RUN-1-30-14 Runners take on the Moorpark SOAR run through the orchards in the Tierra Rejada Valley.

On your mark ...get set ...go!

From land to sea, Ventura County is now a premier marathon destination

By Alex Wilson 01/30/2014


Freshly fallen snow on the mountains above Ojai glistened in the light of the rising sun,as runners gathered at the starting line for the Santa to the Sea Half Marathon through Oxnard. Many were adorned with holiday-themed costumes, including elves and Christmas trees, contributing to the festive atmosphere. The Santa Claus statue visible from the nearby freeway was surrounded by donated toys for underprivileged children.

More than 2,200 runners participated in December’s long-distance race, and about 1,000 more entered shorter variations including a 5K. It was the largest turnout since the event began 10 years ago. Some traveled from foreign nations as distant as Chile, Israel and New Zealand.

Passing through Oxnard neighborhoods such as La Colonia and Hollywood Beach, we warmed up in the crisp early-morning air. Local residents cheered and shared homemade treats to help power us forward. High school bands and colorful decorations added to the enthusiasm.

An exuberant crowd greeted us while we strode across the finish line near Channel Islands Harbor, where more festivities awaited. Runners stretched out tired muscles, and many basked in the accomplishment of completing the longest race they’d ever attempted.

Santa to the Sea’s growing success illustrates a resurgence in the ancient sport of running. New variations like untimed fun runs and mud runs with challenging obstacles are also propelling excitement across Ventura County.

I’ve experienced the growing enthusiasm by entering numerous events myself, such as the Ventura Police Department’s Eco Extreme Mud Challenge at Downtown’s Grant Park. Besides slogging through mud pits, carrying sand bags up steep hills added to the difficulty, along with rope ladders, tunnels and downed trees that served as hurdles. The event supporting the department’s charity is set to return this year on April 27.


 The Ventura Police Department puts on the annual
Eco Extreme Mud Challenge in Downtown Ventura at Grant Park.


The Oxnard Fire Explorer Post 9244 organized June’s first Tower 2 Tower Stair Climb, up the city’s tallest skyscrapers for a heart-pounding workout. It provided unparalleled views from the roof of the 21-story blue tower at the Topa Financial Plaza that’s normally off-limits to the public.


Oxnard Fire Explorer Post 9244 organized June’s first
Tower 2 Tower Stair climb up the city’s tallest skyscrapers.

I started running seriously with inspiration from my wife, Dawn, who has competed in the New York and Los Angeles Marathons. I thought it could be a fun new way to exercise together, especially since we toured Olympia, Greece, where the Olympics were first held circa 776 B.C. Even though we enjoy long hikes through forests, running was never a favorite sport of mine in the past. I remember pain and frustration from jogging in gym classes or as conditioning training for other athletic endeavors like tennis, where there was little guidance on proper running form.

Library books helped me get a better foundation, along with talking with experienced local runners. One book I found insightful is ChiRunning by Danny Dryer, which teaches gentle, flowing methods rooted in Eastern philosophy. It helped minimize soreness and made running a form of meditative practice. Now I look forward to running as a way not only to improve my health, but also to approach a Zen state where I feel connected to the universe and transcend life’s daily challenges.

After months of training, my first race was Patagonia’s popular Salmon Run in November 2012, which raises money for environmental charities. It’s one of four races in November’s SOAR Trail Run Series promoting efforts to save open space and agricultural resources.

The 5K race gave me a sense of euphoria mixed with achievement. I enjoyed noticing hills, plants and birds lining the Ventura River, which are easy to ignore while driving a car down the nearby highway.

Untimed events geared toward fitness and frolic are also growing in popularity, like the Color Run, which has become a worldwide phenomenon. It drew about 6,000 people to Ventura the first time its backers traveled here in October.


More than 6,000 people participated in
the Color Run in Ventura last year.

Color Runners dressed up in mostly white outfits with bright accents, and then had colored corn starch thrown at them until they were covered at the end. It felt more like a giant outdoor moving party than a traditional race. The exercise began long before the 5K run, with booming music and aerobics led by someone in a unicorn costume. The race was followed by a dance party at Seaside Park, where people tossed even more corn starch at each other.

Despite grumbling from some Ventura residents about road closures and powder left behind, nearly all the runners appeared to have fun.

Ventura resident Kirsten Meeker had a special reason for taking part. She wore a heartfelt tribute to her sister, who passed away recently, and participated in her memory. “When I was cleaning out her apartment last year I found all her T-shirts from the Honolulu Marathon,” said Meeker. “So I was inspired to run my first 5K, and have been training for a few months now.”

She was also glad the Color Run came to town to help her set a goal. “I think if it inspires people to get out and exercise, that’s great,” said Meeker.

Former Ventura Mayor Brian Brennan helps organize the SOAR Trail Run Series, which also features scenic courses at an orchard in the Tierra Rejada Valley near Moorpark, and Ventura’s Arroyo Verde Park. “When you get into the open spaces and parks, you realize how wonderful and beneficial they are,” said Brennan.

Brennan says the sport’s popularity waned after a running boom that peaked around 1980. Now members of Ventura County’s racing community are proving it’s a premier running destination, and more than 100 races are staged every year. The area boasts varied terrain, interesting races, energetic supporters and weather allowing for year-round training.

He’s received positive feedback from runners who flock from far away to events that include May’s Clif Bar Mountains 2 Beach Marathon, which follows the Ventura River from Ojai to Ventura’s shoreline. “They say that it’s amazing, that the ability to run here, less traffic, the open spaces, and the places they ran just stood head and shoulders above other places,” said Brennan.

Brennan says the Color Run, triathlons and other big races also boost business at hotels and restaurants. “I think people do come into town. They provide a surge in the local economy,” said Brennan. “They want to be healthy. That’s why they run, so they don’t feel guilty when they have beer or pizza afterwards. Overall it’s a huge surge or economic pulse for downtowns or wherever it is they hold the races.”

Specialty shoe stores, including Ventura’s Inside Track and Tri Running in Camarillo, are great places to receive help from experts for those getting started with the challenging sport. They also organize running clubs, providing extra inspiration and friendship as well as safety tips for avoiding injuries that can quickly get new runners off track.

Josh Spiker of Ventura started running competitively when he was 6, and later competed for the University of Wisconsin. Among his most impressive performances was finishing a half marathon in an hour and five minutes. Now he works at Tri Running and helps organize races like the Camarillo OffRoad 5K and September’s Ventura Pier to Pier Marathon and Beach Party.

Spiker leads Vendurance Running Tribe. “There’s a sense of camaraderie. It just makes the workouts go by a lot faster, helps them to push themselves,” said Spiker. “Our club is really nice because a lot of people make new friends; they hang out more than at just track and running workouts, so it’s really a new social circle with positive people. So the relationships you build add a lot, and that’s what’s really cool about running.”

He says people just starting out running or taking it up again after a long hiatus need to be careful. “I encourage everyone to give it a try. The key is to stick with it for at least six months. Most of those who give up do it within the first three months because it’s hard, it’s uncomfortable. When you’re getting into shape it’s not fun. It hurts. The body has to adjust because running is a high-impact sport and a lot of people rush into it. They do too much too soon and get really sore or injured,“ said Spiker. “People need to start slow. I mean really conservative. Start out with a walking program and add in short bouts of jogging.”

Michelle Martinez owns Inside Track and says it’s also important to be properly fitted with the most appropriate shoes, which varies significantly depending on many factors, including the shape and specific movements of runners’ feet. Many people who buy shoes without professional input choose ones that are too small. When new runners arrive at Inside Track, a foot strike analysis is performed by carefully watching them walk around with no shoes on.

Martinez agrees that some people jump into running too quickly. “They follow foolish guidelines they see online,” said Martinez, who believes getting good advice from the start is critical for new runners. “Asking around people who are actually accomplished at what they do, and joining groups.”  

Inside Track was founded by former Ventura Deputy Mayor Gary Tuttle in the 1970s when he was one of the planet’s most competitive runners. Among his claims to fame is a seventh-place finish in the 1976 World Cross Country Championships. He also won the NCAA Steeplechase twice while competing for Humboldt State University, and finished second at the 1985 Boston Marathon.

Tuttle says road races were a novelty when he was young and high school track and field competitions were usually the farthest people progressed in the sport. Then at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics inspirational Native American runner Billy Mills scored one of history’s biggest Olympic upsets with a gold medal victory in the 10,000-meter race.

“Thanks to people like Billy Mills and their success in the Olympics a few people started running in the streets like myself,” said Tuttle.

“We’d go to races in Southern California, about five or six a year, that’s all, and there would be the same 80 guys everywhere we go. There would be no T-shirt, maybe an entry fee of a dollar or two. The medals would be recycled little awards. No insurance, no police escorts, it was just pure racing. Then it progressed from there,” said Tuttle, who then started selling shoes from his car.

Martinez and Tuttle have differing opinions about sillier competitions like the Color Run where the experience includes loud electronic dance music and walking away looking like a rainbow.

Tuttle encourages serious racing so United States athletes can compete more effectively at the Olympics, where runners from other nations have carried home many of the medals recently.

“Races have dumbed down, running has dumbed down. There are a few good runners at the front but not nearly as many as there used to be,” said Tuttle. Back in the 1970s around 85 percent of competitors would be done with a marathon in less than four hours, and now many take six hours or longer, according to Tuttle. He’s worried that the emphasis on fun over competition is making Americans less competitive on the world stage.

“Racing is very important and we should reward success and not so much participation. I don’t buy that everybody’s a winner. I think everybody’s great and everybody does wonderful. It might be just as tough to do a six hour marathon as a two hour marathon since you’re out there four hours longer. I think we’ve gotten away from rewarding excellence,” said Tuttle.

But Martinez thinks anything that encourages people to try the sport is positive, and might lead them to run more seriously in the future. “There are tons of people who have been interested in running now, and getting fit, because of all these other kinds of events. I think that’s awesome,” said Martinez. “The more people you can get out there the better, whether they’re actually competing or just being active, because we live in such an unfit society. So in that respect I think it’s really great that there are all kinds of new events.” 


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