19 Feb

California Dreamin’ And Runnin’

Big Sur Action RaceWe sent our UK-based North American contributor Christine Appel back across the ‘Pond’ to check out the events in California, the Golden State.

California, more than just the land of beaches and palm trees we dream of when it’s tipping it down here.  At almost twice the size of the UK, it’s a big place – and that makes for a lot of varied terrain, lifestyles, races and attractions.  Californians can run along the beach one day and tackle 8,000-foot-high trails the next.

There’s a lot of truth in the stereotype that Californians are generally quite fit, making for huge public participation in races, and plenty of events to choose from.  Even races off the beaten track can draw thousands of runners, with the solar-powered energy and optimism of competitors and spectators carrying everyone along. All these things, combined with generally temperate weather, make the state a great holiday destination for runners.

As getting to America’s ‘Left Coast’ means at least a ten-hour flight, more often than not UK runners heading over the pond aim for milestone, ‘once in a lifetime’ events - here are our suggestions.

Easily one of the most scenic US races, the Big Sur International Marathon (April) takes runners along Highway One, the nation’s first designated Scenic Highway, from Big Sur to Carmel.  This race is not for the faint-hearted though, with rolling hills, fierce headwinds and jaw- (and cliff-) dropping Pacific Coast scenery.  Don’t look down as you travel nearly 300 feet above the water along the iconic Bixby Creek Bridge, before gorging on strawberries near the finish.

Big Sur is considered one of the ‘big’ US marathons, along with the likes of New York, Boston and Chicago.  It’s also one of the greenest races you’ll ever run.  Last year over 91% of the race’s waste was reused or recycled, including turning polystyrene packaging into surfboards.  The 2014 event is already sold out, but that gives you plenty of time to plan for 2015!

If you’ve ever dreamt about running over the Golden Gate Bridge, you can do it twice in the largely coastal San Francisco Marathon (July).  Tick off all the main attractions as this tourist-pleasing course also takes you from the Embarcadero, past the city’s famous Fisherman’s Wharf, and through the scenic Presidio and Golden Gate Park.

Bay to Breakers The other big Bay Area event is the Bay to Breakers.  At a very do-able 12k, the 101-year-old event takes tens of thousands of runners from downtown San Francisco to Ocean Beach on the coast.  While elites battle it out at the front, everyone else gets down to the serious business of having fun.  The fancy-dress element is as huge as you’d expect for fun-loving San Francisco, so dig out that Wonder Woman costume and head for the start line.  If you’re travelling with friends (12 to be precise) tie yourselves together to run as a unit in the event’s World Centipede Running Championships. Seriously.

Heading further south, Los Angeles Marathon (March) is a point-to-point course from Dodger Stadium all the way to the sea.  It’s a good choice for new marathoners, with on average over half the field tackling the distance for the first time.  The traditional way to see LA is by car, but you’ll see most of the main sights (without the traffic) along the way here, as the marathon winds its way (largely downhill) past Chinatown, Sunset Boulevard, the Hollywood sign, the Walk of Fame at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre and the swanky shops of Rodeo Drive; it’s just as well you won’t have your wallet with you!  After a spell on the legendary Route 66, the course ends near Santa Monica Pier.

If a marathon isn’t quite hard enough for you, there’s always the Badwater 135 ultra from Death Valley to Mt Whitney (July).  If you thought this summer’s UK heatwave was bad, temperatures here can reach a brain-melting 55 degrees.  The start is at the lowest elevation in the Western Hemisphere; the finish is at over 8,000 feet, and runners have to cross three mountain ranges to get there.

If Badwater sounds a bit too much to take on during your hols, the Camp Pendleton Mud Run (June) might fit the bill.  This, the mother of all obstacle races, is held on an active US Marine training base.  If you survive, enjoy the ‘world’s dirtiest party’ afterwards!

The oldest trail race in the US also takes place in California.  The Dipsea Race (June) runs over 7.4 miles from Mill Valley to Stinson Beach in Northern California. First run in 1905, it’s one of the most beautiful – and toughest – trail races in the world, with a unique handicapping system that puts all competitors in the running.

If you fancy a winter marathon, the Surf City half and full marathon in Huntington Beach (February) comes highly recommended.  This event has a great, friendly vibe due to its relatively small field and relaxing course along the longest uninterrupted stretch of beachfront on the West coast.  Watch surfers battle the waves as you grind out the miles, enjoying the sound of surf bands along the way.  If all that laid-backness takes its toll on your motivation, focusing on the beachfront finish-line beer party – and putting the ultra-cool surfboard-shaped medal around your neck – should see you through.

When you’ve done your race, California has no shortage of attractions to help you wind down.  Choosing Los Angeles as a base will stand you in good stead for the back lots of Hollywood, Disneyland, Universal Studios and plenty of beaches.  A bit further north, San Francisco will see you right for Alacatraz, their world famous zoo, the piers, wine country and limitless arts and culture.  Further inland, Yosemite National Park will keep trail runners challenged for weeks.

If planning a big West Coast holiday seems a bit daunting, companies like Sports Tours International (sportingtours.co.uk) can help you with all the details, including race entry. And when you’re planning your trip, remember it can take around two weeks to acclimatise fully to running in higher temperatures, not to mention the time difference. You’re not likely to need an excuse to spend more days on holiday, but it’s worth heading over at least a week or so before your event if a fast time is part of your own California Dream.