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Santa Cruz Runners Outpace Competition

Sure, it’s a great place to run a race. But how is Santa Cruz producing so many top runners?

FEET DON’T FAIL ME NOW Runners race the Surfer’s Path Marathon/Capitola Half Marathon in 2014. The races return Saturday, May 21.

I generally run one half-marathon a year, and like a lot of casual runners, I tend to pick my races based on the locale. That’s not to say I pick the most challenging courses—in fact, quite the opposite.

When I see one of those race websites whose organizers try to draw in adrenaline junkies with promises that their course is the most challenging thing I will ever face, is comprised entirely of active volcanoes, is somehow 100 percent uphill or is otherwise designed to basically kill all participants, I smash the buttons on my keyboard furiously until it goes away.

What it actually means is that if I’m going to run 13.1 miles—or even maybe 26.2 someday, God forbid—I want to take in some majestic scenery while I do it. The rolling hills of Sonoma wine country, the Avenue of the Giants, something like that.

But in 2012, I ran the Capitola Half Marathon, which is held in conjunction with the Surfer’s Path Marathon, and will celebrate its 5th anniversary when the two races once again bring runners from all over to Santa Cruz this weekend.

It turned out that for all my seeking of exotic spots, there is nothing like running a race in the place I’ve lived and worked for most of my adult life. Over the length of the course—which begins in front of the Boardwalk, winds through East Cliff, turns around in Capitola Village and then finds its way back to the beach just beyond its starting point—I passed three different places where I’ve lived over the years. I made my way along streets usually so heavy with traffic I’d never even imagined running down the middle of them, suddenly surrounded by nothing but chilly coastal air and the quiet footfalls of other runners. It’s still my favorite half I ever did, and it solidified Santa Cruz as my favorite place to run a race.

I’m certainly not the only one who feels that way about running in Santa Cruz. In fact, this area has a strong, tight-knit running community that a lot of locals don’t know about, and one of the people at the center of it is Greg Brock. At 68, Brock doesn’t run a whole lot anymore—he claims his legs expired at 100,000 miles a few years ago—but his passion for the local running landscape is as strong as ever—in fact, it kind of haunts him.

“I used to do a lot of running up and down West Cliff,” says Brock. “I love that stretch. Once in a while I’ll head over and drive it really slow. It’s like visiting an old friend.”

He doesn’t have a lot of time to ruminate, though, since Brock is busy training the next generation of local runners—with a remarkable amount of success. Brock coached at Santa Cruz High School from 1974-1981, then at Cabrillo College for 16 years, then started coaching at Santa Cruz High again in 2006. Last year, Santa Cruz High’s Varsity Girls Cross Country team took second place in Division IV competition at the state championships. Senior Cate Ratliff finished first, running the 3.1 mile course in 17 minutes, 3.7 seconds, and another Santa Cruz High Cardinal, Mari Friedman, came in fourth. Ratliff’s time was not only the fastest in division history, but also faster than any other Varsity Girls runner across all five of the divisions in competition.

“That was a huge achievement,” says Brock.

And Santa Cruz High isn’t alone. Brock says the stellar coaching at other area high schools like San Lorenzo Valley High, Aptos High and Watsonville’s St. Francis High have turned the Santa Cruz area into a hotspot of what he calls “power programs” in California.

“Over the years we have become a very strong league,” he says.

Or as Kathleen Ferraro puts it: “We breed good runners here. In high schools, we have some of the most impressive runners in the state.”

Ferraro is probably best known locally for organizing the BANFF Mountain Film Festival World Tour and Radical Reels events. But she also has a formidable history with the running community in Santa Cruz County, bringing the Running Club back to UCSC in 1995, after which it evolved into an NCAA team; starting and coaching the DeLaveaga Running Club in 2001; and coaching middle-school cross-country and track. She points out that Ratliff comes from a family that’s known in this area for producing excellent runners.

“You go, ‘Damn, who’s that kid? Oh, it’s a Ratliff. Okay,’” says Ferraro.

Brock has been keeping tabs on NCAA competition over the last week, and is stunned at how many local runners—including athletes who ran in his program—have made the cut.

“I don’t think we’ve ever had as many as we do right now,” he says. “There’s really a lot of our girls competing at the college level, and some boys, as well.”

KEEPING TRACK

Brock and Ferraro have both been involved for two decades with what is pretty much the hub of running culture locally, the Santa Cruz Track Club.

“The Santa Cruz Track Club is the most influential group in running in this community,” says Ferraro. “It’s the linchpin.”

Her connection to the group is extremely personal, as it was responsible for her even taking up running in the first place.

“My dad made us run when we were in middle school, and I hated it,” she says. “When my son was born, that’s when I became a runner. I went from pushing him in a baby jogger to running the Big Sur Marathon when he was two years old. And that was because of the Santa Cruz Track Club. They were the people who made me realize I could do this.”

Diane Delucchi has been vice-president of the Track Club for what she estimates is about “50 million years.” She’s tried to provide continuity for each new board member—“I feel like I’m the historian,” she says. For her, and many other members, the Track Club is a lot more than its name implies.

“A lot of people are intimidated because it’s called the Track Club,” she admits. “But we do more than track. With our running groups, we have all ages. It goes from the beginner to the experienced runner.”

Even more importantly, “it’s not just a running club. It’s like a family,” she says. “You get all this support from everybody out there.”

The club leads runs not just at the places that all local runners know, like Wilder Ranch or Big Basin or the Pogonip or Nisene Marks, but also at, say, Waddell Creek, or Land of the Medicine Buddha Retreat Center.

“You can’t beat the terrain here,” says Delucchi.

She remembers originally setting her goal as a 10K, running that, and never looking back.

“Because there was always someone else out there to train with. You’re evolving with other runners,” she says. “All of a sudden, you’re running an Ironman. The neatest thing is that no matter what you decide to run, you’re able to find someone.”

And when she says all ages, she’s not kidding. Track Club member and former Santa Cruz mayor Katherine Beiers is now 82 and routinely finishes in the top two places in her division at the Boston Marathon, which was held last month. For the past two years, Beiers has been the oldest finisher in the race.

But at the other end of the spectrum, the pride of the Santa Cruz Track Club may be their Youth Club, which boasts more than 150 young runners. Along with his role as the running coach at Santa Cruz High, Brock is also the Track Club’s running coach, and he’s seen a definite connection between the two.

“We’ve had girls who come out to run at Santa Cruz High, and they’re wearing the t-shirts they got at the Youth Club,” he says.

Certainly great coaching in local schools is a central reason why Santa Cruz has produced so many great runners—from world-class triathlete Terri Schneider, who graduated from Santa Cruz High in the 1970s and has completed more than 20 Ironman races, through Victor Plata, who graduated Santa Cruz High in the ’90s and went on to be a two-time Olympic triathlete, to today. As schools continue to cut after-school programs, however, the opportunities the Track Club provides are clearly more important than ever.

But the most interesting thing is that neither the schools nor the Youth Club seems to be fishing for elite athletes; instead, the supportive local culture around running just seems to raise up youth athletes. In particular, Brock doesn’t like the statistics nationwide on the number of teens who drop out of sports in high school because those sports become too competitive, too expensive, or generally so elitist that it makes kids feel like they shouldn’t get involved.

“What we try to do is bring them back into it just for the fitness and movement value. They don’t have to be great athletes,” he says. “Then every once in a while, you’ll see a jewel come out of it.”

DAY AT THE RACES

Tom Bradley, creator and owner of this week’s Surfer’s Path Marathon/Capitola Half Marathon, says he is struck by how interconnected the running community is here, whether it’s the Track Club, stores like Fleet Feet and Running Revolution, or the running crowd buzzing at Aptos Coffee Roasting Company.

“Everything here is community-based,” he says. “You’re always running into people you know.”

In addition to this fifth running of the marathon and half-marathon on Saturday, May 21, Bradley has twice held a Surfer’s Path 10K/5K, which will return Feb. 6 of next year. And this fall, on Oct. 23, he’ll debut the Surfer’s Path Hang Ten/Hang Five, 10 and 5 mile races, respectively.

Putting on this weekend’s races means managing around 300 people on race day, including 100 just to monitor the course.

“What we do, a lot of it is behind the scenes. I’m not sure people realize what goes into it, but that’s the same with anything,” he says. “We’re all pretty stoked that it comes off.”

After years in the event business, in which he produced a lot of races, Bradley had sold his company and gotten out of the business for a while. But living in this area inspired him to get back into it.

“Working here is kind of like running here,” he says. “I’m able to wake up and go down to East Cliff or Wilder Ranch or Capitola Village—it’s just a lot more appealing. It kind of changes the feel of doing business.”

That even includes clean up.

“I get up the morning after the marathon and ride the entire route and make sure every piece of trash is picked up,” he says “But I get to do that on this route.”

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