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!