CAPITOLA — The Wharf to Wharf Race always seems unpredictable.
Even with last year’s top three finishers returning, the 45th edition of the race is no different.
Sunday’s famed six-mile road race from Santa Cruz to Capitola will feature a couple of past champions and a handful of hungry newcomers, along with thousands of other runners and walkers racing against themselves.
Defending champion Isaac Mukundi Mwangi, runner-up Silas Kipruto and third-place finisher Teshome Mekonen are all back for another go at the overall title and on the women’s side Risper Gesabwa will try to become the first-ever four-time champ.
Mwangi, of Kenya, last year edged 2011 champ Kipruto, of Kenya, in a last-second sprint to the finish line to capture his first-ever Wharf to Wharf championship. Both figure to be in the running for the title this year along with a handful of others, including Mekonen.
Mekonen, of Ethiopia, will be fresh off his best race of the year, winning Crazy 8s last weekend in Kingsport, Tenn. He beat both Mwangi and Kipruto for the title.
American Diego Estrada, an Alisal High alumnus who recently placed sixth at the USATF Championships in the 10K, will also be in the mix along with Kenyan Wilson Kibogo, who finished a close runner-up at Crazy 8s behind Mekonen.
If Estrada wins, he would become the first American man to accomplish the feat since Danny Gonzalez in 1995.
Wharf to Wharf director Scott McConville called this year’s field one of the deepest and most competitive the race has ever seen.
“It’s cool to have last year’s top three coming back to duke it out again,” McConville said.
Gesabwa, meanwhile, will be the heavy favorite to claim her fourth title. She won her first in 2012 and then returned to the top of the podium in ’15 and ’16. A win this year would also make her the race’s first runner to three-peat.
The top four men and women will win $4,000, $3,000, $2,000 and $1,000, respectively. The top American male and female finisher will also win $1,000 apiece.
The race begins at 8:30 a.m. at the intersection of Beach and Cliff Street in Santa Cruz and concludes at the intersection of Wharf Road and Cliff Drive in Capitola.
As usual, more than 50 entertainers will shower the 16,000 participants with tunes throughout the course, which runs adjacent to several of the world’s most renowned surf spots. It’s one of the reasons why the Wharf to Wharf, which brings in more than $8,000,000 to the Santa Cruz County economy, according to its official website, is known as “the best little road race in California.”
“It’s a pretty unique event,” McConville said. “There’s nothing else quite like it.”
Here are other things to look out for leading up to Sunday’s spectacle:
A NEW SYSTEM
The reworked four-frame registration method had its ups and downs but McConville said the good easily outweighed the bad.
The addition of the 1,000-bib loyalty registration, the initial phase which gave priority to participants who have registered with the Wharf to Wharf in four of the last seven years, turned out to be a welcomed supplement to the local registration portion.
Three thousand bibs were allotted for local registration, which was derailed for a few minutes because of a glitch with the third-party company used to run registrations.
“That’s the bread and butter of our race participants,” McConville said. “The ones who live here and care about the race, and the ones who come in from out of town and have been doing it forever. The people that have been loyal to us for a long time, we didn’t really have a way to thank them until now.”
The last 9,000 spots were distributed through the general registration and random selection process, with 8,000 bibs up for grabs in the former and the remaining dished out in the latter.
The record sell out times of years past — general registration sold out in 11 minutes in 2016 — were nowhere to be found this year because the Wharf to Wharf decided to forgo the usual first come, first served madness and use a queue that slowly infused racers into the registration process. As a result, general registration sold out in about an hour.
“It’s never going to get faster and faster like it did over the years,” McConville said. “It got to the point where it was uncontrollable. It’s always going to be kinda hectic because more people want to do it than there are spots available but we don’t want it to be a race.”
McConville said they would make small tweaks to the process. One of those, McConville said, is making it easier for groups to register together.
The men’s local field is wide open with the absence of Corralitos’ Brett Gotcher, the former Aptos High standout who has been the Top Local several times over.
Jake Petralia, another former Aptos standout, figures to be one of the favorites to take up the mantel. Petralia recently won the 5k at the 32nd edition of the Santa Cruz Firecracker on Independence Day.
Justin Carrancho, a Watsonville High alumnus and current member of the nationally ranked Alaska Anchorage cross country team, earned the title of Top Local last year, edging Scotts Valley’s Nicholas Heath by tenths of a second. Watsonville head cross country coach Rob Cornett said Carrancho will be back to defend his title this year.
The title of top local woman, however, is all-but locked up with Amy Schnittger returning. Schnittger, an Aptos alumna, has crossed the finish line as the first female from the county twice, including last year.
McConville is also joining in on the action for the first time since 2009. He said he’s hoping to finish in the top 100.
Does he have a time he’s shooting for?
“The guy that got 100 last year was 34:33,” McConville said, “so 34:32.”
Because of construction near the intersection of 5th Avenue and East Cliff Drive, the route will take a detour and not make its usual pass by The Crow’s Nest, according to McConville.
The updated course will still lead down into East Cliff Drive along side Schwan Lagoon.