Wet… Muddy… Windy… Sloppy… Awesome!!!
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 50 mile 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
- Don’t do a beer mile after an ultra!!!