Over the hills and far away…

Santa Barbara Wine Country Half Marathon

The town of Santa Ynez is about a 40 minutes drive from the barbarian city, up over the mountains and down into the river valley on the other side — probably far away by MacHeath’s standards. There is no safe bike route there so I don’t know it well.

I thought I’d visit it the day before the race to look at the course and mark out the 1/4 and 1/2 mile points. I inveigled my friend Kathy into joining me on a bike ride to go over the course. It was cold and overcast in SB. We drove out with bikes and measuring wheel. It was warm and sunny in SY. I measured out and chalked in my marks (Kathy waiting patiently as I did so) and we set out.

View From Maveric SaloonI stopped immediately, to take a picture. I ended up doing that quite a lot. Kathy was very patient with me. I knew I wouldn’t be able to do it during the race.

The route starts in Old Town Santa Ynez and heads through fields and farm land to Los Olivos (roughly parallel to Hwy 154) (a long uphill), then it leaves 154, climbs a very steep hill and goes down Ballard Canyon to Solvang (a nice long downhill). Just before Solvang there is another steep hill — not as long, perhaps not as steep, but I was expecting to be tired by then. Intermittent rolling hills through-out. The finish was somewhere in Solvang, I didn’t bother to find it on the bike.

It’s actually quite pretty — prettier now on a warm sunny afternoon than a chilly overcast morning in the middle of a race.

Rusty had told me to try the same strategy as I had on the 10 miler — go out at 6:15 pace and try to pick it up on the way back. As always this seemed as though it would be a stretch. Run a longer race at a pace that was hard for a shorter one? I was concerned about the hills — more concerned once I biked them. Rusty argued the course was easy because last year everyone had PRed on it. We discovered that one reason the course was easy was that it was a couple of hundred meters short — but even accounting for that Rusty said everyone had PRed. I managed to talk him down to a 6:20 pace — and then immediately decided that I would try to run 6:15s anyway.

This is what passes for wisdom in my brain.

I was up long before dawn race day morning. I did my stretches and had a light breakfast. I checked the weather — there’s always the chance Santa Ynez will be hot at this time of year, previous weather reports had predicted it would be cold (41°F). If cold I’d want layers, if hot I’d want sun-screen. NOAA predicted that it would be 40° at 5am, even though it also said the current temperature was 49° (at 4:50am). A 50° temperature would be perfect. I’d want layers while I was waiting, and maybe gloves for the run, but a singlet would be fine when running.

Into the car and off. Pitch black when I set out. As I headed up the pass I started to see the mountains and the clouds bumping into them — pre-dawn light. On the other side the fog/clouds were blowing up the Santa Ynez river from the sea alternately covering and uncovering bits of the valley below.

I parked about a mile from the start and took a shuttle bus to it. Then I went out on my warmup run. This had a dual purpose: 1) the chalk marks I made the day before were only at the side of the road and I wanted to make them more visible, 2) I needed to warm up. Just after I passed my 1/8 mile mark I saw chalk arrows coming in from the side.

The start of the course was completely different from last year. I knew the old course was short and they were going to fix it — but I hadn’t thought they’d fix it here. Damnation. I didn’t have my wheel, I couldn’t remeasure things. I’d just have to do without, and correct my pace at the first mile mark, just like everyone else. Fufbiggles!

Still, I needed to continue my run as a warmup, so I did that and looped back to the start.

Yup. The start was essentially at the same place, but it was facing the other direction. We were to run into town, take a side street, twist around, and run out again rather than running directly out of town as they had last year. Oh well.

Time to get rid of my warm layer and take it over to the bag drop off. I couldn’t find the drop off. I wandered all over the place. Eventually Heather told me to ask the MC, he pointed to the “saloon” and said over there. I went inside. Everyone seemed to be lined out going to the bathroom. Eventually I asked again. Just out front. I went out front. Not on the porch. Eventually I found them and left my stuff.

Did my strides.

The Barbarian contingent started to coalesce at the start line around Micah and Aaron (our fastest runners). Teage, Leroy, Ricky, Jeff, Mariann, Monica, Melissa. M. (and me). All of us are fast enough runners to claim a spot near the start. I figured I’d stand in the second row behind Micah. Wasn’t sure what this crowd would be like, I might not deserve a spot in the front, but definitely in the second row — and standing behind Micah meant I knew he wouldn’t slow me down:-)

Mariann asked how I’d gotten there, and when I said I had driven she berated me soundly for contributing to global warming. As she should. I had tried to car-pool, had asked three people, but none wanted to go with me.

I did some more strides.

It was now past 7, the supposed start time. We were starting to get cold. It’s one thing to run in shorts and a singlet in 50° weather, it’s quite another to stand around chatting.


Quite a long wait. What’s the good of warming up if you just have to stand around and get cold?

They are saying something on the loud speaker, but it’s completely inaudible here at the start line. The police car in front starts to move, everyone crouches down, and we are off.

I don’t want to go out too fast, I have to guess my pace though. I think I have gone too fast, Ricky’s ahead of me, but he goes out even more “too fast” than I and he’s not far ahead. I slow. A bit. We twist through Santa Ynez and then are out with a straight road (and a hill) ahead of us. A few people pass me. Good. Four minutes out the lead woman passes me with a couple of male runners.

Up this hill, and down and up. Left turn, down a very steep hill and up another steep hill. Then right for some relatively even terrain. I glance at my watch: 6:40. Oops. Either I’m going very slowly or I missed the first mile marker. Damn. First I can’t use my own marks, then I miss the official marks.

Well I will do what I can based on feel and the people around me. Ricky’s ahead. So I’m not horribly fast. Lead woman is ahead, that might be reasonable, or might not, we’ll see how things go.

Slowly it dawns on me — there are NO mile marks. No kilometer marks. No indication what-so-ever of how far we’ve gone. And since this year’s course starts differently people can’t even use remembered locations of last year’s marks.

How interesting. That’s going to make pacing complicated. I haven’t raced without marks since — well, since ever. Every single serious race I’ve been in since (and including) High School has been marked. (Later Wally tells me that everyone thought someone else was doing the mile marks and no one coordinated).

Every now and then Rusty has us train without looking at our watches. Running without mile marks has the same effect — you don’t know how fast you are going and must develop an inner sense of what is appropriate. If you know your speed then you have a goad not to run too slowly, but, conversely you might miss the fact that you can actually push a little harder than you thought you could.

I’m running by myself at the moment. Am I pushing myself hard enough? Every now and then I look up and the lead woman is further in front than she was just a moment before. I pick up the pace, but I fear I lose focus again. Strangely it doesn’t seem to occur to me that she might just be faster.

After 21 minutes I pass Ricky. I hope he’ll run with me (he’s also hoping to run about a 6:20 pace), and I encourage him to do so. But his footsteps fade behind me. After the 10miler, and without any mile markers to reassure me of pacing I am desperate to have someone to run with. The clump around the lead woman is in sight, but is too far off to be very motivating.

California PoppiesOn the bike ride the road verge was covered in California Poppies. I’m used to seeing French Poppies in the fields as I bicycle through France, but I’d never seen a stand of California Poppies quite like this. Of course this is the Wine Country half-marathon, perhaps I should expect it to look a bit like France:-)

Poppies and a field
Today I don’t even notice the poppies as I run past. I’m too concerned about keeping up with the guy in front (who has dropped back a bit from the lead woman).

We’re coming into Los Olivos now. And the relay transfer point. In the old course that was at 5.6 miles. I don’t know what it is in the new. 5.7 maybe? my watch says 37:?? minutes (or was it 36? I can’t remember). Great. What’s 37 minutes divided by 5.7, in your head while running at race pace? remember to multiply by 60 to get seconds first. I don’t have the energy to work it out. Doesn’t help with pacing much.

Approaching the transfer point I hear a cheer go up for the first woman. I start counting. I figure when I hear a cheer for me I’ll know roughly how many seconds ahead she is. Of course no one cares as much about the 15th man, or whatever. I hear a few scattered cheers around 40. Were those seconds? Did I count too slowly? too quickly? Roughly 200m ahead — Very roughly.

A few people shout my name. Obviously none of the locals knows me, I don’t think any of my friends are doing the relay, but perhaps so. A little later it dawns on me: My name is printed on my bib in this race. In large friendly letters. They just read it.

And then a friend does come up on his bike, a guy from my pottery class, his wife and sister are running and I guess he’s here to cheer them on. He cheers me on now. (Thank you Kyle)

There’s a chip mat here. But no indication of distance.

I drink some water at the aid station. I’m not thirsty, it’s not a hot day. This turns out to be the last time I drink. It’s only a half. It’s hard to drink. I can drink ok at a 6:30 pace, but 6:15 (or whatever) just seems too hard.

We twist around a little more. And then comes

the HILL

I’m afraid I’ll lose the guy in front of me. I have lost the lead woman. We go up. I slow. He slows more. I catch him just before the The top of Ballard Canyon and the vineyard there.top, and pass him. He cheers me on, and doesn’t try to hang with me. Damn it. I want someone to run with. As I turn the bend and head down the other side there’s a stunning view. I’m not stunned today, but I was stunned when I biked it. Kathy had to wait a long time here. On one side is a vineyard, above it a tree-lined drive leading to a winery. On the other side yellow hills covered with flowering mustard.

But today I barely glance at it. I’m more concerned with finding someone to help me with pacing. I come further round the bend — far down in the valley I see the lead woman, all by herself, but much closer to me is someone who was running with her and has now dropped back. The sight of him spurs me on and I take off down that hill in the hope of running with him.

The canyonThe canyon opens up a bit and is quite lovely, with dry california grass on rolling hills intersperced by a few oak trees, some badly distorted by the wind.

Of course I’m not noticing this now. My eyes are on the guy in front. Basically we are going downhill but there are occasional small hills. I stop worrying about going too slowly, I just run.

I seem to be gaining on him.

But very slowly.

Sometimes he pulls further ahead.

It’s a real race. Of course we’re not going all out. We’re not much past the half-way point, there’s still a long road ahead, but none-the-less, it is a race. Actually, in my opinion, this is the real race. Not the final dash for the finish, but the long slow process of overtaking the guy in front.

Four trees on a ridge above a vineyardAt 57minutes from the start I pass him. The lead woman is just barely in sight on a long straight stretch. Can I catch her? I’ve caught the guys who were running with her at the start…

And then there are footsteps behind me. They’re coming up fastish. I don’t think I can stay ahead. I try to go a little faster, but I really can’t. Oh well. I guess the guy is faster than I thought and got a second wind once I was in front… But it isn’t that guy. It’s someone else. I cheer him and and he says he doesn’t really count, he’s only a relay runner (the relay runners only run half as far each, so they can go a little faster and it doesn’t really count when they pass you — or at least that’s what I say to console myself).


Final StretchI try to keep up with him. He slowly pulls away; I gain some ground on a hill, then he gains on the downhill, and so on.

At 1:03:?? I pass a mark on the road saying 5k. This is from some other race. I’m guessing it is approximately 5k from Solvang. Not sure exactly where in Solvang, but it means there’s only about 5k left. If I’m running 6:15s then 5k is a little under 20 minutes. Which means I’ll finish very close to 1:23. With luck I’ll break 1:23. Without luck I’ll be very close to it.

And then I remember there’s still one bad hill to run. This is not going to be a fast 5k. I’ll probably be just over 1:23. That won’t be bad. In fact that will be quite good, but it will be the slow end of my pace window rather than the fast end.

At the 4K mark my watch reads 1:07:?? so I’m going close to 4min/km which is what I expected. (The seconds on my stopwatch get small after an hour, and I can’t read them easily when running, which means I usually don’t. So I could be running 4:59 or 3:01 min/km. But I’m probably about 4).

At the 3K mark my watch reads 1:11:??. And then there are more footsteps behind me. It’s the number two woman (I haven’t seen the number one woman in ages). I realize that a couple of times recently I’ve heard people say “#2!”, and I’d puzzled over that. I never look back. Maybe the relay guy is #2 in the relay? Maybe I’m #2 in my age group? (my age is printed on my bib, but in small unfriendly letters — still they might have read it). Now it is clear.

And then … the second HILL.

Not as bad, but we really are tired. And I’m not catching up with people now, two have already passed me so I’m a bit demoralized — on the other hand, I’ve definitely got two people to run with! Up we go, all three of us (the relay guy, #2, and me). We seem to stay in about the same relative positions.

Finally the hill ends, and we’re in the outskirts of Solvang. Houses. Another little hill. A school. And there’s Hwy 246 ahead. A volunteer cheers us and says “1/2 a mile to go.” I’d hoped we were closer, then I remind myself, the volunteers don’t have a very accurate idea of the course (usually) he probably just means we’re close. I know that.

I worry about 246. It’s the main highway in this part of the world. I assume there will be cops directing traffic. Obviously they’ll let the lead guy through, and the number 2 woman, but I’m some distance back. Will they think they have time to let a few cars through before I get there, and will I have to slow?

I try to speed up.

Final turn
Photo © 2008 by Dennis J Mihora

But 246 is completely closed to traffic. I needn’t have worried. And almost immediately we make a right turn and — there’s the finish! Perhaps 200m away. I find I have a little bit left, and for once I can kick. I’m trying to catch the number two woman, and then I can see the clock 1:22:55 (this time I do see the minutes) and I really want to break 1:23. There are two chip mats. I pass over the first before the deadline, but the second is where the finish sign is and I see 1:23 just before I get there. And on the other side of the line I pass the number two woman. Ah well.

As we are coming up to the finish the announcer is extolling the number two woman. He doesn’t even mention me until I’m well across the line. Blatant sexism. Hrumph. Why am I just an after-thought?

Doesn’t matter. I’m really quite pleased. Not sure what the exact time was, but approximately a 2 minute PR for a half marathon. That’s great.

I congratulate the woman I finished just behind, she thanks me for helping her earlier, I thank her for helping me later (that is — for being an inspiration by running ahead).

We pass into the food tent. And blink, Ricky is there. Rusty comes up on his bike (he rode beside Micah) and congratulates me and tells me Micah was second at 1:09 and Aaron finished at 1:10. And blink, Jeff is there. We complain about not having any mile markers. After a bit Melissa and then Mariann and Monica join us. We’re all amazed not to have had mile markers.

Time passes. I wander around looking for my gear bag. It’s chilly now I’ve stopped running. Still overcast. I can’t find the bag claim at first, but eventually I do. There doesn’t seem to be anyone to ask where things are.

Now I wander around trying to find where the preliminary results are posted. No one seems to know. Eventually I find Micah instead. We chat for a bit, and he suggests I go to the timing tent. I can’t figure out how to get there for a while. Eventually I figure out which back streets of Solvang are unblocked and will lead me to the tent. No sign of results — but — Oh, joy — the printer is working now and, yes, those face-down pages coming out look as though they have results on them. But — But — the printer stops, and no one picks them up. They just sit there. I am hesitant to disturb the people in the tent thinking they have important work to do.

I go looking for someone who might know something. I find Jeff. Since RoboBank seems to be the main sponsor, I think he might know. He doesn’t. But also wants to see the results. We head back to the timing tent. And — how odd — the result pages are being passed from hand to hand. No one is posting them. How extremely disorganized. Eventually I get a look at the page I want. 45-49:

“Jeff, I won!”

One of the joys of racing outside Santa Barbara is that it is possible that none of Fred, Scott, Shiggy or Travis will run. It is possible for me to win my age group. It is possible that Eric Forte and Terry Howell won’t run either and so I might even win masters (which I did). Er — Thank you for not racing today, I do appreciate it:-)

Jeff is also pleased. He’s third in his group. (Todd Booth didn’t make it over the hills either)

No one seems to know when the awards ceremony will be. It would be kind of neat to stand on the podium in first place — but it would be even neater to have something to eat next week. After waiting around for about an hour and a half, I give up, and head back over the mountains to the Farmers’ market before it closes. Jeff says he’ll pick up my winnings — appropriately enough, a bottle of wine.

I liked the course, had a great run, and will probably do it again. But I hope it’s better organized next year.


3 Responses to “Over the hills and far away…”

  1. Ricky Says:

    Good job , George! I actually got 2nd in 30-34 age group. I did pass the Mizuno guy who work at the SB running table at Mile 12 or 12.5 (may be). I like the course but mile marker is necessary. I miss my sprint today. It was too late when I saw the fiinsh line. My offical time is 1:24:04. I almost make it to 1:23 but I did PR for 2:38 mins. It is good to race with you. When is your next race? May be 15K on 4th of july?


  2. Barbara Says:

    Congratulations, George! A typically interesting read.

  3. Leah Says:

    Those 5K/4K/3K marks are for the Amgen Tour of California time trial course, which starts and finishes in Solvang. They fly up the “big” hill, where a lot of spectators post up. Glad you enjoyed one of my favorite runs and bike rides! Did you notice the buffalo who live down to the left as you come down the backside of the big hill? I had hoped to race but it filled up so quickly I couldn’t get in. Next year.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: