Racing and Tasting at the Santa Barbara Wine Country Half Marathon

A windmill in downtown Solvang

For the third time this year, I used a race to explore side roads along California’s Highway 101. First I ran a 10K in a historic corner of Ventura, then a 50K south of San Simeon, and then last weekend, the Santa Barbara Wine Country Half Marathon.

This event runs north of Santa Barbara around Solvang, a town fixed in my 1978 fourth-grade field trip mind as “the Danish windmill place near the split pea soup place.” (Those of you familiar with Hwy 101 probably get the reference to Anderson’s Split Pea Soup in Buellton.)

I knew next to nothing about the event when I registered and wanted only to break up my drive home from Southern California with a scenic run that would tune up my legs for upcoming races. This event turned out to be perfect. It’s one of five “wine country” half marathons in a popular race series produced by Destination Races.

A vista of the Santa Ynez Valley along the Santa Barbara Wine Country Half Marathon course. *

Starting in the old cowboy town of Santa Ynez, the 13.1-mile course follows two sides of a big triangle to wind up in Solvang, passing through the picturesque town of Los Olivos along the way. We ran on rolling country roads (all paved) flanked by high-priced equine property, where sweat-flecked horses nervously cantered around their white-fenced pastures as hundreds of runners streamed by. Halfway, we climbed a significant hill and then descended past green hillsides interlaced with vines and blooming mustard.

A typical stretch of the bucolic Santa Barbara Wine Country Half Marathon course. *

The race ends in Solvang, the hamlet settled by Danes exactly 100 years ago. It’s a touristy but not-too-touristy village where home-grown bakeries outshine the Starbuck’s and Subway.

A check of past years' results revealed a highly competitive and fairly large field—3000+ runners, many of them top SoCal roadies. I knew I didn't stand a chance of placing, given that so many female finishers clock sub-1:30 times in spite of the hill, so instead of racing against the others I focused on a personal goal of doing better than I did three months earlier at the San Francisco Half, aka the race that sucked. Specifically, I hoped to run steadily, stay positive mentally and try for 1:35.Well, whadaya know? The race felt as sweet and filling as a Danish pastry. I soaked in the scenery and maintained a pace between 7:10 - 7:30 per mile—not super fast, but not too bad given my training level. I finished in 1:35:18, well behind the age-group winner, 41-year-old Jenny Barsness of Glenwood Springs, Colorado, a nice person I met at the start. She finished in 1:27, about five minutes behind the overall female winner.The finish line scene melded into a music and wine festival in the town park, and I began to appreciate more fully why the race organizers call themselves "Destination Races." They put on an event in which running is not so much the focus as it is an excuse to see sights and burn calories, thus earning the reward of eating and drinking afterward. I lingered in the crowd only long enough to get a post-race massage, and while in line I spent time talking to a South African woman, Zubeda Khan, who glowed with the beginner's high of finishing her first half marathon.Hanging out at the finish with Zubeda Khan.

Reluctantly, I bypassed the wine and beer garden to hit the road home. Though I prefer trail to road racing these days, I’ll have to consider running one of this organization’s other races. In particular, their Healdsburg Half on Halloween weekend looks appealing.

This well-run event provided another reminder of just how vast and golden our state really is. During this year when circumstances limit our family travel, I’m grateful for any opportunity to explore destinations closer to home!

(* these two photos courtesy of the race organizer’s facebook page)

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3 Responses to Racing and Tasting at the Santa Barbara Wine Country Half Marathon

  1. Martha Howard May 12, 2011 at 3:46 am #

    Beautiful countryside! Must have been a dreamy 13 miles. Congrats on another success!

  2. Ryan May 13, 2011 at 8:02 pm #

    Great blog and nice race. I just moved to NorCal (Napa, CA) from Chicago, so I’m enjoying your profiling all of these west coast races. The Healdsburg Half could be a good lead-up to the Calif Int Marathon in Sac in Dec! Keep up the great work.

  3. Running Ross October 9, 2011 at 6:14 am #

    I am loving the setting of this half marathon. It is something that I have always wanted to do and so I think that next year I am going to sign up for it and do it. You do get free wine when you finish right??
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