Big Sur Marathon was everything I imagined it would be. After years of sitting in my bucket list and delayed by our immersion into triathlon since 2009, Melissa and I finally decided that it was time to do a marathon together. And, wanting to incorporate a trip to Portland and Seattle and a drive up the Pacific Coastline, Big Sur was a natural fit.
And so we found ourselves in the eerie dark and quiet of a tour bus which picked us and other runners up at our hotel for the 26 mile ride from Monterey to the race start near the village of Big Sur. As the bus made its way ponderously up winding curves and steep inclines through the 4am darkness, we could only sense what lay beyond the barely visible guardrails just beyond our bus window. I knew, from a previous drive on Highway 1 of the cliffs and sheer drop-offs along this road and it occurred to me that we had placed a tremendous amount of trust in this silent bus driver whom we had never met. We settled in, sipped our coffee and tried to enjoy the ride.
Grateful after our safe delivery to the starting area, we stretched, made final bathroom visits despite long lines at the port-o-lets, and waited in the chilly pre-dawn air for our 6:30am start. When the gun went off, early morning light streamed through the surrounding trees and we were thankful to get started after standing around in shorts and t-shirts for nearly an hour in 50-degree temperatures.
Once started, the course was nothing short of spectacular. After running along for a comfortable and gently downhill-sloping five miles or so, the real Big Sur finally revealed itself with the first of many challenging hills. This climb was offset though by inspiration when the rocky coastline came into view for the first time, and as we rounded a bend there were audible “ooohs” and “oh my Gods” from the runners around us. At one point, between mile six and seven, we spotted a whale, maybe a quarter mile offshore, jumping and rolling playfully in the surf, showing off for us it seemed, as if it somehow knew that today was marathon day and it would have an appreciative audience.
By the halfway point at mile 13, we crossed the graceful and iconic Bixby Bridge, perched high in the air – some 280 feet above where Bixby Creek flows into the Pacific – and were treated to the theme from “Chariots of Fire”, played on a grand piano by a man in a tuxedo. We knew this was a regular feature of the Big Sur race, so were not surprised, but it was still a really cool feature and a nice reward after a steady, two-mile climb up the aptly named Hurricane Point – the longest climb on the race course and one of the windiest points of the marathon.
From Bixby, we were treated to a series of rolling hills for the second half of the race and though it was challenging, we were still in good shape physically and felt that unmistakable momentum you get from crossing the halfway point of a race. For most of the day Melissa and I ran silently, transfixed by the sheer beauty of the rugged Pacific Coast. We would offer up encouraging words on occasion, but were mostly lost in the moment, happy to be there, sometimes overwhelmed by the scenery surrounding us.
All that beauty though comes at a price, and Big Sur exacts its pound of flesh before surrendering the well-earned finisher’s medals. It was so windy that at some points along the course, port-o-lets were tied down with rope and railroad ties, which left me to ponder what messy and surprising wind-blown misfortunes had befallen runners in prior races before officials got wise to tie-down precautions. We alternately dreaded the slow struggle on the up hills, only to amble painfully with protesting joints on the down hills. The camber of the road was slanted, punishing ankles and knees and hips, so that even the overwhelming ocular pleasures of the Pacific began to lose their charms by late in the race. This was Big Sur. Totally deserving of the “bucket list” status I had bestowed upon it a number of years ago – the most rewarding and challenging marathon course I have done.
When we gratefully crossed the finish line at 4:38 – not fast, but we were ok with it – we basked in the welcome warmth and sunshine. After grabbing a beer at the Michelob tent, we sat luxuriantly in the finisher area, medals around our necks, sunning ourselves and soaking in the glow of a goal achieved.
A little later, our friends Andre, Joanie and Lori joined us in the finish area – Joanie and Lori having finished against all odds through knee and calf injuries respectively. We sat and listened to a band and chatted about the racecourse and enjoyed each other’s company – happy to be done and excited about the rest of the trip. We might have stayed there all night if it were not for the one beer per runner limit – a clear sign, I thought to myself, of West Coast progressivism run amuck.
After catching a shuttle back to the hotel, Melissa and I showered and napped, waking at 4:30 pm absolutely famished. It was just the two of us for dinner and we made the short drive to Carmel, arriving like a couple of blue haired seniors with creaky knees as soon as the doors opened at 5:30 at La Biceclette – a wonderful little French bistro.
It was a perfect day outside – blue skies and lingering warmth from the 71 degree high and we took our seats inside only because there was no outside seating available. We started with a beet salad topped with locally made blue cheese and escargot simmered with pine nuts in a wonderful garlic sauce. It was amazing. For the main course, we shared possibly the best pizza I’ve ever tasted – a crispy flatbread with lamb sausage, mint, black olives and red onion – again, amazing. We drank cool, crisp white wine from an area vineyard and chatted excitedly about the next few days of our trip – we were exceedingly happy.
After, we made our way back to Monterey and had espresso at Café Luminere, which was attached to an indy theatre. We had not planned to see a movie, but it was only 7pm and we were on vacation, so we watched “Mud” with Matthew McConaughey, which actually turned out to be one of the better movies we have seen in a long time.
After the movie we walked painfully, with almost comic stiffness back to the rental car and returned to the hotel. It had been an incredible day – the marathon, a nap, a wonderful dinner and a great movie. And despite lingering concern over how our bodies might respond to the nine-hour drive to Eureka the next day, we were happy and excited in that way you can only be in the early stages of vacation.
Next: the drive north and Portland