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!
In the ultrarunning world, a significant amount of athletes take some downtime around the holidays. With the change in weather, unless you live in San Luis Obispo, and usually coming off a heavy calendar from Spring through Fall, having a month or more to fully recover is a necessity for most runners. Musculoskeletally, the body does an amazing job at recovering from significant efforts, and adapting to increased loads. This is why I couldn’t walk for a week after my first 50 miler, but flash forward three years later, and I was hiking in SLO with no soreness two days after the Grand Slam.
Adrenal fatigue is an interesting term now being commonly used by the ultrarunning community. Albeit a term with no medical consensus supporting the claim, the theory behind adrenal fatigue is that when the body encounters a significant amount of prolonged stress without adequate recovery ( i.e. 10 ultra’s in a season with no downtime, coupled with raising young children and working a full-time job requiring significant travel), although musculoskeletally the body seems ok, internally it could be a shit show. The symptoms of adrenal fatigue can range from lethargy, irritability, anxiety and loss of sex drive… ouch!
Relatively speaking, there has been an explosion in the sport with books like Born to Run, leading to a significant amount of new runners and new races. Increased coverage from companies like Irunfar, Ultralive and Twitter allow fans to track their favorite runners from start to finish. Myriad of filmographers capturing the sport mid-race (Check out this insane Youtube clip following Zach Miller and Hayden Hawks from the 2016 TNF 50 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7DCR03UDggA), has provided a glimpse into the amount of effort exerted by the athletes competing in these events. Sponsors have also increased their marketing dollars, with companies like Patagonia, Altra, North Face, Salomon, Nike and Hoka all having elite trail teams, and most having ambassador programs.
A sport once ruled by middleagers, countless “young guns” are now rewriting the records books daily, entering the ultrarunning scene fresh out of college with blazing track and road backgrounds. The acronym FOMO (fear of missing out), which I recently learned was an actual term people use… I am not even remotely in the range of cool anymore… has led to many runners over racing. With the popularity of the sport and social media usage at an all time high and many runners wanting to experience as many races in as many destinations as they can, too many ultrarunners, in my opinion, are on the verge of experiencing “adrenal fatigue.”
Considering these factors, after finishing Wasatch in early September, I decided to take some much needed downtime.
Being an experiment of one, each athlete has a different definition of downtime. Some prefer to completely turn it off for 2-3 weeks, with zero running. Others prefer to remove all running from their calendar, but still get out for a few miles when they feel the need. Some runners turn to hiking or cross-training to get their “fix,” but make a concerted effort to stay off their feet as it relates to running.
Starting with the remainder of September and leading into early October, I only hiked and performed my gym workout three times each week. Over this 4-6 week period, outside of pacing Thomas at Cuyamaca for 18 ass kicking miles, I likely totaled only 20-40 miles of actual running in these several weeks. Loading up on sleep and making a slight modification to my diet (adding small amounts of meat back in after 4 years as a vegetarian and/or vegan) were two additional changes made during this offseason.
Feeling well rested and healthy, I was excited to begin training again in October.
We started out with VERY unstructured running for the first few weeks of the month. Running 4-5 days and not breaking 40 miles in any given week. Continuing to hit the gym 3x week throughout October helped to tackle any muscle imbalances accrued over the Grand Slam. Also, injecting strides into most runs (6-8, 15-20 second pickups focusing on form and turnover) helped to get comfortable moving at a quicker pace. With a plan to work on improving fitness through increased quality work, strides are the logical first step.
Wearing a heart rate (HR) monitor is something I used primarily for recovery runs leading up to Western States, but I’ve started wearing one religiously since returning to training. A HR strap provides objective data, and is a great tool for measuring an increase in fitness. As an example, one of my first recovery/easy runs in October had the following stats:
Average HR 141
A similar recovery/easy run in late November had the following stats:
Average HR 132
The data above confirms an increase in fitness, as I was able to cover relatively the same distance, on the same terrain, moving 17 seconds/mile faster, at 9 beats/min slower. Without this HR data however, it would be impossible to objectively confirm an increase in fitness, as this data shows I was able to cover the same distance at a quicker pace, with less effort. Gains in fitness require an increasing amount of time and consistency, so unfortunately my stats above show that the Olympics won’t be calling anytime soon.
Along with strides, we’ve also slowly added track workouts and tempo runs into the weekly schedule. These have helped to increase my “comfort level” with quicker paces. As an example, if your bread-and-butter run (pace that you feel could be maintained all day) is at 9:00 min/mile, increasing fitness through quality work like tempos, track sessions and strides could, over time, lower your pace to 8:30 min/mile, or even lower. This increase in fitness can be gained from increasing volume, but only to an extent. If you’re a runner that does all of your running at one pace (i.e. 9:00 min/mile), whether or not you run 50 miles per week or 100, your body adapts to feeling “comfortable” traveling at 9:00 min/mile. Increasing both volume and quality, and remaining injury free, is the key to increasing fitness over any distance.
Aside from quality work, one of the major changes I’ve made in training over the past year has been to run either very slow, or relatively speaking, very fast. Primarily because my ass feels kicked after quality workouts, but also through trial-and-error after reading various articles by elite runners and coaches that follow this practice religiously, my body feels stronger and more prepared for quality workouts when I don’t beat it up on my recovery/easy days. Some call it the “black hole,” but running at a moderate intensity for nearly all of your weekly miles is what too many runners and ultrarunners do. Running all miles at this level of intensity (relative difficulty in carrying on a conversation) is too slow to adequately impact fitness, but also too fast to properly allow the body to recover between runs. Symptoms from this type of training are constant fatigue, lack of improvement and higher injury risk… No thanks!
Getting back in shape is not easy! Whether it’s returning from an injury, which every damn runner in SLO seems to be working through these days, or from taking some much needed downtime, increasing fitness requires consistency and time. In a fast-paced world that seemingly encourages immediate gratification, building a long-term strategy with merely incremental gains is not sexy. Lowering my average HR by 9 points on a recovery run, over a two month period isn’t likely to garner 100 “likes” on Facebook, but running back-to-back ultras over two weekends sure the hell is.
What is the smarter strategy for meeting your goals?
If your goal is to improve race results, increasing fitness is a no brainer. If your goal is to stack ultra finishes regardless of results, then the latter decision seems like the logical approach.
Ultrarunning is so appealing to me because of the variety of races, and especially the variety of people tackling these distances. The goals that we have in this sport vary from person-to-person. Even within our relatively small ultrarunning community, we have such a wide variety of runners chasing various targets (getting back in shape, tackling their first ultra, moving up in distance from 50k/50 mile to 100k/100 mile, increasing year-over-year results, stacking as many races as possible onto the calendar, podium finishes, racing into Western States, etc.). No goals are more or less important than the other, and why I love this sport, is that we encourage each other to chase these lofty goals, no matter how crazy or ridiculous they seem to be.
What I’ve learned from getting back in shape:
It’s a slow process that rewards consistency and time
It’s not sexy or social media worthy
It’s helpful for me to run either very slow or “very fast”
Everyone builds fitness at a different pace, so just because your running partner has an average HR of 10-15 beats/minute lower, doesn’t automatically mean that there is a giant discrepancy in fitness level
Trusting the process and thinking long-term works in this crazy ass sport!
Thanks for reading and all comments are appreciated… I’ve got thick skin! Upcoming posts on the Montana de Oro 25k and the Annual Big Sur Backpacking Trip coming soon…
Looking back seven weeks after the Grand Slam, I decided to have a Q&A with myself on some of the frequent questions received about this event
Why Tackle the Grand Slam?
When asked why he decided to climb Mount Everest, the famous mountaineer George Mallory’s three word answer is now an iconic statement in the sport… “Because it’s there.” I’ve asked several of the slammers this question, and I’ve received a multitude of answers:
To see what I’m made of
With odds of current race lotteries being so low, this may be my first, and last opportunity
To finish something that only 280 others have ever completed
To show my kids that you can accomplish anything if you put your mind to it
These are all outstanding answers to a question that I’ve received multiple times. In order to give this challenge justice, I felt compelled to come up with a sufficiently poignant answer. Unfortunately, it didn’t happen. Thinking over it for several weeks now, I chose to tackle this event solely because it would be hard. Life is too damn easy in so many ways these days. Jared Campbell, my ultrarunning man crush, summed it up perfectly in a recent podcast, “We live in an air conditioned society.” Living in San Luis Obispo, we actually don’t need air conditioning, but this is exactly the point. Today’s society is so focused on taking away the pain though medication or intoxication (Americans make up 5% of the worlds population, but ingest 50% of the worlds pharmaceuticals), that we rarely experience the true bliss that comes from battling through intense uncomfortableness.
What Did You Learn Throughout the Grand Slam?
Hopefully my “enlightened” answer to the first question didn’t stop you from reading this far, as I actually have an answer to this question. The famous Texan ultrarunner Paul Terranova said it best when asked about his thoughts on completing the Grand Slam in 2012, “The Grand Slam was a crucible of learning.” Here are a few of the specifics that I took from this crucible of learning:
Completely underestimating the amount of sacrifice necessary to complete this journey was a definite miss on my part. You will be forced to sacrifice in nearly all areas of your life to complete this event, and I should have thought through the potential impact of these races before throwing my name in the hat.
Work, Relationships, Time, Money, Fitness, Sleep, Sanity…to name a few
Having a solid support system in place is integral in preparing for the Grand Slam. Fortunately, I have a partner and best friend that understands and fully supports me chasing these sometimes outrageous dreams. Alejandra couldn’t have been more supportive throughout these 11 weeks… and the additional 5 months leading up to Western States. Not kicking me out of the bedroom for sleeping in an altitude tent. Being ok with me waking up at 4:15am for several months, and passing out at 8ish. Not busting my chops for traveling with work at least 2-3 weeks out of each month, and then adding in weekend travel for these races. Without her support, I wouldn’t have been able to tackle this adventure.
Working with a coach for the first time in my ultrarunning career caused some serious anxiety. Without formal training or years of consistent running to lean on, I was nervous about my results, and more importantly somewhat terrified of how the workouts would be. Thomas kicked my tail for 5+ months, but was empathetic and flexible all along the way. Already having a ton of respect for his running ability, I’m honored he was willing to work with a newbie like me, and happy to have met a great friend.
My dad, Kris, Aaron, mom, Dave, Dizzle, Nick, Eric, Canice, Luke and Joanie all sacrificed from their own lives to support me throughout this summer. I’m not comfortable asking others for help, but I’m so thankful that you offered selflessly to ride this wave with me.
Also, having a nutrition partner in Physiophyx has been a giant support in preparation and recovery for these events. Tony, Terry and Michael have been awesome to work with, and I couldn’t be happier to see this company grow and continue to support my crazy endeavors.
If you’re not much of a planner, you’ll get a “free” graduate level course in logistics training plotting out the Grand Slam. Travel, housing, car rentals, race recon, recovery, drop bag prep, training, acclimation, pre/during/post race nutrition…
The consensus from many slammers is that you get stronger over the course of the Grand Slam. Granted, I did a lot of hiking and gym work in the 11 weeks between events, but I definitely did not become a stronger runner throughout the Grand Slam. Seven weeks out from Wasatch, I’m realizing how unfit I became throughout the course of these 11 weeks. Aside from a few, relatively fast downhill racing miles, I didn’t perform one quality workout in nearly three months. With a heart rate nearly 15-20 beats/minute faster than it should be at the same running pace from June, I’ve got some work to do.
What Would I Do Differently
Whether it’s the Grand Slam or preparing for the Angeles Crest 100 in 2017, I will definitely be taking a rest day each week, and will be incorporating at least 1 gym workout as well. Listening to ultrarunners that have been competing at a high level for decades, consistently training injury free, is a commonality that tends to breed success. My focus on quality workouts (tempo runs, intervals, fartleks, progression runs, etc.) will also increase, as fitness is king… whether on the track, or in a 100 miler.
Recommendations for Future Slammers
Respect each race in it’s own right. Just as in an ultra, worry about the immediate steps in front of you to the next aid station, and not about the miles to go before the finish. Just because a race looks “easy” on paper, means absolutely zilch when racing the Grand Slam. The Vermont 100 nearly knocked me out of the slam, and it’s by far the easiest of the four races. When you’ve never raced a back-to-back 100 in 19 days, you never know what your body is going to do… or say to you.
Remember to thank those that helped you get here! Yes, there is a lot of personal sacrifice that goes into preparing for 100 milers, but there is also a lot of sacrifice from those that support you in these crazy endeavors. Don’t forget to remind your support system how much they mean to you.
Enjoy the journey! For many, hell for nearly everyone that finishes it, the Grand Slam will be the first and last time you’re privileged to tackle these four races in one season.
I’m writing this blog post a couple miles off the Little Falls trail in Arroyo Grande, CA. The initial plan was to make it up to the Condor Lookout 7 miles outside Pozo, but unfortunately we had a late start after work. With several miles to go and the sunset 30 minutes behind us, I decided to set up camp right off the trail.
Alejandra and I arrived in Salt Lake City late at night on Wednesday. After a decent night of sleep, we had all day Thursday to relax in Utah. We spent the morning with Alejandra’s family in Ogden, a smaller city approximately 40 minutes north of Salt Lake. We learned from her family, considering they were on the border, that you are either from North Ogden or South Ogden. Not sure why there was such a distinction between parts of the city, but considering they have their own festivals and names on welcome signs, I’m envisioning an epic fight between the husband and a few of his wives when starting the village a hundred or so years ago.
Since Alejandra doesn’t see her Utahian family much, I left her with her cousin for the day and headed out to Park City to catch up with Thomas and Luke, and to meet my blind date pacer. The drive out to Park City from Salt Lake takes you past the Big Mountain and Lambs Canyon aid stations, so it was good to have some bearings when later trying to give directions to Alejandra. Considering my sense of direction though, she’s much safer just following the crew caravan.
Heading into the Park City Running Company to meet the rest of the crew, I was surprised when no one was in the store except for one of the workers. Only knowing him by name, I asked the gal behind the counter “Is Kenneth here?” She looked at me a little awkward. Knowing I can have that affect on women, I asked her a different way, “Kenneth is going to be pacing me tomorrow and I’m supposed to meet him here?”
Still the same look…
Ummm… “Kenneth, the owner of the Park City Running Company.”
“Do you mean Canice?”
Now, I was confused. Thomas had told me a couple times that Kenneth would be the pacer. When we exchanged contact info, he sent me a phone number for Canice. I assumed this was Kenneth’s wife, so I guess she was now my pacer. Pretty sure the Grand Slam had extended my mushy brain syndrome well past each race, so it took me way longer than it should to realize that “Kenneth’ was “Canice.” Looking back, I blame it on Thomas’ German accent
After talking running for awhile with the guys and a quick lunch, I headed out to the prerace Wasatch meeting. Knowing that I had to drive out to Ogden afterwards, I was really hoping the RD would keep things short. Knowing that Western States, Vermont and Leadville were all an hour or longer, I expected to hit the road from SLC around 5-5:15ish. If you’re looking for a detailed prerace meeting, please don’t come to the Wasatch, because they wrapped things up in less than 30 minutes.
How all prerace meetings should be…
“We have a lot of runners with great resumes racing tomorrow. Past winners, people finishing for their 20th time… etc. We don’t really care and they won’t be talking today. The course is marked pretty well, so if you get lost it’s your fault. See you tomorrow.” Couldn’t tell from the glare, but I thought Luis Escobar was running this damn thing!
After Alejandra’s birthday dinner with the soon-to-be fam (yes, she came out to Utah to crew for me on her birthday), we made our way back to SLC for some early shuteye.
With the race start at 5:00am, I was able to “sleep in” again till 3:00ish. Thankfully, Wasatch arranged for several buses to cart runners from downtown SLC to the starting location 40 minutes north of town. Making my way onto the bus, I walked towards the rear and ran into some slam brothers… Sean, Chris and Josam. We chatted about recovery and the lack of training in between races, and that it will be really, really nice to be done with this event in hopefully 26-30ish hours. With a short hike to the starting location and after a quick stop bathroom break, the final leg of the Grand Slam was off!
The first two miles of Wasatch are ran on asphalt, as runners make their way to the single track for a monstrous climb. From reading several race reports and learning about a change in course, I decided to go out relatively quickly to secure a spot closer to the front-ish of the pack, and get in front of the conga line. Settling somewhere into 40-60th as we hit the trail, I look up to see Tommy Barlow right in front of me. Tommy, a fellow Grand Slammer and similarly new to endurance runner like me, was on his home turf after nailing a great Leadville. We chatted for a couple miles, working our way up the 4,500ft+ climb. Weirdly, both Tommy and I felt relatively recovered and decently strong, considering we had 300 recent racing miles on our legs. We both talked about feeling better heading into Wasatch then at any other time throughout the slam. Again, I think the mushy head syndrome of ultras was clouding our judgement, but feeling good is much better than feeling like a bag of soggy poo at mile 4.
Working our way up the first massive climb of the day, I started to realize that every damn person in this race was using hiking poles but me. Declining the offer from Kenneth/Canice on Thursday to use a pair, living by the mantra of not trying anything new on race day, I started to rethink this declination. This first climb was big, really F’ing big! Realizing we’d have another 23-24k of climbing after this ascent, I was seriously rethinking this don’t try anything new on race day crap…
The first aid station came a few miles after summiting climb #1, and I ran into Tommy again before quickly refilling water bottles. Being his home course and knowing he’s a solid climber, I expected we’d be battling it out all day.
The next several miles were uneventful, minus a short detour after getting lost. Assuming it’s going to happen multiple times throughout a race, it doesn’t bother me much to lose a few cumulative minutes to the trail marking gods these days.
Making our way into Sessions aid station, I ran into Jeralyn, the worker at Park City that helped correct me on Canice’s name the day before. Learning that she was one of only a couple women to nearly finish 3 loops of Barkley, and one of a very few to have finished the WURL (check Jared Campbell’s blog), again I was humbled to spend time on the trails with these studs.
The first crew/aid station is Big Mountain at mile 31. After now having multiple ultras under my belt and crewing/pacing at a few, I realize how difficult it is for friends and family to spend an entire day waiting around to see their runner for only 1-2 minutes. Alejandra, Luke and Thomas were awesome though, fighting the crowds to say hi/bye as I tried my best to waste as little time as possible moving through.
The 8 mile stretch from Big Mountain to Alexander Ridge aid station was my favorite part of the day. After a solid climb, the next several miles were gentle and runnable, with incredible views running along the ridge before dropping down into the AS at mile 40ish. I ran into Ford Smith on this section of trail. Ford is one of the “Young Guns” of ultrarunning, making a name for himself with a very impressive late 2014-15 stretch of events. We talked and ran together for 6ish miles into the AR AS. At 20 years old, this runner has an incredibly bright future ahead of him. Can’t wait to see what he does after college.
Heading out of Alexander Ridge, I had my first low point of the day. Albeit a decent climb out of the valley we’d descended into, this moderate climb towards Lambs Canyon absolutely destroyed me. Being the hottest part of the day, I chalked it up to the temp, but I was forced to hike a significant portion of this section that was entirely runnable. Upon flattening out and starting our descent into Lambs, thankfully I stopped feeling sorry for myself and opened up on the few miles into the AS at 45.
Planning to pick up Thomas at Lambs and knowing that he’s as anal as I am when it comes to race logistics, I was surprised not to see him anywhere around the aid station. After filling up my bottles, emptying trash and having a shot of coke, I planned to head out sans pacer. Fortunately, Thomas and Alejandra decided to come down to the aid station early as the runner updates weren’t posting too timely. As I was running out of the aid station, Thomas came running in nearly plowing into me. We were both excited to see each other, and moved quickly out towards Big Water Basin.
Not knowing where I was at this time in the race, really not wanting to know with 55 miles left to run and feeling relatively good, we decided to move and try to make some decent time out to Brighton at mile 67. Passing the 50 mile mark in 10:55ish and feeling strong considering the last 11 weeks of racing, the second low point of the day hit really hard, really fast.
Climbing or hiking over technical terrain is usually my only strength in ultrarunning, so when that goes, all hell tends to break loose. Well, this happened shortly after the 50 mile mark, and glad Thomas was patient as a saint as we worked to not piss away too much time before descending into Brighton. Thankfully, my quads were still intact and running downhill wasn’t too painful. With 28k of climbing expected in this race, I thought it would be a serious quad blaster, beating the tar out of the legs similar to Western States. With most descents less than a few miles however, the quads had plenty of time to “relax” between pounding sessions.
We rolled into the Brighton aid station at mile 67 somewhere around 8:20pm (15:20 of racing), and after a quick shirt change, we were off to climb up towards Ants Knoll with Canice now taking charge. With all the talk about logistics and triple checking my drop bag to include everything needed, my fucking headlamp dies in the first 10 minutes of the hike out from Brighton. Canice was a professional and had an additional head lamp replaced within seconds, but this section was another ass kicker as I slowed down dramatically. We made our way up with another runner who was running Wasatch for his first time, and was taking pointers from Canice on his intimate knowledge of the course.
Canice’s knowledge of the course was almost creepy, as he literally knew every single turn and climb from 67-91. After a long low stretch, I finally felt semi-normal for a few miles and we made some descent time to the Pot Hollow AS at mile 84. Unfortunately, my high points didn’t last long, and I retreated back to the ultra shuffle for much of these 24 miles. After what felt like an eternity, and by most accounts it was when looking at the splits, we finally made it to Thomas at mile 91 (Top of the Wall). With 9 miles to go, our plan was to start “hammering,” as supposedly the terrain was incredible runnable and the grade was perfect for opening up.
We must have a different definition of “runnable” than Utahians…
Thomas and I were literally laughing, as we had 2-3 miles of the absolute worst descent of the race, tearing through overgrown brush, dry prickly shrubs, perfectly placed rocks for rolling ankles and the steepest grade of the day. Finally, we dropped into some runnable cow pasture and were able to make up some time into the last aid station. With a pre-race goal of under 27 hours, I was ecstatic to be close to 24 hours, but considering the pace of the first 50 miles in under 11hrs, a 13hr+ last 50 miles was pretty atrocious. I can blame it on the cumulative effects of the Grand Slam, but simply I sucked pretty bad from 50-91.
The last few miles felt like dancing on clouds, as it was a wide open gravel road that we could actually run on. Well, dancing on clouds is a pretty shitty metaphor, as I literally felt like death was approaching, trying not to pass out, puke or piss myself. We dropped onto asphalt again, only the third time outside of the start and short trip into Brighton, and finished with about a mile of slight incline. Rounding the last turn, I crossed the finish line in 24:20, good enough for 20th, and the fastest Slammer of the class of 2016. A perfect finish to the Grand Slam, there was one old timer that stood up to greet me, then just as quickly sat back down. No accolades… no fireworks… shit there weren’t even any lights… just how I like it!
Asked by a few to write why I decided to compete in the Grand Slam this year, unfortunately I don’t have a great story like so many of my fellow Slammers. Shit, I didn’t even know what the Grand Slam was until Erik Dube told me about it after getting into Western States. Looking back however on these four races over 11 weeks, I’ve learned so much about myself. Resiliency…Determination…Stubbornness…Recovery…Strength, or lack thereof… and the most important, humility. I’ve been so humbled and so honored to share the trails with such an amazing group of 19 in the Grand Slam class of 2016. We all, as every finisher does in any ultra, had to battle demons, juggle variables and incessantly troubleshoot to get to each finish line.
What I learned:
I’ve been asked a few times what I’ve learned in finishing the Grand Slam, and simply it’s that I don’t know jack shit about ultrarunning. Yes I’ve finished a handful of ultras over three years and I’ve been a student of this sport since literally stumbling into it three years ago, but this sport is all about consistent improvement, and it takes time to improve. The reason why we have such a respect for those that have competed in this sport for years, possibly more respect than any veteran in any sport, is that these studs have lived through ALL the ups… ALL the downs… ALL the issues, and came out the other end still standing, still running.
Guys like Dan Brenden, although not able to complete the Grand Slam in 2016, has completed the GS 8 times! Gals like Ann Trason and Pam Reed beating the top guys in this sport for years! Even the “regular” ultrarunner juggling a job, family commitments and training, inspire me everyday to get off my ass everyday to get better.
Can’t wait for 2017, and looking forward to getting back to the grind… after a good long rest!