2014 Big Sur Marathon: Running Highway 1 To Carmel


Piano on the far side of Bixby bridge

The strip of Highway 1 that stretches from Big Sur to Carmel is arguably the most beautiful section of road in the United States… and I’m sure it competes on a worldwide level as well.  If you don’t know what I’m talking about, put it on your bucket list.  It’s surreal.  What’s obvious to me is that the builders of this road in the 1930’s clearly had one thing in mind.  The marathon.  This road is the perfect course for a 26.2 mile run.  The vistas, the downhill start, the big hill in the middle, the halfway point right at Bixby River Bridge, and the Carmel Highlands….  and exactly 26 miles.  This road was made to be run.  Let’s talk about that…

2014 Big Sur Marathon: The Gun

2014-big-sur-marathon-signSunday morning at 6:40 AM I stood in my Wave 1 corral.  I was near the front of the running group of 3,400 runners and absolutely RARING to go.  But experience (this being my 4th marathon) and the ability to check my ego a bit told me to cool my jets.  The starting gun fired and the group started lumbering forward… and I immediately dialed it back on the downhill start.  I crossed the start line 11 seconds after the gun and settled into what would be the best run of my life… for a number of reasons.

2014 Big Sur Marathon: The Pace

I had trained less for this marathon than ever.  This is the most challenging marathon course I have ever run as well.  I knew that strategy would have to prevail on this run for me to have a good race.  So I dialed it back.  And a good part of the field had passed me by mile two.  My training partner, who is also a much better runner than I was just up ahead of me about 100 ft.  He was doing the same.  If Dave was doing it, I was going to follow suit.

The words that went through my head as many a runner huffed and puffed past me?

I will be seeing you again before this is over.”  And in most cases, it would be true.

2014 Big Sur Marathon: The Transition

After about 8 miles I had locked in a 7:42 average pace… most of which was a slight downhill.  My heart rate was right around 155 and I was feeling like I had taken a lot off the course without expending much energy.  But the hardest work would be coming.  As we came out of the Big Sur area, the ocean came into view.  And with the ocean came the hills.  For the next two miles, we would start the rollers that would really be a primer for the rest of the course.  With Point Sur looming in the background, it was obvious that we were going to be geographically challenged.  The feeling at this point was calm focus.  My strategy?  Keep the HR at a max of 165 going up and recover on the downs…. while trying not to chew into that average pace.

Stay loose.  Don’t over think it.  Just enjoy the run.

It worked.  The only hitch was a much needed pee break at mile 10.  I used this well planned break to let my heart rate recover just a bit before climbing the biggest hill on the course.

2014 Big Sur Marathon: Hurricane Point

I was all mentally prepped for this 2 mile climb as it was the focus of the course map.  From the bottom of it, you can see the road etched into the side of the cliff… and climbing slowly upward seemingly forever.  As my legs switched gears I had one goal… keep the HR below 170 and conserve energy.  Halfway through the first mile, my HR leveled off at 168 and I held pace.  The steepest mile on the course and I held it at 8:25.  I was VERY happy about this victory.  As I came into the second mile, my HR spiked up to 171 briefly but the climb leveled off to a slight uphill with a few dips for recovery.  By the time the mile 12 marker came, we had reached the peak and the long downhill to Bixby River Bridge came into view.  This, I knew, was the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

2014 Big Sur Marathon: Bixby

My fastest mile of the race was a 7:10 and was the downhill section to the bridge.  At this point, the full beauty of this view was sinking in.  The cliffs, rocks, ocean, and vivid colors all brightened by the runners high that I was experiencing post hill climb.  This is the good stuff kids… the moments you remember for the rest of your life.

As my footfalls fell on the Bixby River Bridge, the first notes of the grand piano being played on the far side could be heard.  The silence.  The piano.  The waves crashing.

The view.

All of it… it got me.  I cried in the moment… real tears that I had earned.  Every running step I have ever taken, all the sweat, and all the effort… all worth it in this very moment.  I was there for it, present and alive.  And I will remember it forever…


2014 Big Sur Marathon: Time To Do Work

…But even the best moments are fleeting.

Bixby was the halfway point and I had locked down a 1:42:30 half.  To PR, I would have to bring the heat and run a faster second half.  But I felt amazing after making it through the most scenic parts of course.  And in my mind I set the goal to PR.  It was within the realm of possible.

We had a  few more downhills over the next miles with some rolling hills mixed in.  My average pace had dropped back to 7:46 and I wanted to start to peck away at that.  I did.  I was hitting 7:40’s following the bridge and my heart rate had recovered nicely.  The miles ticked off and around mile 20, the course swung inland.

The real fun began.  I had anticipated some moderate hills at mile 18 and 20 and played them perfectly… and held a pace that kept helping my average pace.  My hopes of a PR were still alive.

2014 Big Sur Marathon: The Carmel Highlands

2014-big-sur-marathon-carmel-highlandsThe more experienced runners and reviews had dismissed the big climb at Hurricane Point as the toughest part of the course… and they were correct in doing so.  When I saw the “Carmel Highlands” sign at mile 22, I cringed a bit.  And the hills began.  22 was a particularly tough mile and I had to finally let my HR creep up above 170 to keep pace.  I was still recovering on the downhill sections of these bigger rollers… but each time I had a little less in the tank.  We had run 22 miles at this point… so I was willing to cut myself a little slack.

23 was again challenging, but I had given into the fact that I had to endure some pain at this point.  And 24 had a nice downhill in it.  We were setting up for a finish.

At mile 25, I allowed myself to feel tired and give in mentally a bit.  The start of the last big hill, only about 100 feet of vertical climb, felt like forever at that point.  I knew I was right on the edge of making a new personal best so I kept pushing.  And then the last downhill at the end of 25… this time, no recovery… just balls out run.

“If I run fast enough now, I can PR this thing.”

“Don’t fucking let up.”

And in these final moments… you just try to stay upright and keep your feet moving.  Every step is hard.  And even 50 yards to the finish line looks like it’s too far to make it.  Don’t fall, you tell yourself.

And as you cross the line, your silent world comes into full volume.  You can for the first time hear the crowd and the announcer.  Stopping feels weird… because you haven’t stopped in over 3 hours.  It’s very much like waking from a dream…. and in this case a good one… but I am glad it’s over nonetheless.

I crossed the finish line at 3:23:10… a PR by about 40 seconds on a MUCH tougher course than I have ever done.  Besides the last mile or so, the run was absolutely pleasant and fun.  I felt much stronger in this race than I have in years past.  I finished 113th overall, an accomplishment for someone who runs once a week and spends most of his time pushing heavy weights around instead (my biggest mileage week training for this marathon was 25 miles).  I enjoy the marathon a little bit more each time.  I get a little faster and feel a little stronger every year.  I guess that’s a trend I can enjoy as a recreational runner.

I have never enjoyed a run more than the 2014 Big Sur Marathon.  Now I have to decide what is next.  :)

Ryan GillespieRyan Gillespie
Health/Fitness Coach & Trainer

I currently live in sunny San Diego California and work with people around the country as well as Internationally on their health and fitness goals.  Please LIKE me on Facebook and JOIN The Locker Room (Free Accountability and Support group)

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3 Responses to “2014 Big Sur Marathon: Running Highway 1 To Carmel”

  1. Great work and congrats on the PR! I’ve driven Big Sur and can only imagine how awesome it is to run. Perhaps one day.

    I guess an ultra is in store for you?

    • Ryan Gillespie Reply May 1, 2014 at 5:49 am

      We will see. Might squeeze in a 2016 Boston qualifier later this year… and then ultra in 2015. Haven’t decided but must soon. And thanks. Always love your stuff over on rootsandrocks.

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