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Pier Factor

The Wharf to Wharf Race is the jewel in the crown of a thriving running community

Santa Cruz County is a runner’s paradise. Not only does it have some of the best terrain around—everyone from casual runners to ultramarathoners can find great mileage at Wilder Ranch, Nisene Marks, Big Basin or the Pogonip—but it also produces some of the top young running talent in the state.

Greg Brock, who coaches at Santa Cruz High, saw his Varsity Girls Cross Country team take second place in the Division IV competition at the state championships last year, with senior Cate Ratliff finishing the 3.1-mile course with the fastest time in division history. He acknowledges that area high schools have been a hotbed of talent over the last several years, but he thinks one factor that rarely gets enough credit for the surge in local running talent is a 6-mile race that’s been run here for more than 40 years: the Wharf to Wharf.

“I think the Wharf to Wharf is a tremendous influence,” says Brock. “When you have an event the caliber of Wharf to Wharf, it brings credibility to your sport. And Wharf to Wharf gives very generous grants to all the programs.”

But when the race, which returns to its course between the Santa Cruz and Capitola wharfs on Sunday, July 24, got its start in 1973, no one had any idea it would eventually become the crown jewel in the local running calendar.

“It had kind of a bizarre beginning,” says Kirby Nicol, who had moved to Soquel that year after coaching track and field around the world as part of the Peace Corps (and taking the Philippines’ national team to the Olympics in 1972). He volunteered to help with the race that first year, and would go on to be involved with it for 40 years—after retiring in 2013, he now serves as race director emeritus.

Only 200 or so people ran the Wharf to Wharf the first year, and it was a very casual affair—with a budget of $200—that saw the race leaders directed to the wrong finish line as they powered into Capitola Village. There might not have even been a second year if those who had run it hadn’t liked it enough to push for its return.

“They came to us and said, ‘Hey, are you guys going to put on that road race again?’” remembers Nicol. The second year saw 500 entrants.

By 1983, there were 6,000, and then 8,000 in 1984. Three years later, that number had swelled to 14,000. Eventually, race organizers had to put a cap on entries—this year, 16,000 people will run it.

“It really developed a life of its own,” says Nicol. “It’s kind of become what you do in Santa Cruz.”

Over four decades, he estimates the race has raised about $10 million for the community. Organizers have introduced scholarships and financed eight all-weather track facilities in the county.

Putting on the race, of course, meant that Nicol never got to actually run the race—until he retired in 2013. Now he enters every year.

“It’s given me a whole new appreciation,” he says. “Now I understand why people like it.”


For information on this year’s race, which will be held on Sunday, July 24, go to wharftowharf.com.

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