Big Sur Marathon result and report by Philip Kelly

The Big Sur International Marathon (BSIM) has been on my bucket race list since visiting my sister in Monterey, California, in 2016. The course runs south to north along Highway 1, from the edge of the Big Sur at Big Sur Station to Carmel. With nearly 1,800 feet of elevation it’s not one to be looking to set a PB time.

With that in mind this was my B marathon of spring season, with my training plan aimed towards sub 3:08 at Brighton. BSIM was about “running on the ragged edge of the Western world”, as the race slogan goes, travelling with friends who were also racing and sampling a few craft beers in Monterey and San Francisco after the race. Oh and to see my sister.

All of that went out of the window in February when I picked up a back related injury which stopped my running completely for a few weeks and was still causing me discomfort as we left. Having deferred Brighton my goal was to get fit enough to cross the start line. After that it was just about finishing and getting the medal. My longest training run had been eight miles the weekend before the race. It was never going to be pretty or fast with my tactic being to run 9:30 to 10:00 minute miles and finish.

Having flown in to San Francisco on Wednesday, Thursday was a course recce day and a reminder how stunning (and hilly) the course was. The sun was out and it was hot. Note to self: Must remember suncream, sunglasses and buffs.

Race check in and number pick up on Friday was straight forward with a small, friendly expo.  Unlike most marathon expos I managed to show some self restraint with the branded merchandise and stuck with the long sleeved technical t shirt that was part of your goody bag. 

Still wanting to get my parkrun fix it was an early start on Saturday for the four hour round trip to San Francisco to run Chrissy Field.  With an international make up of runners, a number of whom were running BSIM, and more tourist runners than locals it had a really friendly feel. Alcatraz and Golden Gate as a backdrop definitely made it worth the trip.

With a marathon start time of 6:45am and our shuttle bus leaving at 4am it was an early night on Saturday.  We walked down from our hotel in the darkness to be greeted with a line of iconic yellow school buses, ferrying runners the 35 or so miles down to the start. It felt like a little like travelling to Hopkinton at Boston, but much more relaxed.

The 90 minute wait at Pfeiffer Country Park flew by, the time broken up by multiple porta-potty visits and applying liberal amounts of factor 30, which felt a bit odd in the pitch black. With my kit bag literally hurled in to the back a truck it was time to make our way to the start for some pre-race photos. A few hardy runners were ignoring the organiser’s advice of not urinating in the trees, which apparently were poisonous oak and liable to cause an itch!!

With the American national anthem done we were off and with the first five miles being downhill I set off a bit quicker than I wanted to. But I felt good and I wasn’t in too much discomfort. As the highway had been closed overnight there’s no opportunity for spectators to line the course so the only people on route were from the Big Sur campsites, first responders, marshals and bands / musicians that line the course every mile or so. The people who you did see you made the most of their encouragement.

With a reminder to keep looking up at the scenery and not at the road I was thankful of the course recce, knowing what climbs were coming but also the scenic bits to look out for. The first major landmark is at 7.8 miles with Point Sur lighthouse, an opportunity for people to take selfies. Many did.

Unlike the recce photo above, the forecasted cloud was holding up and it actually started to rain, bringing gasps of surprise from the local runners. The buffs were more useful for keeping warm than protection from the sun. As for the factor 30…..

Miles 8-9 brings the first big descent down to Little Sur River Bridge and with it came the the first real imagery of the rugged coastline. But what goes down must go up and after crossing the bridge it’s a two mile climb up to Hurricane Point, appropriately named on race day as we were running in to a headwind! Again another selfie opportunity, which again many took. Then it’s down for a mile to halfway point at Bixby Bridge, the inspiration for BSIM’s logo, and an opportunity for Marathon Foto to try and rob you of some dollars. Bixby is home to a man in a tuxedo playing lounge music on an electric grand piano – an odd but mildly entertaining choice of music as you begin another two mile climb around the coastline.  It was at this point that my mind wandered back two years when we drove along Highway 1 on holiday and me saying to my wife “I’m not sure I fancy running up these climbs”.  Too late to remember that now.  Although there were some long climbs in the first half, the second half was described as being tougher, with more undultaing hills.

At mile 16 by Garrapata Bridge I passed one of our group and we ended up running together. With my injury and his lack of running mojo we were equally equipped to plod along at the same place. But by 18m and yet another climb up to Soberanes Point I was beginning to get found out. Running moved from being uncomfortable to painful and the run walk tactic was consciously employed for the first time in my marathons, with a rule that we couldn’t walk the climbs. Transitioning from walking to running became worse due to the pain and 10 minute miles became 11, then 12.  Why did every mile marker start at the bottom of a bloody hill!! Even the downhills were painful now.

Mile 20 sees the route enter the Carmel Heights (you’ve guessed it, more climbs), but also civilisation and the support on the roadside is welcomed. Just one more parkrun now to the infamous strawberry station at mile 23, then it’s on past Yankee Point and Point Lobos Country Park at mile 24. I knew by this point I was going to finish but it could take me another 30 minutes to get to the finish line.

The 25 mile marker sees the final climb of the course. A punchy 400m number which makes the one close to the end of York Marathon look tame. But from there it’s down and flat, with the noise of the tannoy in the background and spectators now lining the highway. The finish straight passes the race village and the line couldn’t come quick enough.  It was done. 4:39:30. My second slowest marathon. But I didn’t care about that or that I could hardly walk. I’d run the course, managed to finish (something which I didn’t think I’d do a month before), got the medal and locked some amazing memories away.

Would I do I again? Most definitely. Would I run it again anything less than 100% fit? Definitely not. It found me out.  Now, did someone mention a free pint of Sierra Nevada?


The race was won by Adam Roach of Pebble Beach in 2.29.25. The first woman home was Julia Rhie of Chapel Hill in 3.01.12.

Striders Results:
Pos Name Cat Time
1752 Philip Kelly MV 45 4.39.40
 Full Results: here
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