Sunday, March 10, 2019

Race Report: Big Sur International Marathon

Ever since I started doing distance races, the Big Sur International Marathon has always been a bucket list race for me.  Unsuccessful in securing a spot in the 2016 and 2017 editions of the race, I finally hit the jackpot and got into the 2018 race via the groups and couples lottery with a group of 50 States/Marathon Maniacs members.  It just so happened that two months before I was selected, I had booked the national anthem for the Revel Mt. Charleston Marathon, a downhill race just outside of Las Vegas, in order to check off Nevada as an anthem state.  Mt. Charleston was scheduled the day before Big Sur, so thankfully they didn't coincide, but I did have to plan out running a double marathon that weekend.

These are the crazies attempting
two difficult marathons in two days!
After finishing the Revel Mt. Charleston Marathon, I was able to get myself and my friend Angie back to my hotel in North Las Vegas, get showered and checked out, before stopping at the Suncoast Hotel and Casino to pick up my friend Almi, who was joining me on this double marathon craziness.  We headed to the airport with ample time to utilize the Amex Centurion Lounge, and then make our 4pm flight out to San Jose.  Meeting us at the airport was my friend Ken, who successfully Boston Qualified at Mt. Charleston, and was yet another runner attempting the double marathon, after being able to secure the 6:00 pacer gig at Big Sur only a month prior to race weekend. The three of us would also meet another runner, Boz from Bozeman, Montana, who was the fourth, and final (that we knew of) runner attempting this crazy double marathon weekend.

The flight down to San Jose was pretty quick, only a little over an hour to get over Death Valley and the Sierra Nevadas before landing just south of San Francisco Bay in California's third largest city.  The four of us took a quick photo at the gate after deplaning, and then headed down to the shuttle buses to take us to the rental car center.  Before driving the 1.5 hours down to Monterey Bay and Carmel-by-the-Sea (where we were staying), we stopped in nearby Campbell, to grab dinner at an Italian restaurant.  The drive down was a little harrowing down the very curvy California State Route 17, full of narrow shoulders, sharp turns and blind curves.  It became a bit less white-knuckling when we merged onto State Route 1, aka the Cabrillo Highway, that took us directly into Monterey, with an absolutely beautiful view of the skyline looking southward as we approached the city at sundown.  After dropping off Almi at her hotel (where she was staying with mutual friends Lynne and Aidin), Ken and I headed down to Carmel and found the Airbnb that my friend Sacha had booked for the weekend, just steps from the highway.  We quickly settled in and went to bed, since we'd be waking VERY early the next morning in order to park near Carmel Plaza and catch a bus to the start in Big Sur.

Getting my stretch on.
The alarm rung at 3am for the second day in a row (since I had the same early wake up in Vegas for Mt. Charleston), and we were out the door by 3:45 to drive the short distance down to Carmel Plaza.  We initially found some parking on the street, but being nervous about potential tickets, we moved the car to a public lot that looked free behind the Sunset Center a few blocks away.  We boarded a school bus promptly and began the trek along the Cabrillo Highway toward Big Sur under cover of darkness.

Black Sheep at the start!
The bus slowed to crawl as we arrived short of the start area at Big Sur Station as buses were provided a turnaround point to head back toward Carmel while we continued on along the dark road lit only by klieg lights.  We settled into start area, and Sacha and I found a spot to sit, stretch, and get ourselves ready for the race.  While waiting, my online friend Jon spotted me in my FRNY jacket and stuck near us until it was time to line up for the race.  At about 6:20, I headed toward the elevated start stage and made myself known to the announcers, and waited until I was called up to join them on the platform.  Runners, after getting through their pre-race rituals and dropping their gear check bags at the truck, trickled by to get to their corrals scattered behind the startline.  At 6:40, I was introduced by the announcers and I sang the national anthem for all to hear along the Cabrillo Highway for some 4,000 starters.

The startline!
Sacha videotaped my national anthem before we headed into the corrals to begin the race, so once I came down from the start stage, we went right into the start corrals, opting to not go too far back, but be very conservative with our... or at least my pace.  Barely thirty seconds after the first runners started, Sacha and I went across the startline tape, and we began the race, heading downhill through the forest of giant redwoods surrounding us toward Big Sur Village, 2.6 miles ahead, from our starting elevation of 356 feet down over a 200 feet drop to 140 feet.  For these first couple miles, Sacha stayed with me, but I told her to continue onward, as my sore legs were forcing me to stop to walk a bit, and obviously she was capable of pushing on.  I managed my first four miles in less than 11 minute pace, which I was content with being able to hit. Along the way, the mile markers got runners to chuckle, seeing the fun attention grabbing graphics that went along with them, a treat to see as we moved mile by mile forward.

Opening mile of the Big Sur Marathon
The rolling hills began shortly after the first mile, but they were slight and short enough that I could still manage to run through them.  We passed by some spectator support at various Big Sur Village stores and restaurants where local residents congregate in small groups to cheer on the runners.  I reached the 5K mark at around 31 minutes, which was better than I thought I would manage.  I soldiered on, as the terrain continued to roll up and down.



Very Pacific Northwest-y in this section of the course!
Point Sur Lighthouse in the distance
At mile 5, we passed the entrance to Andrew Molera State Park (which was the start of the 21 mile race), as the trees gave way to pasture land and our first glimpses of the Pacific Ocean.  To our right, the hills towered over us, but to our left, we saw were vast green meadows.  In the distance, we could see Point Sur - what looked like an island jutting off of the coast, with a steep road leading to a handful of buildings, including the Point Sur Lighthouse, teetering cautiously over the sheer island face.  The sky was pretty overcast, yet we were not expecting any rain in the forecast - but it sure looked like the clouds could burst open.  As we ran closer toward Point Sur, the grade gently rose.  The Cabrillo Highway began to also hug closer to the coastline. By this point, as the road was less curvy and more of a straight shot, we were firmly staying on the left side (or rather, west side) of the road, while the single east lane was kept as a lane for vehicles to pass by.

Passing by Point Sur Lighthouse
The mile markers along the course!
Hurricane Point... uphill uphill uphill.
More beautiful terrain
At mile 8, as we had passed Point Sur, and continued on a slight ascent, we got to see our first peeks of Hurricane Point, the highest point of the course and the toughest ascent of the course as well, rising a whopping 520 feet over the course of roughly two miles.  It looked tough, and we still had a nice drop down from the mile 9 mark of nearly 130 feet to get to the bottom of the road. Before long we started the ascent, and with a cruel "Going Up?" elevator graphic at the mile 10 mark, we trudged on upward.  I basically walked the entire way, as the wind picked up, and the clouds began to envelop this area, eventually turning into rain as we made our way upward.  At the top, the Japanese Taiko drums beat out a rhythm to help us continue on, and we could definitely experience just why this place was called Hurricane Point as we were buffeted by the winds and pelleted by rain.
Up and down, up and down...
Striking the Taiko!
Taiko troupe helping us get to the top!
Wow, what a view.  The coastline changed at every turn! Bixby Bridge in the distance.
Beautiful Bixby Bridge

Thankfully, just after reaching the crest, we were treated to a nice long downhill, with the euphoric view of the Bixby Bridge just ahead.  The wind and rain dissipated as we soldiered on. At more than 700 feet long and 280 feet high, the bridge is one of the tallest single-span concrete bridges in the world, and its beautiful architecture against the backdrop of the cliffs are a testament to why its one of the most photographed landmarks in the area.  After traversing the bridge, we reached the halfway point of the course, and the soft sounds of classical piano being played through speakers conveniently placed in the outcropping just north of the bridge.

Michael Martinez and his piano
Here, Michael Martinez, dressed in a tuxedo, plays live classical music on a baby grand piano, having done this since he was 15 years old in 2005.  Previously, his friend and mentor Jonathan Lee had been at the same spot, providing classical music at the halfway point of the course for 17 years, until he passed away in 2004.  Fittingly, as I passed by the piano, Martinez was playing "Somewhere Over the Rainbow," a song that has become part of my singing repertoire in recent years.

More hills, more changing scenery
At mile 14, we crossed Rocky Point Bridge (a smaller version of the Bixby), and as we passed the Palo Colorado Canyon on our right, we began to climb another tough hill up to Rocky Point. The foot of this climb was Grimes Ranch, which happened to be the starting point of the 11-mile race.  Spectators at this part of the race were few and far between, due to the inability to get out onto the road during the race.  The next few miles were a blur, as we continued rolling up and down the hills and over a few more bridges, hugging the coast.  By this point, I was over 40 miles into my weekend, and my legs were feeling it.  I reduced myself to walking most, if not all the uphills, and whatever flat sections I would fartlek to points in the road, to a tree or bush I'd see in the distance, or the end of a bridge section.  I managed to chat with a few other racers during the section of the race as we went through our own struggles with the ever-changing elevation.  A gentleman from New York who had relocated down to Florida was helping pace his girlfriend, and after chatting a bit, I revealed that I was the national anthem singer earlier that morning. When she had found out, she personally came up to me to mention how appreciative and thankful she was of my rendition, especially as a veteran herself and a mother of a soldier currently serving our country in the Middle East.

Not too far from the water...
By mile 19, we had traversed over three tough hills after the halfway point - Rocky Point, Garrapata, and Soberanes.  The heat began to take its toll, and the road began to twist and turn as we approached the Carmel Highlands.  Unfortunately, with it came some of the most uneven and steep road cambers I've ever encountered, forcing me to contend with having to figure out the best place in the road to run on.  Mile 20 provided us with some sheer towering cliffs of eroded dirt on both sides of the road, almost a true "wall" at the "wall" of the marathon.  Seeing these cliffs of dirt was a jarring reminder of nature's potential; landslides due to winter rains have been an issue in coastal California, and in fact, a section of SR-1 some 70 miles south of Big Sur was affected by a landslide that occurred in the Spring of 2017, and still by the time of the race had impacted use of the road but not affected the marathon route.  Mile 21.2 lay ahead and would be an important milestone in the race; this was the cut-off point, and if runners didn't reach this point by 11:50, they would not be allowed to proceed past that point and a bus would shuttle them to the finish village.  Thankfully, I came through much earlier, by about 40 minutes, so all I had to do was just get to the finish!
The cambre of the road begins to get so steep!

At mile 22, we reached Yankee Point, and at this point I had expected a strawberry station, which several other runners who have run this race had told me about.  It would be a much needed energy boost, not to mention a tasty treat.  Unfortunately, I was a mile too early, so we continued to twist around the heavily cambered roads, before finally reaching the famous strawberry station at the 23 mile mark.  And boy, were they delicious strawberries.  People were right... these were not to be missed!


I want to be done. LOL.
Another short climb followed before we took a downhill stretch and at mile 24, the road thankfully flattened out and the winds  had died down.  Unfortunately, that also meant the sun was out. But with only a couple miles left to go, we reached Point Lobos, considered the "crown jewel" of California’s 280 state parks.  The 12K runners, who would start and finish at our finish village in Carmel, would be able to get a loop of Point Lobos in their course, seeing some picturesque views the marathoners wouldn't be able to get to see.  Looking toward the right as we got closer and closer to the finish line, we could see the tower of the Carmelite Monastery nestled amongst the trees.  But just ahead was the 25 mile mark... and yet another hill.  It's not a big hill, only a 90 foot climb, but seriously, putting this at the end is cruel.  At the top of the hill is Carmel Meadows, and the last bridge is just ahead; as we make the slight left turn, the finish line banner is finally in view, and I cross the finish line in 5:33:01, a fantastic time considering the nearly 5,000 feet of up and down I just conquered, and a day after doing 5,000 feet of just down -- all whilst running 52.4 miles.
California Corgi!
Victory Headstand
I got through the finish chute and grabbed my food, spotting Sacha in line for massages, so I join in, knowing full well that I need a little bit of attention on my leg muscles, even just resting by laying down. We get through the merchandise tent before they shut down and then try to find Ken, who had snuck past us somehow and got on a shuttle bus to take him back to Carmel Plaza.  Ken did make it to the finish, pacing the 6:00 runners right on through the chute and being the second to last runner in before they shut down the finish line.

Two good friends, finishing one tough race
Sacha and I had a bit of confusion as we tried to find the right bus, and for some reason the bus driver missed the turn for us -- thankfully, he was actually headed in the direction of our Airbnb, and Ken had already decided to drive back to San Jose as to not miss his flight, so he just dropped us off right at our door.  We were both thrilled to be able to freshen up, rest our legs, and finally eat something, until Sacha dropped me off at the Marriott Monterey to attend the Big Sur Marathon's post party and also meet up with Lynne, who was driving me back to San Francisco, where I'd catch my redeye flight back home to New York.

A cherished medal.
At the post party, I was able to meet a few other runners, in particular several who had competed the Boston 2 Big Sur Challenge, finishing both iconic races within two weeks time; many were actually left mouths agape when they found out I had run two marathons in two days.  I also got to finally meet Doug, the Big Sur Marathon's race director, who had given me the opportunity to sing the national anthem at the marathon start.  By about 6pm, Lynne and I decided to head out, driving as the sun was going down headed up to San Francisco.  I was so exhausted, pretty much falling asleep as we were on the highway, and reached the airport a couple hours before my departure time, so I bided my time inside the Sky Club before boarding my flight.  Thankfully, I had upgraded into Domestic Delta One for the flight back, so as soon as I had the opportunity, I reclined my seat to its full lie flat position, and slept as much of the flight back to New York as I could.  We landed at 7am the next morning, and I was ready to take on a whole new day after running an epic two races on the other side of the country!
Bringing back so much bling to NYC!

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