Illustration by Louise Leong.

With the crack of the starter pistol, the crowd of runners surged forward, signaling the start of the Santa Cruz Half Marathon. Lean, tanned professionals jogged alone, setting their stopwatches and adjusting nutrition packets harnessed to fanny packs, while groups of friends and families slowed down to laugh and wave at the cheering throngs of spectators lining the Boardwalk.

This year’s ninth annual Santa Cruz Half Marathon and 10K drew a total of 4,374 registered racers. This figure eclipsed last year’s total by over 1,000. Sunday’s competitors competed in either the half-marathon (13.1 miles) or the shorter 10-kilometer race.

Tom Cotton is the owner of Threshold Racing as well as Firstwave Events, the company that organizes the half marathon along with many other California-based races each year. He credits the popularity of the half marathon to its scenic route along West Cliff Drive and through Wilder Ranch.

“The scenery is great,” Cotton said. “On the way back [from Wilder Ranch] you get to look down on the surfers, the lighthouse, and you can see the finish line.”

Cotton also noted the benefit of having a route that gives runners a clear view of the Pacific Ocean.

“In the last couple years we’ve seen whales,” Cotton said. “[There are] not many marathons you can do running and whale watching in.”

UC Santa Cruz professor Daniel Wirls, a nationally ranked racer who last year finished in 12th place overall in the half-marathon with a time of one hour and 20 minutes, said that the course was especially appealing to serious runners.

“This is a nice course because it’s reasonably flat and scenic and about a third of it ends up being on dirt, which is kind of nice,” Wirls said. “Running 13 miles on pavement is actually pretty brutal.”

Wirls, who has been racing competitively since graduate school, maintained his regular training regimen the week before the race, doing one 10-mile endurance run per week along with three shorter runs that typically involve speed work or hills. Despite his rigorous schedule, Wirls said he had to be cautious about taking risks with his body.

“Once you get over 45 [years old], you’re just always worried that your body will betray you, in the sense that you’re a little tighter than when you were younger,” Wirls said. “So I think the challenge is not so much that I’m worried about not being prepared enough, it’s just will I be loose enough.”

Also racing was Amanda Philbin, a third-year who, prior to Sunday, had never raced competitively in a half marathon. Philbin said she only began training seriously for the half marathon during winter break. Before that, she mostly used running as a stress reliever.

“I used a half marathon

ten-week-long training program that I found online,” Philbin said. “I did my last long run early [last] week, about 11 miles, and some four-mile runs.”

Philbin said that she wrestled with a bout of anxiety the night before the race, but her desire to run calmed her nerves. As soon as she started running, Philbin said she was able to enjoy the exercise and the scenery.

“I loved it, this declining slope onto the beach — it was great,” Philbin said. “It was a very Santa Cruz flavored race — there were little boys with surfboards interweaving between the racers on West Cliff. Just another day in Santa Cruz.”

Speaking before the race, as he watched waves crash along the beach, Firstwave Events owner Cotton said maintaining the high quality of the course is vital for attracting runners. Cotton even donated money to the state department so they could afford to pay maintenance costs on the course trails in Wilder Ranch.

“We’ve just been trying to keep the consistency of high quality of the race going,” Cotton said. “As soon as something goes wrong, you hear about it. Runners are vocal about what they like and don’t like.”

Wirls, who placed 19th overall and second in his age group with one hour and 23 minutes, said Santa Cruz has an international cachet among athletes because of its races.

“For such a small town, we’re really known worldwide for our endurance athletic events,” Wirls said. “The triathlons, the running races, the swims… It really does bring people into town who otherwise wouldn’t have come.”

Speaking after the race, Amanda Philbin, who placed 302nd in the race and 23rd in her age group, said that competing for a numerical rank was worth far less to her than gaining a sense of personal satisfaction.

“I feel like I achieved my goal,” Philbin said. “It makes me want to keep running and actually, I would like to run a full marathon — maybe next year.”