Big Bear Marathon: My Boston Qualifying Marathon Experience
the other day, and this was my experience.
Big Bear Marathon
If you're already considering running Big Bear Marathon in California, there's a good chance you're probably after your BQ (Boston Qualifying Time). I can't exactly remember if that's why I initially signed up (I signed up before I even completed my first marathon) or if it was a mixture of its fast course, the stunning views, and the fact that it was in November which would have lined up perfectly with my move to LA (it didn't happen in time - but more on that later).
The Big Bear Marathon is touted as a super fast marathon and advertised specifically to help you get your BQ. Its tagline is "Beautifully Fast," and it was. This list of marathon courses, which uses an "algorithm derived from research on how grade and elevation affect marathon running performance," ranks Big Bear as the third fastest marathon, with ~35 percent of its participants achieving their BQ. There are even Big Bear BQ shirts available for purchase on the race website, and they have BQ tags ready to hand out at the finish line for those that made it.
My Marathon Background
This was my fourth marathon and I originally signed up for it about a month before running my first marathon last October at The Wineglass Marathon. I imagined that Big Bear would be my celebratory run since I was just about to move to California from Toronto. Long story short, my work visa was delayed until December so I missed out on Big Bear and had my registration deferred to this year.
I'm happy that I didn't end up getting to run it last year because I don't think I would have been ready to run a Boston qualifying race with only one marathon under my belt. My time at Wineglass ended up being 3:55:10, so I would have needed to take off a cool 25 minutes in a little over a month and a half (lol)! I'm thirty, so my Boston qualifying time is 3:30.
When I found out that my visa was delayed and I deferred Big Bear, I made the last minute decision to sign up for the Toronto Marathon instead. The Toronto Waterfront Marathon was only two weeks after the Wineglass marathon (enormously bad decision) and I finished it fifteen+ minutes slower at 4:12:38. Of course I was still recovering, basically had a foot injury, and because of that the marathon was kind of hell.
Fast forward to my redemptive California celebratory run in February, which ended up being at Ventura Marathon. Ventura is another net downhill race, from Ojai to the Ventura pier and it was also beautiful. At that race I got my marathon time down to 3:43:29, shaving 10 minutes off of my PR, and that was despite having subpar sleep and pre-race nutrition that didn't go according to plan. After only three marathons I feel like I've learned so much about how to prepare for them physically, mentally, and logistically.
That brings us to present day, and getting to run Big Bear! After my third marathon, I felt like I was ready to really go for the BQ.
I drove toward San Bernardino the day before the marathon with plenty of time to check into the hotel and get a long night's sleep. To my surprise the Expo was kind of far from the race, at the Ontario Convention centre, so by the time I added the stop to Waze I had to backtrack a little way. The Big Bear marathon is one of the only marathons I've come across that happens on a Saturday morning rather than a Sunday, so I was making my way there during LA's notorious traffic.
The race expo for Big Bear was in a nice building, it was smooth, and I would describe the energy as average. They had a couple of booths there advertising the Mountains 2 Beach marathon and some others. They provided drop bags that were already tagged with your number (Ventura didn't, so that was nice), had bibs with names on them, some DoTerra samples (nice - though I feel like I'm part of a cult now), a cute shirt, and gloves and mylar blankets for the race start up in the mountains (also super sweet).
Originally I chose the $30 add on to get a shuttle from Big Bear at the top of the mountain to the start, which was only about a fifteen minute drive, rather than taking the regular shuttle buses from San Bernardino and going an hour up the mountain on race morning. As it turned out, there was a storm a month before the marathon which blocked the road from Big Bear to the race start, and anyone that had signed up for the Big Bear bus had their $30 refunded. Then I had to rebook my hotel at the bottom of the mountain after most of them were fully booked.
If I could have redone it, I would have booked a room at either the Home2 Suites or the Hilton Garden Inn which were both right beside the shuttle parking lot. I ended up getting a room a 15 minute drive away from the shuttle pickup at the Bear Spring Hotel which was okay. But anything to save time and stress on race morning is the way to go, I think.
I heard later from the man sitting on the bus next to me that staying at altitude for only one night would have left me kind of messed up before the marathon. He said that ideally if you were going to stay the night up there, you would stay 4-5 nights to adjust. So in the end, I'm happy for that storm that blocked the road!
Bus to the Top
The buses were leaving from the parking lot between 330-415 to take runners up the mountain to the start. The drive up was meant to take an hour and leave plenty of time for runners to line up at the portapotties (classic pre-marathon pass time), and to put their drop bags on the truck before the cut off time. When I rolled up to the parking lot at 4am (because why would I want to wait at the top in the freezing cold burning precious energy), there must have been a line up of about 1000 people! And there didn't seem to be enough buses, either.
Some of the runners in the line with me were freaking out, and some seemed pretty relaxed about it. The ones that were relaxed had already been to Boston, and were a little bit older and just there for a good time. Because of the chip, our race time would be intact despite being late to cross the start, but I was worried about not being able to go to the bathroom enough times! I ended up having my spot in the line held and using the portapotties that they had in the parking lot, and then going again on the bus.
When it was our turn to get onto the bus, there weren't any left, but they sent two extras only a couple of minutes later, and then we started making our way to the top. When we got to the race start, we were already at the cut off time for the bag drop, had only 15 minutes left until the race began, and I still had to get in line to go to the washroom (for my sixth time that morning)!
I had another issue... I realized at this very last and critical moment that my Apple Watch wasn't going to let me play any of the music on my playlist, because my phone was Canadian was and I didn't have the license to listen to the American library (what). So while I was shedding my layers, eating half a banana, standing in line for the bathroom, and trying to get my drop bag together, I was trying to make my iPhone fit in the tiny pocket of my shorts, and it DIDN'T! The man behind me in line for the portapotties saw me fumbling with my bag and told me that the truck was driving away, so I had to make the decision.
I ran to drop off my bag (obviously I could not run with it down the mountain) and I put my phone in my bag, knowing in that moment that I WOULD NOT BE ABLE TO LISTEN TO ANY MUSIC DURING THE ENTIRE MARATHON. I put my phone, my car keys, and an apple AirTag into the drop bag and threw it onto the moving truck, despite them saying explicitly not to put any valuables in the drop bag - but they all turned up at the end of the race fine.
I got to go to the bathroom for the millionth time and made my way to the start of the race. I decided that I wouldn't wear my throwaway warm up sweatshirt, or the gloves they provided, because I was feeling good, and it was nice and warm in the sheltered area in the forest. I didn't want to fuss with anything, not even my music or earphones, apparently. I put those in my pocket.
My goal time was 3:30 but by the time I made it to the start, I was only able to join the 3:50 pacers, and we were off!
The beginning of a marathon is always such a beautiful, magical, wonderful experience. The first two miles went by in what felt like seconds, same as the other marathons I've run. You're just taking it all in, the trees in those very first moments of dawn, and everyone else that you're setting off with. The beginning of the race was pretty smooth.
I try not to over-research things too much so that I don't take all the fun out of the experience, but during the start of the marathon I heard the people around me saying that the first 4 miles were actually not entirely downhill, but they were rolling hills, and that it was advisable to take them easy. It's advisable to take your first 4 miles of any marathon easy anyway. Luckily I had been hill training like crazy for the last year, every single weekend, so they didn't feel hard. I ended up pacing myself around 8:40/m for those first few miles. Maybe too slow, but I don't know. I was having a very nice time.
When we got to mile 4, I heard people around me complaining that they "thought this was a downhill race." Then I heard people saying that it was actually rolling hills until mile 9. I was still having a good time, because of all the hill training, but I told myself that at mile 9 was when I was going to really kick it into gear.
The scenery up to that point was magnificent, and especially when we got to mile 9. Have you ever played Red Dead Redemption? Probably not, because you are an athlete, but it was exactly like that. Breathtaking and wonderful, and with the endorphins, you're in heaven! Thinking about it now makes me feel so happy and thankful to myself and to God for marathons! I love them! I want to tear up actually, just like I did then. Maybe I am and was PMSing. No - I love marathons.
Sometime between then and mile 13 I started to seriously hate myself for ever signing up to do such an extreme, crazy, masochistic thing. But it was what it was at that point! I was still feeling quite good physically at the halfway point, but I was thinking ahead to the future and the hard final miles.
It seemed to me, that around the final 5 miles, the course flattened out. We were out of the mountains and headed into some place. I remember seeing some gas stations and there was a bit of traffic on the roads.
During a long stretch before we got to town, many different running clubs had tents up to cheer on their members. Some of them were handing out BEER! Beer, I kid you not. Some were handing out some water but they seemed too difficult to stop and reach for, and they were probably for their own runners. One was handing out little slices of watermelon and a woman actually ran a couple of steps to hand a piece to me. It seemed like a good idea; nice, sweet, and refreshing, but I was RACING to the finish line, and nearly dead at that point.
I started doing the thing where you measure the final bit of the race based on your daily run. There's only 4 miles left, it's just a little jog around your neighborhood, like you do every morning! Except that they were 4 miles of a morning run from hell. Just kidding. The truth is that when I was getting to mile 20 and 21 I was totally surprised that I had made it that far and was feeling that good. I had to remind myself that I was supposed to be giving this a major effort, not cruising, for my BQ! I started speeding up at mile 21 and tried to get gradually faster after that. It was hard because the course had really flattened out in the end, which I was surprised by. No more gravity to help you along like I had been getting used to. Just me and my legs to do the work.
Some passerby on the street informed us that we only had two turns left, so I waited for those two turns and sure enough, there was the finish line. I could see it from about 1000 ft out. I ran as fast as I freaking could, obviously. At about 200ft, a woman sitting on the sideline yelled, "You only have 200ft left to go!" When I was about 100ft out, a nice, huge, jacked up man was screaming at me saying, "GIVE IT EVERYTHING YOU'VE GOT. YOU ALREADY PUT IT IN ALL OF THE HARD WORK!" Bless you, man. I took that to heart so much in that terrible hard moment. I was also wondering how he had run a marathon, he was so big.
I crossed the finish line and nearly fainted, but I thought there was a chance that I could have made my time. Just before I crossed, I imagined throwing up or having to crumple onto the ground. But after a nice lady put the medal over my head, and I walked twenty steps or so, I felt like I was coming back to life. Actually, I was feeling great! I didn't feel that sore at all (it came in the days after). I walked around, stole a banana out of a paper bag of snacks I didn't want (some granola bars and things like that), and then got my drop bag.
I wandered back around, taking in all of the casualties, and tried to find a screen with the results on it. It didn't seem to exist, but I saw someone taking a picture with a certificate that said his time and a little Boston Qualifier luggage tag that basically said Flight from Revel Big Bear to Boston - pretty cute. I asked him where he got it and he directed me to a tent that said "Results." I'm not sure if they have a tent like that at all marathons. I stood in line anxiously, but optimistic. The woman had me move my medal away from my race bib so she could see my number. She typed it into her little machine and looked confused for a second. Then she said, "Congratulations! You Qualified for Boston!" WOOOOOhoooooooo!!!!!!! It was all worth it. Thank you thank you thank you, to the God of Marathons, Big Bear, and to myself for putting in the effort!
After, I went for French toast!
I took my race week very seriously this time. I tapered my running, which for me meant doing my usual hill run on Saturday and Sunday (ten km ~1000ft elevation gain), taking two days off throughout the week, and a 2km shake out run the day before.
I tried to get as much rest as I could the entire week. The night before the race I opted to go up alone and stay in a hotel room by myself, because realistically, how can you expect anyone to be lights out and silent with you at 730 pm, you lunatic.
I also tried to hydrate well for the entire week, especially so that I didn't have to drink much water the morning of. Like I've been stressing, you do not want to have to stop on the course, even though there are many portapotties along the way.
On the course they provided little cups of water, and I usually take one little sip and throw it on the ground. I don't even try to aim it at the garbages anymore - speed. They also provided Nuun (electrolyte drink) and basically whenever it was convenient I took a sip of that. I took my own Huma energy gels. Those are my favorite. As you can see by the bulge in my one tiny pocket, they kinda dragged me down a bit, so I only took four of them and planned to supplement with whatever they had on the course.
They had Gu. I don't know what that stuff is made of. It's vegan, but it resembles some kind of radioactive substance, and it seems thick and creamy like milk. This was my second time trying it after the Toronto marathon and it made my stomach turn (disaster) so I didn't take the whole thing. The Huma energy gels are great because they're made out of very simple, whole ingredients (sugar, chia, and natural flavor) unlike the Gu. They're what my body is used to. They taste delicious. I took two with caffeine, and two without. My favorite flavor is apple cinnamon.
The night before I had the night-before marathon meal, a small bowl of white pasta noodles with tomato sauce, no vegetables (too much fibre). I scheduled an uber eats delivery from the only "breakfast" spot in San Bernardino that was open at 3 in the morning - Yum Yum Donuts, lol. I ordered a white, lightly toasted bagel with jam and peanut butter. It came as a dry bagel, no peanut butter or jam. I was really upset, but I think in the end it was probably better for me, and it actually didn't taste that bad. Then again I run marathons for fun, so not everyone will trust my judgement. Maybe you will, though.
In all - yes, run Big Bear Marathon! I got my BQ and had a delightful time. If I were you, I would probably train on hills. When I first started hill training on Runyon Canyon, I would try to stop myself a lot going down hill, which would be a waste of energy and speed. As an added bonus, if you run up the hill too, you get really strong. Now my quads are enormous and I just have to accept that.
I would consider staying at the bottom of the mountain so that you don't have to acclimate to the altitude and don't have to take an hour+ ride all the way back to the top at the end to get your car. Hopefully they get the morning shuttle bus situation sorted for next time.
Boston! Even though I made the Boston qualifying time by two minutes there is a chance that I might not make the cut off depending on how many applicants there are, but I'm hoping for the best! Submissions don't open until September for the 2025 race. In the meantime, I have two marathons to run next year, and the first will be LA Marathon. I'm not sure of the second one, but I've been eyeing Edinburgh Marathon and Athens Marathon - the original marathon!
If you would like, you can support my fundraising efforts for LA marathon by clicking this link. And thank you very much in advance.