The reason we race isn’t so much to beat each other… but to be with each other.
– Christopher McDougall, Born To Run

Bixby Bridge, midway point of Big Sur International Marathon

The iconic Bixby Bridge, midway point of the Big Sur International Marathon

There’s a lot to be said for running on the ragged edge of the Western world.

I could happily fill this post with my usual edge-of-your-seat, 4,000-word race report.  After all, there’s a reason the Big Sur International Marathon (BSIM) appears on so many “must-run” lists, including the Men’s Health bucket list of “11 Races to Run Before You Die”.  There’s a reason (aside from his likeness appearing on the mile 24 course marker) Bart Yasso of Runner’s World says, “If we were told we could only run one marathon in our lifetime, Big Sur would have to be it.”  And there’s a reason this year’s race sold out in a record 59 minutes (after the 2013 edition had taken, appropriately enough, 26.2 hours to fill).

I could easily fill this post with shameless shout-outs to all the friends who reminded me that the benefits of running extend far beyond the cardiovascular:

  • Bay Area buddies Jen and Tim, who enjoyed what may have been Jen’s strongest marathon to date. Whether you’re planning to run Big Sur yourself or prefer to race vicariously, I’d recommend her meticulously detailed race report.
  • Otter, who I’d first met in Portland last year and who showed serious fortitude with a sub-4:15 finish at Big Sur, despite a nagging knee injury that had prevented him from running anything longer than ten miles since November. An awful lot of life stuff can happen when you commit to a race nine months in advance.
  • And a remarkable contingent of fellow Antarctica 2013 travelers in Donn and Rod, Wally and Larissa, Melissa and Wayne, Drew, Gerard, Karen, Liz, Louann and Mike.  Amazingly, of the 100 passengers who boarded the Akademik Sergey Vavilov last March, 13 of us (plus one crew member in Liz) were reunited in Monterey.  And my loudest shout-out would go to Mike, who in support of his sister Mindy’s battle against breast cancer left nothing in the tank, running a 3:22:49 on what may be the toughest road marathon course in the country.
Mike Sohaskey and Jen with Big Sur International Marathon finisher's medallions

Me and Jen got it, so we gonna flaunt it!

Mike Sohaskey & Otter at Big Sur International Marathon start

Sporting a tan camel’s hair blazer over teal race shirt, Otter was an easy find at the start line
(photo credit the nice lady holding Otter’s cell phone)

Drew, Mike Sohaskey and Donn after Big Sur International Marathon

Great to catch up with Antarctica travel mates including Drew (left, celebrating his 24th state and
28th marathon) and Donn (right), without the ground swaying beneath us

If I were to reference old friends, I’d be remiss in not acknowledging new ones – particularly Big Sur Marathon veteran Bala from Sunnyvale, who has the questionable distinction of being the first person to officially recognize and approach me based on having read the blog.  Thanks for introducing yourself Bala, it was a pleasure to meet you despite the ribbing I took afterward as “famous blogging guy”.  Hopefully your own weekend in Big Sur was a resounding success… and hopefully you’re still reading!

Turning away from the sunbeams and rainbows, I could try (unsuccessfully) to share my angst from the week leading up to the race, an angst I owed to a stubborn case of plantar fasciitis (PF) that had taken hold of my left heel in mid-March, causing both foot and training regimen to suffer.  A 26 x 200m track workout ten days before Big Sur – which ironically felt good and seemed like a good idea at the time – reduced me to a zombie-like limp for two days afterward.

But it wasn’t so much the idea of running the Big Sur Marathon with PF that stressed me out – it was the idea of not running the Big Sur Marathon with PF.  Big Sur was unequivocally not a race I wanted to DNS.  And if I started the race, then I would finish the race, even if it meant awkwardly limp, step, limp, step-ping my way through 26.2 miles.  For this reason, I set my “A” goal for race day at a don’t-do-anything-stupid four hours, with my “B” goal being simply to cross the finish line under my own power.  I figured if I could complete a hilly midnight marathon at altitude on a sprained ankle in less than four hours, then four hours should be a reasonable goal for Big Sur.  All in all, a very scientific appraisal.

Hurricane Point, mile 12 of Big Sur International Marathon

View from Hurricane Point, three days after the race (the Bixby Bridge is just visible in the distance)

As for the race itself, I could fill paragraphs reflecting on the easily navigated pre-race expo, the flawlessly executed pre-dawn (4:00am) shuttle ride to Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, the start-line sendoff from American marathon record-holder Deena Kastor, the finish-line massage tent, and every vivid detail in between.  I could recount the most memorable snippets of conversation overheard during my 3:56:19 journey (“A raisin or pistachio out the window in a big city is not littering – fact.”).

And normally I would.

But at the Big Sur International Marathon, the point-to-point course – beginning in Big Sur and running north to Carmel – is the star of the show.  With its seemingly infinite blue-on-blue oceanscapes of swirling whitecaps pounding rocky outcroppings, the ragged coastline is quintessential California.  And it’s a key reason so many Californians will tell you that the relatively high cost of living here is negligible compared to the higher cost of not living here.

Big Sur International Marathon course on Google Earth

(Google Earth; click on the image for a larger version)

The BSIM course speaks for itself.  And so for once – with the help of the GoPro camera I wore (with variable success) during the race – I’ll let it.  Apologies for the oft-shaky video… but then again I am running, and despite our proximity this ain’t Hollywood.  So turn up the volume, and keep an eye out for:

  • the soaring, awe-inspiring redwoods of Big Sur (~0:17)
  • Ultramarathon Man Dean Karnazes, seen at several points wearing a white-and-orange singlet.  Dean was running his own Karnazesque version of the BSIM, having already run 32 miles from Monterey to the start line in Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park earlier that morning.  I even seized the opportunity to strike up a brief conversation (not shown in the video) – after all, what better time than during a marathon to talk shop with a man who once ran 50 marathons in 50 states in 50 days?
  • the Watsonville Taiko Drummers, just before the climb up to Hurricane Point (~1:30)
  • the iconic Bixby Bridge at mile 13 (~2:25)
  • pianist Michael Martinez on a Yamaha Grand Piano, just past the Bixby Bridge (~3:20)
  • a fleeting glimpse of a cheering Katie leaning over the Barnyard sign at the finish (~5:15)
  • as well as crazy ocean views and quirky-cool mile markers (unfortunately I didn’t catch the best of the day’s markers at mile 14, which showed Kenyan marathoner Stephen Muange “motivating” oncoming runners with taunts of “In my country, we call that walking”).

Thanks for watching!

BOTTOM LINE: Not to disagree with the fellow singing plaintively in the above video, but I’d go back to Big Sur in a heartbeat.  Nearly as impressive as the course itself is that the BSIM boasts an impressive field of national and international runners (from 50 states and 30 countries) while maintaining a decidedly low-key vibe.  Yes, the BSIM will be among the toughest road marathons you’ll ever run, and if you’re looking for a Boston Qualifier then keep looking.  But if you’re the type of runner who prefers to run with your head up regardless of pacing, you’ll be richly rewarded with stunning views on even the cloudiest day.  And if I were to recommend just one road marathon in California, I have to agree with Bart Yasso that this would be it.

Unfortunately, change for the not-better may be imminent, as rumors swirling around race weekend hinted that registration for next year’s race could move to a {shudder} lottery system.  We’ll know for sure come May 15, when new registration procedures are announced.  Don’t do it, BSIM organizers!

If you’ll be running the BSIM as a destination race (smart choice!), your most convenient option will likely be to fly into the San José International Airport, then either drive or catch the Monterey Airbus down to the Monterey Peninsula.  Alternatively, the Monterey Airport – with direct flights to Denver, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Phoenix, San Francisco and San Diego – is located only minutes away from downtown, site of both host hotels as well as the race expo.  Leave yourself time for a leisurely self-guided tour of this quaint seaside town including its premier destination, the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

Mike Sohaskey heading toward Big Sur International Marathon finish line

Homeward bound!

PRODUCTION: Not to be outdone by the course itself, race production was almost picture-perfect. The Goldilocks-style expo (not too big, not too small, but just right), conveniently located adjacent to both host hotels, was easy to navigate. The pre-race pasta dinner, though a bit pricey at $25, hit the spot without poisoning any runners. The 4:00am shuttles assigned to carry marathoners the 30+ miles to the start were dispatched efficiently and ran on time – and if I’m not mistaken, I thought I heard Race Director Doug Thurston say they mobilized 185 buses (!) on race day. Where they found 185 buses in Monterey and Carmel, I have no idea.

The most consistent element of every race I run seems to be the fantastic volunteers, and the BSIM was no exception. The selfless folks in maroon shirts worked tirelessly to ensure that every runner’s race experience was as positive and as worry-free as possible. Special thanks to Cheryl for my first-ever post-race massage, which refreshed my tired legs despite its inability to appease my overworked plantar fascia.

On a more somber note, my condolences go out to the family and loved ones of the volunteer bike marshal who died after collapsing near the 21-mile mark during the race.

Aside from the prominent Michelob Ultra tent in the post-race Marathon Village (all the appealing local microbrews to pick from, and we end up with Michelob?), my only legitimate gripe from the weekend would be the disappointing performance of the runner tracking app, which after the 13.1-mile mark became increasingly unreliable. I’m not exactly sure why runner tracking is such a difficult technology to implement correctly, but its erratic behavior in this case wreaked havoc on my ability to catch friends at the finish.

Mike Sohaskey & Katie at the finish of Big Sur International Marathon

At the finish line, “PF” stood for “Pretty F@#&ing happy to be done”

 

Big Sur International Marathon medallion

Big Sur is a road marathon with some serious mussels muscle

FINAL STATS:
April 27, 2014
26.4 miles from Big Sur to Carmel, CA
Finish time & pace: 3:56:19 (first time running the Big Sur International Marathon), 9:01/mile (moving time 3:55:15, including one pit stop in mile 6)
Finish place: 630/3,338 overall, 74/264 in M(40-44) age group
Number of finishers: 3,338 (marathon), 631 (21 miler), 1,225 (10.6 miler), 755 (9 miler), 571 (5K)
Race weather: cloudy and cool (starting temp 54°F), with minimal wind
Elevation change (Garmin Connect): 2,235ft ascent, 2,521ft descent

BSIM splits


Official first-half split = 1:57:01; second-half split = 1:59:18

 

 

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Comments
  1. Dan says:

    Excellent write-up, and LOVE that video — excellent choice of songs, very well paced, and not at all shaky — just a little tilty. I like that you totally drafted behind Dean for a while. If you read Jeff’s most recent Boston report, you’ll note that he got a brief chance to exchange adulatory words with Karno. But it looks like you stuck with him for longer than the standard “ZOMG DEAN HI” — not too shabby.

    You don’t mention it in your report, but I’m assuming your foot behaved? By the looks of your splits, you ran a very consistent race, so I can’t imagine there was an exponentially increasing pain to hobble you. I hope you’ve buffered in some recovery time after this race to let that completely settle.

    If I know anything about the sport, then recent trends will suggest that yes, Big Sur is going to move to a lottery system. Hell, if PARIS did so after selling out in what, a LONG ASS TIME, then 59 minutes will surely make the organizers lean toward that unsavory option. Why did I get good at marathons at this point in time? Why couldn’t I have started running in 2001 when races cost $40 and only about two race lotteries existed?

    We’re going to have to talk GoPro because I want to use it for Bighorn. The last (and only) time I used one, it punked out about an hour in … and I want to avoid that.

    Thanks for sharing this experience with us.

    • Mike says:

      Thanks for the kind words Dan, and glad you enjoyed the video. It’s a bit unnerving to film an experience like Big Sur when a) you can’t see what the camera is seeing, b) you can’t see the camera itself because it’s strapped to your head at who-knows-what angle, and c) you’re constantly turning it on and off to conserve the battery, being careful to hit the right button each time and listen for the right number of beeps to ensure you didn’t f#*@ it up. Overall, though, I was pleased with the results, since they allowed me to post the race recap I wanted to post.

      The GoPro experience is definitely a work in progress, and I’d love to compare notes… my learning curve is still hockey-stick steep, and I’m learning a lot about technique every time out. Bighorn will be a great place to break it out, and hopefully you have your own vlogging plans for State 40.

      Ha, you’re not far off on my conversation with Dean… it wasn’t exactly Shakespearean, and there’s a reason I didn’t include the original audio. Running alongside him was cool and added a nice texture to the day, particularly since I was filming. I didn’t realize he was nearby until he first passed me around mile 3. We stuck close to each other until he pulled away around Hurricane Point – though I tend to think if I hadn’t been in “Do nothing stupid” mode, that outcome would have been different.

      The foot held up well – I coddled it like a newborn in the two days leading up to the race, including driving all the way to Monterey with a splint on my foot (luckily our car has no clutch). I’d set mile 18 as my golden mile… once I passed 18 without incident, I felt like I could exhale and cruise the last 8.2. But yes, I’m now fully entrenched in Operation: Heal Heel to get this issue resolved as soon as possible. Berlin’s coming up fast…

      So now I have to ask you: any chance that Big Sur (pending lottery results, I agree it’s going to happen) makes it to your list of prospective CA marathons? Why drive one of the most beautiful stretches of highway in the world when you can just run it instead?

      • Dan says:

        I dunno … I’m thinking of doing San Francisco. Mostly because July is such a running wasteland for me and it’d be delightful to train in 80s and 90s to race in 50s. But yeah, I do want to do Big Sur eventually, I just don’t have it on the fast-track like I should.

  2. Jen says:

    For once, I think my race recap is longer than yours! As for “meticulously detailed”… why, thank you? Seriously, coming from you, I understand that to be a compliment, not a dig. 😉 I’m glad you pointed out the faulty tracking app — I totally forget to mention that in my recap. Hopefully, it will be fixed by next year… though seeing how poorly almost all tracking apps work, I’m not getting my hopes up.

    Great video and well-edited, though it looks like you need to be about 2 feet shorter though. Ha. It was fun to “re-live” the race through the footage and I liked the soundtrack. Congrats on finishing without hobbling (always a victory) and doing so well overall and in your age group. Take that, PF!

    • Mike says:

      Luckily you know me… “meticulously” is one of my highest compliments! I almost opted for “lovingly” but that wasn’t working for me. In any case, you did such a nice job of recapping the race, I didn’t feel the need to tread that same ground. Though I was hoping you’d include the finish-line-shot-from-behind of you with your arms raised, that was a winner.

      Editing was definitely key to the video’s success, I had plenty more “sky cam” shots that didn’t make the cut. And you’re right, being more Katie-sized for this race would have been an advantage… another important lesson learned on camera angles. As I mentioned above in reponse to Dan, the GoPro is still very much a work in progress, but it’s a fun running toy and well worth the trial-and-error process to capture a course like Big Sur or someplace like, say, Big Basin?

      The PF had its way after the race, but I had no few complaints by then given how well the foot behaved during the race. Now it’s time to focus on overcoming one of the more mystical injuries in the runner’s handbook…

      Thanks, Jen!

  3. […] You can live vicariously through Mike’s recap and GoPro footage of the race.  Experience the Big Sur Marathon while sitting in the comfort of your […]

  4. Kristina says:

    What a great video – closest I will ever get to running a marathon. 🙂 Amazing scenery and I love all the “entertainment” along the course. Congratulations on finishing the race despite your PF. I am always impressed with your ability to accomplish your goals despite various challenges. We will definitely need to figure out how to cheer you on at the finish line for one of your next races!

    • Mike says:

      Thanks, Kristina! Glad you were able to get a good sense of the Big Sur experience – always happy to help someone else run a marathon, even a vicarious one. Fortunately I captured the piano player on the far side of the Bixby Bridge, though I did miss several other memorable moments (strawberries at mile 23, belly dancers at mile 25, bagpipes in there somewhere…), since I was turning the GoPro on and off to conserve the battery.

      Hopefully I’ll be running in the Bay Area again soon, so let’s make it a date… with the added motivation of a 9- and 6-year-old ready to race me the last 100 yards, I’ll have no choice but to finish strong!

  5. csohaskey says:

    I have done Big Sur once and it lived up to the hype. The weather was perfect and the course was beautiful. I also ran near Dean Karnazes for a bit. Bob and Pinkie Rice (Team Runners High) love this race and have done it for the last 21 years. I think your video caught a lot of the highlights (and in no way reminded me of the Blair Witch movie). I had forgotten that spot at mile 13 where everyone stopped to get a picture.

    Speaking of the video it appears as if you outran a pair of cheetahs at the start. Wow that is truly impressive.

    The only thing missing from your write up is the Garmin tracing of the change in elevation. Are we supposed to take your word that it was hilly?

    • Mike says:

      Ha, “Blair Witch Marathon” was admittedly my first thought when I watched the footage after the race – you’re lucky I chose not to show the teeth and hair I found at mile 16.

      From a runner’s standpoint I’m glad the day was cloudy, though from a videographer’s standpoint (and since I wasn’t chasing a PR) I wish it had been sunnier, to provide better contrast between water and sky. But you say you ran near Dean at Big Sur too, huh? And you want me to believe this wasn’t his first time running Big Sur, huh? Not saying I don’t believe you, but I’d like to see some video proof from that hypothetical race. ‘Cuz I’m pretty sure Dean chooses his races more carefully than that, and doesn’t go stepping in front of a camera for just anyone.

      Good eye at the start line! Though if you look more carefully you’ll notice those weren’t just any cheetahs I outran at the start, but the more tenacious Coastal California Pink-Headed cheetah. Go ahead, look it up on Wikipedia if you don’t believe me.

      So you’re saying the tilt of the camera at mile 10 leading up to Hurricane Point wasn’t enough evidence of a hilly course? Guess I should’ve included the real-time audio of me huffing and puffing my way uphill for two miles, now THAT was some compelling stuff…

      Big Sur elevation profile

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