Destination: San Diego
Runners cruise down Highway 101 in the La Jolla Half Marathon. Photo: Rich Cruse/CrusePhoto.com

America's Finest City serves up oceanside running, craft brews and amazing weather

San Diego is nicknamed America’s Finest City for a reason—it has near-perfect weather 365 days a year, the craft beer scene has national cred, and local Mexican, American and Italian food is plentiful. It’s also an endurance athlete’s paradise—on any given day, coastal boardwalks are full of focused runners, Highway 101 is alive with cyclists, and must-do inland hiking routes are packed with trail running junkies.

Most out-of-towners visiting this Southern California city visit historic Balboa Park and Gaslamp Quarter, Torrey Pines, nearby beaches and the bay. But for the locals, San Diego goes beyond official city limits, including Oceanside, home to Ironman California 70.3 every April; coastal surf towns like Encinitas; upscale La Jolla, Coronado Island, and all the way south to the Mexico border.

Runners hit the trails of Balboa Park as part of a November Project workout. Photo: Nick Isabella

Highlighted Runs

Balboa Park
Meet November Project San Diego on Mondays at the fountain, or venture around the hilly trails of Balboa Park with a friend. There are several access points to the many paths around the 1,200 acre park; the Golden Hill Trails Gateway on the south side links you to three looped options from less than 1 mile to nearly 7 miles. Or you might opt to explore the dirt around Morley Field on the northeast side, where 80 of the fastest high school cross-country athletes meet every December for the Foot Locker high school national championships. After you’re done, meander through any of the museums, or the San Diego Zoo, scattered through the grounds.

Moonlight Beach To Torrey Pines
Although not an “official” recommended run, this stretch of North County coastal running is arguably the best. Start your nearly-pancake-flat journey at Moonlight State Beach in Encinitas (hint: park on one of the side streets near the main parking lot—it’s all free!). From there, head south on Second Street until it curves onto Coast Highway, or “the 101” as locals call it, and stride along the Pacific Ocean, past small-town shops and fitness studios. The 9-mile point-to-point is a popular long-run choice for those training for local Carlsbad Marathon in January. You’ll pass through all the major beach towns—Cardiff by the Sea, Solana Beach and Del Mar, home to the world-famous racetrack. Or simply running from Moonlight to the “Welcome to Solana Beach” sign (you can’t miss it) and back is a great 6-mile experience!

Torrey Pines State Preserve
This is the run-hike you’ll hear about from everyone. Park your car in the nearby parking lot or, if you’re lucky, right along the water, and venture up the notorious “Torrey Pines hill” to reach the start of so many trail options. Take your pick—many routes head toward the bluffs, some curve down onto the beach, and all get very crowded on the weekends, especially during the summer.

Penasquitos Canyon
Pack trail shoes and head inland to discover this gem, full of mild-to-moderate terrain with runners, mountain bikers and hikers. Park in the main lot along Sorrento Valley Road and make it to the waterfall and back for a moderate 6-mile loop. Run end to end for a fun 12-mile round trip adventure—if you’re lucky, you’ll splash through some lingering streams left behind from winter.

San Diego Boardwalk
This one’s a cinch; start at Spanish Landing Park (pack some change to pay the meter) and follow the San Diego Bay past the harbor, around downtown, through Seaport Village to the Hilton Bayfront. Make it as long or as short as you’d like, but leave time to snap some photos of the famous USS Midway and ginormous sailor statue that inspires so much smooches between visiting lovebirds.

Lake Miramar
This 5-mile loop is very popular for its quarter-mile markings and flatness; both of those things make for a great tempo or interval run location. If you’re more of a trail nut or want to shave off a half-mile, duck into the dirt that runs below the road right along the lake.

Mission Trails
For those with means to head east, this spot gives your legs and lungs a workout with its hilly offerings. The park also includes popular Cowles Mountain, a perfect option if you want to cruise up to witness those breathtaking SoCal sunsets.

Local Flavor

Cindy Lynch is a California native who fell in love with San Diego in the 1990s after coming down to cheer for friends running the Rock ’n’ Roll San Diego Marathon. Together with her twin sister, Christy, the duo moved their life from northern California down to SoCal. They launched RunningSkirts in 2005, a local startup turned international brand. And like many runners, Lynch’s original goal was to be one and done with marathons—until she qualified for the Boston Marathon and, as she says, “the rest is history.” She’s since run eight Boston Marathons and won a handful of half marathons—as well as a Krispy Kreme Challenge 5K while six months pregnant! “San Diego runners are spoiled, we literally have it all: year round running, perfect weather, great running routes, beachfront paths and amazing trails and parks,” says Lynch. Over the past few years, Lynch has dappled in many local ultras, including a win and course record at Noble Canyon 50K, overall winner at PCT 50, and she placed third at the San Diego 100 all last year.

San Diego Buzz

One would be remised to not sip on some local craft brews in one of the country’s best beer capitals! Stone Brewery in Escondido—a small town in northeast San Diego County—just grabbed recent headlines for their (apparently) delicious brew made from recycled water. But with its outdoor seating and fancy American fare it’s always deserving of a visit. Fun fact: Stone has a smaller location in Point Loma, near the San Diego International Airport.

Local Eats And Sips

You’ll find many weekend warriors enjoying post-run caffeine at Gordy’s Bakery in Encinitas. Formerly a manager at local running store Movin’ Shoes, Gordy is a fine baker, all while still coaching at a local high school. Of course San Diego is also chock-full of stellar brunch locations—head one of The Mission’s three locations around San Diego and experience any of the establishment’s delicious plates; most things are also available gluten-free! If you haven’t stopped hearing about the amazing Mexican food, the truth is the Bull Taco stand in the Cardiff by the Sea campgrounds is the best-known secret to satisfy your south-of-the-border craving.

Community Knowledge

Running groups abound! All three Movin’ Shoes locations host group runs one night during the week from their stores, offering post-run raffles and clinics most nights. There is also a San Diego chapter of the November Project, that fun-loving runner movement that began in Boston to brave a winter we will never know. They meet every Monday and Wednesday at 6:29 a.m. in Balboa Park, but runners can check the group’s Facebook page about rotating locations on Mondays several months during the year.

A scene from the Carlsbad Marathon and Half Marathon. Photo: Rich Cruse/CrusePhoto.com

Go Fast

Every local runner knows the Triple Crown Series—completing the Carlsbad Marathon and Half Marathon (Jan. 18, 2018, carlsbadmarathon.com), the La Jolla Half Marathon (Apr. 22, 2018, lajollahalfmarathon.com) and the America’s Finest City Half Marathon (Aug. 20, 2017, afchalf.com). Be warned: temperatures in August historically tend to soar and remain humid, but local supporters set up misters and extra water stations along the course to cool off competitors.

The San Diego Half Marathon and 5K (March 11, 2018, sdhalfmarathon.com), is a crowd favorite with its slogan, “For runners by runners.” The course is awesome, the medal is large and the new finish line veering into Petco Park is hard to beat.

Then there’s the famous Carlsbad 5000 (March 25, 2018, runrocknroll.com/Carlsbad-5000), home to more than 14 world records in its more than 30 years of existence. Age-groupers can tackle the all-day 20K, racing all four age-group 5K events for a special medal, and the beer garden band is always a spectacle for sore legs to shake out to.

For those wanting to dip into ultra-distances, the Noble Canyon 50K (Sept. 27, 2017, noblecanyon50k.com) is one to check out, taking runners through the Cleveland National Forest and Mount Laguna area, about an hour east of downtown.

Locals often refer to the Balboa Park 8-Miler (August 2018, balboapark8miler.com) as the “unofficial shake out” for the AFC Half Marathon that follows weeks later. This cross-country-esque race, put on by the San Diego Track Club, is deeply rooted in the city’s running history, with its first run in 1955. It’s pretty much followed the same course every year, taking runners off-road around the park’s trails, save for some adjustment in 2016 to accommodate rising registration. 

Casey Martin
Casey Martin is a freelance writer and runner from the Bay Area who loves road running and is starting a love affair with trails.