Ventura, Ca. — The growth and popularity of big city marathons has led to record sell-outs around the world, opening the calendar to charming boutique events not looking to cram every last runner onto their narrow over-taxed roads – not that there is anything wrong with that. We found just such a gem this weekend glistening in the coastal California sun out the Ventura Highway north of Los Angeles, south of Santa Barbara.
The 3rd Clif Bar Mountains 2 Beach Marathon & Half-Marathon gave its 3000 entrants — 1500 in each distance – a lovely journey from rural Ojai to seaside Ventura that had everyone raving about the course, the organization and thrilled with their new PRs.
“It is really a fast course,” agreed marathon winner Ricardo Ramirez (2:31:23), originally from Fresnillo, Mexico but now living in Sun Valley, California. “My old PR was 2:37 in L.A. this year. Today, I was always running in third place until I took the lead at 23 miles. I even stopped for a bathroom break around half-way.”
In spite of wearing a new pair of shoes — never a good idea in any race, much less a marathon — and planning to race again tomorrow in a 10K near Altadeena, the 41 year-old mechanic who works nine-hour days and has only been running six years, competed with the savvy of a veteran. His late race surge bested runner-up John Svet, 22, of Brea, California by just 35-seconds, while third-placer Matt Ebiner, 52, of Covina came home in a remarkable 2:32:55.
The M2B Marathon course began near Nordoff High School in Ojai, before taking the runners on a serene 10k road loop followed by 10-plus miles of gentle downhill running along a split-rail fence lined bike path heading to Ventura.
Once into town the course passed near the original Patagonia store, also known as the Great Pacific Iron Works, as it traversed a road and bike path that looped a little too close to the finish beside the Ventura Fairgrounds — don’t give ’em a chance to give in and drop out — then pushed the field on to the oceanfront for the final four miles along the water.
With its surfboard mile markers the course led the runners past beautiful mountain peaks, the Ventura River Basin, and the beach-front Pierpont neighborhood before finishing along the Ventura Promenade. With a net elevation drop of over 700 feet the M2B course made for an ideal Boston qualifier.
One such Boston Marathon seeker was Marla Scott Nelson, 47, a second-grade teacher at Murray Manor Elementary in La Mesa, California. After signing on with (my wife) Toya Reavis’s training program last year – TReavis Fitness — Marla notched a 23-minute PR at the 2012 Rock `n` Roll Marathon in San Diego. From there Marla set her sights on Boston.
Planning to re-run Rock `n` Roll next week at home, Marla and about 30 other members of the San Diego Track Club balked after Competitor Group had to reconfigure the Rock `n` Roll course after the runners had already signed up. In the new design, what had been an early outbound section along Route 163 to Mission Valley was turned into a long, major hill at 21 miles. With eyes on a fast time, the SDTC runners opted for the transfer to Mountains 2 Beach. And the decision paid off as Marla posted another big PR, 3:45:39, well under the 3:55 qualifying time she needed for Boston 2014.
“I felt really good for the first 21 miles,” she said after her ten-minute PR. “I knew I was going a little fast, but it was downhill, so I thought I was OK.”
Toya had her on a cautious 8:40 per mile average pace to begin, before a drop to 8:30s.
“The course was beautiful,” Marla concluded, “and the support was very good, too. I did lose it a little at the end mentally, though. I went from feeling really good to, ‘I don’t care’ – though I did.”
ON A GROWTH CYCLE
Now in its third year, the event is the baby of marathon director Ben Dewitt and half-marathon director Josh Spiker. Ben has been a competitive runner, mountain biker and triathlete, as well as an event organizer. Josh is a graduate of Ventura High School (where the race expo was held), then a 4x All-American at the University of Wisconsin where he ran for then-Badger Coach Jerrry Schumacher alongside current top professionals Matt Tegenkamp and Chris Solinsky.
While there is no prize money as yet at Mountains 2 Beach, with their own competitive backgrounds Ben and Josh are committed to aiding and supporting elite, sub-elite, and local elite athletes as best they can. Accordingly, they created the following standards to promote a fast race, and support the runners dedicated to racing:
|Men’s Marathon|| sub 2:45 — FREE entry
||sub 3:00 – 50% off|
|Women’s Marathon||sub 3:00 — FREE||sub 3:20 – 50% off|
|Men’s Half-Marathon||sub 1:15 — FREE||sub 1:20 – 50% off|
|Women’s Half-Marathon||sub 1:25 — FREE||sub 1:30 – 50% off|
And with prices starting at $60 for early marathon entry, M2B is a bargain at any speed, though it is a no frills event without road closures (not needed on the majority of the bike path course, anyway) and only self-checked bags.
“In our first year we had 600 runners,” said Dewitt as he hustled around the Promenade awaiting the finishers. “Last year we had 1900, and this year we sold-out both the full and the half in eight weeks. And we do zero paper marketing. Everything is done on the internet. But with Runner’s World and Marathonguide.com listing us in the top 10 events to qualify for Boston, the race just sold itself out.”
“The course was very nice,” commented 1:38:59 half-marathon finisher Norma Santiago of Camarillo, Ca. “The first six miles were gently downhill then flat and a little rolling before finishing alongside the beach. I wasn’t expecting that. And there was perfect weather.”
”The only thing is the crowds are a little sparse,” remarked half-marathon runner-up Derek Delancey, 25, (1:12:39) who drove from Phoenix with his mom, wife Allison and their two kids, daughter Camryn, age 5, and son Brandon, 3. Allison is a former 800 meter All-American out of Weber State who had hoped to use M2B as a tune up for the USATF Half-Marathon Championship in Duluth, Minnesota in June. But she came down with an injury and couldn’t run.
Ramiro “Curly” Guillen III, 31, out of Santa Barbara ran a two-minute PR of 1:09:25 to earn the half-marathon victory.
“I was aiming for a sub-1:10 to qualify for the U.S. Half Marathon Championships in Duluth,” he told me as his proud parents Blanca and Ramiro looked on. “I led from start to finish, though the lead cyclist crashed as the course went from the underpass to the bike path early on. Her wheel slipped out from under her on some dirt, and I didn’t have a lead bike with me for four or five miles till she caught back up. I felt guilty not stopping, but my maximum goal was a sub-1:09, because that would have gotten me free housing at the nationals. I fell apart a little in the last three miles, but this is a PR course and beautiful.”
A graduate of U.C. Santa Barbara, Curly ran Boston this year in 2:35, a five-minute marathon PR. He, too, is married with two children, Noah, age 5, and daughter Mackenzie, age 2 ½. A typical sub-elite runner, Guillen has both a government job by day, and is a club DJ three nights a week.
“I average five hours of sleep a day,” he laughed, even as he trains 80-100 miles per week. With his growing family and two jobs Curly had quit running several years ago until his wife encouraged him to get back into it.
“I lost nearly 50 pounds between November 2011 and June 2012,” he recalled. “The next step is trying to qualify for the 2016 Olympic Trials Marathon. I need a 2:18, but now I know the necessary pace. So baby steps toward the ultimate goal.”
While children played in the sand and surfers rode the waves alongside the Ventura Pier, the downtown shopkeepers and restauranteurs prepared for the holiday traffic as the runners continued to ride the waves of support along the Promenade. With a 6 a.m. start temperature of around 50°F, a scenic, fast course over which to run — and an out-and-back 5k along the Promenade for the less adventurous — followed by a seaside party and arts fair in the warming California sun, one wonders how long the bib numbers will last in 2014 as this gem of an event tries to maintain its boutique flavor as word spreads of its many charms.