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Feeling the burn

A picturesque-but-arduous course, it’s that big hill at the six-mile marker of the 13.1-mile La Jolla Half Marathon between Del Mar Racetrack and La Jolla Cove that can get to even the most experienced of runners.

“The toughest part is when you climb from the base at Torrey Pines’ main parking lot and head up through the Reserve itself before the golf course,” said 37-year-old Kelly Powell of Ocean Beach, who’ll be running for the fourth time at the 26th annual La Jolla Half Marathon on Sunday, April 22. “It can be a little crowded, trying to get around other people and keep your footing along the road. It’s just a really tough incline.”

Powell described the La Jolla Half Marathon as her “favorite race of all-time.” “It’s great support,” she said. “A real wonderful experience. It’s a fairly close-knit community. You see, know racers from other events. It’s a very competitive-yet-warm environment. People can really benefit from the other runners around them, use them for support, and maybe make a friend along the way. I’m so thankful to live in a community that’s got really beautiful scenery and fantastic volunteers.”

It’s the camraderie associated with the La Jolla Half Marathon that Del Mar resident Joe Belshin, 50, who has competed in the event a dozen times over the past 20 years, appreciates most about it. “It’s a great community event that has been going on for so long,” Belshin said. “At the parking lot at Del Mar Fairgrounds, there’s this mass of people ... everybody in running gear, all a bit apprehensive and excited. It’s a challenging course, just a beautiful course.”

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To prepare for long-distance races like the La Jolla Half Marathon, Belshin runs about 40 miles a week. Though his times have slowed over the years, from accomplishing the feat in 80:13 at his peak in his 20s to just under 90 minutes year before last, he still gets a kick out of competing. “One thing I like most about it, no matter what your running speed is, you’ll always have someone running next to you,” he said. “Unless you’re one of the elite runners, you’ll never be by yourself.”

La Jolla Kiwanis Club sponsors the fund-raising Half Marathon, the crown jewel in a race-day Triple Crown including two other events, the La Jolla Shores 5K and the WindanSea Five Mile Stride, both of which kick-off at 7:30 a.m. All three events collectively draw 8,500 runners, joggers and walkers from around the world. All three race events finish at La Jolla Cove (Scripps) Park.

The Half Marathon has become one of the Jewel’s premiere events during the calendar year. The event generates upwards of $70,000, all of which is donated by La Jolla Kiwanis Club to worthy community organizations, many youth-oriented. The Half Marathon is sponsored by Amylin Pharmaceuticals, a San Diego biopharmaceuticals company focused on developing groundbreaking medicines for metabolic diseases.

For runners, the bar at the Half Marathon has been set high during the past quarter-century. Male and female record running times for the event were set in 2003 for men by Nazario Romero (1:06:24), and for women in 1990 by Erin Baker (1:16:52).

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The Half Marathon has become so popular, it sold out this year in record time, according to Half Marathon race director Bill Uncapher. In response, the ceiling on race participants was raised by 500 to a total of 5,500 to accommodate increased runner demand. “It’s never sold out before 10 a.m. at the race expo,” said Uncapher. “This year we sold out on April 1.”

New this year to the Half Marathon is an “aquatic division.” Uncapher said a number of people stationed aboard the U.S.S. Nimitz wanted to run in the race, but couldn’t because they will be out at sea. So 26 runners, including a two-star admiral, will be running the race on treadmills on the aircraft carrier’s flattop.

Bill Gookin, who manufactures and distributes his own electrolyte-laden sports drink, Gookinaid throughout the 13-mile course, cautioned there are two mistakes neophyte participants make in preparing for the race. “They’re not ready,” Gookin said. “They haven’t gotten their mileage in. The other thing is a lot of them will overeat at the carbo load the night before, so they’ve got that on their stomach the morning of the race.”

Gookin offered this prescription for race-day success. “Get yourself hydrated,” he said. “Eat lightly the night before.”

A former marathon runner with a degree in biochemistry, Gookin developed his namesake sports drink to fill a nutritional void in depleted runners who lose essential nutrients perspiring during a long, strenuous race. “The electrolytes are involved in muscle relaxing and contracting,” said Gookin. “When you’re depleted in electrolytes and water, you can cramp up.”

A running expo with race-related vendors for the general public and a carbo-load dinner for Half Marathon runners is held the day before the event on Saturday, April 21 at Washington Mutual parking lot, 7777 Girard Ave. from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. Expo participants will include Coolshades sunglasses, Fit For Sports running apparel, Elite Racing, Cassidy’s Massage Clinic, New Sun Nutrition, Road Runner Sports running shoes, Ultima Health Products, Running Dynamics personal training, Kore Pilates and Max Muscle sports nutrition.

There are also vendor booths at the Finish line.

“All the (vendor) booths are lined up at the fence at the Cove where friends and families are cheering and hollering,” said La Jolla Kiwanian Judy Turner, who is charge of this year’s 26 vendors. “As runners come across the finish-shoot fenced area, they’re really wiped out. They’re handed food and drink, and there is also a massage area with at least 15 masseuses.”

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Being in the midst of 8,000 to 10,000 fans all crammed into the Cove at one time is a sight to behold. Said Turner: “It’s a fun, exciting atmosphere right on the ocean. The runners are pumped.”

The culmination of the Half Marathon includes a stage, a raffle and a T-shirt giveaway.

Everything about the La Jolla Half Marathon and the other two events associated with it has evolved over the years. “The reputation of this race is so good that people want to be a part of it,” pointed out Kiwanis event co-chair Robin Cahill. “The expo’s gotten bigger. It used to be we would solicit vendors. Now vendors are pretty much soliciting us.”

For Travis Hunter, La Jolla Light Arts & Culture editor who has successfully run the La Jolla Half Marathon, it’s the finish at Scripps Park, a gently rolling expanse of green perched above La Jolla Cove, that will always stand out in his mind.

“It’s such a welcome sight to a runner that calling it ‘beautiful’ just doesn’t cut it,” said Hunter. “For most runners, a half marathon isn’t a race - it’s an exercise in restraint. It’s about keeping a pace that will leave you with some gas in the tank at the 10-mile mark and beyond. But when a runner comes around the corner on Coast Boulevard and sees the finish line, that restraint vanishes in an instant.”

Hunter noted the street is lined with thousands of cheering fans. Live music is rocking and rolling at the post-race party just beyond the finish line. “The home stretch is a time to burn off the last of your reserves in a final blaze of glory, leave every bit of yourself on the course and come coasting across the finish line on fumes,” recalls Hunter. “After that, all that’s left to do is enjoy a cold beer and the tunes at the finish- line party, or maybe just find an open patch of grass to flop out on and catch your breath. And if you’re like most runners, you still have one cruel, final challenge in front of you: the steep walk back up to the Village and your car.”

For more information visit www.lajollahalfmarathon.com.