How beneficial can training by heart rate (HR) really be?
Shouldn’t you be training and/or racing by feel?
With all the ascents and descents in ultras, is it even worth it to train or race by HR?
Aren’t there a ton of other factors that impact HR, other than fitness?
Is it uncomfortable to wear that strap all day?
How bad is your tan line?
Angeles Crest 100 was my 25th ultra, and first race ever completed wearing a HR monitor. Granted, I’ve been training via HR for the past 18ish months, but have never strapped one on (nothing like a ridiculously dirty reference to start a post) for a race. Utilized as a tool to keep my effort level low in the first 30 miles of AC, I’ll likely be rocking a HR for most races moving forward. The data is glaringly objective, and yes there are a myriad variables that impact HR, but it provides an honest assessment of effort at any single point in time. Had I not used a HR monitor at AC, I would have undoubtedly pushed harder than necessary in the high country miles of the race. This tool provided the gut check I needed to dial it WAAAAY down, when I felt like my pace was relatively dialed.
This post is not meant, by any means, to sway your opinion on if you should or should not use a HR monitor in training, as it’s already a fact that you should (insert sarcasm emoji). Rather, I wanted to provide some details on how I’ve used this tool to help in training, racing and recovery.
HR data helps to better dial in my training plan
Tracking daily HR data, rather it be average HR for a recovery run, average HR for specific hill repeats, tempo run info, or a max threshold to use as a cap, this data provides useful info for properly gauging training effort and stimuli. Instead of “high effort,” we can get fairly granular with training (Stagecoach repeats between 160-165HR and low 12:00’s). Training by HR and time allows for more precise tuning within the workout. If my recovery has been shit, my HR is going to jump into the 170’s at a 12:00 repeat pace up Stagecoach. The increased HR during the workout can help to dial down effort to 12:10’s or even 12:20’s, while still providing enough stimuli to induce change. By only training off time, I’d be forced to push on some days higher or lower than needed, possibly lessening the impact of a workout.
HR data objectively measures gains in fitness
How do you measure fitness gains while training and racing ultras? This can be a difficult question to answer, as there are so many variables to account for in this crazy sport. In preparation for a road or track race, being able to run mile repeats significantly faster at the relatively same effort a month apart, can be a good indicator of an increase in fitness. Racing the exact same ultra from year-to-year with similar results could actually equate to a significant increase or decrease in fitness due to the myriad variables at play (changes in temperature, windy and/or wet conditions, a change in shoe choice with more or less grip, slight shifts in pacing, nutrition changes, lack or over hydration, etc.). When used to track gains in fitness, considering the variables between workouts/races are similar (sleep, weight, stress, etc.), a lower HR at the same pace is a fairly objective indicator of gaining fitness.
HR data supports adequate recovery
How do you know if you are adequately recovered in order to nail the next hard workout or upcoming race?
This is a very difficult question to answer, again because of the variables at play when training and/or racing ultras. To best guestimate my recovery from day-to-day, I ask myself these questions constantly:
Are my recovery runs at or around a similar HR, based on terrain and pace from the previous several weeks, and do they feel very easy?
Do I have any “niggles” or body issues that are not getting worse?
Is my HR and effort during workouts at or below levels from previously similar workouts?
Subjectively do I feel rested, not irritable and somewhat normal?
Without HR data to objectively define the difficulty of a workout or the “recovery” in a recovery run, this entire process is measured by feel. Without years of running experience and the understanding of the body that comes from this tenure, I need every tool in the kit to aid performance. Leaving my training up to subjectivity has helped me survive a few years of running, but it’s much more effective when partnered with objective data.
HR data can be an effective “yellow light”
From the very little field experience I have of using HR in a race, it has definitely served as a warning from lead footing it. Outside of AC, I did piggyback off Thomas’ HR data at the Sean Obrien 100k. We had been training together for over 5 months at the time, and knew undoubtedly that my HR was 10-15 bpm higher at nearly any pace, over any terrain. When Thomas’ HR crept up towards 150 on the first significant climb of the day, he let me know and I decided to downshift right alongside him. Feeling light and strong with a recent taper and the adrenaline surge of early race miles, having this warning of 160-165HR was important as I wouldn’t of let off the gas otherwise. From a previous blog, SOB turned out to be a good day based on our levels of fitness at the time.
What HR monitor should I use?
Garmin, Suunto, Polar… oh my! There are both a variety of brands creating high quality HR monitors, and two main types of devices pulling the data (chest strap or wrist strap). As funky as it can feel to wear a HR chest strap at first, I’ve found the data to be more accurate in a variety of temperatures and throughout different effort levels.
Garmin was my “Go To” brand for nearly my first four years of ultrarunning, but when the battery in my Fenix 2 finally went kaput and wouldn’t hold a charge for more than 10hrs of use, I decided to try a Suunto Ambit Peak 3. After figuring out the basic differences in configuration, I couldn’t be happier with this pick. Yes it’s a bit heavy, the satellite receiver is bulky and there are very few bells or whistles, but it’s everything I need in a GPS watch/HR monitor. This pulls GPS faster than a hummingbird on meth, and the HR data seems very accurate based on a side-by-side comparison of the Fenix 2. With an IPhone app that provides all relevant workout data needed, nearly 20hrs of battery life and a price point well below the Fenix 5 or Suunto Spartan, I’ve found my running tool for the foreseeable future.
What I’ve learned using a HR monitor
HR data is uncomfortably honest and difficult to stomach sometimes, when it says I’m working too hard
Training and racing by HR helps me to be more patient throughout a run
HR data confirms my fitness gains
HR is not a perfect training tool, but its a tool nonetheless to help improve
Run tall… lean forward… lift your knees… let form drive speed…
It’s (I can hear my high school English teacher, Mr. Pierotti, reaming me for starting this post with a contraction) taken awhile to write this post, as I’ve wanted to provide enough time for an ample assessment of progress.
I’ve been learning how to run for the past seven months…
In February, I started working with Joe Uhan, a physical therapist and high performing ultra runner in his own right (top ten Western States finisher), to try and fix my ridiculously broken stride. Not coming from a structured running background, I didn’t have much to work with, but Joe reinforced my assumption of terrible form with an early assessment. If anyone reading this is interested in a formal gait analysis by Joe, along with recommendations to increase efficiency and form, take a look at this link (sorry, no ambassador discount or sales pitch, as my story is hopefully more than enough proof that this can work for anyone). http://uhanperformance.com/
To understand what we’re working with here, and it’s not pretty, take a look at these “before” pictures below:
That dip is no bueno…
What the hell is going on here?
The long-term goal of working with Joe, is to slowly… ever so F’ing slowly, increase the efficiency of my stride through strength work, drills and form reminders. For the past seven months, I’ve had this mantra drilled into my daily routine… “Let form drive speed.” This is a tough pill to swallow, as I’m slow as molasses before this stride fix, so slowing down even more to focus on form, is a gut punch when the girls JV team passes me during a track workout (granted, SLO high has an awesome caliber of women athletes, so I’m not too embarrassed here).
The first step in fixing my form has been admitting that I have a problem. Damn, this feels like the start of a 12-Step Program!
Creating several short videos to capture all angles of my lack of awesomeness, allowed Joe to analyze my stride and make recommendations on the good, the bad and the ugly (emphasis on the ugly). At least I saved Joe some time, as there wasn’t much good to report on. After analyzing the results, Joe provided a detailed breakdown of my inefficiencies and a plan to remedy my imbalances.
We started with a daily routine of exercises to strengthen muscle groups that would help drive proper form. Of all Joe’s recommendations, I thought this would be the easiest to tackle, as I’ve spent a significant amount of time in the gym (compared to most ultrarunners) doing a relative assortment of full body workouts.
Well, I learned pretty quickly that whatever the hell I was doing wasn’t obviously working. I was sore as shit for the first couple weeks of this routine! My lower abs and hip flexors were constantly on fire.
A proper warmup was also added to my repertoire, as I’ve habitually recycled a random assortment of drills into my morning pre-run ritual. Unfortunately, these drills focused on all the same damn muscle groups that were sore as hell from Joe’s strength training regiment. Needless to say, my first several weeks caused some serious doubt on if this new training plan was worth the effort.
Thankfully, Joe made it apparent early in the process that this would definitely suck for awhile… possibly a long while, before it got better. Well, “thankfully” probably isn’t the correct use of the word, as it would’ve been much easier to throw in the towel and go back to my normal stride/routine anytime during these past seven months.
Run tall… lean forward… lift your knees… let form drive speed…
Joe promised that over time, the standard niggles and pains that plague nearly all ultrarunners would subside, my heart rate would return to normal once it was used to the new stride, and I would eventually increase my efficiency and speed without an increase in effort.
Damn, this took awhile!
After Leona Divide I was a bit weary about the efficacy of this program, as I hadn’t put together a race to justify that this new focus was actually working. Thankfully, AC put all these fears to rest. Aside from a calf issue that we’ll figure out, my recovery post AC has been incredible. Granted, a honeymoon in Costa Rica definitely helps, but running with better form undoubtedly led to this lack of post race soreness and increased recovery.
So what the hell does this all mean, and why should I care???
Joe calls it the “fountain of youth” for running, as increasing the efficiency of one’s stride leads to less pain, better recovery and improved results. There are obviously a myriad issues that can plague ultrarunners, and improper form over hundreds of miles can create mountains out of mole hills.
“Train to be a better runner, not a better ultrarunner…”
Joe is likely going to charge me extra for posting all his secrets, but this one quote definitely hits home. The majority of the best ultrarunners on the planet were and are excellent runners on the track and/or roads (Magdalena Boulet, Max King, Xiao Wang, Jim Walmsley, Sage Canaday, Tim Tollefson, David Laney…).
Becoming a better runner will undoubtedly increase performance at the ultra distance. There’s a reason why Tim Twietmeyer and Ann Trason habitually raced marathons in the “off season,” as they knew that working on speed and efficiency would pay dividends at AR50 and Western States.
So, what does my training plan look like now versus before?
One of the many issues plaguing my previous training was that nearly all of my runs were medium-to-medium hard. Like most ultrarunners, I love running in the mountains, so that’s what I did. With effort levels in the moderate-to-hard range, I was unable to adequately recover for very hard efforts, or work at an intensity high enough to induce change. This led to moderate results, with relative lack of improvement.
The most significant change to my training plan now is that easy days are VERY EASY, and hard days are VERY F’ing HARD! I’ve been asked several times “how do you know if you’re easy days are easy enough?” The answer is actually quite simple… Am I able to adequately recover so that I can perform during hard workouts? If the answer is “no,” then my easy days are too hard. If the answer is “yes,” well then I’m probably doing something right. This is assuming that all other recovery variables are constant (sleep, nutrition, stress, etc.).
On our prep call for AC this year, I told Joe that I’ve never hiked this much in training before. On nearly every recovery run and most long runs, I would hike nearly all uphills with a significant grade. In past “training,” I’d run nearly everything in nearly every workout. Yes, my HR would spike on uphills, but it would return to normal on flats and descents. Unfortunately I didn’t realize that this approach was taxing my system too much on recovery days, to allow for an honest effort during workouts (hard days).
Keep your easy days EASY!
Aside from slowing the F down during easy days, workouts, or “hard days” are HARD. Whether it’s a hill repeat session up Stagecoach Road, a track workout at Cal Poly, a long run on West Cuesta with progressions or a “grind” run at a steady effort under tempo pace, each week has a variety of workouts that tax various systems. The effort level of these workouts is also something I wasn’t familiar with, as I’m fairly taxed after a heavy session. Joe’s ability to mix-and-match these workouts to induce change without working me into a hole is where his coaching ability really shines.
Hell, I can write a workout plan for just about anyone, but not implementing the right amount of variance, recovery and progression would likely lead to overtraining, or a lack of stimulus to create change.
So, is this new training plan working?
Based on my increased fitness, my ability to recovery, and lack of niggles and minor issues, I’m happier now as a runner than I’ve ever been. My plan is to continue with running until I croak, so I sure as hell hope that Joe’s theory of “fountain of youth” rings true.
What have I learned?
Running is a wee bit more complicated than just throwing on shoes or huaraches and heading out the door
To solicit change, easy days should be easy, and hard days should be hard
The Angeles Crest 100 is one of the oldest and most iconic 100 milers in ultrarunning. A beautifully challenging course traversing the Angeles National Forest from Wrightwood to Altadena, AC provides a variety of challenges to test even the seasoned veteran.
Started and still ran by Ken Hamada, AC has received some recent scrutiny because of the way in which its registration process occurs. Signups for the following years race occur on the Monday after the event. Until this past year, it was also “first come first served,” so the likelihood of getting in was based on your internet connection speed, and ability to peel away from work at the exact time registration opened.
With no waitlist established, no refund policy, a very soft 50 miler qualifier and an incredibly long window of 363 days before the start of the following years race, there is an undoubtable impact to the DNS/DNF rate. Race directors are usually not in this sport to make money (except UTMB), and if you don’t want to support a race you don’t have to run, so I tried to put all the arguments aside and focus on enjoying a fun day in the mountains.
My dad and Erik traveled down with me to Wrightwood on the Friday before the race. They would help crew, and Erik would pace the last 25 from Chantry to Altadena. After a brief pre-race pickup, we made our way out to the Table Mountain campsite to set up our lavish accommodations. Forgetting the poles to my tent, we’d be spending the evening under the stars.
The race briefing was uneventful, but the pizza we had for dinner was excellent. Ran into Ian at the pizza place, as he’s two races into the Grand Slam coming off an excellent Vermont. He would be pacing a friend for 30 miles the next day, and I was baffled that he’s been able to hold up so well throughout these first two events. After talking through some logistics and providing a very rough estimate of aid station arrival times, I hit the sack early.
After a surprisingly good night of sleep, the 3:30am alarm went off and the pre-race routine went into full effect.
Write aid station mileage on arm… check!
The morning started out relatively calm, as we made our way through the darkness towards the first climb of the day. A serious flash flood had ravaged Wrightwood on Thursday evening, so the first mile through town already felt like we were on the Acorn trail, with tons of rocks and branches strewn throughout the streets.
Deciding to start without a headlamp, my plan was to relax further back in the pack, and tag along to someone carrying a torch. Unfortunately, the one guy I decide to follow blows through the first turn off the single track and heads up the wrong hill. Hoping this wasn’t a foreshadowing of the day to come, we thankfully didn’t lose too much time, and hustled our way back into the pack.
Racing with a HR monitor for the first time in an ultra, I was very interested to check the early morning data as we headed into our initial 2,500ft. climb out of Wrightwood. To my surprise, my HR was nearly 20 beats per minute (bpm) higher than it should be on a climb of this gradient. Setting a cap of 160bpm to stay in “all day mode,” I cruised into and straight past this threshold in the first few minutes of our climb… while hiking! Since my breathing was entirely controlled and it didn’t feel strenuous, I instantly thought back to all the ultras that I undoubtedly started too quickly without feeling the slightest strain.
The first 1-2 hours were spent trying to feel out my body as it related to HR. I’d slow down until 150bps, and then speed up to feel the difference of 155 – 160. Once my HR and pacing felt in control, I settled into my nutrition and hydration plan. With a couple cases of hyponatremia at Leadville and Wasatch, I wanted to be very cognizant of how my body handled fluid intake. I also decided not to take supplemental salt, no matter the temperature, as this always increases my sense of thirst regardless of fluid balance.
On the second large climb of the day, I ran into Rachel Ragona, the eventual women’s winner. We had ran together for some early miles at the Santa Barbara 100 before I made a wrong turn and got our lead pack lost. Really hope I didn’t repeat the mistake this morning. We chatted about recent races, and how she had some unfinished business at AC, DNF’ing the year before. Glad to see she was able to pull through for the win on a difficult course.
Climbing with Rachel at a controlled but steady pace and based on where we were within the pack (15-20ish), I didn’t expect to see any runners move up on us as we headed towards the top of Mt. Baden-Powell. To both our surprise, two younger guys started moving up very aggressively. Not expecting anyone to start as conservative as I did over these first 15ish miles, I had to tip my hat to these two for staying within themselves for so long. After letting them both pass, thankfully they shouted, “Don’t worry, we’re not in the race. Just doing an 11 mile run.” As they climbed out of sight, I responded with “If we pass you later, you owe us a beer.” They both nodded in agreement, and disappeared up the mountain. Rachel and I took our time heading up the climb making small talk.
Maybe it was the hours of acclimation, the deeper controlled breathing, or likely the guarantee of a free beer, but as we climbed closer to the peak at 9,000ish ft,, I began to feel stronger at a much more stable HR.
Uh oh, looks like the young guns are coming back…
After blowing past the boys sucking wind, I told them they could drop off our pints at the next aid station. Shortly after, Rachel had a bit of a low point, and I wished her well heading off to the first main AS of the day at Islap Saddle (mile 26).
Hitting the peak and right before our decent into the IS aid station, Larry Gassan had hauled his ass up to quite possibly the most beautiful location I’d ever seen a photographer make his/her way to. Trying not to trip off the mountain, I stopped to take a quick pick at what he was shooting behind us.
When I find this pic, it’s going here!
Descending into IS, I ran into runner that had stopped to take a leak. We spent the next 1-2hrs running together chatting about the trails, our goals for the day and all the other crazy topics that come up when running 100 miles. With three Pine-to-Palm finishes, I knew he’s be a strong competitor as we continued throughout the day.
Pulling into IS was the first time I saw Erik or my dad since the start. They were absolutely dialed in, as we did a quick switch of bottles, V-Fuels, ice bandana, chug of Physiophyx and face wipe. Erik said we were at approximately 5hrs, and I responded with, “this is the most conservative I’ve ever started a 100.” He said to keep patient (good advice) and to not worry about racing until much later (15ish place)
The next 6-7 miles would be on roads and we would begin descending below 8,000ft, so I expected my HR to fall substantially and be able to make some good time on these sections. Thankfully, my heart responded by dropping to the floor (thanks Joe Uhan for the race plan), and I was able to make great time without even remotely pushing the pace. The gallons of water I’d been drinking definitely helped as well, as this is the most I’d pissed during any ultra to this point (5-8 times in the first 26 miles).
Hearing from some veterans of the race, AC is supposedly 50 miles of “easy” running sandwiched between 25 miles of the high country, and 25 miles of ridiculous climbing and technical descents. Using the term “easy” when explaining a 100 mile race is a relative term, but the middle stretch of this race played right into our game plan.
With nutrition, hydration and a crew absolutely dialed, we made excellent time between miles 26-75. Outside of a missed turn that cost around one mile, a section of 3-4 miles without a single trail mark that I had literally thrown the towel in as the end of my race, and a three mile climb outside Redbox AS with thousands of vicious gnats (swallowed about 30 and my shoulder is still sore from nearly an hour of arm swings), this was likely the most uneventful of any of my most recent 100 milers.
Pulling into Chantry Flats at 15:10ish (mile 75), I decided to dump my pack and singlet, as the straps had led to some serious collarbone chafing. Switching out for a waist pack and handhelds, the first big mistake I made was forgetting to lube up as the night crept in. With the temperature dropping and not having to sweat as profusely as the 15hrs prior, rookie mistake to not lube up properly. The second mistake I made was popping a couple ibuprofen, as I thought it would be good pain relief for the last quarter of the race. Cooling quickly, I also put on a top as I began to shiver. Thanks Erik for literally carrying my damn shirt for 24.99 miles, as I took it off immediately after leaving the aid station.
Priding myself on not being passed the entire day, outside of the numbnuts that were literally running up Baden-Powell before blowing up… hey, they still owe me a beer, Rene Dorantes and his pacer literally flew past Erik and I like we were walking up Mt. Wilson. We weren’t slacking, mixing in a significant amount of running with power hiking, for this late in the race. We even passed Jorge Pacheco a few minutes later, so we knew we weren’t dogging it. Rene was just dropping the hammer. Running with him earlier in the day, I was so excited to see Rene crush his first 100 miler in under 21 hours and 4th place overall.
Climbing up Mt. Wilson, Erik and I started chatting about a variety of subjects. As much as I get into my own head late in 100 milers, it was great to have someone to talk with to help pass the time over the most difficult section of the race. I was surprised to hear him say, “Hey man, don’t flip out if you look back here. I just smacked my head on a branch.” Of course I immediately turned around, and saw a decent size chunk of Erik’s melon bleeding from the tree attack. No blood was squirting, so I told him to wrap it up with my shirt and let’s go. There’s not much room for sympathy in the late miles of a 100.
We made excellent time up Mt. Wilson, and then saw the legendary Larry Gassan again in the middle of BFE, waiting for lost souls to make their way up to Dead Man’s Bench. Erik and I talked briefly about taking a quick seat for a picture, but not having sat the entire day and not wanting any negative Karma, we decided to keep moving and finish as quickly as possible. With an updated goal of 21-22 hours, we felt this was an absolute lock if I didn’t do anything else stupid.
We descended and climbed up to Sam Merrill, the AS at mile 89 and the top of the last big climb, and I was ready to make a serious push on the last 11 mile descent to Altadena. As we began pressing downhill, my right calf began to seize up and started to have significant pain. Thankfully the pain was somewhat dull to really F’ing ouch, but there wasn’t a pop and I could still put some pressure on it. Unfortunately, it got worse the more pressure I exerted, so we made an executive call to take it easy on this last descent. Making so many right decisions throughout the day, I was pissed that I couldn’t open up over the last 2ish hours of the race.
Coupled with a bum wheel and losing the trail for several minutes, I wasn’t too stoked to realize the ibuprofen had definitely worn off. What we chalked up to bitching and complaining, and I’d do a hell of a lot of this over the last 3+ hours, I can at least blame the ibuprofen for the slight onset of hyponatremia that crept up again somewhere near mile 93-95. Pissing five (5) times over the last 11 miles without a sip helped, but compounded with a shitty stride, mushy head and technical decent, I was sure ready to get off the damn mountain.
How we made it back to civilization without being passed by 47 runners still blows my mind, but we were able to get our shit together enough… sorry, I was able to get my shit together enough to finish in a respectable 22:31 for 6th place overall.
Erik and my dad we absolute studs, as they woke up at the crack of dawn to follow me around and care to my every whim throughout this long, hot day. They were the stars of this race, as I was so happy to have them share this awesome day with me, albeit it a wee bit longer than we all expected at mile 75.
What I learned:
AC is a challenging course that rewards patience and penalizes early mistakes
The high country (first 25 miles) is majestic, with some seriously breathtaking view… just don’t trip while looking
The aid stations were well run and stocked, but bring your own gels
Altra King MT’s can survive a 100 miler, but be prepared for some late mile soreness and swelling
Patience is not always easy at the start of a race, even an ultramarathon, but its rewarding to see a race plan payoff in the later miles
Outside of the calf issue, focusing on form throughout the day kept my quads intact and stride relatively efficient
After a relatively successful race at the Sean Obrien 100k in early February, and with the least post race soreness I’ve ever had after an ultra, I was fired up to start the 8 week training block for the Leona Divide 50 mile. Essentially mirroring Thomas’ training plan since November, I was so impressed with his fitness gains in the few months we’ve been training together. In less than a year, Thomas went from barely being able to walk a step post surgery in January, to finishing a competitive 100K in 10:19. Yes he’s a ridiculously talented athlete and he works his ass off, but this trajectory didn’t seem even close to normal.
Learning that Thomas had been working with Joe Uhan, a PT, coach and successful ultrarunner in his own right, since before his surgery, I learned he was able to change his biomechanics to become an even more efficient runner. We had talked about getting my gait analyzed post Grand Slam, as we were both fairly certain my biomechanics needed a hell of a lot more than a slight tweak. For as much work as I need to fix my gait, I’ll be dedicating the next blog post to learning how to run.
In February, I started working with Joe for both biomechanics and coaching. Feeling like I had been receiving a free training plan since November, since I piggybacked off of Thomas’ workouts for four months, it was an easy transition to partnering with Joe because he knew exactly what I’d been doing post Grand Slam.
With a heavy focus on form, the first several weeks were difficult to adjust, as everything felt a bit weird while running. Once that initial phase passed, running with a more forward lean and higher knee drive began to feel a bit more natural. As I’ll post in the next blog, there is still a tremendous amount of work to be done, but I feel like we’re moving in the right direction.
The lead up to LD50 was great. Workouts were either really easy, or really freaking hard. I’m starting to learn that this approach is definitely right for me, as I’m able to adequately recover from hard workouts, by not being an idiot on my recovery days. I’ll provide some more detail as to the type of workouts I’ve been doing, but a lot of track workouts, tempo runs and gruesome Stagecoach hill repeats. If any runners living in SLO are reading this blog, I’ve got a humbling hill repeat workout for you.
After a short taper, a few sauna sessions to prepare for the expected heat on race day and a strategy discussion with Joe, I felt prepared to nail the LD50.
Another amazing race in the Keira Hennniger lineup of So Cal events, the Leona Divide 50 mile takes place in the Angeles National Forest, 15ish miles northeast of Santa Clarita. With 40+ miles on the Pacific Coast Trail (PCT), the LD50 is essentially two out-and-backs starting at the Spunky Edison aid station, approximately 2.6ish miles from the start at the Green Valley Community Club. Apparently, the LD50 is now the only ultramarathon allowed on the PCT. Due to it’s longstanding tradition starting in 1992, no other races can be held on this sacred stretch of trail.
Arriving to Green Valley just a few minutes before the 7:00pm cutoff for early check-in, I said hi to Keira and also chatted briefly with Jakob Herman, the former Co RD for the Santa Barbara 100. Jakob is in the final prep stages for his inaugural 50 mile trail race in Switzerland in July (100 mile being added in 2018), and based on events he’s previously been involved with, I’m expecting this race to be a home run.
As I’m sure Keira’s team wanted to get some rest before an early Saturday rise, I snuck out quickly and made a very short drive up Spunky Canyon Road to find a spot to car camp for the evening. Not certain if it was the unexpected heat or time of the year, but the second I got out of the car to set up my sleeping arrangements, I became the Friday night buffet for about a trillion hungry mosquitos. Sure hope we don’t run into these guys in the morning.
After a decent night of sleep, the 4:30am wakeup call started my normal race day routine of leaded coffee, a medium sized breakfast with low fiber, and an early trip to el bano. Not certain on the parking arrangements, as Keira’s pre race email said we could be parked over a half mile from the start, I made the long .8 mile drive back to the starting area before 5 to hopefully land something closer. Seeing the long row of cars parked on Spunky Canyon, thought I was a bit too late, but just as I was planning to set up on the road, a volunteer gave me the greenlight to pull into the parking lot.
This must be an omen… I’m going to have a great race!
With nearly an hour before the start, I had plenty of time for a second bathroom break, a quality warmup and proper lubing. Decided to wear the Ultimate Direction (UD) Tim Olson vest, as it’s extremely light, well vented, and can hold plenty of gear in the front or back pockets. Normally racing in the Altra Superior’s, most of my training leading up to LD50 had been in the Altra One road shoes. After talking to Melissa about her experience at LD the previous year, I decided to pull the trigger on the Altra One’s, as they are extremely light but still have enough cushion to soften the blow of 50 trail miles. Knowing it would be hot, just not how damn hot, I also wore my trusty, Joannie built ice bandana.
After holding up the group for a few minutes due to the bathroom line taking a bit longer than expected (Keira had a ton of porta potties, so I’m blaming late arrivals), Keira made a last minute announcement that all runners would need at least 40 ounces of water when leaving the Agua Dulce aid station at mile 18ish. Thankfully I decided to wear the vest, as I normally race 50 milers or shorter with a single handheld. For non runners reading this post, soft flasks that fit into a race vest are normally .5 liters (17ish ounces), and handhelds range in size from 12-20+ ounces. Yes I would be a few ounces short, but I’m a seasoned ultra runner that knows how to handle my nutrition and hydration.
Should have taken Keira’s advice…
The start of the race had 50k and 50 mile runners starting together. There was a pack that darted out from the start (hopefully 50k guys), and a group of 10-20 making our way up the windy road to the trailhead/My Friday Hotel. I started with Dom Layfield, an excellent ultrarunner now living in So Cal. He was only two weeks out from the Georgia Death Race, where he placed a solid 4th. Based on Dom’s performance at Sean O’Brien only a couple weeks out from the Spine 100, I knew he’d be prepared to race. Also ran into Jesse Haynes, as he has the “hook up” on Keira Henniger races. He would be using the LD50 as a training race, since he’s preparing for WS in a couple months. Repeat winner Jorge Pacheco was also in the mix, along with previous women’s winner Rachel Ragona.
Thankfully, the first 2.8ish miles to the Spunky Edison aid station was either asphalt or jeep road, so we had plenty of time to separate before hitting the PCT. Climbing into the single track, we were moving at a comfortable pace, as my plan was to be more conservative on the climbs, and more aggressive on the descents. Not wearing a HR strap, I monitored my breathing as a barometer of effort.
Hitting the first down hill section of the race, it did feel a bit odd to push a more aggressive pace, as I’m usually relatively conservative on descents. Focusing on form instead of speed (knee lift and forward lean), the descents still felt comfortable and not taxing.
We crossed the 10 mile aid station after a solid descent, and began to climb again before the largest downhill/uphill of the day. Sometime around 8:30ish in the morning, we began to pass by thru hikers making their way up the PCT. Most were in good spirits, albeit a bit dirty, and it was a great way to start the day saying “Good Morning” to people with several hundred miles already on the feet.
Totaling 6 miles, the descent to the Agua Dulce aid station is a beautiful stretch of mostly single track. The views of the Angeles National Forest were majestic, but I was worried about keeping my damn eyes on the trail, as there were some sketchy, overgrown patches that could’ve resulted in a big spill without being careful.
Pulling into Agua Dulce right behind Dom with empty bottles, I decided to take my time at the aid station to fill up and drink an additional bottle, since we had a 9 mile stretch back. The time was approximately 9:30am, and it was already starting to heat up. Not filling up my bandana with ice was my first major mistake of the day, and an additional bottle would’ve been smart to sip while hiking back out.
On paper, the LD50 is a relatively “easy” course, with four major ascents (1,200ft, 1,200ft, 1,800ft and 1,000ft,) before hitting the last runnable 20 miles. We were starting the third and largest ascent of the day early enough to beat extreme temps, and I’ve fared relatively well in warm races, so I felt confident in making quick time up this climb. Being the turnaround of the first of two out-and-backs, it was also fun to see the other runners making their way into Agua Dulce.
Meeting back up with Dom, we climbed together for awhile and chatted. He eventually moved ahead, as I had a slight bit of cramping in my quads and hamstrings. Since we had started to hike and it wasn’t unbearably hot yet, I wasn’t sure what was causing the cramps. I thought I’d been keeping up with nutrition/hydration, and was also taking a salt tab every hour. I decided to drink the remainder of my first water bottle, only a few miles outside Agua Dulce, to see if dehydration was causing the cramps.
With the cramps at bay and with 6 miles to go before the next aid station, I’d have to ration my water for the next hour. Not a good idea, as the cramps came back shortly and hit with a vengeance. The only cramping I’ve had in previous races has been while running, and usually at a brisk pace. At this point in the day, somewhere around mile 21, I was having cramps that locked me up while hiking. I slowed down dramatically on this climb, finally reaching the top with only a few sips of water left.
The 3 mile descent to the Bouquet AS was much better, as my legs seemed to come back to life. Making decent time down the singletrack, I passed Bear Spring, where some PCT hikers were filling up their bottles. Thinking how much fun it would be to hike the PCT one day, I started to daydream about what it would be like. All the beautiful views… the wildlife… the interesting people…
SMACK, SMACK, SMACK!
Thousands of gnats decided to wake up and say, “Welcome to the PCT”! Right at face level, these little fuckers started splattering all over my face, under my sunglasses and into my nose and mouth. Thankfully I started with the bandana, so I quickly moved to untie it and cover my face, but whenever I thought I was in the clear and would tie it back around my neck, the little bastards would shoot out again. For what felt like an eternity but was probably only 10 minutes, I learned quickly that the PCT isn’t all rainbows and sunshine.
Pulling into Bouquet with only one major climb of the day left, I felt confident that getting two bottles of water into me, and filling up the ice bandana would stave off any future cramping and allow me to settle into race mode.
Well, that didn’t work out too well.
No more than a mile outside of the aid station, the killer cramps returned, and I was slowed to hike/slog on a climb that was entirely runnable. Getting passed by Jorge and Rachel at this point, I was trying everything to get rid of this damn issue.
Ate another gel… CRAMPED!
Finished another bottle of water… CRAMPED!
Took another salt tab… CRAMPED!
Slowed down to a snails pace… CRAMPED!
The hike/slog back into Spunky Canyon was long… really freaking long… and it started to get hot… really freaking hot!
Based on my past performances in hot weather, I thought basic heat management would suit me sufficiently for tackling this course. Not thinking about it until after the race, all of my training has been in the early morning hours, and I hadn’t ran in warm, let alone hot weather since Wasatch in September. The four sauna sessions likely had little impact on my acclimatization, as once the temps climbed into the 90s, along with my dehydration, Cramp Fest 2017 was on!
My last chance at salvaging a quality race would be to rehydrate like a camel at Spunky Edison (mile 32ish), load up on whatever watery foods I could hold down, and hope that this would kick the cramps for good. I did exactly this, taking more time than I ever do at aid stations to relax and hydrate. Since my stomach hadn’t turned sour, I drank as much as I possibly could without puking. Feeling better, I decided to head out for the final out-and-back of the day. With still 20ish miles to go and being entirely runnable, I was crossing my fingers that my lethargic pace over the past 10 miles would’ve rejuvenated my legs to push these last few hours.
No more than a mile out of Spunky Edison, and on an ascent I should’ve easily been able to run, the cramps came back worse than ever. These cramps were sneaky, as I’d feel ok, but then everything would lock up mid stride and I’d fall onto the trail. With a drop off to “game over” on one side of the trail, I had to lean in towards the mountain because I wasn’t sure when the cramps would come back on.
This 7 mile stretch was pretty atrocious, coupled with the fact that I even passed a guy during this time that looked worse than me. Now sharing the trail again with 50k runners, there were countless racers making their way back towards the finish, while a few were still working towards the turnaround. This old timer was moving shirtless without anything! No water bottle, no nutrition, no salt… what the hell was he thinking?
I asked him if he was ok, because I shouldn’t have been passing anyone at my pace. He asked for some water which I gave to him, and he downed my entire bottle. Well, this is going to get interesting.
CRAMP… CRAMP… CRAMP…
I’m nearly out of water again with 3-4 miles to go, and I’m moving at a pace that needs a lot more than one water bottle. The lead 50 milers began to make their way back, and I tried my best to cheer them on. Normally, I always try to say “good job, looking good, keep it up”, or some other line that’s likely not true, but hopefully makes the runner feel a bit better. Wasn’t able to be so cheery on this stretch, as I’d be in the middle of a “good job”, when I’d lock up and fall down on the damn trail. Not quite sure how I made it into the aid station at mile 40, but I was definitely not certain if I’d be able to make it back in.
Seriously contemplating my first DNF as nothing I was doing was fixing this problem, I finally decided to suck it up, drink till I was on the verge of puking again, and hope for the best. Leaving this AS will less than 10 miles to go at under 7hrs, I was confident, well sort of, that I could make the cutoff.
Can you guess what happened after less than a mile outside the AS???
The worst cramps of the day hit, and I was unable to even shuffle or hike at most times. Running out of water again, because I was likely averaging 20-25min/mile, I seriously wasn’t sure if I’d make it back to Spunky Edison. This was by far the longest stretch of my race (7 miles), as I was utterly battered and my legs were fried from the continuous cramping.
Pulling into Spunky Edison nearly 2 hours later, I was done. Drank another 1-2 liters of water and filled up my bottles for the 2.8 miles back to the finish. As a perfect fitting for my final couple miles, multiple trucks tore ass down the jeep road kicking up a seemingly never ending blanket of dust in my face. I couldn’t run or even shuffle, so I tried to power walk as quickly as possible. The final few miles are all downhill, and since my quads had been cramping for over 6 hours, they were not too happy with the descent.
To put the cherry on top of my nearly perfect race, my power walking pace of 20+ min/mile was obviously too fast, and I locked up again no more than a couple hundred yards from the finish. Definitely had some odd looks from the crowd as I made my way across the finish line in 9:20 (somewhere between 10-12th place), completely covered in dirt from the countless debilitating cramps that knocked my ass down for the past 30 miles.
Keira was there to congratulate all finishers, and even she gave me the look of, “What the fuck happened to you out there”? I thanked her for quarterbacking an amazing race with awesome volunteers, and hobbled back to my car to clean up.
Jesse drove past me while making my way back to clean up, and we briefly chatted about how brutal it was out there. He had a similar issue with cramping and decided to drop down to the 50k distance… smart man!
After a quick rinse off and another 100 ounces of water, I said thanks again to Keira, and started my 4hr journey back home. Fittingly, I couldn’t leave the venue for approximately 10 minutes, because my feet cramped up as I got into the car, and I was forced to lay with my legs hanging out the vehicle with half my ass off the seat.
At least the Mexican food on the way home was tasty!
What I Learned:
There are a variety or reasons why people cramp during races, but no matter what the driver, they are not fun to deal with for extended periods of time
Dehydration is no joke, and I definitely put myself into an early deficit and should’ve brought another bottle
Acclimatizing to weather is important, and a few sauna treatments don’t make up for zero training in the heat
Heat management should happen early in a race, even before you think you need it
It’s imperative to lean into the mountain when cramping for 30 miles, or you will fall off the trail and die
Not sure if it’s grit or just plain stubbornness, but I was really proud of myself for not quitting
When asked about destinations for high quality trail running, I’ll be the first to admit that Southern California didn’t crack my top 10. What I love about this crazy sport though, is that a single race can impact perception so greatly. Keira Henniger and her team organize an incredible set of races at Malibu Creek State Park. Only a skip-and-jump away from my college Alma Mater Pepperdine, the Sean O’Brien (SOB) marathon, 50k, 50 mile and 100k events lead runners through the beautiful yet challenging Santa Monica mountain range. Large, long climbs with a backdrop of the Pacific is such a terrible way to spend a Saturday…
Thomas and I decided on an early season 100k to check off our 2018 Western States qualifier, but also as a measure of training effectiveness over the past few months. Since I wasn’t too prepared and La Cuesta Ranch 50k was more of a battle with the elements and terrain than gauge of fitness, I had absolutely no goal time for this race. Thomas was planning to run by heartrate, and I decided to tag along for the adventure, as it would be fun to run with someone and we’re at similar fitness levels.
We left SLO around noonish, and made a stop at the Oxnard REI to check out some hiking pants for Thomas, but more so to putz around for an hour checking out awesome outdoor gear. Living in San Luis Obispo and primarily shopping online, I forgot how cool it is to meander through a huge store actually seeing products in person.
We made our way into Woodland Hills and the race check-in location around 3:30. The SLO Trail Runners internal clocks must’ve been dialed in, because we hopped out of Thomas’ VW Vanagon at the exact same time Ethan, Brent and Tim (Brent’s cousin) were arriving. After catching up about the weather, as it was supposedly ridiculously wet and muddy throughout the course, we made our way inside to pick up our race gear.
Keira runs a tight ship. She set up three different check-in lines depending on the race distance. Altra and Cambelback had also set up booths in our small room, and I was able to play with the new King MT’s, which is Altra’s version of a trail cleat. Sure wish these were on the market before La Cuesta Ranch, as I could’ve used some deeper lugs and at least a centimeter of padding.
Chris Pavolochik, a local up-and-coming trail runner from Santa Maria, seemingly arose from a nap while stumbling into me waiting for the bathroom. We caught up for a few minutes on training and his race plan. He looked fit, and I expected him to do well on the 100k course. After a few minutes of BS’ing with some fellow runners, Thomas and I headed out to Malibu Creek State Park to find our camping spot, have an early dinner and to try and catch some early z’s for our 3:45am wakeup call.
The VW Vanagon is the perfect size vehicle for traveling and dirtbagging in comfort. The main cabin folds out to fit a Full mattress, and the popup section on top of the vehicle does the same. With a propane powered stove and refrigerator, along with an outdoor shower, van living never looked so good. After a short hike and quick dinner, we tried to hit the sack.
Between Pablo and Alejandra, I’m granted about 1 foot of space on our California King, so sleeping in the Reiss Wagen was absolute heaven. Thomas better watch out, or he’ll find me catching a nap in that van from time-to-time…
With a start time of 5:00am and a short drive from the campground to the race start, we got moving at 3:45. The pre-race ritual of leaded coffee, two poop sessions and a quick lube job worked smoothly and I was ready for a playdate with the mountains.
On the starting line, I met Heeva Asefvaziri, a former SLO ultrarunner and current resident of Ojai. Only seeing pictures and hearing stories, I was excited to spend some miles with him. Next to Thomas and I was Coree Woltering, a speedster from the Midwest rocking a speedo, who would be contending for the WS Golden Ticket. Bob Shebest and Jesse Haynes also made their way to the front, and after a few last minute race instructions by Keira, we were off.
The first couple miles were choppy, as we hit some single track and it was pitch black. Not wanting to cart around my headlamp for the entire day, my plan was to bring a cheap one and ditch it at an aid station once the sun came out. The golden rule in ultras is to not try anything new on race day, and using a new headlamp definitely falls into this category. This chincy ass “light” was a train wreck! It bounced up-and-down on nearly every step, emitted less lumens than an iPhone, and the adjustment component was apparently broken so after a few strides, the light would snap straight down. I ended up holding the lamp in my hand and then storing it in my pack anyway, so not making this mistake again. After a chilly early morning nuts deep creek crossing, we started our first large ascent of the day.
With all the recent rain in California, Keira was forced to make some last minute modifications to the course. Essentially, the race would be two separate out-and-backs starting at the Corral Canyon aid station 6.5 miles into the race, and then a return trip back to the start/finish. This change would shorten the course by 1.5 miles and also lower the climbing by approximately 1,000ft. If only she could’ve dried the course out too.
The first 1,800ft climb was steep but fortunately on jeep road, so we had the opportunity to separate after the earlier singletrack miles. Not wearing a HR monitor but feeling like my effort level was higher than it should be 3 miles into a 62 mile race, I slowed down and met up with Thomas. Heeva decided to take off, and we wouldn’t see him again until he surprised us by dropping down to the 50k and running past us an hour-ish later.
We ran into Dominck Layfield, another recent So Cal transplant and excellent runner originally from UT via England. Dom had set the course record on the Spine Race in his home country only a couple weeks prior to SOB, and he add already inked his WS ticket, so this would only be a training run for him. He still beat both of us…
After running with Dom for awhile, Chris caught up to Thomas and I. He was excited and seemed to be pacing himself well. He asked if it was ok to run with us, and not having any inkling of his abilities outside of recent race results, we told him to tag along unless we were holding him back. Chris proceeded to run the next 25-30 miles with us, and ended up finishing around 11 hours for a solid 27th place.
As the minutes and miles clicked by, Thomas and I stuck to his HR as a barometer of effort, while I kept track of the mileage. Since a HR strap burns through a watch battery quicker than a hooker in stilettos, the only way to simultaneously use the HR and GPS options on a longer ultra is to tweak the settings to pull coordinates by the minute instead of the second. This greatly impacts the accuracy of the watch, but having two guys share duties made it work.
Not having any idea of where we were within the race, we set a goal of not being passed by any runners after mile 10. Assuming we paced ourselves properly, and considering the ridiculous amount of runners that passed us on that first climb, I felt confident we’d hit this goal.
Heading out on the first out-and-back, we made our way down a long descent to the Pacific Coast Highway, running right near Pepperdine. Watching the front runners make their way back up the climb, we tried to keep track of the total to better estimate where we stood. Chris Wehan and Ryan Kaiser were the early front runners, and they would hold on to ink their WS tickets several hours later. Bob Shebest was in an early fifth, but he’s known to pace himself well in the early miles. I stopped counting as we hit the last couple miles before the aid station, as the terrain became absolutely battered. The recent storms had destroyed this area of “trail,” and we were forced to power hike on a section that should’ve been runnable.
Making our way into the aid station at the bottom of PCH somewhere around mile 23-24 and after a quick fill up, we flipped around and started the 2,300ft. climb back up and through the trough. The first mile of climbing out of this aid station was our slowest of the day, as we were forced to hike/wade/slip through thick, blanketing slop. After literally stopping a couple times to clean off our shoes with rocks or whatever was in scraping distance, we continued onward back to the Corral Canyon aid station for our second out-and-back.
During the section of trail, we ran past runners competing in both the 50k and 50 mile races. Normally this wouldn’t be an issue even on singletrack, as the slower runners tend to move off to the side. Unfortunately on this 1-2 mile portion of trail, there would be no way to step off the course as it was the muddiest portion of god awful I’ve ever run on. After being trampled on by hundred of runners, I couldn’t keep my shoes from sucking off on nearly every stride. Thomas had already pulled away, and I hit a section of downhill where I flipped the “Fuck it” switch and just opened up. VERY unfortunately for the runners dragging their asses up this hill, as I was tired of losing my shoes/sanity, but there weren’t many places to go.
I ran right into a group of runners, as they were literally motionless standing in the middle of the trail. Possibly their first 50k and not comfortable in these types of conditions, either way it was a shit show. After some quick apologies and a confirmation that no one was injured, I finally made it out of the mud pits and back into runnable terrain.
Catching back up to Thomas a few minutes later, we ran together for awhile and then split apart again shortly thereafter. Moving ahead slightly, I decided to run with a So Cal runner named Vishal. Of all the runners we passed from mile 10 to the finish, this is the one guy we couldn’t shake. We may have exchanged leads 6-8 times throughout the race, as he would seemingly pass on a climb and we would overtake him on the downhill. Since he was keeping a solid pace, we continued to run together for several miles leading back up to Corral Canyon, and on the climb up to Bulldog. Thomas pulled back up as we started the long descent from Bulldog. We made our way into the mile 45 aid station, and after a quick shirt change by Thomas, we started the last long climb of the race.
Somewhere around mile 49, we finally decided to separate and run our own pace for the remainder of the race. I tried to make a push and catch a few runners over the last 10ish miles, as we had run a conservative race and had some left in the tank. As we were still on an out-and-back, I ran into several racers that were making their way down to the 45 aid station. Walt, Jimmy Dean Freeman, Ethan, Brent and Edder all passed by as I tried to make some headway on the runners ahead. The second place woman was the first person I passed, as she was hiking up back towards Bulldog. We chatted briefly, letting her know that she had a gap on F3, and she should be ok hiking this hill and them moving on the flats and descents.
With a quick fill up on Fluid at the last aid station (mile 53), I headed out for the final 6-7 miles. Passing another runner before heading out, Louis Secreto would eventually catch up and pass me heading down towards the final creek crossing. Since I felt strong on the climbs and there were a few hills before the finish, I was able to catch back up with only a mile or so to go. Instead of killing each other, we decided to finish together and enjoy each others company for the last few minutes. We crossed the line simultaneously, but with chip timing he beat me by three seconds.
Finishing in 16th place in 10:14 and running even splits (the same pace for the back half as the first half of the race), I was satisfied with the day. Thomas came in only a few minutes behind, as he spent the last couple miles pushing Sabrina, the 2nd place female, into a spot at Western States.
After catching up briefly with some racers and having a quick shower, Thomas and I made our way back to SLO… but not before crushing some In-N-Out.
Here’s a garmin link for those interested in the numbers (the watch died with around a mile or so to go)
If you’re not too familiar with the condition of the vast majority of trails in San Luis Obispo when wet, try to imagine the love child of molasses and Elmer’s glue. Aside from sections of Cuesta Ridge, you’re not making it too far on single track when it’s raining in SLO. Enter the second addition of Luis Escobar’s La Cuesta Ranch Trail Runs. With 10k, 25k and 50k distances, Luis built a course to fit a variety of fancies.
La Cuesta Ranch, located at the end of Loomis next to Cuesta park in northern San Luis Obispo, sits on several thousand acres of rolling hills that connect to both Poly Canyon and West Cuesta Ridge. Owned and operated by the Miossi Family for multiple generations, La Cuesta Ranch is now primarily a venue for weddings. With a beautifully rustic but functional barn, this would be an excellent location to tie the knot. Being only five minutes away from downtown SLO, but with a feel that you’re hundreds of miles away from civilization, this is also a perfect venue for a trail race!
With California being in the midst of an epic drought, the running joke here on the Central Coast is that we could solve all of our states water problems in a few weeks by just putting on more Luis Escobar events. La Cuesta Ranch Year Two wouldn’t disappoint.
The inaugural La Cuesta Ranch race was an absolute blast, sprinkled with several challenging sections due to a downpour the previous night. Several runners competing in the 25 and 50k’s literally lost their shoes while attempting to navigate a several hundred meter mud trough that they’d be forced to cross twice each loop. Fortunately, we couldn’t identify this trough in 2017. Unfortunately, the entire course became the trough in year two.
On the Monday before the race, I met up with some fellow runners at La Cuesta Ranch to help scout a portion of trail with Luis. Alex the German joined us on his trip back from dirtbagging in the Sierras. Kerry, who would be racing her first ultra at the ranch, joined us too. Gabe, fresh off his first 50 mile finish at Cherry Canyon and hungry for another ultra, came out as well. On a beautiful afternoon, we spent a couple hours chatting, running and hiking around the Miossi property. The trails were dry and fast.
With a change in the course this year, Luis peeled back one mile from each loop, totaling 14ish miles for the 25k and 28ish miles for the 50k. Deciding to build a loop into the course this year that cancelled two out-and-backs, Luis brought runners up Stagecoach Rd. and then down/up the Rollercoaster Trail. This modification added nearly 400ft per lap, offering over 6,500ft. of climbing for the “50k.”
On the night before the race, the Running Warehouse was kind enough to host a fun Q&A with Luis Escobar and Arnulfo Quimare. Arnulfo is a tarahumara runner living in the Copper Canyons of Mexico, that was one of the key characters in Chris McDougal’s hit, “Born to Run.” A legendary runner, Arnulfo beat Scott Jurek, while he was in his prime, on a 50mile race in the Copper Canyons… in sandals! Fueled by several pints of local ale, a local trail runner Edder, assisted with the Q&A. We had a great time asking Arnulfo questions, and catching up with friends. One of the more poignant questions with the impending storm, was if Arnulfo would be ok running through mud in his huaraches/sandals. He didn’t seem to mind, so neither did we.
With weather reports showing the storm of the century sweeping through the Central Coast, I crossed the fingers that we would get lucky and have some reprieve on race day. The ultra gods didn’t grant my wish.
Race day was sloppy… really F’ing sloppy!
Alejandra and I made the long commute of 4 miles door-to-door to the ranch. She volunteered as the timekeeper for the race, under a dry tent, with a freaking heater next to her for 5 hours.We definitely should’ve switched jobs!
With a start time of 7:00am, we congregated around the “starting line,” which at a Luis race is wherever the hell he says “GO.” As is typical in ultras, we spend the lead up time to a race catching up with friends and likely meeting new ones. This race was no different, other than some of the elite runners that graced us with their presence. Guillermo Medina, a former powerhouse of a runner had returned to racing after taking off some time to raise his kiddos. Cassie Scallon, a recent transplant to Santa Barbara, joined us with an incredibly impressive resume. Keira Henniger, the RD for the Sean O’Brien 100k, Leona Divide 50, several other So Cal races and also an excellent runner in her own right, joined the party too. Jesse Haynes, Keira’s husband and a three time top 10 finisher at Western States, came out as well to crew. Arnulfo Quimare, the King of the Copper Canyons would also be toeing the line. For a small, local race on a day with terrible conditions, we had a solid lineup for the 50k.
After Luis’ detailed course instructions… “Follow the ribbons. If you see blue, you’re lost,” we were sent off to tackle this hellish course.
No more than 200 meters after we started, the mud party began. Arnulfo and I ran together for the first few miles, with Cassie close behind. Climbing towards the first aid station, and trying not to lose our shoes/sandals, the effort level felt too high for how slow we were running.
Deciding to wear Icebugs, which are essentially minimalist cleats, helped dramatically to increase traction from zero to at least 3%. The clay which makes up the majority of the soil content on the ranch, is tacky as all hell, and eats at the foot with each strike. Pulling the leg up takes literally 3-5x the effort as running on nearly any other surface.
Essentially, this shit “sucked!”
Making our way towards the first aid station, Edder and Walt were literally holding the fort down, as they picked the windiest section of the race to set up a water stop. Thankfully we were moving, albeit at a snails pace, but able to keep warm, as these guys were in for a long day. With not much of a plan other than survival, the only section of “runnable” trail would be the 3.7 mile climb up Stagecoach to Shooters/Rollercoaster and possibly the couple miles of Rollercoaster back into the ranch, so I decided to push this section on both of the loops to either establish a gap or try to catch up to whomever was in front. Surprisingly, I was in the lead heading into the 2nd aid station, which was manned by SLO Trail Runners. Brent, Tera and Jody took care of the famished throughout the day, and thankfully weren’t banished to the wind tunnel that Edder and Walt had to survive.
The climb up Stagecoach to Rollercoaster was at least familiar, but still ascended nearly 1,500ft primarily in the first four miles. With the rain holding off at this point in the race but deciding to wear a jacket because it looked ready to pour at any second, I contemplated dumping the coat with Tera, but thankfully kept it on. West Cuesta Ridge can be one of the windiest areas in SLO, as it didn’t disappoint on race day, as it was absolutely howling.
Making it off Rollercoaster and back onto the ranch, we backtracked to Edder and Walt’s aid station, and then continued down a couple miles of windy jeep road. This section was perfect for opening up in 2016, as the grade was slightly downhill, and hard enough to not stick entirely to your shoes. Unfortunately, the terrain slowed this section by two minutes/mile this year, and all we could manage was to tiptoe on the small patches of grass to try and steal an ounce of traction.
Heading into my favorite portion of this course, the last two miles of each loop consist of a 530ft. climb and 700ft. descent. Increasing the “fun” of this section, there is absolutely no trail. Runners simply hike or run up the ridgeline of the property bordering Poly Canyon, and then after hitting the peak, point and shoot down the mountain.
Heading up the ridge, I took a peak down the twisty descent to see how close Arnulfo and Cassie were. I couldn’t see Arnulfo, but there were a few blind spots from this viewpoint and I expected him to be close. Cassie was also close behind, no more than a couple minutes back.
Heading up the quarter mile road to the start/finish, I checked in with the sexy timekeeper, and grabbed a quick bite while Mauricio helped to fill up my bottles. With two excellent runners close behind, I didn’t want to waste any time.
With no idea how close Arnulfo or Cassie were, I pushed a bit harder than I should have until the Stagecoach climb. Hitting the aid station, Tera offered a shot of Fireball which surprisingly didn’t sound good. I must have been pushing too hard.
The second Stagecoach to Rollercoaster climb was uneventful, yet no less difficult. Fortunately the wheels didn’t fall off, and I was able to make it into Edder and Walt’s final aid station still with a lead. The two miles of soggy clay descent wasn’t a blast, but made it to the ridge climb in one piece.
With several races overlapping in the late morning, there were now 10k and 25k runners sharing the course. Peeking back again from the ridge, there were several runners either descending or starting the climb, and unfortunately I couldn’t determine if any of them were chasing me down. Closing in on the peak, Mauricio who was playing double duty as the aid station captain and cameraman, greeted me at the top of the climb. With thankfully only a 700ft treacherous descent remaining, I was able to stay upright making it back to civilization.
As is customary with most Luis Escobar finishes, a shot of Fireball signifies the completion of the course. Fortunately, this time it sounded like a great idea! Albeit a shorter course than 2016, with the terrain and additional climbing, I don’t feel like too much of a piker claiming the course record in 4:24.
What I Learned
Running through a 28 mile mud trough is an excellent strength building workout, if you’re legs don’t get ripped off in the process
Shoe choice is important, as I learned after the race that Arnulfo swapped out his huaraches for shoes after the first loop
Throw time goals out the window when the conditions go sour. Checking my watch for pace was useless, as my HR was pegged throughout most of the day regardless of where we were
Prepare to be sore for much longer than planned when playing in the mud for 4+ hours
Volunteers truly make our sport. Without the selfless support of so many to make these events happen, we wouldn’t be able to experience ridiculously nasty, yet really fun races
One of my favorite places to run, Montana de Oro (“Mountain of Gold” in Spanish) is a California State Park located approximately 20 minutes Southwest of San Luis Obispo. With 8,000ish acres of coastline, rugged hills, and challenging trails, MdO has a little something for everyone. Aside from the recently introduced SLO Ultra and La Cuesta Ranch 50k, the MdO races have been the only ultra option for locals. For over 10 years, Pacific Coast Trail Runs has been staging a variety of trail races at MDO, and the newcomer Coastal Trail Runs began their own set of races in 2010.
Wendell, the Coastal Trail Runs race director and accomplished ultrarunner, has four distances for his December event (5 mile, 7 mile, 25k and 50k). All races start from Spooner’s Cove and head south along the flat Bluffs trail for 2 miles before turning up and starting the climb to Valencia Peak. The 5 milers head back down to the finish after climbing a few hundred feet. The remaining racers continue the technical climb to Valencia’s 1,347ft peak. A rocky, steep ascent, Valencia is the most unforgiving of MdO’s three peaks (Valencia, Hazard and Oat’s). Considering the technical terrain and grade, thankfully runners only double back for approximately a quarter mile, before taking a right turn onto smooth single track that descends back into Spooner’s Cove.
For the 7-8 milers, the adventure is complete after looping back into Spooner’s Cove. The 25/50k runners are just getting warmed up as they are rewarded with a 1,325ft. climb to the top of Hazards Peak. After a quick fill up at the Spooner’s Cove aid station, racers start the three mile climb up Hazards.
Compared to Valencia, the Hazards Peak climb is very runnable, with a more gradual incline. By itself, the climb up Hazards is a definite handful, but after getting beat up by Valencia, it somehow seems a bit more manageable. After hitting the peak, runners take a sharp left turn and start a descent towards the East Boundary trail. After picking up a rubber band to verify that you made it to the turnaround, racers make their way back up again to Hazards Peak and then down the three mile descent back into Spooner’s Cove. For the runners tackling the 25k, thankfully your day is done. For the runners battling the 50k, a second loop of all of the above commences.
The Spooner’s Cove races hold a special place in my heart as this was my first introduction to the 50k distance. I also have some unfinished business on this course, as my first experience was an epic blowup that to this day, was the worst I’ve ever felt in an ultra. Only tackling the 25k this year, I’ll have to seek 50k retribution at a later date.
Thomas and I have been training together since late October, and it’s been great as we’re at relatively similar fitness levels. He still dominates me anytime we do anything remotely fast, and his climbing has definitely improved no doubt in part to a summer packed with awesome hikes (please see blog post on the Tahoe Rim Trail). His HR is also much lower than mine when we run tempos or harder effort workouts. Thinking this through, he’s actually much fitter than me…
With mileage totals barely cracking 50/wk and no long runs over 20 miles in these first few weeks of training, we decided to race the Spooner’s Cove 25k in December. Not having raced anything shorter than a 100 miles since April, minus the annual Turkey Trot in Pinole and a 5k fun run in November, I was excited at the opportunity to run against Thomas on a course and distance that suits us both well.
Race Day Conditions… Wet and Slippery, unfortunately not just how I like it.
Thankfully we didn’t get poured on, but Mother Nature had her way in the lead up to the race, and the ground was left soggy in several patches. After checking in, saying hi to all the local runners and taping up Mark’s feet, a fellow SLO Trailrunner that blistered up from a hike the day before, we were off.
Thomas and I headed out with Greg Scott, a local runner with a sub 15k PR. If he was even remotely fit with a couple long runs under his belt, we were going to get our asses handed to us. This was Greg’s first trail race, and he did not disappoint. We ran together for the first few miles before starting the climb up Valencia. in looking back before the climb, we noticed that Dylan was also running well, likely near the lead of the 5 mile.
Greg started to pull away on the initial ascent, and I decided to push and try to stay close, not knowing if he would implode in the later miles. Thomas was close behind, as was another local runner sporting a UCLA singlet with long hair. Heading up the Valencia climb, I could definitely feel my heartrate increasing, but hoped that the long descent would give me enough rest before climbing up Hazards.
For as rocky as the climb up Valencia is, and it is damn rocky, there were a few hundred meters of the slipperiest mud in SLO County. After falling several times in the first few strides and using every curse word in my vocabulary, I was forced to waddle my way back up to the rocky single track. Thomas and UCLA closed the small gap after the slip-and-slide incident, so I decided to push again to the ascent. Cresting Valencia with another small gap on Thomas and UCLA, I decided to open up on the descent back to Spooner’s Cove. Knowing that Thomas was much faster than me on the Hazards descent, the only slim chance I had to hold him off would be to put some time on him before the turnaround after Hazard’s Peak.
The descent off of Valencia is a newly developed several miles of extremely runnable, buffed out trail. Aside from the 5 mile and 7 mile runners that we shared this section with, you can definitely open up on this stretch of trail.
Making my way back into Spooner’s Cove in second place with Greg likely a couple minutes ahead, I picked up my water bottle and started the climb up to Hazards. My plan was to push this climb hard, as I knew that if Thomas were within even a few minutes before the turnaround, he’d likely pass me on the return. A couple miles into the climb as I was settling into a steady pace, I heard heavy footsteps, as UCLA blasted by me like I was hiking. I had to check my watch a couple times to make sure I wasn’t dogging it, but in fact he may have been literally flying. I’ve never raced with someone that could climb that effortlessly. As he was disappearing into the distance I shouted, “How far back is the German?” He responded with, “Pretty close, probably a minute or two.” If the Vegas lines were open on our race, I would’ve bet that farm on UCLA to hunt Greg down.
Continuing the climb up to Hazard’s I looked back a few times to check on Thomas, but thankfully couldn’t see him. After cresting the climb, Wendell took us down the backside of Hazards towards East Boundary. Likely not noticing that the new trail descending off Valencia added some mileage, we went approximately a mile past the turnaround spot Thomas and I originally planned on. Not knowing how far we were going to descend, at least I was able to see Greg and UCLA on this out-and-back section. Greg had several minutes on me, and UCLA was not too far behind, so I didn’t expect to give either chase.
Hitting the turnaround and picking up my rubber band, I checked my watch so I could approximate how far back Thomas was as I made my way back up to Hazard’s. Climbing back up to the peak, I passed Thomas after a minute and change. Knowing that the climb would be more difficult than the descent, I expected to have around 2+ minutes. Based on his downhill speed, I calculated that this could get ugly.
Hitting the peak for the second time, there were only three miles of downhill running to go. Trying to open up on the descent, with runners making their way up to Hazard’s for the first time, we were forced to tippy toe around each other to avoid contact. With my HR pegged from both climbs up Hazard’s, thankfully these last few miles provided a slight respite to the wind I’d been sucking for the past 45 minutes. Not certain on where Thomas was or if he was closing, I worried about controlling what I could control.
Stay relaxed… don’t over stride… quick turnover…
Looking back a few times throughout the descent, I didn’t spot Thomas but knew he was likely closing. Hitting the road at the end of the trail, runners have less than a half mile of sandy single track to navigate before dropping into Spooner’s Cove. Trying not to slip on the wet and semi-technical descent, thankfully I made it into Spooner’s Cove and sprinted to the finish a hair in front of Thomas, finishing third in 2:13.
Catching up after the race, I learned that UCLA had a name. Steven Youngblood is a youngster that recently graduated and had run for the Bruins club team. He finished in 2:11, so he gave back some of the gap he’d built from flying up Hazards, but watching him climb was the highlight of my day. Greg Scott finished in 2:05, which is 11 minutes off the course record, but would’ve likely beat it had the race not been 1.5ish miles long. Thomas finished in 2:16. Ethan finished in 2:39. Beth finished in 2:40. Chad finished in 2:46. Brent finished in 2:55. Tom finished in 3:21.Marian finished right behind Tom also in 3:21. Mike finished in 3:25, and Jeremiah finished his first 25k in 3:40 after nursing a big leg cramp for 10+ minutes. Emily and Kymberly finished together in 4:19. Dylan smoked the 5 mile race and set the course record in 41:53… guess speed runs in the family.
Beers, snacks and congratulations were shared by all. Had a blast racing around MDO with the SLO Trailrunners, and can’t wait for some redemption at the 50k distance next time.
What I learned:
Light, road shoes are comfy and fast when the trail isn’t soaked, but not the greatest idea when it is
Fitness wins! With zero experience racing on the trails, Greg absolutely crushed the field with his sub 15min 5k speed.
Control what you can control. I worried too much about where I was in relation to Thomas, that I should’ve focused my energy on moving as quickly and efficiently as possible.
Shorter races can hurt just as bad, if not worse than an ultra
MDO is absolutely majestic. If you haven’t experienced these trails, come visit!