I've only been running for a little more than two years, so saying that I run the Santa Cruz half-marathon every year might sound like I'm overstating things. Nevertheless, this year was my third time running this beautiful race and as it turns out, also the third time this race made me go back home with a new personal record for the distance.
I have never run the Big Sur International Marathon, so as far as ocean-side races goes, the course of the Santa Cruz half-marathon is the most gorgeous I've had the pleasure to run on and easily taking the crown from the Keiser Permanente half-marathon. Starting from the beachfront, the course quickly goes up onto West Cliff Dr and keeps going west until the Old Dairy Gulch. There, it loops around on the cliffs and finally comes back to the start with its famous beach finish.
Coming off a very strong running month in March with my highest ever mileage, I was feeling good about the race. The weather forecast was good, with fresh temperatures and a bit of morning cloud cover. Having ran 1:29' at Keiser a few weeks before, my strategy was to stick with Bernardo, our 1:30' pacer and play the end of the race by feel. After warming up, I joined the pace group behind the starting arch; I once again chose to go light, no shirt or camelback. Just me, my shoes and my Garmin, ready to eat up the miles.
With the warm-up, getting into pace was easy. We had about a dozen people trucking along and we quickly settled around a 6'45"/mi pace. Shortly after the start I realized that I didn't hydrate at all since the night before and that I forgot to bring a gel. My worries were soon dismissed as we passed the mile 3 aid-station where I had a gulp of water a snatched a gel to keep for later. Before we knew it we were on the bike path alongside highway 1, dealing with the few hills of the course -- the real challenge of this otherwise (mostly) flat race.
Our little group felt strong and I could tell we were all experienced runners, implicitly taking turns leading the pack alongside Bernardo in this more exposed section of the race, providing cover to the rest of the group. I was starting to feel the pace in my legs, but my breathing and heart rate were steady and composed. We were quickly back through the farm and back up the hills of the bike path. The group slowed down and I found myself alone ahead, trying to control my pace and be smart about the hills. We were clearly ahead of pace already so I took it easy and let the group catch me back.
After the hills we passed again through the Natural Bridges Dr aid station, which was my cue to eat up my gel and grab another sip of fresh water, getting ready to take on the last 3 miles and change to the finish line. Our group had thinned out a bit, but a few of us were still going strong. As we reached West Cliff Dr, one of the girls in our group started picking up the pace. The game was on. I followed and we ran together as we progressively sped up.
I could tell she was starting to struggle through the final miles, especially at the increased speed. Me, I was feeling better than ever, happy to let my legs stretch out in 6'30"/mi territory. I encouraged her to stick with me and hang on, but she progressively fell behind. Her friend, who was in our group too, took off later but faster and caught us about a mile from the finish.
It was time for me to convert this steady, 12+ mile effort into the running equivalent of a Hail Mary. Half a mile to the finish I switched gears, now under 6'/mi and speeding up as the course comes back downhill to the beachfront. I negotiated the 90-degree turn towards the beach and completed my sprint through the finish line.
With a finishing chip time of 1:26'38", I took out almost 3 minutes from my previous PR, which I attribute to smart pacing, the strength of the group and a conservative miles 8-10 segment to correctly prepare for a well executed and progressive push in the last few miles. Not to mention stunning scenery that does a really good job of taking your mind of running!