As a r*ce-ist, I'm pretty hesitant to post (again) about the Salinas Valley Half Marathon, my secretly awesome little road race among the foothills of the St. Lucia Mountains, for one very good reason: it is small and perfect and I don't want it to change.
So many racing events get caught up in attracting more runners for greater income, larger purses and more elites they forget that their course may not be able to handle 4k+ runners. This is the main reason I tend to avoid any and all Rock 'n' Roll events. Yes- the races are the fun, the bands are enjoyable, the locations divine; but the events are simply too big for my preference. Salinas Valley Half Marathon, on the other hand, capped out at 1,418 runners this year; and up 218 participants from 2011's race. Personally, I hope it never goes over 1500; not that the course couldn't handle any larger amount of runners - it is run completely on county roads more than wide enough for 1500+, it's moreso the awesome finish line festival that necessitates a smaller pool of athletes. But I'm getting ahead of myself, here are a few reasons why the race is one of my favorites (in list form as I'm a big fan of the "1, 2, 3" bullet button):
If you're interested in crashing my secret little road race next year, be sure to carbo-load over at the Monterey Coast Brewing Company in downtown Salinas. The food is great (we had the rib-eye and the brisket, last year we ordered the pastas), and they do a pretty decent Scottish Ale and Pale Ale. Also- growlers on the cheap!
- Small pool of runners
- The starting line is at Soledad Mission
- The finish line is at Pessagno Winery
- Every vineyard you run through offers free tastings at the end
- I really, really like wine and running.
Now, don't get me wrong, these reasons are all fantastic and I tend to wear my rose colored glasses when reminiscing about the Salinas Valley Half; but in all honesty the course is difficult (to me, at least...maybe I should stop running a full marathon the week before). As mentioned before, it is 99.9% run on county roads, the sort with odd bankings, pot-holes, gravel bits, and loose rocks. Happily, the road is bordered by hard-packed dirt you can run on if your joints need a rest from the unforgiving asphalt.
It's also hilly...and this is coming from someone who runs in and around San Francisco. Rolling hills, yes, but you add those to a banked race course and we're talking I.T. Nightmare (and this isn't mentioning the low-grade incline towards the hills, pictured above. Look closely, there are runners in that photo). So yeah, definitely not a half you can approach without some experience running rolling hills.
Yet all that being said, the 13.1 mile course through vineyards, farmland and foothills is absolutely gorgeous. Crops and vineyards are labeled along the route with their type of grape/vegetable, farmers wave from their tractors as you run by, residents pull out lawn chairs and grills to cook up bacon and offer you a Bloody Mary, Mile 8 boasts the Summit Valley View from which, on a clear day, you can see the tippy-tops of Pinnacles National Monument scratching at the sky; just stunning.
Like last year, I ran this race fatigued and decided to hang out and enjoy myself. Being only Holo Solo and I this time around, he kindly stuck with my ambling pace until Mile 9 when he decided to open up and do some speed work for the last four miles. The start, at Soledad Mission, offered coffee and donuts to offset the wind anjd cold, but as soon as we turned towards the foothills the sun started to peak through the gloom and warm us up a bit, never fully burning off the marina layer/fog until around 11a.m., another reason I love this race. With the additional two hundred runners I noticed a few changes along the route, such as the addition of two more Gu stations and the wisely re-arranged finish line festival to accommodate the extra bodies. Instead of squishing the awards ceremony down by the swag tent and vendors, they moved the BBQ line, set up a stage in front of Pessagno's picnic tables and placed swag tent around back by the wine tasting (perfectly executed as you can now retrieve your commemorative wine glass and head straight into Pessagno's tasting room to quench your thirst!).
Wine not your thing? Don't worry, they've got beers as well :)
A couple Fun Facts about the event:
For post-race brunch, I'd recommend First Awakenings, also in downtown Salinas. We stopped at their location in Pacific Grove, but good golly is their food filling! Order up a Sonoran Frittata and you're very welcome.