Dude, where’s my shoe?
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)
What I Learned
- Early pacing in an ultra nearly always pays dividends in the later miles
- An early season race done at a fitness level under 100% is completely ok, as long as you modify expectations
- Racing with someone at a similar fitness level is an excellent way to spend miles
- Albeit a bit sticky, the So Cal trails are big and beautiful
- In-N-Out still tastes amazing, even after 4 years of not eating meat