June 6, 2009
After Miwok, I was interested in doing another ultra, but didn’t know exactly what was next on the schedule besides maybe doing Skyline 50K again (but that conflicted with the Dave Hancock 1/4 Ironman Triathlon or my 20-year high school reunion). There are a few places that I look for information about races – a couple of places online and “The Schedule,” which is the USAT&F magazine. These RARELY have information about ultras, though. I looked in the back of Ultrarunning Magazine, and there was a posting for a brand-new race in Santa Barbara called the Blue Canyon Trail Race.
It advertised distances of 50K, 50M and 100K… for $25… whichever race you wanted to run. This seemed too good to be true, however. (This would be like running a 5K and paying $1.50.) The race director said that he would rather lose a little money but get enthusiastic people to the race. OK. Sounds intriguing.
Some of my cousins live in the Santa Barbara area (the ones closest to me in age, at least), so I figured this would be a bonus way to get to see them. I called my cousin Daniel, and he said that they would be around that weekend and I could stay with him.
I drove up Friday afternoon and went to go pick up my bib and cotton T-shirt at a downtown Santa Barbara Outdoor Outfitter. I parked a ways away (to get a better parking rate), so by the time I got back to my car (and then to head over to Daniel’s to meet for dinner), I realized that I had not gotten my bib number after all (maybe they forgot to put it in the bag). When I went back, the organizers had moved the bib pick-up to the host restaurant… so I hiked over there (about a mile away), and was informed that it was the OTHER branch of the restaurant and got directions to that location. (And walked back the mile to my car.)
Then I drove over to that location, got my bib number (exasperated, because I didn’t intend to walk an additional 2 miles BEFORE doing an ultra), berated the RD a bit for the confusion, and then went over to Daniel’s, for dinner and some rest.
On Saturday morning, I made my way to the start. The race is in the Los Padres National Forest and is a bit of a long haul to the race start. I allowed an hour to be on the safe side, since I didn’t really know where I was going. You take one of the last Santa Barbara exits – Hwy 154, towards Solvang and the Santa Ynez Valley. This road heads uphill, twists and turns a lot, and then descends into the valley. Almost at the bottom of the hill, you turn off into the National Forest area.
This is the ‘dead zone’ for cellular phones. The total boonies.
This road twists and turns around quite a bit and passes a number of camping areas and remote private roads. Suddenly, I see the sign for Rancho Oso, the host “resort” for the race. This is another 5 minutes on their private (read: rickety crappy) road, through a couple of hairpin turns into the resort’s valley.
At the gate, I have to pay $10 to park (wish I knew that earlier, but for $25 for the race, what do I really want?) and head over to the race HQ building to check-in.
I had convinced a couple of my friends to join me in this endeavor – Shawn Shue – a Hash House Harrier friend – and Stacy Shourt (a gal from AREC who has done beaucoup marathons). Both are running the 50K (which we now hear is 34 miles), and I am doing the 50M (which is closer to 51M) (and both are “SS”).
There are a few pre-race instructions – mostly which ribbons to follow (blue ribbons, not red ribbons) and about how there is lots of poison oak on the course. (Great!)
Without too much fanfare, we are off! (50M and 50K started together; 100K started a little earlier)
The first section of trail ranges between flat and sandy, to sandy and uphill (amidst lots of poison oak), then graduates to uphill, uphill, UPHILL.
Within about 5 miles, I have a MAJOR problem… my duct tape covering my nipples is coming off (I must have bought a crappy brand.). I cannot tolerate the rubbing (yes, even on a technical shirt) for 12 or 14 (the time limit) hours. To avoid early chafing, I am physically lifting the shirt off my chest to keep it from rubbing, but this is pretty awkward.
Shawn surges ahead of me and I figure I will see him when he is returning from the 50K turnaround and I continue past that point. After 5 or 6 miles, I see Stacy… she was a little late (maybe got lost getting here?). We run together for the most part through to the 10-mile point. This was really important, turns out, because Miles 6-10 were insanely difficult.
On this section, the grade ranged between 10 and 20 percent (uphill) and it was often hard to discern exactly where the trail was because it was so overgrown. In other words, a machete would have not been unwelcome. It was important to have someone nearby to blaze the trail for you.
After a couple of frustrating miles, we started to spot the end in sight – a large firetrail off in the distance (and an EZ-UP demarcating the 10-mile aid station). We finally reached the destination, and my total time was 3 hours, 40 minutes (for 10 miles!).
Once on the fire-road, the going was a lot easier, mostly because there was no bushwhacking and because it was net downhill. The road provided a great birds’-eye view of the area and you could almost see the 50K turnaround on the other side of the dam area.
At the bottom of the hill, the surface turned from red to yellow (blinding, almost) and flattened out to run through some very interesting looking rock formations. I had moved from holding my shirt out to pulling the front of the shirt off and tucking it behind my neck. I am not a ‘run with my shirt off’ guy, but this was better than chafing.
After passing by the dam, we began heading downhill once more towards the aid station. A few minutes before we reached it, I saw Shawn coming up the hill. He informed me that due to a grievous error, I was welcome to anything in his drop-bag.
What had happened was that the drop-bags for the 50K (and 50M) had been delivered to Mile 18, instead of Mile 16. The first competitors through were told by the volunteers that their drop bags were at the turnaround, so they all continued… later, this was corrected… then the newly arriving competitors had the option to run an extra 4 miles to get their drop bags… or to turn around at the proper location. This resulted in two sets of winners – ones that did 34 miles and ones that did 38 miles! The course was tough enough without having to do extra distance.
Stacy and I got to Mile 16 in 4:40 (10 minute miles!) and then I bade her farewell (she offered me her drop bag stuff as well). She finished in 8 hours or so, and was the 34 mile female winner!
From the dam, I headed downhill and around this random lake to Mile 18 (where the drop bags were). There really wasn’t anything that I wanted in either bag, but at least the opportunity was there.
The course continued on rolling hills – some with yucca really close to the path – some on angled sand (where you had to walk at an uphill angle to avoid sliding off the trail). On this section, I was passed by Juliet Morgan, a 43-year old cute blonde woman, who was competing in the 100K. I was perplexed why she would be passing me, but she said that she had missed a turn (or two).
I reached Mile 23 in 7 hours, 10 minutes (major slowdown again; 7 miles in 2:30), but I was about 4 miles from the turnaround. This section was pretty and pretty difficult. The trail seemed to get lost in the woods and at times I was walking on rocks on and along a mountain stream. The descent was very technical and rocky and deposited itself into a wide open valley.
Based upon GPS readings a few runners had given me, I was ‘less than a mile’ from the turnaround, but it never seemed to get very close. Finally, I saw the ribbons and a few gallon jugs of water! Turn-around!
I retraced my steps back through the valley, up the technical hill, down along the mountain stream and out of the woods. There was a slightly confusing stretch where we ascended through thigh-deep (on me) yellow brush, but since I didn’t want to get lost, I noted that the direction I wanted to go had red ribbon marking it, so I followed the blue ribbon direction (as stated in the directions). About 25 minutes later, Juliet passed me again! (Your time would be so much better if you paid better attention to the course!) I think this was the final time, but 3 times getting lost is plenty!
I made it back to the Mile 31 (aka Mile 23) aid station in 9 hours and 10 minutes (15 minutes/mile for 8 miles). By now, I was beginning to be concerned that I could not finish an additional 20 miles in under 5 hours (given that I had been averaging 15/mile or slower), but I was annoyed at the state of the course – how little maintained it had been, so I decided I would get defensive if they tried to pull me from the course.
I now retraced my steps along the yucca and sandy hill sections. This had gotten a lot worse as two dozen people had now tromped through it twice and I had to put my hand down a couple of times to brace myself. I was also getting pretty sunburned (but not chafed). I got back to the Dam aid station in 10:40 (90 minutes for about 6 miles; still averaging 15/mile). I was pretty spent and needed some help refilling my water bottle. The water “jugs” were HUGE 50+ gallon containers with a pump that you needed to press several times to force the water up. The volunteer just sat there and explained HOW to do it, but didn’t lift a finger to help me. A**hole!
From this station, I headed back through the strange rock formations (with the blinding white road surface) to the tough uphill toward the aid station before the bushwhacking descent. I didn’t average the same 10 minute miles heading UP the hill (well, and also another 5 hours on my feet later), but got there in 12:10. Now I have 110 minutes to complete 9 miles! (That’s not going to happen, but I will keep pressing forward.)
I head back down the bushwhack section (I have to pull my shirt back on; otherwise, I will get cut-up. I am back to lifting my shirt with my hands to prevent the chafing. It is still slow-going, but at least it is downhill! I reach the Mile 43 aid station (unmanned and unwomanned) in 13:10. I think that I am just 5 miles from the end, but realize that I need to make up the distance somehow to get to 51 miles… this means I need to head uphill once again… and now it starting to get dark and I will definitely NOT make the time cutoff… but I still want to finish this challenging course.
At this point, I am hoping that we stay on this wide fire-road, because I am realizing in the dark that blue ribbon does not exactly shine in the dark. Probably close to halfway up, I encounter a couple of runners who did not start with a flashlight, who are turning back and following the shorter (and easier) way down. John Wog and his friend finish a little under 14 hours, but I wonder how their times would stack up against stumbling through the dark on the actual course.
When I get to the top of the hill and the final (Mile 47) aid station, I have my speech all prepared, because I am at least 10 minutes over the total time limit (and still have 4 miles to go). The volunteer is one of the RD’s brother-in-law, and he is sympathetic. It is actually a nice surprise, because every other volunteer was totally apathetic, pathetic even. He tells me that they vastly underestimated the difficulty of the course and are waiting for all finishers to come in, in whatever time is necessary. I totally appreciate that.
It is SUPER cold at the top of the hill and the volunteer offers me his jacket to wear on the way down. I refuse a number of times until he finally insists that I MUST use his jacket. I accede.
This turns out to be a boon, as there is a TON of poison oak on the course and this protects my arms from ‘contracting’ a rash. After 10 minutes, it isn’t too cold out, but I still appreciate the protection (and the thought).
The trail is extremely difficult to follow, even with a flashlight. There are several dozen switchbacks, and what mostly keeps me from getting off trail is glow sticks, but even so, I would see a glow stick in the distance, but it might be 5 switchbacks away. Maybe some flour on the turns would have helped.
There are a number of stream crossings and nothing looks very familiar. When I am through the worst of it, I encounter a 100K runner, Hans Schmid. We work together (and groupthink convince ourselves of the trail, and get off it several times) to get down to the trail we started on. Once we see some of the trailers and cabins of the resort, we know we are (somewhat) close. OK… not as close as we thought, but at least, we are 1-2 miles close!
I finally get across the finish line in 15:58 (almost 2 hours over the time limit). I am pretty proud of my time, considering just how difficult the race really was (with mistakes, indifferent volunteers and a vicious trail (with or without overgrowth).
A number of the promised post-race activities are nowhere to be found, either not happening or not planning to be happening… and there is virtually no one at the finish AND our drop bags are not available, either, but I make plans to pick up my bag from the RD’s house the next day on my way back to Long Beach.
When I finally get out of the ‘dead zone,’ I have a few messages on my phone from Daniel, wondering where the heck I am. This feels like a Santa Barbara tradition – 6 years ago at Nine Trails, the race took considerably longer than I thought. Maybe it is the trails! Once I can call him, I let him know I am all right, but tired.
A few weeks later, I e-mail the race direction with constructive criticism (as I told him I would after we talked at length when I picked up my drop bag). He is not overly sensitive, and is eager to put on a quality race. In the months leading up to the 2010 event, he addresses the issues of 2009. Whether the changes work or not, we will find out in a year.