning right here:

Do we even have Sizzlers anymore? MAN I miss that Jello bar… no but really, I meant here:

The Rickenbacker Causeway. Key Biscayne, Florida. Anywhere from 12 to 21 miles going up and down, back and forth, forth and back, one to the other, each to his brother, over that bridge. A half mile up, a half mile down, a fairly steep climb for a bridge. Was it any real help for this race? Not particularly… but at least I got to see a manatee. A few, actually. Plus a friendly nurse shark. And a manta ray. Oh a HOST of marine life was to be found, but none of that was adequate in prepping this sad dude for a 2 mile straight uphill and continuous rolling hills and inclines and sustained elevated runs for over 26 miles.

And man oh man did I love this race. Because clearly I’m a sucker for agony.

So let’s refocus on the race review. Big Sur International Marathon. One of the most popular and beloved marathons that tops entirely too many Must-Race lists, but with good reason. The entirety of the race is spent on Highway 1 in the Central Coast area, starting at Big Sur and finishing in Carmel, through some of the most jaw-droppingly beautiful views you could possibly imagine: cliffs, mountains, coastlines, cows, strawberries, farmland, canyons, valleys, Redwood forests, chic roadside cafes, landmark bridges, zesty piano players… if you want your marathon served up in full Homeric epic fashion, Big Sur is definitely for you.

If you can get in, of course. It’s got a tough lottery — not Shirley Jackson tough, but close. Took me three tries, and I was finally able to secure my spot by registering as part of a team.

Anyway I’m not going to belabor the hills/training for hills point too much here, except to share with you the elevation map:

Photo Source: Big Sur International Marathon website

That two-mile hike at Mile 10? That’s your basic ascent up to Hurricane Point. There’s no getting around it, and you know it’s coming. More on that in a moment.

Before I begin my review, it behooves me to point out that there are many races going on simultaneously that morning, all on Highway 1. There’s the Marathon, of course, but there is also a 21 miler, 10.6 miler, 12K, and 5K. There’s even a Marathon Relay that allows four people to each run a portion of the marathon course.

Not for me. I’m entirely too greedy. I want the whole thing!

So on Wednesday, April 26th, 2017, I boarded a Virgin America flight out of Fort Lauderdale and landed MUCH later than I would have liked in San Francisco. I hit the Budget car rental desk, got myself one Bitchin’ Camaro, headed over to an airport hotel to crash for the night, and started my amazing West Coast adventure the very next day…

Touristy Stuff

I won’t go into too much detail here, since it really lies outside the scope of the race. Yet I’d like to detail a few of the fun events we got to experience during our time out in San Francisco/Monterey.

And I know this hardly needs saying, but all of these raves about companies/services/attractions are unsolicited endorsements, gang. They’re all just stuff I really, really enjoyed.

A Segway Tour of Golden Gate Park

I don’t know what prompted me to try this, but I’m sure glad I did. We toured the historic Golden Gate Park on a Segway, and by “we” I mean “me and the tour guide”, because the other four people didn’t show up. That’s right; private tour, baby. Shout out to Captain Kyle! I can’t stress enough how this was money well spent! Check out The Electric Tour Company website for more details. This was an amazing time.

Monterey Bay Aquarium

I couldn’t love this place more if I tried, and not just because they filmed part of Star Trek IV: The One With The Whales here. The Monterey Bay Aquarium was pretty goshdarn amazing, and why not? I mean, if you’re into otters, penguins, sharks, rays, jellyfish, swarms of thousands of sardines at feeding time, eels, octopi, and a host of other exciting marine life, along with exhibits, films, and lots of hands-on interaction, this is a must-visit attraction. Plus that stunning view of Monterey Bay from the rear deck and walkway. I’m already planning another visit.

The 17 Mile Drive

What is the 17 Mile Drive, you ask? Oh, just 17 miles of some of the most scenic views you could possibly imagine… plus cocktails at The Lodge at Pebble Beach. Easily a highlight… especially when you’re cruising the California Coastline in your Bitchin’ Camaro! Even if you have to suffer through Jennifer’s increasingly odd playlist…

Carmel-By-The-Sea

I hadn’t been to Carmel-By-The-Sea since December of 1978. I was all of seven, on a family trip to California, and we elected to travel here instead of attending a taping of “Hello, Larry” in front of a live studio audience. I am so not making that up, it’s not even funny. I remember Carmel-By-The-Sea being a small village of exquisite charm and beauty. Let’s just say it lived up to my memories and then some. Plus some fantastic bisque and pizza at Little Napoli.

 

The Walt Disney Family Museum

Being a Disney nerd and admirer of Walt Disney as both an artist and a visionary, The Walt Disney Family Museum necessitated a most required visit. Located in The Presidio, this museum dedicated do the Disney Family (not just the company, the parks, the movies, or TV shows, but believe you me there was plenty of all that) was a trip through time of the life of Walt Disney, tracing his family’s beginnings, his birth, career, trials, failures, successes, and finally of course creating the Disney Empire that thrives and endures to this day. Try to keep a dry eye when you enter those last two rooms devoted to his passing. Very powerful, very beautiful, and altogether uplifting.

I would love to go into so much more we discovered and enjoyed, but we need to keep moving forward. So why don’t we just mosey on over to…

The Expo

The Expo took place at the Portola Hotel & Spa in Monterey, which was a quick zip over from where I was staying at the Hilton Garden Inn. I met up with my buddy Jennifer (always have an Expo Buddy — if you don’t have one, GET ONE!) and we took note of all the excitement on the promenade heading into the hotel. Located next to Fisherman’s Wharf, there were already lots of people out and about, eating at cafes, walking dogs, doing shakedown runs along the sidewalk, and so forth. It was a picture perfect morning in Monterey and we were ready to get the day rolling.

The Expo itself could probably be best described as “serviceable”. It did what it needed to, and not much else. There were the requisite lines to pick up your bib, another one to get your race shirt, and another one to pick up your bus pass (more on that in a moment, too). Then you had your various vendors hawking gels, running gear, power bars, other races, KT tape, and on and on. It felt a bit cramped inside but we were able to get all of our required items without too much muss or fuss.

And naturally they had the WALL WITH YOUR NAME ON IT!! banner up, so there was the expected photo op of the day:

The most exciting moment during the Expo was when I went to use the Men’s Room, and walked out having left my cell phone in the stall. I didn’t realize this for nearly four minutes, when utter panic set in and I high-tailed it back to the men’s room. I knocked on the stall and yelled with utter exasperation “EXCUSE ME, IS THERE A CELL PHONE IN THERE??!?!” Thankfully there was. But the guy didn’t exit the stall for what seemed another 7 or 8 minutes, so I had to stand there and wait like a jackass. Yeesh.

Anyway, after that exciting interlude Jennifer and I drove over to Carmel and explored the town for a while (as mentioned above), and then after a few hours drove back to Monterey, stopped for some “handcrafted” ice cream at Revival Ice Cream (totally worth it) and then called it a day. The night before a marathon I like to have everything prepared early, with dinner around 4-5 PM, then my ankles taped up, clothes and gear laid out, bib pinned on, and in bed by 7 and, with a little help from a sleep aid, knocked out by 8 PM. Mission accomplished…

Race Day

I woke at 2:45 AM with that inimitable rush of race day excitement rocketing through my veins. After washing and shaving, I ate a bagel and a banana, got dressed, bagged up my gear, and headed down to the Bitchin’ Camaro.

For all Marathon runners, the only way to get to the race start is to go by bus at specific times (hence the aforementioned bus pass). My bus was leaving Tyler Street at 4:00 AM, so I wanted to make sure my car was parked and I was standing in line by 3:30. Thankfully I was parked (you don’t have to pay for parking on race day) and standing in line in no time at all. Let’s hear it for ruthless efficiency!

There were already plenty of buses loading and runners waiting. I struck up a conversation with a few fellow runners, all of us first-timers at Big Sur, and it made for a much more enjoyable bus ride than I would have imagined. These were not luxury coaches by any means. No, these were school buses. With very little leg room. Youch.

The drive over to the Start Area took roughly an hour. The runner next to me pointed out the Finish Line as we passed it, but as it was so early we really couldn’t see much of anything the entire drive over. No worries; we’d see it ALL in a few hours. In the meantime we filled the time with tedious runner talk: races, training, shoes, etc. We’re a self-absorbed bunch, but at least we made for a willing audience.

We reached our destination just around 5:00 AM, about a half-mile from the Start Area, and it was FREEZING! By freezing, I mean about 50 degrees, because once again, I am a South Florida iguana. I was wearing my trusted Hard Rock hoodie, which kept me mostly just fine as we marched up to the Start Area at Big Sur Station.

The Start Area was fairly packed with people; over four thousand runners were participating in the Marathon that morning! I quickly made a beeline to the porto-potty line, where I would return twice more before race start. I don’t know why I was so nervous… this was my fifteenth marathon, on top of the forty half marathons and who knows how many 10Ks, 5Ks, etc. But there was some non-quantifiable element about running Big Sur that made me… well, not terrified or anything close, but certainly preoccupied.

Volunteers were serving up bagels, hot chocolate, cocoa, and water, and I partook of a bit of the offerings. I generally don’t like to eat or drink coffee before a run; my stomach was already nervous enough, and given my digestive tract history, I didn’t care to rock the boat. And besides, the morning was ridiculously beautiful. As the sun began to rise from behind the mountain peaks, it felt to this kid like I was somewhere off in the forest with a bunch of like-minded friends, ready to take an epic hike through the woods or something. Which is pretty much true, if you think about it.

I checked in my gear bag and meandered my way over to the Start corrals. By then the familiar tones of announcer Rudy Novotny welcomed runners to the race, entertaining as always. He gave shout-outs to numerous individuals and organizations; when I heard him announce the presence of Team Shenanigans, I knew I could find some buddies to hang out with while waiting for race start. You certainly couldn’t call, text, or message anyone; there was ZERO cell reception in that area.

I quickly ran into my TS pals Caryn, Bill, Mitch, Susana, and Doug, and we hung in the corral as we waited for the race to begin.

We also recorded an intro for the Team Shenanigans podcast, where they covered the event in Episode 82 (you can listen to their recap by clicking here). Our other pals were off running different distances: Laura was doing the 21 miler, both Jennifers were rocking the 10.6 miler, and Ann making a valiant comeback to racing with the 5K. We all would meet at a common Finish Line. But we had a race to run first.

At 6:45 AM, the race began in earnest as Rudy gave his inimitable countdown (that “GO!!!!” fires you up every time), and after one last minute pee at the side of the road, I crossed the Start Line at 6:52 AM. I clicked my Garmin to start rolling, and I was off!

The 2017 Big Sur International Marathon!

So why don’t we take a look at the 26.2 mile race course, courtesy of Google Maps and my trusted Garmin 920XT:

Right around here is where I’d generally give a turn-by-turn breakdown of the entire race course… so here it is: you start on Highway 1 in Big Sur, head north, and finish on Highway 1 in Carmel some 26.2 miles later. No turns, no out-and-backs, no detours or one-off deviations… you start on Highway 1 and you finish on Highway 1. That’s it.

But why would you WANT to go anywhere else? This is the most beautiful race you could possibly imagine… but with a catch. Highway 1 is the main access road in the area. While they keep a single lane open to race- and emergency-related travel, it has to reopen at a reasonable time. Thus the race ends promptly at 1PM — the roads are opened to traffic in both directions, the Finish Line comes down, nobody who finishes after that time has a recorded time and is not awarded a race medal. If you are not at the 21.2 mile marker by 11:50 AM, you are swept; picked up and shuttled back to the Finish Area. No exceptions!

In layman’s terms, this means you have to maintain a 6-hour pace in order to finish. For seasoned marathoners that seems like more than enough time, and it is. My PR is 4:47 and while lately I’ve slowed down a spell (finishing marathons in anywhere from 5:10 to 5:55, even with injuries) I knew the 6-hour limit did not pose any difficulty. However, take another look at that elevation map. If you’re not used to running on sustained inclines — and I sure as heck aint — that’s bound to slow you down by a significant degree.

But never mind all that… let’s get back to the race. Those first five miles were pretty much a scenic blur, as Highway 1 cut through a shaded, forested area as we made our way northbound. Because this race was going to be a challenge, I decided to ease up on my usual marathon intervals and drop to a 3:1. As such, those first five miles felt absolutely fantastic. Under a canopy of shade afforded us by towering redwoods on a course that was mostly heading downhill, I ran a pace that felt very moderate and easy, just under an 11 minute mile. I was definitely not out to PR or challenge myself; I was just there to enjoy the experience.

And enjoy it I did. While runners were restricted to one lane of traffic on a two-lane road, it never felt too crowded or overbearing. Everyone had pretty much enough room to run their own race. I even did something I rarely do in races, and that’s stop and take pictures of the surroundings. You kind of had to, especially after Mile 5 when you the course took a more coastal turn. Beyond the grasslands and the grazing herds, you could see, smell, and hear it: the Pacific Ocean crashing majestically against the rocky coast. It was utterly transcendent. I don’t have enough words to do the scenery justice, so I enjoy these pics:

I passed Caryn and Susana around Mile 6, and we exchanged pleasantries and support. And by “pleasantries and support”, that also includes being rat-tailed in the ass by Caryn as I went by. Yowch. That girl’s a pro.

Meanwhile, the course was starting to take more of a “rolling hills” turn. Up and down we went, preparing us for the first of many challenges to come. I think Mile 8 through 9 had a sustained elevation gain of about 100 feet. Not much, perhaps, but still trying enough to remind you not to expend too much energy up front. And then of course there was THIS mile marker to drive the point home:

Cute. Very cute.

Now everyone knew what Miles 10 through 12 meant — the two mile, 500 ft ascent up to Hurricane Point. And in case you weren’t too preoccupied with that section of the course, you could actually see it coming from just past Mile 9: a long stream of runners in the distance, slowly making their way up.

I was actually looking forward to the challenge, but maybe because I’m part psycho. Maybe. But how could you not be somewhat excited about the prospect of running up to Hurricane Point? Especially with the Watsonville Taiko drummers giving you a grand send-off as you begin your climb?

And then up we went…

I changed my intervals from 3:1 to 2:2 for this two-mile stretch. While I wanted to continue moving, I also didn’t want to burn out too quickly. I was fine with it. The run up to Hurricane Point was certainly challenging, but it was a fun kind of challenging. Once you remove the need to PR or set any kind of personal land-speed records, the focus goes from performance to enjoyment, and I was having a blast with it.

And then A Funny Thing Happened At Mile 11…

I stopped briefly to get that Mile Marker picture. Then suddenly, this pony-tailed redhead, also taking a picture, turned to face me. She pulled her sunglasses slightly down the bridge of her nose, like Tom Cruise driving the Porsche in Risky Business, uttered the words “Hello, Matthew” in this deep, sultry Kathleen-Turner-as-Jessica-Rabbit voice, and then TOOK OFF RUNNING LIKE A BAT OUT OF HELL before I got the opportunity to respond with a “What’s up, Gail?” Yup, this was my buddy Gail from Run All The Races. It was an odd but hilarious moment, because the entire rest of the race I was thinking to myself, “Was it something I said? Or didn’t say? Did I forget to put on deodorant? FUDGE!”

She told me after the race that she wasn’t sure if I recognized her, so she split quickly. But I did. So there!

There was still a course to run, so I continued upward and reached the peak at Mile 12. I had done! Scaled my way up to Hurricane Point (yeah I know, all of 500 ft, big deal) and lived to talk about it. I stopped for a celebratory pic of the scenery, and got this amazing shot:

Then I continued at a moderate pace down an easy-going, downhill portion of the race. I was already feeling pretty fantastic when I heard those unmistakable piano tones, and I knew I was reaching Bixby Creek Bridge. Sure enough, I turned a corner and there it was:

One of the tallest single-span concrete bridges of the world, this beautifully designed bridge not only marks your approach to the halfway point of the marathon, it’s also featured on the race medal itself. Nifty! So I had to get a selfie with it. That’s right: a selfie with a bridge. This is what we’ve been reduced to, Hokeyfolk:

I’m holding my phone in the following picture, because I shot a video of me crossing the bridge. I’ll upload it later. For now, this will have to suffice:

While it was a bit too crowded around pianist Michael Martinez to get a good shot with him, I managed to snap this picture anyhow:

And then I passed the halfway point of the Marathon! I couldn’t believe how much I was loving life right around then. If this were a half marathon and it ended right then and there, it would probably have been my favorite half-marathon race ever, just based on the scenery, the sights, the ocean, the mountains… everything. But I still had another 13.1 miles to go, and that meant there was a lot of race to run.

Once the elation had dropped, I started to really feel the race. My ankles, quads, and calves were starting to ache. I was particularly cognizant of the bank and pitch of the road; it took some time to figure out where you could get the surest, most even footing. Sometimes it was towards the center; other times, on the sides. Uneven footing can do a number on your lower body (especially if you have ankle or IT band issues), so a bit of awareness of how your feet are landing is a much-needed skill for every runner.

That’s not to say that the second half of the race was somehow unexciting or disappointing; heck my favorite moment was seeing a whale crest through the waves of the Pacific, which caused a bunch of runners to cheer. If you looked hard enough you could spot some sea lion heads poking out of the water as well. But for the most part, even with the continuous scenery that provided incredible views, my attention during the second half of the race was focused directly on my running.

And that meant no more pictures… except for this one right here at Mile 20:

How apropos…

Let’s take a moment to talk about on-course support and entertainment. Water and Gatorade was available at roughly every two miles, along with medical assistance and porto-potties, should you need them. Two of the stops were also handing out Gu energy gels. Scattered around the course were bands, drummers, student orchestras, singers, harpists, accordionists, guitarists, all sorts of wonderful music to keep your spirits aloft. I even sang along and aloud with two guitarists as they managed a energetic rendition of some Eagles song whose name I can’t remember right now, because I’m a dingbat who waited too long to write up this race recap.

I will not mention the Brasilian Carnival dancers, two young women who were rather were shapely and tan and fit and attractive and “endowed” and whose costumes roughly consisted of four Brasilian Carnival molecules, and who were dancing away in such a manner that could put a hump on a camel’s back, because this is a family-friendly blog and also I’m getting sweaty as I type this.

Another shout-out has to go to The Strawberry Station in Carmel. I had heard much about how wonderfully delicious these fresh strawberries are, especially 22+ miles into a Marathon. I can honestly report that these strawberries are as amazing (and as blissfully welcome) as reported: big and fresh and sweet and energizing. That late in the game, it’s wonderful to have something small but effective like this to look forward to and keep your energy flowing.

Photo Source: The Monterey Herald 

Otherwise, the rolling hills continued and I was feeling the race pretty hard. But when I got to the 21.2 mile marker, I was a good 30 minutes ahead of the cut-off time. I took a few minutes to stretch here and there, and even did a five minute walk break just to give the system a rest. I might have hit that wall back at Mile 20, but “hitting the wall” doesn’t mean “fall apart”. It simply means that you need to reach a new normal that you can maintain consistently, even at a slower pace or shorter interval. Or even just walking. It’s all good.

Of course, having a half-mile extended uphill incline at just past Mile Marker 25 was just rude!

But all complaining aside, even with the sun hanging overhead with barely a cloud in the sky, my skin slightly red, my muscles sore and spent, and my energy near depleted, I found new motivation as I heard the Finish Line in the distance. Fitz Koehler was handling the race announcements, and hearing that familiar voice put some new pep in my step. I wasn’t exactly flying down towards the Finish Line, but I ran as strong as I could to the roaring cheers of spectators around me.

Fitz didn’t call my name out, of course, because some Alachua County Sheriff finished just ahead of me (grr!) but I rocketed across that Finish Line with a time of 5:30:24, which is pretty much around where I expected it to be. As I grabbed my bottle of water and medal (a beautiful ceramic piece featuring the aforementioned Bixby Creek Bridge), I finally heard my name, and this was from my awesome pals Jennifer L., Laura, Celeste, and Jennifer T.. They were cheering next to the Finish chute, and I received some much needed hugs and congratulations from them. We chatted briefly, but I was starting to feel entirely overheated. I told them I’d meet up with them in a few (they stayed there to cheer on the rest of our gang as they came in), got some grub and drinks from the Food Tent, and settled down in the shade to cool down and replenish my reserves.

Dig me!!

Check out that lovely pinkish hue! (Sunburn…)

As the rest of our group finished (and as I started feeling more like a human being, cooled down, fed, and refreshed) we met up at the Beer Garden for some MUCH deserved libations. I’m not the biggest Sierra Nevada fan — it’s OK but not a favorite — but compared to the usual Michelob Ultra crap, it tasted like the Nectar of the Gods!

We also met up with Gail (where I regaled her with my take on our Mile 11 encounter) and Kimberly, along with Bill, Jennifer, Ann, Jennifer, Laura, Doug, Caryn, Celeste, and Susana, where we took this awesome group shot:

I think the consensus about the Marathon was this following progression:

“OH MY GOD THAT WAS THE HARDEST THING I EVER DID.”

“ONE AND DONE.”

“THOSE VIEWS? THAT SCENERY? HOLY COW THAT WAS BREATHTAKING.”

“AND HOW GOOD WERE THOSE STRAWBERRIES?”

“DID YOU SEE THOSE WHALES?”

“SUCH PERFECT WEATHER…”

“WHO’S IN FOR NEXT YEAR? LET’S DO IT!!”

That pretty much sums it up.

The always awesome Celeste offered to drive Jennifer, Bill, Jennifer, and I back to Monterey, rather than having to haul our tired butts into a school bus. This was most welcome, and I felt so bad that our smelly souls royally funked up her Prius. At least we kept the windows open:

Won’t you take me to Funkytown?

That night we went down to the wharf and celebrated our victories with food and libations. It was a good time with great people! The buffalo chili and Trippel Ale certainly didn’t hurt things at all, either…

So phew! There you have it: the 2017 Big Sur International Marathon. What an ordeal!! Not the race; I meant writing this review. All the editing, formatting, Photoshopping… I need an intern or something. Anyone interested? We’ll pay you in meatball subs and positive karmic juju. Hit that Contact Me link up there if interested. Maybe. Anyway, that Marathon was something else. Challenging? Certainly. Worthwhile? More than my words could ever possibly convey. This was an experience I absolutely loved from start to finish. Forget PRs, go run this race to feel the Pacific breeze, breathe in that ocean spray and woodland pines, climb mountains, shade yourself underneath redwoods, eat strawberries, enjoy the singers, dancers, and drummers, and propel yourself through 26.2 miles of what is easily the most stunning looking race I’ve ever run.

Do this Marathon. Do it! Just ahh… practice those inclines too. I can’t wait to do it again. Until then, here’s the video: