So, is this what Fell racing is all about???
Coming off a rough showing at CIM in December and now having Western States on the calendar for June, I was ecstatic to get back onto the trails! Aside from less than a handful of short runs, the three month training block leading up to CIM was the longest amount of time I’ve been away from the trails in three years of ultrarunning.
Since my body wasn’t entirely destroyed from CIM, thanks shitty marathon performance, the one benefit was being able to hit the trails and get back into training earlier than expected. With La Cuesta Ranch 50k only a few weeks away and since it’s a Luis Escobar event, I had absolutely no idea what to expect in regards to terrain, vertical gain or actual distance. If La Cuesta Ranch was to be like most Allwedoisrun events, my previous three months of road running with little to no climbing, was setting me up for an epic ass kicking!
Taking some advice from Ian Sharman, considering he is the record holder for the Grand Slam (four of the most iconic US 100 milers completed in one summer), I decided to recover and start preparations for La Cuesta Ranch with a lot of hiking. Granted Ian’s advice is hiking with a weighted pack, unfortunately I didn’t have enough luggage space to bring my fastpack to my work trip to Baltimore, immediately following the marathon.
For the few weeks leading up to La Cuesta Ranch, in addition to A LOT of treadmill hiking in week one (15-30 degrees depending on the type of treadmill), I increased gym workouts to three times per week. Knowing it was highly unlikely that my climbing legs would come back in less than four weeks, I hoped that the increased gym time would somewhat makeup for three months of flat, road running. Maybe it sounds counterintuitive, but I also feel that strength training helps dramatically with recovery after a race. With a few weeks of trail running, increased gym workouts and a quality, albeit self-imposed shortened fastpacking trip to Big Sur, I felt relatively fit and ready to tackle this upcoming 50k.
Thomas and I connected to discuss my less than stellar CIM performance and preparations for Western States. Thankfully, he agreed to develop a training plan and prepare me for Squaw, as I assumed I may have been dumped to the curb after wetting the bed in December. In talking through a race calendar through June, we decided to downgrade from the 50k to the 25k at La Cuesta Ranch, so we could transition into training right after the race. Luis was great, as he usually is, with switching races and honoring Alejandra’s comped entry that she won at the Trails in Motion movie night at the Running Warehouse in July.
La Cuesta Ranch Trail Race, along with the SLO Ultra Series, was initially designed and operated by Josue with Fuego y Agua events. Luis was asked and agreed to take over race director duties, and partnered with private ranch owners to create a 10k, 25k and 50k course, ran primarily on private property. If you’ve ever spent anytime exploring West Cuesta Ridge (Shooter’s, Morning Glory, the Euks, Pick and Shovel, the What trail, etc.), you know how beautiful this area is. With views of the Seven Sisters (SLO-to-Morro Bay’s iconic peaks), countless rolling green hills and an ocean view to die for, there aren’t many better views in San Luis Obispo than from West Cuesta Ridge.
Luis designed an incredibly beautiful, rugged and relentless loop course, with 50k racers responsible for navigating two, 15ish mile loops, with over 7k of vertical gain. Being a private cattle ranch, outside of the fire roads connecting a decent amount of the course, Luis and Co. were forced to create their own “trails.” Reading several articles on Fell racing, runners in England will race a course with essentially no trail. There are course markings, mas o menos, but runners are free to create their own lines as they blaze up and down some seemingly treacherous terrain. Outside of HURT, although the HURT course is incredibly marked and still ran on trails, I’d never experienced a race quite like this.
Alejandra, Carly and I made the long 5 minute commute to the La Cuesta Ranch on Saturday morning. We caught up briefly with Jeff Zahn, as he was helping to direct traffic and made our way up to the staging area. Ben Holmes and Beverly were manning the check-in booth, and we were able to catch up on the end of his fire season and the 80ish mile charity run that he participates in annually. Unfortunately Ben wasn’t racing, as it would’ve been fun to tackle the course with, or properly stated, behind him. Michelle and Bobby made the trip up, as did Mauricio who was volunteering and tapering for HURT
Luis gave his customary race day instructions, which pretty much boil down to taking responsibility for yourself, the course, and not being a dick. Starting an hour later than the 50k, the 140ish 10k and 25k runners were sent off at approximately 8:00am, after reciting the Oath. If you haven’t had the opportunity to recite the Oath, you need to get your rear out to an Allwedoisrun event.
We headed out for a fast, relatively flat first half mile, before taking a right turn onto a fire road with a moderate incline. The beginning of the course was quite damp, as SLO had received a lot of rain in December and early January. Thankfully we didn’t get dumped on mid-race, but the course would soon provide evidence of El Nino’s wrath.
There were a group of five of us running in the front, although I had no idea what race anyone was in because the 10k and 25k runners started together. Mile two was a giant climb up the face of a hill, forcing many runners to use “all fours” to make their way to the top. I was passed by three runners heading up the climb, and started having early doubts about my climbing ability. One of the runners that blazed passed was leading the women’s race, although I wasn’t sure which one. Considering she had a hydration pack on, I assumed we’d be battling it out for another 13+ miles. After cresting this climb, we worked our way back down to a fire road, after losing the “trail” for a short while.
Brett Atkinson, a local runner and fellow hasher was leading the group, and I managed to settle in behind him after a short technical downhill section. We caught up briefly over the next uphill mile, and found out that he was running the 10k.
The first aid station was also the split for the 10k and 25k race. Some awesome volunteers came out to battle the elements and offer assistance, and both Brett and I said thanks to the aid station captain before wishing each other luck and heading out on our separate ways. Thankfully, the gal with the hydration vest also took a left and would eventually catch and pass Brett, winning the 10k overall.
Three of us were left from the original group of five, and we headed down towards Stagecoach rd and aid station 2. At the bottom of a long descent was the second aid station, but to get there runners had to make their way through hundreds of meters of swampy, sticky, high-ankle deep clay. Thankfully, I decided on wearing Icebugs, but wasn’t sure how they’d hold up since I hadn’t wore them since they destroyed my feet at HURT. The shoe choice definitely made a difference, as they shed the thick mud well, and actually stayed on my feet. This is more than I can say for others, as there were stories of the swamp eating several pairs of shoes. Some runners used strategery, as I saw one in football cleats and another with ductape wrapped around their foot.
On our descent through the slog, we also came across our first 50k runners, as they had made the turnaround and were starting their 1,000ft+ climb up towards Cuesta Ridge. Hitting aid station 2, it was great to see Tera and Jody, and now two of us were running together up Stagecoach road, for a completely undetermined amount of time.
Stagecoach road is 2.7 miles of an unpaved ascent of nearly 1,000ft, which is the original “Grade,” or road connecting San Luis Obispo to north county. The first mile only has a slight incline, so the majority of climbing happens in the last 1.7 miles. I introduced myself and started chatting with Tyler, as we had spent the last couple miles together, and assumed we would be fighting it out over the last 8-10. Tyler is an ultrarunner from Visalia who had traveled out to run the 25k with his buddy in third place, Mathew Morales and Matt’s dad, Al. Looking up Matthew’s recent results before the race, I found out he was a mid-2:30 marathoner, that previously won the City-to-Sea Half and placed 2nd at American River 50. This guy can flat out fly, and just as Tyler and I were talking about his leg speed, Matthew catches up to us clicking off a very easy sub 6 minute mile, considering the comfort in his voice. We made a u-turn heading back towards the aid station, and Matthew began to pull away.
Hearing from the guys that they were training for an upcoming marathon and that they lived in Visalia (flatlanders), I decided that the only remote chance I’d have to hold either of them off would be to try and out climb them on the 1,200ft. ascent to Cuesta Ridge. Knowing Matthew’s speed, even if I was stronger than him on the climb, I’d have to hold off his ass from pouncing on me as we’d have a long runnable descent before the finish.
Just as we passed the aid station and made our way back up through the muck, I put my head down and tried to surge up the climb. Hoping like hell to put some distance between us, thankfully Matthew and Tyler held back likely assuming they’d reign me in on the descent. The 2.5-3 mile climb up to Cuesta Ridge was very runnable, outside of the several hundred meters of early devil clay.
Passing and shouting words of encouragement to Terry, Josue and some other 50k runners on the out-and-back climb, I was really interested in how close Tyler and Matthew were after hitting the turnaround. Tyler and I crossed paths first, and I only had a couple minutes on him. Matthew was very close behind Tyler and looked really strong climbing up to the Ridge. Knowing this would likely get ugly, I tried to lean on the marathon workouts and treat the last several miles like a hard tempo run, as it was only a matter of time before Matthew would use his speed to hunt me down.
The descent (miles 9-12.5) was relatively uneventful, and after a quick hill, we ran through aid station 1. The volunteers were awesome and after thanking them for coming out, I tried like hell to generate some turnover as I had no idea what the last several miles would bring. This race definitely solidified for me that I’d rather hunt than be hunted…
With a couple miles to go and a relative certainty that Speedy Gonzales had me in his sights, I came across my own oasis in the desert… a big, nasty, off-trail climb! Normally you don’t look forward to climbs where you have to use your hands on trails that are nonexistent, but I sure as hell did. This addition to the race was the only way I’d have a chance to fend off this speedster, so I smiled ear-to-ear as I slipped and tripped up the 300ft. climb.
Upon cresting the last hill, if the trail could disappear anymore, it did. Luis used pink flags to mark the route down this 750ft. descent, which forced runners straight down a rocky, slippery, ankle breaking downhill. With the South Hills as my backyard, thankfully I’ve spent a lot of time in very similar terrain, so I tried to relax and move as efficiently and as unstupidly (yes this is a word today) as possible. With all my parts intact, I made it down to the driveway which comprises the last half mile of the race. Taking a quick glance back after hitting even footing, I didn’t see Matthew on the descent, so I breathed a HUGE sigh of relief and enjoyed the last couple minutes.
Arriving into the finish in approximately 2:11ish… remember it’s a Luis Escobar event… after ringing the bell and downing a shot of fireball, I managed to squeak out the win in La Cuesta Ranch’s inaugural 25k. Matthew was close behind after passing Tyler, but thankfully that last hill saved me! Another local runner and Physiophyx athlete, Van Mccarty, pulled out the win in the 50k.
After receiving an incredible custom mug made by Tracy Thomas, I went back to the car to change and fill my new stein with its rightful beverage. Alejandra, Carly and I spent the next hour catching up and cheering on the 25k finishers.
As to be expected at a Luis Escobar event, amazing trails… amazing views… better people!
What I learned
– Downhill racing without a trail is really, really, really fun!
– Albeit a rough performance in Sacramento, marathon training definitely helped with increasing turnover and feeling comfortable moving at a faster pace
– Hiking and gym work definitely helps with climbing
– Beer always tastes better out of a mug that’s won!