City to the Sea: Happy Birthday to Me!
Disclosure: I received a complimentary entry to City to the Sea half marathon because I am a BibRave Pro. Learn more about becoming a BibRave Pro, and check out BibRave.com to review find and write race reviews. It’s a great way to help race directors see what is working and what needs improvement, and to help other runners find out what a race is really like.
This is a gorgeous little race! I'm surprised it isn't bigger, but since no one has heard of it–seriously, when I checked into my hotel and asked for a late checkout because of the race the hotel staff said, “oh, there's a race this weekend? What race?”–I thought the race was relatively new, like just a few years old. I found out after the race that this year was actually the 21st anniversary of City to the Sea. Pro Tip: go run it NOW before the entire world learns about it!
Pre-race communications. There were plenty of pre-race emails with information about race day and about San Luis Obispo. There is so much to do–wine, history, sports, beach–that I figured a ton of people probably chose this race specifically for a destination getaway. There is even a section on the race website called “Getaway Weekend.” If you're looking for a couples' trip, a family trip, whatever, there are plenty of options. I wish I had more time in SLO to explore. Maybe next time? Pro Tip: aim to spend Friday night and all day Saturday in SLO so you can check out some of the area's other goodies.
Travel & The Expo. Initially I thought I'd fly, but Southwest does not fly into the SLO airport, so I decided to drive. It should have taken me about 4 and a half hours to drive from Alameda to San Luis Obispo, but there were three sets of funky traffic, including one along the 101 where I was driving 10 mph for almost half an hour, so I barely made it to the expo/packet pick-up. It turns out that was a good thing. First, I wasn't in the registration system (and I'm honestly not sure if that's my fault–I remember making an attempt to register but couldn't find the confirmation email). No worries, one of the registration volunteers got me signed up.
Second, I didn't have to wait to exchange my t-shirt. The women's shirts are Next Level–a brand notorious for running small–the men's shirts ran large. Next Level basically uses junior sizes (think middle school and high school girls) not adult women sizes, so I needed an XL and even so, it's kinda tight. Tight enough that I'd have taken an XXL if it had been available. Hopefully I will still get some wear out of it, since it is a cotton shirt in a super cute color, with just the race logo on the front. Pro tip to all race directors out there: let a woman who is a runner order the shirts.
Third, I realized I had forgotten to pack socks, despite literally making a list and checking it twice. Oops. Running Warehouse was right there, and they had my beloved Wright's Double Layer Socks. I also indulged in some run-treats for the race: Honey Stinger's caramel waffle and cherry cola chews, and a Hammer gel in hazelnut chocolate.
‘Twas the night before… In the ideal world, I would have had Monday off from work–it is a federal holiday, making it the perfect weekend for a three-day racecation on Calif0rnia's central coast–but I did not. So I had to cram my entire experience of the town into Saturday night and Sunday after the race. I chose the Courtyard Marriott for location and because I am a slave to my Marriott points, and they took great care of me (even though they didn't know there was a race going on). Saturday night they had live music and a wine tasting with Outlaw wines. Hooray! I met up with SLOluckyruns for a pre-race pizza and catching up, made a quick trip to the treehugger grocery store by the pizza place for supplies and treats, and managed to get to bed somewhat early (after obsessing about parking and figuring out how long it would take to get to the start, setting an alarm…)
Pre-race routine. So glad I bought the socks–true story, there were none in my bag. (Somehow I also didn't pack my RaceDots, even though I stared at them on the fridge and decided to put them in the bag with my snacks.) I also totally forgot that I'd packed a banana and peanut butter, so ended up not eating them, but I did remember to coat myself thoroughly in sunblock before heading out to the race.
Parking. I followed Google maps, which gave me the same directions as were on the City to the Sea website. Unfortunately, neither warned me that Marsh Street would be closed, and both explicitly instructed me to exit on Marsh Street. Fortunately Google maps is pretty quick to re-route. There were three parking garages identified in the pre-race information, but I couldn't actually get to any of them from where I ended up. On the bright side, street parking is free until 1 p.m. so I just pulled into the first spot I found. Turns out I was one block from the start!
Race Start. My first impression was surprise at how small the race field was. Looking at the finisher results, there are times for 1352 runners (and 73 runners listed with no finish times, so I can't tell if they are DNS, DNF, or timing chip malfunction). I was expecting more like 5000-6000 runners, not including the 5k (which started from another location). The results also list the town for each runner, and the vast majority came from right in the San Luis Obispo area, or within a few hours' drive.
The start area of this point-to-point course had the typical amenities: bag check, information, and a giant row of porta-potties (plenty for all the runners, lines were short). The pace team was appropriately spaced leaving plenty of room for runners to self-seed. The race started about five minutes late (which was fine with me); I'm not sure if they had a sound system issue, but it was difficult to hear the pre-race announcements, and my corral did not hear the first half of the National Anthem. I thought the announcer said they would be starting the runners in waves (presumably based on the pacers), but the entire field started at once without any breaks. This meant that initially we moved forward towards the start line and then ended up in a stand-still clump waiting to pass over it, but that turned out to be fine as we had the entire street to ourselves.
The Best: The Course! Since I have a half marathon every weekend in October and most of November, with the Detroit Free Press/Talmer Bank half marathon next weekend, I was not out to set a PR on this course–but I'm pretty sure I could have. Add in my still-creaky hip and something funky going on in my left ankle, and my goals were simple: have fun, enjoy the course, finish without getting swept or injured.
As a point-to-point, there were not too many turns on the course, making it pretty speedster-friendly. The first stretch ran down Higuera Street, through and out of San Luis Obispo, and we had the entire street to ourselves. As we moved from downtown Higuera Street turns into more of a highway, even though it isn't actually a highway, and we had half of the road (the other half was open to traffic). This was fine, as there was still plenty of room for all of us. The course runs parallel to the 101 for a time, then underneath it and through a greenbelt and park, eventually on to Shell Beach Road. It's one of those courses where even though you know there is a road right next to you for most of it, it feels quiet, peaceful, and far from traffic. The last bit runs along the oceanfront (but it's up–the ocean is like 20′ down from where you are running), then through some neighborhoods, and into the finish line and park.
I really enjoyed the downhill between the beginning and mile 7. The hill at mile 7, okay, that was okay. The big hill at mile 10, and the final hill at mile 12? Those were just a little too mean for my currently wimpy ankle. (Though really sincerely, if I had trained to run this for a PR, anticipating the hills at the end, it would have been d0-able since there was a long, slow downhill.) I was pleased to feel my hamstrings and glutes engaging–proof the focus I've put on training the back line of the body is paying off–though maybe taking an Orangetheory class (endurance day, surprise!) on Saturday morning wasn't my best plan ever. Meh. I felt strong on the initial hills, but by the time I hit the last one at mile 12 my body was done with it.
The Best: The Volunteers! Every aid station was well-stocked with everything promised, including a bunch of friendly volunteers. There were volunteers at the few possible places you could have made a wrong turn, which I expected. There were also volunteers on the longer stretches who were just there to cheer–which I did not expect but found delightful! I'm told that California has a mandatory community service requirement to graduate from high school and that is why it is so easy to find volunteers for races here. (It might not be state-wide, it might just be certain schools. I've not investigated this.) One of the coolest things at City to the Sea is that every volunteer was engaged and IN the race. I didn't catch any bored teens rolling their eyes while scrolling on their iPhones. There were cheers, high-fives, signs, costumes, instead. I can't say enough about how great the volunteers were, in every way. I kinda wish I'd taken a picture to put here, but that might have seemed stalkerishly weird.
Race's End. All good courses must come to an end, and while I did love the seaside finish I was ready for the course to end after the hill at mile 11. At the finish line every finisher received their medal, some decals, and a pint-glass sized cup from Running Warehouse (presumably for use in the beer garden). The race finished in a small park overlooking the ocean, and even though it was not a huge finisher festival, there was plenty to see and do.
The park has a built-in playground structure that is dinosaur-themed, so there's that. To foster a more family-friendly vibe, the race also had a pretend obstacle course where a group of kids could race each other by jumping over “fire,” for example, and eventually going through a standing hula hoop. It was adorable, and the kids were LOVING it! (Again, it would have been stalkerishly weird to take pictures of others peoples' kids to use in a blog post, so imagination will have to suffice.)
The finisher festival was set up mainly around the edges of the park. Cuesta College Athletics, the beneficiary of the race (which is reason enough to go run this!), had a booth. There were tables with chilled water and Fluid‘s electrolyte beverage (which is how I used my cup). Two local LuLaRoe dealers had set up a booth (but none of the Halloween designs I'm stalking).
Due to the usual state and local laws regulating alcohol (sigh), the beer garden was fenced off and had volunteers checking IDs on the way in. I didn't go in–I went over to the massage and recovery area to borrow a chair and sit a bit–but that's also where the band was. No problem though, you could hear the band just fine throughout most of the park. Also, the band–Makeover–was really good! It was an 80's pop music cover band, and they sounded great. Everyone was really enjoying the music.
There was one area that needs improvement, as the corporate annual reviews would say, at the finisher area: food. Leading up to the race, each email had this in it:
I know it is a little fuzzy (it didn't blow up well), sorry. Anyway, I was really looking forward to the breakfast burritos. Even though the burrito provider is clearly Central Coast Meats, the pre-race emails promised a vegetarian option too. My favorite post-race things are chocolate milk, champagne, and breakfast tacos (though obviously not mixed together). If I can't have breakfast tacos, a breakfast burrito will definitely do. I'd been eyeing the tab on my bib for breakfast as I cleared the last few miles, so after checking out the beer garden, I went to look for the breakfast burritos. Only there weren't any. I don't mean there weren't any vegetarian breakfast burritos, I mean there were no breakfast burritos at all. In fact the area where they had been handing them out was packed up and it took me a few passes to figure out that's where the burritos used to be.
First, I feel compelled to point out that it is not my turtle speed that caused me to be deprived of a burrito. On the bus back to the start someone walked on with a breakfast burrito in her hand and offered it to anyone who wanted it. (It was pretty big, too. Not like an overstuffed Chipotle, but like a reasonably decent sized meal of a burrito.) Immediately all the women sitting around me remarked that they didn't get breakfast burritos either. Curious, I asked when they finished–because at that point I assumed they packed up after 3 hours, which was the official course limit–and found out many of them finished around 2:40 or 2:45. Several told me that they were standing in line for a burrito when the burritos ran out.
Second, lest you think there's no way you'd eat a burrito after all that finisher chute food, there was no finisher chute food. The breakfast burrito was not in addition to bagels, bananas, salty snacks, etc. but instead of them. No burrito, no food. Given that Cuban food isn't exactly vegetarian-friendly by nature (though I did check the menu board), no on-site breakfast for me.
Transportation. The race entry fee included transportation back to the starting line (very important for a point-to-point course!). Unlike the San Francisco courses, this was part of the registration, not an added fee. Both a coach-style bus and a limo-type “short bus” transported runners back to the start. This ran seamlessly, with runners lining up to board as they were ready. The ride back was comfortable and climate-controlled, and the drop off was just around the corner (literally) from the start.
Post-race stroll. Since I had secured a late check-0ut from my hotel (shout out and mad props to the very nice people at the Courtyard by Marriott San Luis Obispo), I decided to walk around the area immediately adjacent to where my car was parked. First I went to LUSH, with the idea that I would buy a shower bomb (since my room had a super awesome shower, but no bathtub). Denied! Turns out LUSH only sells those shower things online, though I could have bought plenty of other goodies. Nope, I wanted Up The Wooden Hill. From there I went to Phoenix Books because I am a book junkie. (One entire wall of my living room is the library, and I have three piles of books in the bedroom.) I couldn't find a website, but if you are in town you should visit! This is the book lovers bookstore, with used books packed onto shelves, lining the stairs, and in piles on the floor. I found a few gems to take home, and decided I should exit before I found more.
After a lovely shower at the Courtyard, a bottle of Gerolsteiner, and that banana and peanut butter I had forgotten to eat, it was time to check out. I decided to spend a few hours exploring SLO before the drive home.
I had a filling, delicious, vegetarian lunch at Bliss Cafe. It had the “hippy dippy” attitude and menu I expected–lots of explanations about Ayurvedic food, delightful art with Krishna on the walls–and my lunch was delicious. Bliss shares a building entrance with a few other shops, so I took time to explore them. First I bought some handmade earrings at the art gallery, and then I purchased some perfume from the hippy/pagan clothing/etc. store in the same arcade. (It's not on Google Maps and I didn't note the name–sorry!) Finally I went to Cowboy Cookie where instead of birthday cake I had a sprinkled sugar cookie bowl filled with birthday cake ice cream.
The last hour or so of my time in SLO, I strolled the rest of the street and took a look around. Sunday evening there were plenty of shops open, and plenty of things closed.
San Luis Obispo has a CowParade going on, which I love. (I can't remember how this started, but I've seen cows and other animals on parade in various cities I've visited over the years. I think the first one I saw was Chicago?) You can't see it, but the sign has a hotline to call to report injured cows. You can see the 120 cows in this parade–which are all over the cownty, not just in the city–through April 2017 and vote for your favorite. I also stopped in to browse multiple art galleries and shops.
Bubblegum alley had plenty of people taking pictures, so I had to wait my turn. Also, it's a teeny bit gross…but the fifth grader in me was secretly pleased it exists. I really wish I'd had more time to explore (and a bigger stomach), but all too soon it was time to drive back home.
If you've run City to the Sea, why not take a moment to review it on BibRave.com? You know how great it is, and how much potential it has to be a huge destination race!
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