Out and Back Race Day Strategy

In most years, a milestone moment for runners in the Big Sur International Marathon is turning the corner at the 10-mile mark and staring up at Hurricane Point, the most intimidating climb in the race.

On March 16, a large section of Highway 1 just north of Hurricane Point slid into the ocean, forcing the marathon board to create a revised out and back course from Carmel that eliminated the climb up Hurricane Point. So this year’s course must be easier, right? Well, not exactly … in fact, it could actually be more difficult.

Losing Hurricane Point wasn’t the only major change in the course; also gone is the Bixby Bridge, the Point Sur lighthouse, and the redwood forests of Big Sur. However, the course is more easily accessible to spectators and race support volunteers, and there are a couple of new additions that make the course just as appealing and rewarding as ever for runners.

For those 3,000 athletes entered in Sunday’s marathon, here are some strategic tips for taking on the new course.

The new course isn’t easier – it’s more difficult: Don’t believe us? Here are two numbers for you: the traditional Big Sur course has roughly 1700 feet of climbing; according to the BSIM website, this year’s course has 2400’. Veteran BSIM runners know that the hardest hills are in Carmel Highlands – and this year you get to run all of them twice. So if you were complaining about not getting to run up Hurricane Point, fear not – your legs will get an even tougher hill workout this year.

Start conservatively! The hills will punch you in the nose right off the bat this year; there’s no gentle 4-mile downhill to warm your legs up. It’s always sound advice to start marathons conservatively, but it’s especially important this year, otherwise you’ll be red-lining before you reach the first aid station. Through the first 10K, whenever you’re in doubt about your pace, slow down. Be patient.

Watch the camber: When running through Carmel Highlands, the road is cambered in places from inland side to coastal side. Normally, these miles are the end portion of the course so runners have enough space to choose the most efficient line. This year that stretch starts at mile 3, where runners will definitely be more crowded. It’s worth spending a few extra seconds to maneuver onto the best part of the road – and this year, the aches you feel from the camber will be equal on both sides, since you’ll run it in the opposite direction on the return. Lucky you!

Enjoy the tailwind (for a while): Most years the prevailing wind blows northwest to southwest, which is a problem for runners heading due north. This year you’ll most likely have a tailwind for the first 12 miles to help push you over all those early hills.

Feed off the crowd: One of the coolest aspects of an out and back course is that you see every single other runner in the race, which makes for a nice mental distraction if your legs are getting weary. You’ll see the leaders – that will be easy. Look for the first woman. Check out the relay runners and make up your own distractions; the first teenager, the first gray-haired guy, the first fat guy, the first woman wearing a skort. Look for people who seem the same age as you. Look at the crazy outfits that people wear. When you get close to the turnaround, look for people who look tired and resolve to reel them in later. As you make your way back celebrate all the people who are out there with you; feed off their collective energy to make your own efforts a little easier.

Beware of landmarks: This is for previous BSIM runners. During the last half of the race all of those familiar landmarks that designate certain points of the course will be completely off. Rocky Point doesn’t mean you have 10 miles left, it means you have more than 12. Soberanes Canyon and Garrapata Park don’t signal the final 10K. The Highlands Inn is a lot more than 5K from the finish. Keep reminding yourself of this so you don’t get discouraged when the numbers on the mile markers are smaller than you expect.

Savor Point Lobos: No, you don’t get to run over the Bixby Bridge this year, but from a scenic standpoint you get a very fair exchange: passing through Point Lobos State Reserve, one of the most beautiful sections of real estate in Monterey County, which has never been part of the Big Sur Marathon course before. Enjoy the breathtaking views in Point Lobos and know that you got a great tradeoff; after all, when you run the regular course you only actually see Bixby for a few seconds before you’re on top of it and gone.

It’s still magnificent: Just like any other year at Big Sur there’s a lot of remarkable stuff to enjoy throughout the race. You’ll probably have the fog early and the sunshine later. You’ll have pastoral hills on one side and a majestic coastline on the other. You’ll hear plenty of music, including the grand piano and the famed Taiko drums – and because of the course layout, you’ll get to hear each of them twice. You’ll see oversized mile markers that are whimsical and motivational. You’ll get free hugs near mile 21 and fresh strawberries a half-mile later. And you’ll get a hand-carved finisher’s medal signaling that you’ve completed one of the best marathons in North America.

Good luck to everyone who is running tomorrow. We hope you enjoy every minute of it.

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Out and Back

As practically everyone knows by now, a sizeable piece of Highway 1 is currently sitting in the Pacific Ocean. To runners, Highway 1 is better known as the Big Sur International Marathon course – so when the announcement was made that the world-famous course would be altered, some portions of the running community went into a bit of a tizzy.

Take it from us: don’t worry about the Big Sur Marathon. Everything will be fine.

First, let’s clarify something from a practical standpoint: there’s absolutely no way that the regular course could be used this year. Even if a makeshift road is in place by race day – an uncertain bet thanks to weather complications and inevitable construction delays – the road can’t possibly handle the nearly 200 buses that travel back and forth on race morning. Concern for runner safety has to be the top priority, and the race board made the right decision in changing the course for this year’s event on May 1st.

A similar natural disaster caused a re-routing in 1998, which marathon veterans lovingly call the “out and back” year. If you’re superstitious, it’s interesting to note that 1998 was the 13th presentation of the Big Sur Marathon and this year is the 26th. 1998 was also the first year Wally Kastner was Race Director and Dr. Hugo Ferlito was Chairman of the Board, presenting them with a significant trial by fire. Ferlito stepped down last year, but Kastner is still the RD, so the reroute isn’t uncharted territory for him.

We checked statistics from the out and back 1998 race and the regular course in 1999, which both enjoyed nearly perfect weather. The average men’s finishing time in 1998 was 4:08 and in 1999 was 4:09. The average woman’s finishing time was 4:27 in 1998 and 4:26 in 1999. It’s likely that the supposed “advantage” of not climbing Hurricane Point is compensated by running through Carmel Highlands twice. Course times were so similar that the men’s winner in 1998, Srba Nikolic, ran 2:21:36 and the following year ran 2:21:37 while finishing second to Arsenio Ortiz’s 2:19:16.

The big difference in logistics is that in 1998 the course repairs were on Hurricane Point, south of Bixby Bridge, which allowed a full 13.1 miles of road from Carmel before the turnaround point. This year’s damage is north of Bixby, requiring an additional 1.75-mile detour through Point Lobos on the way back up the coast. This year’s runners will be the first ever to race through the breathtaking coastline of Point Lobos, which could provide a much-needed pick-me-up between miles 22 and 24.

Another difference from 1998 is what we’ll call the Facebook effect, which has proven to be something of a mixed blessing. When the course change was announced, runners took to posting hundreds of comments on the BSIM Facebook page. Some of the initial commenters were out of town participants who questioned whether the road was really unrunnable, or whether the race should offer refunds because runners couldn’t experience the Big Sur coastline or Hurricane Point. The anger and rudeness of some of them made us cringe, but each one was replied to professionally by the BSIM staff.

Fortunately, the majority of comments were sympathetic, encouraging, and upbeat, and it’s been great to see how most of the running community has resolved to make the best of a difficult situation and embrace this year’s race for the unique challenge it offers. We can assure them that the race will be just as fantastic as usual.

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