I am often asked what my favorite marathon is. More so after running all six of the majors. I always say that each one is different and special in their own way. Some are special because of the course, others because of the crowd support while others because of how you qualify for it. But I can now answer this question more straightforwardly after running the Big Sur International Marathon. This is the most beautiful race that I have ever run. And also the hardest.
Getting to Big Sur was part of what makes it exciting. We started in LA, taking the Pacific Coast Highway (PCH) from Santa Monica and then driving north towards San Francisco. The PCH is one of the world’s most scenic highways. It is hard to take a bad photo along the way. You lose track of time as you take in the vastness and the views, staring in awe as the majestic mountains meet the powerful Pacific. One can’t help but feel humbled by all this immense beauty. Even when we had to take a long detour because of the severed bridge in Big Sur, we were treated to wonderful vistas as the sun cast a golden hue on the landscape. Words are not enough to describe it.
We stayed at a house-on-the-hill in Carmel Valley, a good location since the finish line is just a 15 minute drive from there. A day before the race we also explored other nearby areas driving from Carmel Valley to see its vineyards then to Carmel-by-the-Sea with its quaint shops and beautiful beach to Monterey and its lively marina and wharf then to Big Sur. The road to Big Sur is only open for 26 miles before you had to turn back. The full stretch will reopen June 2017, after the restoration of the broken bridge.
I never do a recon before a race because I like being surprised but this time around, the course was part of our day’s sightseeing itinerary. So we drove along the 26 miles and I felt my hands getting clammy and I suddenly felt nervous because of all the hills that we passed. I knew that the undulating terrain of steep uphills and downhills would not be easy. A tinge of fear swirled amidst my excitement. Apart from the challenging course, I have been experiencing a nagging pain on my right hip for over a week now. The tightness has seriously been giving me doubts on whether I can even start the race. I could not even run a full mile a few days before without walking to shake off the pain. So you can imagine the major jitters I was feeling while driving down the course.
But it’s hard to stay that way when you know that you will be running one of the world’s most beautiful courses. It is not everyday that they close off this scenic highway just so you can run along it. So I chose to be grateful for this unique opportunity instead of succumbing to the nervousness that started to simmer within me. Signing up for this, I said that it would be a great recovery and recreational marathon after Boston. Of course I did not research about it to know that it would not be an easy recovery run. I vowed to just simply enjoy the course and take it all in.
Race day starts with runners getting dropped off at various bus pick up points. It is an end to end race that is why all participants had to be shuttled to the starting line. No other vehicle is allowed except for the buses. Our bus left at 4am and we made our way to the starting line in near darkness because there were no streetlights along the highway. While on the bus, I must’ve heard the words marathon and Boston a thousand times. This made me smile because I knew these people were very much like me, only with their own unique stories. I quietly listened to the soft chatter while eating my rice breakfast.
All runners got dropped off at the Big Sur Station where a starting village was set up to provide breakfast for everyone. An interesting thing about this marathon is that they took a lot of effort to make it fun and funny. For instance, they set up sufficient portalets around the village. But they knew that even if it were enough for everyone, runners would spend time lining up. So they made the waiting fun by posting funny signs on the portalets’ doors. It also was a conversation starter among the runners lining up to use the loo. You see a lot of this attention to detail along the race course.
Because it is a relatively smaller race compared to the bigger city races I have joined, the starting waves were not as strict. You just choose which wave you want to join depending on your expected finishing time. After waiting for almost two hours, we were asked to make our way to the starting line where I joined 4000 runners, 52% comprised of women. I was feeling a little worried still because of the nagging pain and also because I was told that the weather along the course changes abruptly. I layered on three tops(one was a throwaway), put on my windbreaker, wore my compressions and put heat packs on my chest, torso and hands. I wanted to be extra ready for the cold. I also overheard a pacer saying that you have to be smart when you run Big Sur because here, things just change so fast and you don’t know what to expect. I smile at this description which is very much akin to life in general. It is at this point that I also realized that I forgot my watch. But I took this as a good thing so I can just relax and simply run.
The race starts on a downhill lined by forests. I took it nice and easy to make sure that my hips and legs would be properly warmed up. I was just happy that my hip joints were not buckling and that they seemed okay. So I eased into the run just absorbing the views and the energy. People around me were muttering how wonderful the course is. I couldn’t help but nod my head in agreement.
Then the foliage opens up with a view of the mountains and the coast. Now you have grand views on both sides of the road. I realized that more than the run, this is what I came here for. This was the reason I’ve been trying for the past four years to get into this race. I was only able to do so because I went through the Boston to Big Sur lottery, a program that allows Boston runners to get a slot at Big Sur. It was definitely worth the wait and the effort.
The undulation was quite mild until we get to Hurricane Point. This was a very long uphill climb that ends with a view of Bixby Bridge, Big Sur’s iconic landmark. You know you are nearing the highest point of the uphill when you start to hear piano music. A pianist, playing classics and favorites on a shiny grand piano, was the midway mark of the race. This was definitely a treat, never seen before in any of the races I’ve run. The entire course is actually dotted with different musical genres. There were school bands, rock bands, jazz groups, brass performers and taiko drummers. There were also individual performers playing the harp, accordion, bandolino and guitar.
Compared to city races, there were no big crowds cheering you on. Here you are just one with the vastness, just a speck but also part of this immensity. The course gets a little trickier after the challenging uphills of the first half. My legs were doing well until mile 14. Then they started to feel tired, growing heavier with every mile. It remained to be an uphill-downhill course, not as long as Hurricane Point but many little hills that definitely took a toll on my legs. The views distracted me from the pain and I just replaced my exhaustion with gladness. I was just happy I showed up and saw all this.
On the last two miles, I had the chance to talk to the CEO of the Big Sur Marathon and I shared with him that this was the most beautiful course I’ve ever had the chance of running but that it was also the hardest. He chuckled and said, “But it’s worth it, isn’t it?”. He has ran all 32 Big Sur marathons and every time he does, he is still amazed by it. He shared that the race is managed by 7 full time staff, 14 board members and over 2000 volunteers, both young and old alike. You could sense the pride in his voice as he spoke about the work that gets into staging one of the world’s sought after races. It is so popular that even legends like Bart Yasso was there running alongside us.
On the mile 25 mark, I just had to laugh out loud when I saw that the last stretch was a steep uphill. I managed this far by walking the last three hills and running as soon as it flattens out and goes downhill. My legs actually felt stronger the last 3 miles and I was positive I would finish strong and running. And I did! I ran all the way to the finish line, happy to have finished a tough marathon.
As I crossed the finish, I uttered a prayer of gratitude for once again giving me the strength and the will to finish something I started. I am reminded that all great things don’t come easy. I am just humbled to have run this course while discovering more about myself in the process. I realized that I can improvise and adapt, that I can withstand pain and replace it with more positive thoughts. But more than anything, I felt that I could be part of something worthwhile and meaningful if show up and pour my whole heart into it. I learned that it’s not about mind over matter. It truly is heart over matter.