I did this race last year and really enjoyed it, and also got a half Iron PR, so I picked it again this year as my season wrap-up for tris. There's a lot of reasons to like this race, the location is great, the course is fast and fairly flat but never boring, and the atmosphere is a lot more laid back than a WTC 70.3, while still being competitive at the pointy end of the AG field. I managed to execute my plan nearly to the minute, nothing unexpected or disastrous, so I'll keep it short and do my best to give you an idea of what the course is like.
The swim starts directly in front of the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk at 7am. It helps to get to transition early as it's first come first serve, though the area is set up in a way where your spot will be convenient for at least one of your transitions, so it's not imperative for a fast race. Last year the swim was FREEZING, I think the race director said 56°. This year it was a more reasonable 62°, but I still wore my booties that I had brought to avoid last years experience of not feeling my feet til 10 miles into the bike. The swim goes around a pier, you swim wide around it but after the far buoy it's wide open with no guide buoys. It's also hazy so not easy to sight here, causing a lot of people to swim in questionable directions, normally using the pier as reference. Check out the course from the pier the day before, swimming a straight shot will save you a lot of time. My swim went well, I got in a good draft off the front right away, swam alone for the last 500 yards or so and came it at 29 minutes. The transition area is pretty far from the swim exit, just over 1/4 mile I'd estimate. The booties were great for this, very glad I had them.
The race starts in 5 minute waves and has a field of 500 or so, I started in the second wave so when I headed out on the bike there weren't many people around me, and after the turnaround I rode almost completely alone. The bike course is an out and back mostly on Hwy 1, it's quite beautiful and has no major climbs, I stayed in my big ring the entire time. Last year there was a pretty stiff headwind on the outbound leg, which is common along the coast here, but this year it was flat calm and very foggy. Even with little wind the course is a little faster on the way back, my goal was to negative split and I managed to pull it off, time for the bike leg was 2:30. There's really only two things to be concerned about on the bike course, a railroad track going diagonally across the road about midway through, and the dismount line which is at the bottom of a hill after you take a corner so can't see it coming, I heard of crashes happening at both places, so keep them in mind.
I left T2 running next to another AGer from the 20-24 group which was a nice change from the lonely bike. We ran together to around mile 8, at a pretty steady pace, starting in the low 7:xx range and moving to 7:30ish. Each mile seems to get a tad harder on the way out, it's mostly flat but there are some small hills here and there, more towards the far end of the out and back. I made one mistake in the race and it was neglecting to bring any nutrition with me on the run. Normally I am fine going off aid stations but there are a bit further apart at this race than most races, and they only had HEED/gatorade at a few of them. I ran low on calories at around mile 8 and had a slow mile 9, fortunately managed to grab a gel at the next aid station and bounced back a bit. Since it's an out and back you can see the whole race field and get a good idea of where you are, there were only a handful ahead of me so I thought there could be a shot at the podium. Unfortunately someone in my AG passed me right at the 12 mile marker and was moving at a pace I wasn't sure I could maintain. I lost about 30 seconds to him by the time we hit the beach, which makes up the last half mile of the race. I ran straight towards the hard pack sand and managed to slowly reel him in. With about 50 yards to go I turned it on and managed to sprint by him in the soft sand, I am sure I looked ridiculous with my sand rooster tail and arms flailing trying to balance but managed to secure my ....5th place, in 4:50. No podium this time but still a great experience, I imagine this race will always be an end of the year standby, it's great for a first half, Kona tune-up, destination race, there's something for everyone here.