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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