Santa Cruz is a surfing city. They even have the Santa Cruz Surfing Museum, which resides at the base of a lighthouse that sits on the IM Santa Cruz 70.3 bike and run courses.
I typically try to avoid races that have really cold water, as I tend to get ridiculously cold, even with a full wetsuit. So what was I thinking signing up for Santa Cruz? Apparently my memories of basking on the warm Santa Cruz beach in my 20s had tricked me into thinking this would be a nice idea. Arriving a couple of days earlier, I did a short practice swim and knew it was going to be a gamble on whether or not I would get “the claw” (the involuntary resemblance my hand(s) take to a claw when I get super cold in the water). But I was there, and going for it.
On race morning, I stayed on shore rather than doing a good swim warmup, hoping to minimize the effects of the cold water by limiting my exposure to it. I jogged a bit on some hard-packed sand, did a bunch of arm warmups, and even jogged in place. The National anthem played before the male pros started. As I stood with my hand over my heart, it was a reminder of the tragic events in New York City that occurred exactly 15 years earlier. I felt fortunate to be alive, healthy, and able to swim – the coldness would be temporary.
We had a beach start – my first ever. When my group started, I ran into the water, timed a breaking wave, dove under it, and was into the relative calmness. The breaking waves were only a few feet high; not too bad, but enough to push a swimmer back if timing was off.
I stayed steady as I navigated the course along the pier. Some gentle swells sometimes interfered with sighting and the colorful bobbing swim caps ahead of me added to the challenge. It was a right turn around the end of the pier and then we’d be halfway through. Unlike some smarter swimmers, I swam into a patch of seaweed, some of which latched onto my arm until it finally dropped off after several strokes. Another right turn and it was just about a half mile to shore. A few minutes later the claw finally caught up to me. Thankfully I had only about 500 meters to go before reaching the beach. I exited happy to be done and a little bummed about not seeing any seals!
From the sandy beach to T1 at Depot Park it was about a quarter mile of painful barefoot running. It wasn’t all smooth cement! My feet were cold enough to hurt, but not cold enough to be numb! I spent too long in T1 drying to dry off a bit and get my cold hands and feet into gloves and socks. After forever, I exited T1, and after slamming my shin on my pedal (so much for coordination), I was on my way on the bike.
The bike course winds along beautiful West Cliff Drive, with constant views of the nearby ocean on one side, and beautiful homes on the other side. What amazing sights those seaside residents enjoy! After a few miles we get to Highway 1, famous for its scenic Pacific Ocean views. Several sections along Hwy 1 are popular parking spots for the many surfers out on the waves. Rolling hills brought us to Swanton Road at about mile 15, with its inferior road conditions (some small potholes, lots of cracks) and switchbacks, requiring some extra caution. A couple of miles in brings the fun of the Swanton Road climb. It’s a good long, challenging climb, averaging maybe about 6%. Definitely the slowest section of the race, but not the hardest climbing I’ve ever done. The crest of the climb gave the reward of downhill, but the switchbacks continued, and as reminded by some posted signs, the race’s “no aerobars” rule was in effect for that section.
Back onto Highway 1, we continued down the coast. The rollers continued with some good steady climbs and some straight, fun descents.
It was still cool weather and I never felt too warm, even with gloves, arm warmers, and, for the first time in a race, a vest.
Because it was so cold, I had to be disciplined in taking in fluids, as we can still become dehydrated in cold weather. My new X-Lab Torpedo hydration bottle and a second bottle on the frame offered enough fluid to keep me amply hydrated. For the first time in a longer triathlon, I never grabbed a bottle from an aid station. The final miles brought us back along West Cliff Drive to see the same spectacular ocean views, including the lighthouse with the Surf Museum tucked beneath it.
Off the bike and into running shoes, I headed out again on to West Cliff Drive. I got a shout-out that I was maybe 7th or so in my AG (turned out to be 8th). I knew I had to work hard if I wanted a podium spot. I focused on good form and settled into a strong but controlled pace.
I felt good enough to push harder, but knew I didn’t want to pay for poor judgment later. After a few miles we hit the dirt trails that would take us out onto sections where, if not racing, I would have stopped and soaked in the amazing ocean views. A good reason to go back for a hike! Some of the trail had ruts and rocks, and it seemed almost cruel that we had to look down for footing while being seduced with breathtaking scenery. I made the choice of focusing on footing, as a face plant wasn’t in the race plan.
I had already passed a couple of women in my division. As I got back to the paved roads, I was begging my legs to hold on and run hard for me as I picked up the pace again. With a couple of miles to go, I passed another woman in my age group. I didn’t look back, and did a bit of surge to make it stick. I was pushing hard, not knowing how far ahead the next women were. It was flat and slightly downhill running at this point, and I tried turning over my tired legs as hard as I could. I made it to the final turn, then down a short ramp and onto the sand just yards from the finish. Gosh, it was hard to run in that sand! I knew that in past years there’d been more distance to run on the sand, and was grateful for the course modification. I raised my arms to cross the finish – another personal victory, and as it turned out, fourth in my division.
My most recent races have been outside of California. Being more “local,” it was fun seeing so many familiar faces on course and cheering on athletes. The volunteers were great. The young guy who did my body marking at 5 a.m. said it was his first time to volunteer and he was loving it. I knew he had to be up super early to support our race. Thanks, young man!
Looking back on this race, even with the cold swim, it was a great course, worked well logistically, and it’s hard to beat the great food, personality, and style of Santa Cruz. Where else would you see a guy on a bike with a hula hoop and a cat in the basket behind the seat? Hang loose, and maybe I’ll see you there next year!