Bixby Bridge, Highway 1, California

Carmel Blog

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Running on the Edge of the Western World

View of Big Sur

Photo by Tom Rolander

Written by Sally Smith

The 29th Presentation of the Big Sur International Marathon takes place Sunday, April 27, 2014. Thousands of runners from all 50 states and 25 countries will gather that weekend to take part in any of six races along California’s scenic Highway 1. Though the marathon sold out in record time, spots are still available for the marathon relay, the 5K and the 9-Miler, a beautiful route that takes runners and walkers into Pt. Lobos State Reserve. Visit for more information.

Bart Yasso, Chief Running Officer of Runner’s World Magazine, once stated “If we were told we could only run one marathon in our lifetime, Big Sur would have to be it.”

In 1986 Big Sur resident Bill Burleigh’s dream of a footrace along coastal Highway One became a reality, and the inaugural Big Sur International Marathon (BSIM) attracted 1,800 runners. Twenty eight years later, this scenic trek from Big Sur to Carmel, held annually on the last Sunday in April, brings 4,500 runners from all 50 states and numerous foreign countries to experience a marathon that has been described as a spiritual, soul-enriching and life-changing event.

From the Beginning

Runners Getting Ready to Run the Marathon Early in the Morning

Photo by Sally Smith

Beginning as early as 3:45 AM, several thousand tired, cranky, and nervous runners are loaded in the dark on buses from several locations on the Monterey Peninsula and taken to the start in Big Sur. For first-timers, it is probably a blessing that the trip takes place in the dark, as the course and its accompanying hills viewed from the window of a vehicle can be daunting. Some buses remain very quiet, with runners turning inward and mustering their resolve for the journey ahead of them. Some, particularly those ferrying past participants, are filled with excited chatter while newcomers strain to hear the stories being told several seats ahead. The gamut of emotions on these buses runs from dread and anxiety to excitement and anticipation.

Upon arrival to the start at the Pfeiffer Multi-Use Facility, runners pour out of the buses, immediately seeking the nearest porta-potty, some water or coffee, or just a convenient and comfortable place to settle for the time prior to the race start. As the sky to the east begins to lighten, this small, wooded, serene area becomes a small village where the biggest commonality is 3,000 pairs of running shoes.

The First Five Miles

Runners bolting through the start line at the Big Sur marathon

Photo by Sally Smith

At 6:45 AM the Color Guard from the Defense Language Institute and the release of a flock of doves signal the start of the marathon. The first mile is a fast downhill, and it is wise to hold back here and not get swept up by the crowd. These first five beautiful miles pass by old-growth redwood groves, with the newly risen sun flashing light through the upper branches. The only sounds are the slapping of shoes on the pavement, and the occasional sound of water from a nearby creek. Big Sur residents cheer on the runners at several locations. Runners should be sure to thank them, as without the support of the Big Sur Community this event would not take place.

Arriving At The Coast

Coastal Mountain Range of Big Sur

Photo by Marianne Mangold

At mile five, runners leave the serenity of Big Sur’s redwoods and emerge to views of the Pacific Ocean on their left and the coastal mountain range to the right. If Mother Nature is not kind during any given year, this is the stretch where headwinds from the north may pummel runners with gusts of up to 40 MPH. It is not uncommon along this stretch to see cattle grazing and horses watching the runners with interest. One site of interest at mile eight is the Point Sur Lightstation, built in 1889. The lighthouse is the only complete turn-of-the-century lighthouse open to the public in California. For tour information call 831.625.4419.

The Big Climb

Taiko Drummers Cheer on Marathon Runners

Photo by Bill Burleigh

Once past the lighthouse, runners begin a gradual climb to mile nine followed by a steep descent which curves around the mouth of the Little Sur River. Here they catch their first view of the notorious Hurricane Point. The steady beat of Taiko Drummers at the start of the ascent provides both energy and motivation as runners begin a 2-mile climb that twists and turns on the edge of the mountain. If wind is prevalent on race day, Hurricane Point lives up to its name when runners reach the summit at mile 12.

Bixby Bridge

Bixby Bridge Highway 1

Photo by Douglas Steakley

The halfway point of the Big Sur Marathon is on the iconic Bixby Bridge. Built in 1931, Bixby Bridge has become symbolic of the rugged and beautiful California coastline. As runners descend from the summit of Hurricane Point they are treated to the hauntingly beautiful music played by pianist Michael Martinez on a Yamaha Baby Grand located at the north end of the bridge. This is probably the most popular part of the course and runners are encouraged to bring cameras to capture photos of the amazing views of the coast.

The Second Half

Broken road from the landslide on highway 1

The next eight miles of the course are run on a series of hills that can seem endless at that point in the race. After crossing Bixby, runners next run over the Rocky Creek Bridge, just north of the slide area that closed Highway One in 2011 for over two years. Twice in the event’s history, acts of nature forced race organizers to modify the marathon course to an “out and back” race. The first time was in 1998 when a mud slide at Hurricane Point forced runners to turnaround at the south end of Bixby Bridge. In 2011, runners turned around at Rocky Creek Bridge and made up the lost distance via a detour through Point Lobos State Reserve. The construction of a viaduct at this location was completed in November of 2013 and the road again is fully open.

Carmel Highlands

Fresh Strawberries Offered to Marathon Runners Once they Reach the Carmel Highlands

Fresh Strawberries Offered to Marathon Runners Once they Reach the Carmel Highlands

At mile 22, runners enter the Carmel Highlands, the final test of endurance for many. The stretch between miles 22 and 24 consist of series of short, steep hills on a canted roadway which push already tired legs to their limits. Fortunately, it is this section where signs of civilization return. Residents of the Highlands come out in force to encourage tired racers. One family has made it a tradition to offer sweet, juicy strawberries to runners at mile 23. Mile 24 offers a welcome gradual downhill mile that passes by Point Lobos State Reserve and runners once more get a glimpse of ocean at Monastery Beach.

The End Game

A Runner Finally Crosses the Finish Line

Photo by Sally Smith

Mile 26 is one of the worst and one of the best miles on the Marathon course. Unfortunately it begins with a quarter mile hill dubbed “D Minor Hill at D Major Time.” An aid station is located here which gives runners one final opportunity to fuel up and push up to the top of the hill. Once there, it is a nice downhill stretch to the finish. The mile 25 marker lies midway down the Carmel River Bridge and from there, one can see the finish line banner and hear enthusiastic spectators cheering the incoming runners. Many months of training have now paid off and when crossing the finish line, be sure to embrace the moment and be proud of what you have accomplished.