In the days before the Santa Barbara Wine Country Half Marathon, race jitters got the best of me and I fretted over the course elevation profile and whether or not I could hope for a PR (1:53 or less) or better yet, break 1:50.
You can see why the elevation gain of 764 feet intimidated me in spite of the net elevation loss. I’d chosen the race because the timing was perfect for me — it fit in my full marathon training for Santa Rosa — and the location is convenient and beautiful. But as I discovered, I don’t really run races for “fun” — I run for the joy of racing hard and doing my best, all while enjoying the privilege of getting to run someplace new on a closed course.
It turns out I needn’t have worried about the difficulty of the course. The race ended up being everything I hoped for and more. The course is absolutely gorgeous — so much so that I asked my family and friends to tour it with me by car after the race because I wanted to see it again and I wanted to show them all. I have never run on a more beautiful course (for the record, this is my 22nd race or so, but only my third half marathon). It starts in the nice little town of Santa Ynez and quickly heads out into the wine country, past vineyards and horse stables and farms, up Corkscrew Hill and down Ballard Canyon to the finish line in charming downtown Solvang.
The weather was gorgeous too — in the low 50s and sunny. The forecast predicted winds of 21 miles per hour (!!) but it turns out those winds only kicked up later in the afternoon.
So what about those hills? Yes, the general grade was noticeably uphill for the first seven miles, with a few rolling hills along with way, capped with the challenging 0.6 miles up Corkscrew Hill. But surprisingly, I did not find it as difficult as I thought it might be to maintain my goal pace on that first half of the course. I knew what to anticipate, and if you have prepared with some hill training before the race, the hills are totally manageable and dare I say, rewarding to conquer. The real reward, though, comes when you get to fly down the canyon for the next four miles! I haven’t had so much fun racing in a long time. The canyon is spectacular, with hills covered in yellows and greens and dotted with a few buffalo!
I’ll take a minute (pun intended) talking about pace, which is probably only interesting to me and anyone else who plans to run this course in the future. I wore a pace band (tip: print it, cut it out, and use clear packing tape to cover the front and back and then — this is the key — around the edges to seal the sides from sweat). I targeted a pace of 8:19 or better in the hopes of hitting 1:49 overall.
The first mile ended up at 8:21 and I quickly realized I’d started a little too far back in the pack. While it’s always better to start slow and build some speed, I dodged more people at the start than I’d like (especially in the first sharp turn right after the start). After that I settled into my own race and found myself pretty comfortable at a good pace: 8:10, 8:02, 8:17, 8:12, 8:34 — an average of 8:16 for the first six miles.
This was my first race in which I relied solely on the course aid stations for water and electrolytes. Aid stations were positioned about every 2 miles and that was perfect for me. I’d grab 2 cups of water or Accelerade and walk a few steps while drinking, then pick up the pace again. I took the one gel I’d carried with me at mile six.
Corkscrew Hill proved challenging but I simply pictured myself on one of the hills I’d bested in training and soon it was over with an average pace of 9:06 for mile 7. Then the fun began. You can tell by my pace alone that I loved the decline for the next four miles: 7:47, 7:31, 7:55, 7:54.
When the course evened out again around mile 11, any slight incline felt like a hill higher and harder than Corkscrew Hill, but then again, any and every race starts to get tough at that point — that’s nothing new or unusual. There are two inclines that I recall, but I pushed hard to maintain my best pace with 8:42 for mile 12 and 7:54 for mile 13. At mile 12.5 I really felt like slowing or outright stopping but I wasn’t about to give up then! Frantic calculations in my head told me that if I could hit a certain pace I would come in under 1:50, or a slightly faster pace under 1:49. I pushed it so hard, and when I came around the final corner in Solvang and I could see the finish line arch, I sprinted in at a 7:20 pace for a final time of 1:48:02! That’s a 5-minute PR over my second half marathon, and a 3-minute PR over my unofficial half marathon split at the Mountains2Beach full marathon! Two people came up to me separately after the race (one man and one woman) and said I had done a good job on pacing and that they had tried to keep up with me. That made me so happy because I have told other people that exact same thing on more than one occasion at other races and it was just such a compliment to have someone congratulate me on my race that way.
I later learned that 1:48:02 put me in 22nd place in my age group (F40-44) of 303 finishers, so the top 7.26%. Even better when you look at all the female finishers (1,777), I came in 103rd to put me in the top 5.8%!
The finish line expo was great with plenty of food, water, electrolyte drinks, and bags of veggie and egg chips, and small bowls of Amy’s brand chili (which I carried around until I recovered sufficiently to tolerate eating it, and then it was the most delicious post-race food ever)! I caught a race transportation bus back to the parking lot at Santa Ynez Valley High School and was back with my family by 10:15.
I highly recommend this race. It’s expensive for a half marathon (I paid $126 with the online service fee) but it’s a great race with a limited field of runners (just over 2,500 finishers?) in a spectacular setting. As I said, the challenge of the course elevation is more than balanced out by the thrill of running down Ballard Canyon at a faster-than-usual pace past stunning views. It would be really fun to get a team of friends together to run the race and celebrate at the wine tasting festival at the finish line ($20 for a wine glass to taste wines from 15 local wineries). I didn’t partake in any wine (not even at the on-course wine stop around mile 6!) because I just wanted to get back to my family, but I could see how it would be a fun way to celebrate your finish with friends and adult relatives.
Did you race this weekend? What’s your next race coming up? My next big race is the Santa Rosa Marathon at the end of August.