Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Race Logistics: Big Sur Marathon

This post is about the logistics/nuts & bolts of running the Big Sur Marathon; you can find my race report at this link. :)

Location: Big Sur Station, CA to Monterey, CA

Date: Late April (April 29, 2018 this year)

Price: I want to say that the 2018 race cost $175-180 this year. So, not cheap, but not out of line with other high-profile marathons. Boston 2 Big Sur was $300, so $120 more for your medal, jacket, post-race food & beer, & presumably the extra administrative costs.

Field size/deadlines/sellout factor: The marathon is capped at 4,500 & it's popular enough that registration for the stand-alone race is by lottery each year in July. In fact, I learned by reading the race program that it's actually a series of five lotteries:

  • Groups & couples
  • Loyalty runners (ie, those who've run before)
  • Monterey County resdents
  • First-timers
  • Last chance drawing

This makes a lot of sense given what Road Bunner had told me before, that once you get in once, it seems like your odds of getting in again go way up. (Hence her getting in eight times.)

Boston 2 Big Sur registration happens after Boston Marathon registration closes (it opened on October 1 this year) & is first-come, first-served. If you've already gotten into Big Sur via the lottery and then register for Boston 2 Big Sur, your registration is converted & you're refunded your original registration fee.

Staging, Parking, etc.:

So, I can't really talk about the Monterey end of the race at all because we stayed down at Big Sur station. If you want to go that route instead of catching a bus from Monterey at 3:30am, here's how I did it.

First, I would book your lodging as soon you know you're in the race. Many things in Big Sur book up super fast and there aren't that many cheap options to begin with, unless you want to camp in a tent. (I was not super into sleeping on the ground the night before a marathon.) The start area shuttles make a continuous loop from Deetjen's at the south end to River Inn at the north end, stopping wherever they see runners if they currently have room.

There are lots of lodging options within that area, & there are any number of listicles on the internet depending on what you're looking for (budget, luxury, vanilla, quirky, etc.). We stayed at Big Sur Campgrounds & Cabins, about two miles north of the starting line; it was easy to walk up the driveway to Highway 1 & catch the shuttle around 5:15am. (The race starts at 6:45am.)

Wave 1 start

The start is staged at Big Sur Station, where you'll find gear check and a village of port-a-potties. It's a small space for so many runners, but like I said in my race report, Road Bunner's advice to not line up when instructed makes things a bit smoother as long as you don't care about being at the absolute front of wave 1 & aren't having a port-a-potty emergency. (And actually, I bet you could still wait until pretty much 6:44am & then walk right up to the front.) Of course if everyone did this it would be a problem so don't tell anyone.

***Updated To Add:*** Oops, apparently I just glossed over the whole getting-back-down-to-Big-Sur thing, huh? Good catch, Wendy!

So, the thing about how did we get back down to Big Sur after the race is, we didn't. Before I headed to the race Sunday morning, I packed up all my stuff as well as I could, & then Don drove himself & all our stuff up later in the day. (They will tell you that Highway 1 is completely closed all day, from like 3am to 1pm, but that isn't exactly true. This year there were three different caravan times that cars could get in at specific times so that you could get to Monterey while the race was going on, which apparently took about an hour & a half. I finished a little after 11 & I think Don got to Monterey around 11:45, which is WAY better than what I had planned for, which was that he wouldn't even be able to *leave* Big Sur until like 1 (and then it's a 45 minute trip to Monterey).

I stand by my recommendation to stay down in Big Sur if you don't want to get up at 2:30am, but yeah, if you don't want to have to go back down after, you really need another person who's willing to drive in the caravan & schlep all your stuff.

The Course:

Like I said in my race report, this is not a course to take lightly! In addition to 2000' of elevation gain, constantly rolling hills, and the notorious Hurricane Point climb, it is extremely cambered due to only half the road being closed, & all of that takes a toll on the body. It's not uncommon to have a stiff headwind for a lot of the way. Also, remember that the downhills can be just as challenging as the uphills, particularly towards the end of the race.

Course Map

Elevation Profile

BUT. But but but. It's not exaggeration to say that it might be the most gorgeous marathon course you ever get to run. ( long as it's not socked in, which happens some years.)

Yep, that is the actual road you run on.

So, yes. Completely runnable, but you have to prepare for it, which does not only mean running uphills, but also training downhills regularly & doing the strength work to prepare your body for the twisting & turning & odd angles.

Aid stations were great (water & sports drink & sometimes gels, not to mention the strawberry aid station at mile 23), and also I'd be remiss if I didn't mention that I got more pictures from this race (53 or something??) than I think any other race I've ever run in my life.


An attractive tech long sleeve shirt & a distinctive ceramic medal. (The only downside of the cool medal is that it's fragile so you can't just throw it in a box with a bunch of other metal ones.)

If you decide to run:

  • We had just about perfect weather (cool & overcast, but still clear enough for excellent views, & headwinds only some of the time) but know that it can vary, with some years being hotter & others being foggy and/or wet and/or SUPER windy. You have to go into it knowing that you might not get great weather and could potentially be running into a stiff headwind the whole way.
  • Consider hitting the expo first thing Friday & then driving down to Big Sur for a couple nights, especially if you've never been. It's 100% worth it.
  • Only the softest PRs stand a chance of being broken here, so if you want to run for time, maybe think more in terms of how high up can you finish in your age group/gender/overall. (Like, I could see running it again to see if I could beat this year's time on fresher/better trained legs.)

Overall Assessment:

Yes, Big Sur was definitely the toughest marathon course I've ever run, but I had a lot of fun doing it & am really glad I was able to run and finish. It truly is a jaw-droppingly gorgeous course and an incredibly unique experience. I wouldn't rule out running it again, but the camber was pretty hard on my legs so it's definitely not going to be a race I feel like I could run regularly. (But mad kudos to those who do it regularly! I salute you.)


  1. I really like how you posted about the logistics because that's a great thing to know for out of town runners. I had a lot of friends run this this year (I mean, like 7 people I know IRL ran). All but two entered the lotto as a group from Charleston Running Club and that's how they got in! The other two did Boston to Big Sur.

    1. Yes, I've definitely heard the group lottery is the way to go if you want better odds. I don't know how soon I'll be up for running it again but it's nice to know I'm (I think?) in that loyalty lottery now!

  2. When I ran Big Sur in 2016, I stayed in Monterey and took the shuttle down to Big Sur. How did you get back to Big Sur from the finish line?

    Off to read your recap!

    1. Ah, good question! I completely skipped that part huh? Must go back & update!