Big Sur Marathon: All the Details on This Bucket List Race

Rocky Creek Bridge Big Sur MarathonThe Big Sur International Marathon is an Entire “Experience”

The Big Sur Marathon is a bucket list marathon for many of us—and with good reason. With a course that hugs the majestic California coastline, the race is one of the most scenic in the country. Runners can also expect “towering redwoods, crashing waves, coastal mountains and verdant pastures.” To get the full details on the Big Sur International Marathon (and shorter distances), we sat down with Hillary Fuji, marketing and communications manager.

Tell Us  a Little About the Race Entry…

Hillary Fuji of Big Sur International Marathon
Hillary Fuji, Big Sur Marathon Marketing & Communications Manager

Registration for the Big Sur Marathon opens mid-July for the next upcoming year. For 2020, registration opens on July 15, 2019. The race is set for April 26, 2020. We first do a series of random drawings from different categories that open for a set period of time. Each category is independent of one another. Participants already know what category they are in before they apply. We have one for locals, one for loyalty runners, one for first-time Big Sur marathoners, and one for groups and couples.

We also have a last chance drawing, which anyone can apply for. Usually, people apply for two to three different categories to increase their odds. Generally, we have two to three times more people who apply than we can take. There is no benefit to registering on the first day versus the third; it’s a random selection from a general pool.

We also have other distances that run on the same course that also sell out: a 5k, 12k, 11 miler, 21 miler and a marathon relay. The other events have a traditional registration procedure, which opens on Sept. 3. Those also usually sell out.

What’s the Weather Like That Time of Year?

The weather in April can be variable. And because it is the rainy season, race day tends to be about 50 to 60 degrees with intermittent fog.

What Draws So Many Runners to Your Race?

Big Sur’s biggest attraction is the beautiful background of the course. In addition, the Monterey area is a hot vacation destination. The event is run along Highway 1, which veers along the coast. It is crazy seeing the ocean from the perspective of a runner. The course has unparalleled views, and many participants describe it as magical. It is also a very challenging course, and the elevation gains are steep.

The Big Sur is a bucket list event for many reasons, including the exclusivity of it. Since not everyone can run it, if you get chosen, you are in a select few. Many people have tried for years and still not have been picked.

There are also a lot of events that revolve around the race itself, like a pasta dinner, Expo dinner, and special events, which are available for the coaches too. There is also a VIP program in-house that provides runners extra services like a heated tent at the starting line, a special bus to the starting line, and breakfast afterward.

What’s the Course Like?

Bixby piano along the course of the Big Sur Marathon
Runners are treated to the site and sounds of a baby grand piano just past the halfway mark of the Big Sur Marathon.

This is a point-to-point race that starts at the Big Sur Ranger Station (just south of Big Sur) and finishes in Carmel in the Crossroads area, which is the northernmost point of Highway 1. It ends just before you get into the city and are no longer along the coastline.

Throughout the entire race, there is live entertainment. The most famous of which is the grand pianist Michael Martinez, who plays at the north end of the Bixby Bridge. It is one of the most iconic bridges in the race and is just past the halfway mark. For runners who ask, Michael will pose for selfies. Many runners also love the Japanese Taiko drummers. They’re such a strong force. Past participants comment on how the drummers help them get up an incredibly steep climb. The Taiko Drummers are near Mile 11, about halfway up Hurricane Point, which is the 2-mile long climb from Mile 10 to Mile 12.

Runners say that Miles 22 to 24 are the most difficult because of the rolling hills. So beware if you are running in the race, that you should save yourself for the end. It is definitely not a course, and many runners don’t get a personal best. Plus, many runners stop to take all sorts of photos along the way. After all, the Big Sur is more of an experience.

What’s the Course Time Limit?

The time limit to run the marathon is a firm 6 hours (chip time). After that, we have to cut runners off. We have points along the course where if you’re not at the required pace to make the time limit, we will pick you up and drop you off at another point to where you will finish on time. The race organizers have a very careful caravan schedule to make sure we can get Highway 1 open in time.

Is it a Boston Qualifying Course?

Yes, the Big Sur is a qualifying course, but that is extremely difficult to do because of the challenging nature of the course itself.

What Do We Need to Know About Getting to the Starting Line?

Because it is a point-to-point race, all participants are taken by bus to the starting line. The free bus transportation picks up at several Monterey Peninsula locations and is for official runners only. Each participant must show race bib number and bus ticket upon loading. Bus loading begins at 3:30 a.m., and the final buses leave at 4:30 a.m. (View the bus schedule pdf file.)

Why so early? Because it takes an hour to safely drive to the starting area and another hour for the buses to return to pick up additional runners. All buses must be back in Carmel before 7 am so the Marathon finish and 5K/9-Miler start area can be constructed on the roadway. Therefore, allowing for possible delays, the final buses must leave for the start by 4:30 am.

What is the Swag Like?

Big Sur Marathon Runners
Entry into the Big Sur Marathon is limited to 4,500 runners per year. The lottery drawings for entry begin in July.

The medals for the Big Sur are really unique. They are made from clay by a local artist. Originally, we had a woman who made them for several years, and now her son and his partner make them. They are handmade with a different design each year. It is a nod to our community for being artistic. We like to honor that tradition that really tells a story about the region where we run the race, and our runners love it! We use a leather strap for the ribbon, although we also have a non-leather option for anyone who wants a “vegan” medal.

I don’t usually run for medals myself. And before I started to work here, I used to keep the one from the Big Sur because they are a beautiful keepsake and also because I couldn’t give away someone’s art. Each runner gets a medal and a participation shirt. Our supplier changes the design for each race distance.

For our runner’s t-shirt, we use Recover Brands, which is a South Carolina-based company. They make all of their apparel from 100 percent recycled post-consumer materials. The shirts are made from plastic bottles, and they use cotton scraps from other factories to mix the dye.

We also work with a green team named Blue Strike Environmental. They divert 97-99 percent of waste from our events. It is super important to us to leave the smallest footprint we can. Everything we use at our event is compostable. We don’t have any single-use plastic bottles, and we are looking to go completely cupless at some point in the future.

We are currently working with Hydropack, which is a company that makes foldable water cups that you can carry. They weigh next to nothing, and you can store them in your pocket. Our organization is trying to reduce our footprint, and we keep innovating year after year. Our goal is to have a 100 percent sustainable event.

How Easy Is It to Travel to Monterey?

Monterey is located in Central California on the coast, so we are about 2 to 2.5 hours from San Francisco. We also have a regional airport, Monterey Regional, which is located about 10 minutes from the Expo and host hotels in downtown Monterey. We encourage people to fly into Monterey if possible. There are direct flights from Phoenix and Denver into Monterey, and the rates are usually reasonable. From the airport, you can take Lyft/Uber to your hotel.

How Many Runners Do You Have?

We have to limit the marathon to 4,500 runners. We pull from all 50 states and 20 countries, and it’s about 55 percent women and 45 percent men.

Where Should Runners Stay?

Finish line celebration Big Sur Marathon
Runners celebrating at the Big Sur finish line.

Most shuttles pick up in downtown Monterey, and we have a number of hotels that we work with. Several of them have their own shuttle pickups. The Portello Hotel is where the Expo is located and the Marriott is directly across the street from it. They are right downtown Monterey, where there is also a recreation trail that the runners have access to.

Our organization also partners with a local visitors’ bureau to provide runners with a race program like a printed magazine on race weekend. And we offer suggestions about what to do. There are a ton of attractions in Monterey to choose from. The aquarium is hugely popular, and there are lots of outdoor activities and great wine tasting in Carmel Valley, which is about 30 minutes away. We also partner with a ton of local establishments to have lots of things for everyone.

Is There a Race Discount Code or Price Increase Date that Runners Should Know About?

Not really. It sells out so quickly we don’t offer any coupons or rate increases.

Race Lottery Info   |    Race Website
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