If you haven’t visited Montana de Oro (MDO) State Park in Los Osos, CA, you are missing out! With three distinct peaks (Valencia, Oats and Hazards) hugging the coastline, you’re rewarded with surprisingly expansive views with less than 1,500ft of climbing. MDO is a frequent destination for all things outdoors (surfing, mountain biking, horseback riding, hiking, kayaking, camping and of course trail running). Only 15-20 minutes southwest of San Luis Obispo, MDO has a great mix of runnable singletrack, mixed with a wide assortment of climbs, depending on your preference.
If you’re a fan of technical ascents/descents with difficult grades, the climb to Valencia Peak should suit your fancy. If you’re in the mood for a more moderate climb on soft, runnable singletrack, head up to Hazards. If you enjoy remote trails, likely not to see a soul, but still in the mood for lung crushing steep climbs, head over to Oats.
With training ramping back up after the Austin Rattler 66k, I decided along with Thomas to run the MDO 36k (22 miler) on Sunday, 4/24. This would be the backend of a 100 mile week, that included two quality workouts. Talking through the plan for this race, the idea was to treat these 22 miles entirely as a training run. With legs still feeling the recent 40+ mile race and a week of increased volume and quality, I didn’t have a problem committing to an easy day.
Pacific Coast (PC) Trails puts on one of the two yearly MDO races. Normally, runners are sent up Valencia and Hazards peaks multiple times depending on their distance. The habitual 50k course has been two ascents of both Valencia and Hazards, usually ending up with an additional few miles depending on the route. John Brooks, the RD for PC Trails, decided to switch up the course this year by building two loops around Valencia Peak (8 mile and 5 miles), and taking a different route up to Hazards (Islay-to-Barranca-to-East Boundary for 9 miles). With a single aid station serving also as the Start/Finish, it’s important to bring the runners back through this location as frequently as possible. Depending on the temperature, and thankfully it was perfect Sunday, this 9 mile loop up and around Hazards would likely be at the edge of comfort for those seeking frequent aid.
Heading over early to check in and BS with other local runners, I pulled into Spooner’s Cove (I love this name by the way, but unfortunately it doesn’t mean those that spoon) around 6:45am. With staggered race distance starts firing off at 8:00, I had plenty of time to catch up and warm up before the race.
Having an early cup of leaded coffee, which was my first since the Austin Rattler and quickly becoming a tradition on race days, the second calling of the gods came on strong after I pulled into Spooner’s. Hustling over to bathroom, I ran into a really short, tanned Asian girl in a backwards trucker hat and ninja turtle onesie. Considering I had little time before the coffee made its way out, I decided to hold it and ask, “Hey, I think I know you… Are you Niki?” Thankfully, she said yes. “Are you Jadd?” Niki is a recent transplant to SLO via NC, and an excellent runner (recent Nine Trails finisher with . Facebook has a way of making you feel you’ve met someone before you have.
The next hour was spent catching up with some local runners on recent races and injuries. Melissa and Terry were coming off of the Leona Divide 50k and came out to volunteer. Edder was 6 days removed from the Leona Divide 50 miler and was “carbo loading” with eggs, sausage and biscuits about 15 minutes before the start of the 50k (Ballsy move so close to LD). Brent was looking prepared for the 50k, and Stan came out to crew. Joanie decided to tackle the half, and Niki was there to volunteer/sweep. Ethan’s been battling a foot issue but came out to volunteer and sweep as well. The SLO Trailrunners were well represented, and I expected a great day from this group.
After a short course introduction by John, the 50k racers were off. With 10 minutes before the start of the 36k, I decided it time to warm and lube up. Confirming with John that we were taking the Badger trail up to Valencia, just to make sure we didn’t continue unnessearily down the Bluffs trail, the 36kers were sent out uneventfully to tackle the MDO trails. Not knowing who would be racing this interesting distance, I planned on finding a comfortable pace to settle into, preferably finding a pack to run with. Unfortunately, no one came along.
The first couple miles of this race lead runners along the coastline, via the Bluffs trail. With beautifully rugged cliffs overlooking the Pacific, it’s tough to keep your eyes on the trail for the start of this race. Thankfully this is a wide runnable path, or there would definitely be more rubberneckers eating it on this section of the course.
Taking a left up the Badger trail, runners begin their 1,200-1,500ft climb to the top of Valencia peak. The three mile climb to Valencia starts with a half mile of head high flowing grass, making it extremely difficult to see the trail. Tiptoeing through this section, Badger finally opens up and begins its steep ascent, with the majority of its technical, vertical feet occurring over the last 1.5 miles.
Hitting the beginning of the steeper portion of Valencia’s ascent, I began catching several of the 50k runners making their way up the climb. Wishing them all the best as I passed knowing they were in for a lot more climbing throughout the day, I applauded their patience and persistence. After moving past a few 50k runners, a large group of hikers all wearing the same gray sweatsuits started crowding the trail. Nearly certain this was the local Grizzly Academy (military style camp for youth rehabilitation), unfortunately these girls were making their way up the most technical part of this climb at the exact same time I was. Fortunately, they were all incredibly respectful and moved out the way, even cheering us on as we made our way towards the peak.
Closing in on Valencia, a runner with a sexy, blue Patagonia shirt was making his way to the top. Edder and I caught up briefly and I complimented him on his shirt choice as it’s also my favorite running/outerwear piece. Brent crested the peak as I was nearing the top, and he looked really strong and comfortable. Barring any unseen variables and knowing that he’d been putting in big recent weekends, I expected Brent to crush the remaining marathonish distance. Looking at the post-race results, he definitely did.
The descent from Valencia back to the Start/Finish/aid station is very runnable with a perfect grade for opening up. Knowing this was only a training run, I made a focused effort to relax over these several miles and not let the excitement of the race ruin the goal of the workout. Passing several other 50k runners and some half marathoners that started with a shorter version of the Valencia loop, I pulled into the first aid station and took my time refueling. Normally, I rush through aid stations as quickly as possible, attempting to use as much time as possible on the trail. After MDO, I’m really looking forward to spending more time grazing at Vermont, Leadville and Wasatch.
Heading out from the aid station, runners are taken up the Islay trail towards Barranca and East Boundary. The Islay trail offers several miles of tolerable climbing fire road, before turning up to Barranca. The steeper Barranca trail climbs up and around the backside of Valencia dumping runners onto East Boundary.
Hitting the Islay trail, I caught up to the lead runner of the 50k. Daniel and I spent the next couple miles chatting about trailrunning and upcoming races. The 2nd and 3rd place 50k racers caught up right before the Barranca turnoff, and both runners looked really strong. Daniel decided to slow down as he had another 20 miles of racing left, and I wished him luck.
Hitting the Barranca climb, I settled into a comfortable climbing pace, working to keep my heart rate and breathing in check. Making my way up towards Hazards, I ran into a local trailrunner who I hadn’t met before (there aren’t many of them left). She was moving swiftly along the trail, so I tucked in behind her. Moving along this section, Barranca takes runners up tight, mountain hugging singletrack, with a steep drop off the left left into some very dry and seemingly sharp brush.
We were in mid-conversation, when all of the sudden the all-too-common root catches the toe, and down she went. Either this lady was a veteran trailrunner or ninja in training, because she rolled right into the bushes off the trail and popped immediately back up unscathed. Stopping to check if she was ok and offering to help her up, this tough ass runner brushed herself off and continued on her race…
Hitting East Boundary and starting the climb up the backside of Hazards peak, runners are bound to receive their daily dose of Vitamin D, as the couple mile climb is completely exposed. Thankfully the day was still young, and I really hoped this moderate temp would hold, as the 50k runners would have to make their way through this loop again in 2-3 hours.
Cresting Hazards peak, the three mile descent is some of the most runnable singletrack in all of MDO. Making my way down towards the aid station, I ran right past Loren Davis, a very talented young ultrarunner, while he and his buddy were heading up towards the peak. Pulling into the aid station with five miles to go and after an ass slap by Ethan while hammering on his cow bell, my plan was to slow way down and relax over the last several miles.
Never using a race as a training run, my instincts or rather immaturity kicked in and I started picking it up over the last 5 miles. Thankfully or not thankfully considering my plan to slow down, this loop cuts off the steep ascent to Valencia, so most of the trail was very runnable. Albeit faster than planned, the last few miles were uneventful, and I crossed the line first in 3:13. With tired legs leading into this training week, I was really happy and surprised that I felt strong throughout the run. Knowing that I pushed upwards of a minute per mile faster than I should have, I really hoped that my legs wouldn’t be too beat up to tackle the next several heaviest weeks of training.
The great part of most ultras, especially lowkey events like MDO, is having your vehicle literally a stones throw away from the Start/Finish. After getting in 30 ounces of Physiophyx and taking a wetwipe shower, I quickly changed, stretched and made my way back to the action to cheer on other runners and help out those making their way through the aid station.
The next couple hours were a blast helping runners make their way back out on the trail as quickly as possible, and watching others with ear-to-ear smiles make their way across the finish line. The best part of the afternoon was watching John literally pull the third place runner out from the bed of a pickup truck and push his ass back onto the course. I didn’t get to see this 19 year old finish his first ultra, but I’m sure he thanked John profusely afterwards.
After thanking John and his crew for putting on another great MDO event, I made my way home to clean up, greet Alejandra, and get ready for the Game of Thrones premiere.
What I Learned:
- Using a race as a training run probably isn’t going to work for me moving forward.
- Scrubbing down after runs where poison oak is likely to be around is a must… Nuts to ankles!
- Watching the look on someone’s face when they finish an endurance event still gives me the chills
- We are so damn lucky to live and play on the Central Coast!