Hills, ocean and music in Big Sur

The beauty of the California coast attracts more and more runners every year. Marianne Mangold/Big Sur International Marathon

About 10 miles into the Big Sur International Marathon, runners begin a 2-mile climb up Hurricane Point. It's the longest, steepest ascent on the route, with a rise of almost 600 feet.

The road, carved into the green hillside, twists and turns and gives the parade of straining runners views on their left of the steep drop to the rocky Pacific shore.

Tom Rolander has driven the route countless times and is one of 16 "Grizzled Vets," the title given to those who've run all 28 Big Sur marathons. So, Rolander, 66, can close his eyes and picture every mile marker, scenic overlook and stretch of asphalt on Highway 1 from Big Sur north to the finish line in Carmel, California.

It's what he sees and feels when he reaches the top of Hurricane Point each year, though, that is his favorite part of the race.

"When you get up top on Hurricane, there's just such a feeling of accomplishment," says Rolander, who, on Sunday, will run his 29th Big Sur marathon.

"One of the whimsical signs we have up at the top is, 'Look back at where you've been,' and you look down and back and you go, 'Oh, my God. I've come from way down there by the Point Sur Lighthouse and run up this 2-mile climb. There's kind of a euphoria as you crest over the top."

From that point, runners look ahead and down to the landmark Bixby Bridge, a mile distant, that marks the race's halfway point. And, if the wind is right, they can hear the sounds of the grand piano being played on the north side of the bridge, a tradition since the first marathon in 1986.

"It's an incredible sound," says Adam Roach, who will be going for his third straight win in Sunday's race. "I was amazed how far out I can hear the pianist. You think of piano, you don't think of it as being this super-loud thing. But coming in, you can't see the piano, but you can hear it."

Breathtaking views and a memorable grand piano are just two of many reasons Big Sur International has become a must-run race for many, and this year's race will draw runners from all 50 states, plus Washington, D.C., and a record 30 countries.

It was named the best destination marathon by the readers of Runner's World magazine in 2009 and selected by the same magazine as one of America's top three marathons, along with Boston and New York. Running publications across the globe regularly put Big Sur on lists of best, most memorable and most scenic marathons.

"It's really considered a bucket-list race now," says Julie Armstrong, director of marketing and communications for the event.

After starting out as a small, locally focused race, it's now known across the world.

"One [reason] is the beautiful coastline," Armstrong says. "We call it running on the jagged edge of the western world, because, literally, you're on the coastline with cliffs dropping down to the ocean."

The perfect distance

The idea to stage a marathon on a stretch of one of America's most scenic highways came from Bill Burleigh, a former Monterey County judge. Burleigh, a runner, had a home in Big Sur and often passed a mileage sign in Carmel that indicated it was 26 miles away.

"He was a runner and thought, 'Well, a marathon's 26.2 [miles], so why not think about doing a marathon on one of the most beautiful roads in the world?'" says Armstrong, who was a member of the race's board of directors in its early years.

Burleigh's idea, says Armstrong, was to create a "world-class marathon" while also raising money for local charities. The first race in 1986 drew 1,800 runners. By 1989, there were 2,300. In 1997, the marathon field was 3,300. This year, 4,500 are registered for the marathon, with more than 5,000 others in accompanying same-day events: a marathon relay, a 21-miler, a 10.6-miler, a 9-miler and a 5K.

Three years ago, the marathon sold out in a month. Last year, it sold out in a week, and this year, when registration opened at 7 a.m. on July 15, the race sold out in an hour. The race has become so popular that the field could easily double or triple, except for one thing: there's no room.

Most of Highway 1 from Big Sur to Carmel is a narrow strip with no access roads or open areas, so most runners are shuttled on buses from Carmel to the starting area in the parking lot at Big Sur Station. For now, it's packed to its limit. The sparse gathering areas are also a reason for the odd lengths of the auxiliary events (such as the 10.6-miler that starts in the parking lot of a Cliffside restaurant and 21-miler that begins in Andrew Molera State Park).

"We can't make the marathon any larger than it is because we have 185 buses that we employ that morning to take runners to the starts of their races," Armstrong says.

It's also not a spectator-friendly course, except for the end. There's just no way for nonrunners to get on the course. In that way, it's not like most well-known marathons, says Rolander, who has run 125 marathons, including Boston earlier this week.

"You're running. You hear footsteps," says Rolander, a software architect from Pacific Grove, Calif., who became the marathon's webmaster 17 years ago and is now its vice chairman.

"I never heard more chatter among runners in a marathon than at Big Sur. People come from all over. They're visiting, they're chatting, they're excited about the views, unlike New York and Boston, where crowd noise is so loud."

Nearly half of marathon entrants come from outside California, according to Armstrong. Fifty-six percent are in-state runners, with 23 percent coming from the Bay Area and 14 percent from Monterey County. Rolander offers newcomers two pieces of advice: (1) bring a camera and enjoy the moment, and (2) don't go out too fast.

"Be conservative at the start because it will beat you up at the end," he says.

Trees first, coast second

The marathon begins inland, among big trees at Big Sur Station, with a gentle downslope that coaxes runners to go out hard. About five miles in, the course exits the tall trees at Andrew Molera State Park and angles toward the coast. By Mile 8, runners pass Big Sur Lighthouse, then head toward Hurricane Point.

After going up and over -- and passing one sign that calls it "Hurri-Pain Point" -- they descend about 500 feet to the crossing at Bixby Bridge, then continue up the rocky coast across Garrapata Bridge (Mile 17) and past Point Lobos State Natural Reserve (Mile 24). It's up and down a variety of hills the entire way before crossing the finish line in a field near the intersection of Rio Road and Highway 1.

It's a hard route with multiple elevation changes and often-fierce winds straight into the runners' faces. Runners don't come to Big Sur to set personal records, and winning men's times are often in the 2:20s and 2:30s. The course record of 2:16:39 was set in just the second year of the race, 1987, by Brad Hawthorne, who won the race six times, including five in a row from 1989 to '93.

The women's record is 2:41:45 by Svetlana Vasileyva in 1996.

Roach, who will be the first man since Hawthorne to win three in a row if he wins this year, had winning times of 2:32:25 in 2012 and 2:27:46 in '13. He says the winds are the "stiffest" he's ever experienced in competition, yet the scenery lifts his spirits.

"Sometimes, in other marathons you're running and you're, 'Why am I doing this?' Just running through different parts of the city," he says. "It's definitely nice to look up and have a breathtaking view that kind of gives you inspiration for running faster."

Along the route, runners get a taste of the race's special touches, whimsy in the form of mile-marker signs and music. The race has seven-foot-high mile markers along the course, created by local muralist John Cerney, featuring scenes such as a runner who's overslept at Mile 1, an elevator operator at the base of Hurricane Point ("Going up?"), a runner hitting the wall at Mile 20 and a chorus singing "Hallelujah!" at Mile 26.

And, long before the Rock 'n' Roll Marathons brought music to marathons across the country, the Big Sur placed musicians along the course: the grand piano at Bixby Bridge, plus Japanese taiko drummers at the base of Hurricane Point, a bagpiper on one of the last hills near Mile 25 and various string quartets, jazz ensembles and singers.

It was all part of Judge Burleigh's initial quest to make the Big Sur marathon a "classy" event, says Armstrong. (In another bow toward the classy, all marathon officials wear blue blazers with the race crest on their breasts.) For two-time winner Roach, 30, of Monterey, the drummers are a treat.

"It's kind of like your motivation for doing the climb," he says. "It really gets you pumped up and ready to go up."

Spreading the word

The marathon views itself as a people's race, catering more to average runners rather than elite fields. No prize money has been offered for years, but that doesn't mean it doesn't recruit. Rolander, for instance, spreads the word about Big Sur wherever he goes.

At the expo the day before this year's Boston Marathon, he planned to be in a tent in front of a 10-by-12-foot picture of the Big Sur race, talking to prospective visitors.

"Their first question this year is going to be, 'Aren't you filled already? Why are you here?'" he says. "And it's very simple to answer: because we want to be on everybody's bucket list. We want to be the marathon. We think we're a top destination marathon in the world."

Because the race sold out so quickly this year, Armstrong and Rolander say changes will be made to the registration process, perhaps spreading the registration over multiple sign-up sessions or instituting a lottery. Those changes will be announced in May.

The Big Sur race is also part of two special programs that attract distant runners: The Boston to Big Sur Challenge, in which about 400 runners do both races in the same year; and the Runner's World Challenge, in which 300 men and women train with coaches and run two other marathons (the Marine Corps and Disney) along with Big Sur.

Because the Big Sur race is always held the final Sunday of April, it conflicted with Boston.

"A lot of people would say, 'I'd love to do Big Sur, but I'm running Boston,'" said Armstrong. "And so we said, 'If you're up to it, try doing both.'"

Now, runners who do both get two medals after crossing the finish line. For Rolander, this will be the fifth time he's run both and the third time the races will be just six days apart. But after finishing second in his age group last year in 3:56, he says this year's marathon for him will be more of a social and sightseeing event.

He'll run with friends, take in the views and simply enjoy the journey. Not running Big Sur simply is not an option. The streak must live.

"When asked my running advice, usually the first piece of advice I give anybody is never run the first year of any event," he says.

"Because, chances are, you'll run the second. And if you run two, maybe you'll run the third. Then, you're screwed," he adds, laughing.

But to Rolander and thousands of others who've run Big Sur, it's a jewel among all races, with scenery second to none. It is, he says, almost a perfect route hatched from Judge Burleigh's mind, even down to the most iconic spot in the race, Bixby Bridge.

"In one sense, it's almost too much magic to have 13.1 [miles], the halfway point of the marathon, be in the middle of that bridge," he says. "It was meant to be."