Big Sur Marathon Race Report

 Last summer I made the decision to sign up for the Big Sur Full Marathon. I had always had it on my bucket list of marathons, and figured there was no better time than the present to make it a reality. 


I went to the Monterey/Carmel/Big Sur area back in the early 90’s when I was a teenager on a Girl Scout Wider Opportunity trip to learn about photography and John Steinbeck. I immediately fell in love way back then with the gorgeous California coast about an hour and a half south of San Francisco. For me, there is something spiritual about that area of the country.

Last summer I made the decision to sign up for the Big Sur Full Marathon. I had always had it on my bucket list of marathons, and figured there was no better time than the present to make it a reality.

Big Sur is not a marathon to try to get a Personal Record (PR). Pick a flat course for that. Big Sur’s motto is “Running on the Jagged Edge of the Western World.” The course takes you from Big Sur to Carmel, running right on US1 on the edge of the cliffs with the ocean below the entire way. The views are stunning and the hills are daunting, especially for a Florida runner who has zero hills to train on.


My goal for the race was to go as slow as it took to feel good physically the entire race, stop to get pictures of the amazing vistas, and actually enjoy myself. In order to accomplish this, I felt a need to not wear a watch. I had no idea the entire time what my pace or finish time would be. I didn’t know this at the start, but there aren’t even race clocks along the course! So I REALLY didn’t know how fast or slow I was going. For any non-runners reading this, running watch-less may not seem like any big thing, but trust me–it is. For me, it took any pressure of time away and allowed me to truly enjoy it.

The first 5 miles are primarily downhill, which may seem easy, but you know there are lots of uphills in your immediate future, and going too fast in the beginning of any race spells trouble for your energy expenditure the last 6 miles, but going fast downhill also burns out your quads, leaving your legs vulnerable the rest of the race.

After the first 5 miles through the wooded areas of Big Sur, we got our first glimpse of the ocean. Along with that view came a brutal headwind, at times making it feel as if I was running in place! The uphills made their presence known in miles 5-9 along with that strong headwind, but the views of the ocean were my focus.


Miles 10-12 bring a climb that is nearly 600 feet in two steady miles straight up to Hurricane Point. Luckily the headwind had died down for the climb, but as soon as we hit the top, it returned with a vengeance. The climb was tough, really tough, but I still felt really strong.


Mile 13 is the most spectacular point of the race. We crossed Bixby Bridge, an iconic beautiful bridge on US1. On the other side of the bridge was the famous grand piano. For 30 years, a pianist plays the piano on the edge of the cliff for the runners. I paused for a minute to take in the beauty of the moment and snap a few pics of the talented and dedicated man, playing for hours in heavy winds for the appreciative runners.


Miles 14-22 were more of the same….up and down the gorgeous cliffs and vistas of this jagged magnificent part of our country. Musicians and a few high school and middle school bands were scattered throughout. Spectators were very scarce due to the inability to get out onto the road (buses were the only way to get to the start). This is the one day of the year that US1 is closed to vehicles, and the we felt the glory of nature and pure grit and determination of our fellow runners.


Mile 23 was rough. The road is slanted at such an angle that it makes it really difficult to get good footing, not to mention that at this point my legs were shot from the hills and the effort. Thankfully Mile 24 was flat and I was encouraged that I was feeling fairly good and still running, not walking. The course had a lot of bananas and oranges along the way, and I took full advantage, keeping my energy levels up.


Mile 25 is cruel and unusual punishment. The course goes inland and a huge steep and long hill faced us right at the 25 mile marker. A course organizer was there wearing the blue blazer that all of the Big Sur officials were wearing, cheering on the runners. I asked him if this hill was his idea and he responded that it was not a hill but a figment of my imagination and a ramp to get beer. He actually ran with me for a few steps while we carried on a conversation, and his light attitude and jovial nature carried me up the half-mile-long hill.


I came across the finish line feeling very strong and was surprised when I saw a clock for the first time all race. 3:44. Not bad for the hills, wind, and goal to run slow. Guess I was a little faster than I realized.


By checking Big Sur off my bucket list, I achieved the most important goal–to love nature, feel a spiritual connection, and to test my body’s physical and mental toughness. I also changed a story I had been telling myself for years–I am a good hill runner!

Tara Collingwood
Tara is a nationally recognized expert and spokesperson on nutrition, fitness, and health promotion and is quoted in a variety of media including television, radio, newspapers, magazines, and websites.

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