Tuesday, August 6, 2019

Race Report: Wharf to Wharf Six-Miler

I've known about Wharf to Wharf for a long time, but I don't think it was until last year that I learned enough about it to realize that it was kind of this crazy historic beach party thing that people fight to get into.

I also think this was right after Boston, when, after having finally achieved a big goal I'd been after for a while, I was feeling sort of adrift in terms of what big goals I wanted to chase next. Box-checking goals such as running a certain distance in every state, every continent, running all the marathon majors, etc. have never appealed to me; I wanted something performance-based, but I was also feeling really done with double-digit races for a while. The short fast stuff was calling to me, so when I heard about this top 100 business and looked up past race results, I thought, You know what, why not chase this for a while.

Of course, "Top 100" means there's not a particular time cutoff; it just depends on who shows up and how fast they are, and there tend to be a lot of really fast people! (Also it's gun time, not chip time, so if you're not in the elite corral, you need to be right up at the front of corral 1 to even have a chance.)

Looking at past years' results, the cutoff had usually been somewhere between ~6:50-7:00 pace, which, depending on the year, has been somewhere in the 5K-8K pace range for me. Meaning to snag even the 100th spot I'd need to run six miles faster than I've ever run six miles in my life, but not by all that much. Unlikely? Yes. Completely and utterly beyond the range of possibility? No.

So I decided, what the heck. I've got one year to become a beast at short-course racing, let's get in the gym and out on the track and do this.

But then, life happened. And by 'life' I mostly mean my job and some physical body challenges and also some mental health struggles. Yes, I've been able to train and race and accomplish some cool things in the past year, but not to the extent that I'd hoped. So by the time registration rolled around, I'd pretty much let that top 100 pipe dream go (and let's be real, it was always a huuuuuuge longshot even in the best-case scenario), but I still wanted to go experience the race and run the best race I could. So I set a calendar reminder, cued up the registration page a few minutes before it opened, hit refresh until it became active, and got myself registered.

I'd say my training for this race, such as it was, took place in May, June, and July. May was one of my biggest training months in over a year at 180+ miles, but then June was mostly crap. July was pretty solid up until the last two weeks before the race when something in my brain kind of pooped out. Between that and an exhausting work trip the week before the race, I have to say, I was not feeling super confident about my performance. But I was still excited to go and check out the race, and sort of started thinking about this year as a kind of "pilot year"--a sort of scouting trip to see what the course was like and how the logistics worked so that, if in the future I WAS able to really nail the training, I'd have the other stuff nailed down as well. POSITIVITY!

Alas, my positivity took a bit of a hit as the weekend played out--maybe I'll go into more details some other time but suffice it to say that I ended up leaving my bib in San Francisco and was stressed about the logistics for a few other reasons so by the time I got to bed in our Campbell hotel (about half an hour from Santa Cruz) I was incredibly anxious. It took me forever to get to sleep and I had to get up much earlier than I'd planned, so I started the day underslept, frazzled, & generally worried.

The race was at 8:30am and I arrived at about 6:00am so that I would have plenty of time to figure out parking and gear check (spoiler: there isn't one) and deal with my missing bib. The shuttles weren't running yet so I walked the mile from parking at the Government Building to the Beach Street start (with only two wrong turns!), and, thankfully, got my bib replaced in about two minutes. (With 16,000 people in this race, I figured I would not be the only one with this problem and wanted to get it dealt with before I had to wait in a line of 100 people.) Then it was back the mile to my car to get my watch and stay warm until ~7:45 when I figured I'd warm up with a jog back to the start.

By this point I was MUCH more relaxed but still feeling a bit of residual frazzle and exhaustion from the long week and hectic morning/previous evening. I hadn't run a 10K with a legit time in quite a while, but figured I would try to go out around 7:15 pace, see how it felt, and adjust accordingly.

Start line eaarrrrrrly in the a.m. with no one around!

Making my way to the corrals, the eponymous Santa Cruz Wharf in the background

Beware the bouncing beach balls in the half hour or so before the 1st gun! It's all fun & games until you get hit in the head with one.

Shoving my way to the front of Corral 1

I was in Corral 1 and had tried to get as close to the front as possible on advice from previous runners. The elites started at 8:30 and then Corral 1 just a few minutes later, and as I'd been warned, it was a bit crazy! Tons of people shot off ahead of me and the start of the course is narrow enough that a lot of people were tripping and/or getting pushed as people tried to get out in front. I immediately knew I was running too fast for my current fitness (sub-7ish) and spent most of mile 1 trying to rein it in while simultaneously not getting pushed or tripped.

About halfway through mile 1, I started passing people. I think I was running about 7:15ish at that point which felt very comfortable and I thought, "Cool, let's just hang out here for a while." Then came what felt like a pretty big, long-ish hill, and even more people started to slow down and even walk, which was confusing to me since everyone around me should have been more or less at the front of Corral 1 and most definitely not shuffling/walking.

I felt good for another mile, but after that really started to struggle. I didn't feel like I was working too hard but my legs started to feel really heavy and sluggish, like they just didn't want to turn over. I was still mostly passing people but every mile was slower than the last and every time I fought my way up one more hill it felt like my legs became a little more numb and unresponsive. By mile five I was running like 7:50 pace which is REALLY slow for me in a 10K/six miler, even when I'm out of shape (which I wasn't).

Now, I will admit to having some confusion about the corral assignments, including the elite corral. On the website, it says that to qualify as elite, men need a sub-29:00 10K PB and women need a sub-34:00. That is really, really fast and most definitely elite! But looking through the results, it really seems like many of the elite women ran much, MUCH slower than that, some even slower than me. And I also recognized some of the names as local women that I know who, although they are very fast, it's really difficult to believe they've ever run a sub-34 (5:28 pace!) 10K. So it seems like maybe there is some other way of getting into the elite corral besides actually being an elite runner.

Also, in spite of starting basically right at the front of corral 1, I spent most of the race passing people. Like, a LOT of people. Including people jogging at maybe 11-12 minute pace and even walkers. Even in the second half of the race when I slowed way down, I was still mostly passing people.

This makes no sense to me. Who are these "elites" running slower than 7-7:30 pace? And who are these joggers/walkers that someone like me at the front corral 1 isn't catching up to until multiple miles in? I just do not get it. There is clearly something I don't know or don't understand.

But anyway, the last mile has a nice flat section and between that and just being almost done I was able to pick it up a little, finishing in 44:52 (7:29/mile) according to my watch. (The official results are confusing because it appears they only list gun time, which for me was 49:07.)

Oh, and this year's 100th women? 6:43 pace, which is basically my PR 5K pace and I *THINK* makes this the fastest top 100 field ever, by a good 8 seconds per mile or so! (This also makes it clear that to finish in the top 100, you either have to be in the elite corral, or in corral 1 and just *insanely* fast because you have to wait several minutes to start after the elite wave, in which case....you should just be in the elite corral? Like I said, there is either something I don't know or don't understand, so if you do, please enlighten me!)

So, yeah. I feel like a) I was not as fit as I would have liked to have been for this race, but also b) I don't think I ran as well as I was capable of, even so. It's almost pointless to speculate about why, but I suspect that having a stressful, busy taper period (including a work trip where right before the race where I worked 50 hours in four days) did not help, nor did being super freaked out about logistical stuff the night before and not sleeping much.

That said, if I think of this race as a kind of "scouting mission" for future years, then I think I can call it a success--I figured out what to do and not do in the future, and got to run the course and get a feel for the terrain and field. I'm still glad I did it!

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~LOGISTICAL STUFF~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

Location: Santa Cruz, CA

Date: Fourth Sunday in July (Sunday, July 28 this year)

The Deal:

Wharf to Wharf is known as "The best little road race in California," a bit of a giant summer beach party for road runners in the same mold as Bolder Boulder, Peachtree, and Bay to Breakers (though with, y'know, less nudity). It's been around since 1973 when it was a tiny local race run by a handful of locals and has since grown into a 16,000-person behemoth of a race that draws elites from all over the world and sells out in minutes. In addition to infusing something like $8 million into the local Santa Cruz economy each year, the race also donates over $6 million each year to local youth sports and community running programs.

Price/deadlines/sellout factor: This year registration was $47; since it sells out in like 5 minutes, there's no need for tiered pricing. If you want to sign up, put a reminder on your calendar, have the website up a few minutes before registration opens, & hit refresh until the button goes active.

Field Size:

There is only one distance--6 miles--which includes about 16,000 people.

The Course:

The course starts at the Santa Cruz Wharf & winds through coastal neighborhoods to the Capitola Wharf. I would say it's scenic, but this year (and I've heard in many years past) it was completely socked in almost the whole way so there really wasn't much of anything to see besides houses and local businesses. Maybe a little water here & there. But I would not say it was particularly scenic until I arrived in Capitola where the clouds were finally beginning to burn off.

In spite of the fact that it's been triple digits in the South Bay recently, Santa Cruz was downright chilly when I arrived at 6am Sunday morning. As I got warmed up, though, I was perfectly comfortable, and once the race started it was downright humid! I was absolutely dripping after I finished.

I had read and been told that this was a hilly/not-flat course, but the description "hilly" can cover so much ground and mean anything from "there are a few spots with non-zero grade" to "just plan on hiking the whole thing." I suspected W2W was somewhere in between but also that I wouldn't really know until I did it. As someone who trains in SF I'm pretty used to running significant hills, but in a race you really want to know where they are and how bad they are so you can sort of create a race strategy and know what to expect pace-wise.

As for my personal opinion, having done it now? I would have to say YES, this is definitely what I would call a hilly race, even as someone who is used to running a lot of hills. For example, I know a lot of people think of CIM as a hilly marathon but I do not--yes, it has a few very gentle, rolling inclines, but with the exception of one or two short stretches, compared to what I normally train on, I have generally thought of that course as "pleasantly varied" in grade, not hilly. Is Wharf to Wharf as hilly as Big Sur of the SF Marathon? No. Although a number of the hills are fairly steep and somewhat frequent, most are fairly short.

So, if you want to optimize your preparation for this race, I would most definitely include short, steep uphills and downhills in your training and also adjust your race plan to account for a slower average pace than you might expect on a flat course, but it's not ungodly unrunnable or soul-crushing. Just know the hills are there and prepare.

Staging, Parking, etc.:

So, having done it once now, I have a much better handle on the logistics than I did beforehand. It doesn't HAVE to be hard and complicated but it certainly CAN be if you don't think things through, so let me try to share what I learned in an organized way.

Staging: The race starts in Santa Cruz on Beach Street (near the eponymous wharf) and ends in Capitola. There are five corrals (Elite plus 1, 2, 3, and 4) and I *think* (though I don't 100% remember) that when you register they ask you to predict your finish time which determines which corral you're in. (Like I said, there is clearly something I don't understand about getting into the elite corral.) The corrals are accessed via streets perpendicular to Beach St like so:

Cliff St (far right) was filled with a row of port-a-potties though I suspect that there were others somewhere else, because it did not look like NEAR enough for 16,000 people yet the lines seemed weirdly short. The signage was excellent and there were lots of easily identifiable race officials in blue T-shirts that you could ask for help.

Let's be real, runners know what's important.

Bib Pickup: Bibs are mailed maybe a month before the race, so there's nothing to pick up either on race morning or in the days before, which is really nice.

Gear Check: THERE IS NO GEAR CHECK!!! I just assumed there would be, but trying to look it up on the website the day before the race, I couldn't find any information, and when I asked a race official on race morning, he said, "Not unless you're from Kenya." So just know that you'll need to leave anything you don't plan to run with in your car or whatever. (The only thing I was worried about was my car key -- I didn't have any pockets and I'd been counting on leaving it in a jacket pocket in a gear check somewhere. I ended up sticking it in my armband phone case and it worked out okay.)

Parking & Shuttles: At the start, there are a few different parking options.

    1) There is a small amount of free parking at the Santa Cruz government building on Ocean Street (maybe one or two hundred spots?), which is about a mile from the start line. As you might imagine, though, it fills up fast & you'll need to arrive early to snag one. Because of my bib issue I arrived a little before 6am and only a few of those spots where taken, but by 7am they were full. There are shuttles starting at 6:30 that run from the Government Building to the start, or you can use the distance as a warm-up like I did. (Once you figure it out the route is pretty straight forward).

    2) There is a small amount of free street parking in downtown SC near the start, but again, it will fill up fast and only the earliest of early birds will probably be able to snag one. I didn't bother with this because there are so many roads blocked off down there and the parking is so restricted for different reasons that I didn't want to spend precious time trying to navigate that area only to fail & have to drive back & park somewhere else.

    3) There is various paid parking in downtown SC, which might be the easiest option if you don't want to arrive super early. (That said, traffic can get really bad really fast and the race website recommends arriving in Santa Cruz no later than 7:00am for the 8:30am start.)

There are shuttles that will take you back to the start at the end of the race but NOT to take you to the start from the finish before the race. I parked at the start as advised and took the shuttle back at the end, which was no problem--after I finished I wandered leisurely over to the beach to get my goodie bag and shirt and then fairly lazily up to where the buses were, walked right onto one, and was back at my car maybe 20 minutes later.

Now, that said, I have read a lot of race reports from people who described their bus experience in the past as a shitshow--like waiting in line for an hour to get on a bus. Keep in mind that this a 16,000 person race, and while my race was not as fast as I was hoping, I still finished #1,276, ie, in the first 8% of finishers, so I suspect that folks who finished more in the middle or towards the back of the pack very well may have had a different experience.

Other options that I've heard of people doing are parking in Capitola eaarrrrly in the morning & taking car service to Santa Cruz for the start (which lets you avoid any potential shuttle snafus) or just running a six-mile cool down back to Santa Cruz (which, if you've got the time, hey, go on with ur bad self!). If you've got a buddy, you could also drive two cars to Capitola, park one there, carpool to the start, then carpool in the car parked at the finish back to the start. Whatever works for you!


If you live far enough that driving in on race morning isn't possible (or just really unappealing), you have some options about where to stay. Option 1 is to stay in Santa Cruz. It didn't occur to me to look at places to stay until I was already signed up, and by then there weren't many options and most of them where stupidly expensive. So if you suspect you're going to try to register and want to stay in SC, it might not be a bad idea to book something ASAP since most places will let you cancel a reservation up until a day or two before. There are a ton of small little old-school beach hotels right at the start, and I have to admit I was pretty jealous of people I saw walking right out of their motel door and 100 feet down to the start.

If you want to spend less and/or can't find something right at the start, the other option is to stay a short drive away, i.e., in Campbell/South San Jose (like we did) or up/down Highway 1 a bit. I had an easy ~30 minute drive on race morning which wasn't bad, though I do think my preference in the future would be to minimize the stress/time management & just stay near the start if at all possible.

Or, you can always stay in Capitola and take a car/carpool to the start, which has the advantage of being able to clean up pretty much right after the race.


There is no medal for this race but the race T-shirt is really attractive and wearable. This year they also gave out (full) reusable water bottles to avoid pallets and pallets of plastic bottles (Woo!). All of it comes to you in a neat little reusable bag.

And, of course, if you have the mojo to finish in the top 100 men or women, there's always some kind of special jacket or other clothing item that those folks get.

If you decide to run:

  • Practice your up- and downhill running & be ready for those hills. Some weightlifting (deadlifts, cleans, squats) would not go amiss!
  • I guess if you're running 7:30 pace or faster, you might as well get as far to the front of Corral 1 as you can, as apparently there will still be people going slower than you ahead of you (?).
  • Figure out your logistics ahead of time! Don't leave it till the last minute!

Overall Assessment:

This was a fun race though I suspect it would have been MORE fun if a) I had been part of a group rather than on my own and b) I'd been less freaked out by all my logistical issues. The race itself was very well organized and definitely had a kind of beach party feel to it, so even if you're not all-out RACE-racing, this is still a pretty fun one just for the experience. If I do it again, I will definitely a) train better/differently, and b) stay in Santa Cruz, even if it's expensive. (I mean, c'mon. It's a $47 race, I think I can splurge on a pricy hotel room for one night. I think it's worth it to me to have a relaxing night and a smooth morning.)

1 comment:

  1. Sounds similar to our Crescent City Classic, which also manages to qualify as both "elite race won in 27 minutes" and "fun way to day drink while walking 6 miles". The way the corrals are structured for the CCC is elites at the front, then three rows of seeded corrals: seeded by qualifying time, with closely guarded entry. Right before the start, the dividing ropes between these front four corrals are dropped, so it sort of starts as a mass elite/qualified runner start, but nothing like what you're describing. The non-qualifier corrals have staggered starts; they are self-seeded by declared finishing time.
    We also used to do top-500, which was super prestigious if you were a woman, since it was top 500 males and females. But a few years ago they changed it to top 500 men and top 500 women, which is kind of dumb. Even with a race of 20,000+, it's not even competitive once you include that many people. I'd love to see us go to top 100 instead. That would still put the women's cutoff at around 46 min.