July 7, 2012
There is this “fabulous” trail in Orange County known as the Harding Truck Trail… or more beautifully known as “Modjeska Canyon.” Modjeska Canyon sounds nicer. Truck Trail sounds like a lot of uphill that only a truck can handle.
I’ve done probably 3 trail runs (training, not racing) on this path, but have never actually gone all the way to the top. In fact, last year, Laura and I needed a tough training run to prepare for the Santa Barbara Endurance Race, so we went over midweek to do a training run. It rained at the bottom, hailed in the middle, and snowed on top. We stopped when we hit a snow-covered course, because we were not dressed for arctic conditions.
The best part about a training run on this trail is that it takes a lot less time to get back to the start than it does to get up to the top. I have had 10 mile runs on this trail where the first 5 miles took me 2-1/2 hours and the second 5 miles took me 1-1/2 hours!
With this “fun” in mind, Laura had previously run the Harding Hustle 30K and convinced me that this was a good option for my July ultramarathon. The one major downside of the race is the severely limited parking lot (maybe room for 15 cars), but Laura had researched a doable alternative – she had had a conversation with a local with room for 8 cars in her yard and paid her $10 to park for the day (and it was about a 5-minute walk from the start). This meant that we didn’t have to fight for parking spaces, nor take a shuttle from 5 miles away. (Or get up super-early.)
The first bit of the slog – 4.5 miles – is 85% uphill. This is where I do a lot of walking (and fall WAY behind most of the folks in the race). There is a small section about 3/4 mile in where there is a nice little descent. It was all I could do to not go sprinting down this section, because I knew I had to have something left to climb up the next hill. The first aid station was about halfway up the first main hill and I covered it in about 82 minutes (or 18 minutes per mile). I was definitely one of the 5 slowest people at this point.
The next section is about 4.6 miles and is ALL uphill. There isn’t a lot to see here; I try to visualize certain landmarks on the way up, so that I have reasonable confidence on the descent that I am “getting close.” The last landmark will be the annoying uphill section about 3/4 mile from the end (see last paragraph). The spot before that is some oddly-shaped branches and a burned out area probably 6 miles from the end. Other than that, I am just seeing lots of dusty fire-road and switchback sections where I can look down and see that no runners are behind me. The second aid station is the de facto “top of the hill,” though there is still more ascent to come. I am able to move a mite faster (not much, though) and cover this slightly longer section in 78 minutes (about 12 seconds per mile faster – WHOO!).
They are supplying HEED for recovery drink and the volunteer really wants to pour out what I have in my bottle (Clif Shot powder and water) instead of mix it. Knowing that water is often short on these courses (even if they don’t intend that to happen, but it is, after all, July), I say not to worry about it mixing. I think the issue is that mine contains some sugar and HEED does not. Whatever.
The next section is a bit flatter and I have a better idea of where I am going, whereas before, I was doing a little section, a switchback, or a turn around the edge of a hill to a different section. The distance to the next aid station isn’t particularly far – about 1.6 miles – but I do remember from the map that I have to climb to the top of Modjeska Peak, which sounds troublesome, so I don’t push the pace too hard. Since 1.6 miles takes me 30 minutes, I feel like I am really going to be pressed later on, but try to assuage myself that I can pick up some time on the downhills.
Out of this aid station, I am doing an out-and-back to Modjeska Peak. For part of the distance, I am joined by the course sweep, Jim Tello. This is because I am in last place formally. On the one hand, it is a bit depressing that I am in last place, but on the other hand, I appreciate the company. This section is a mile of uphill, mostly single-track. At the start of the single-track, the technical aspect (i.e. rocks) isn’t too bad, but it worsens the further up I go. It is slow going, and will be slow-going on the downhill section because I don’t run really well on loose rocks. However, I am able to cover the two miles in 35 minutes (I did run a bit on the rocky downhill.) and kept my overall pace under 18 minute miles. [To make the 15.8 mile cutoff, I need to maintain 19:25/mile, and I need 17:25 for the whole race… so I am a bit behind the net pace, but ahead of where I MUST be at.]
Once I clear Modjeska Peak, the fire-road is rolling hills and I am able to run consistently for the first time in the race. It is hard after walking for nearly 4 hours. It is essentially a 5K (still uphill mostly though, despite rolling hills) to the Santiago Peak turn-around. Jim is with me much of the way until we catch someone who is struggling more than I am on the steady uphill climb to the Santiago Peak aerials. I manage 53:20 (improved my pace once again).
Although I made it well ahead of the cutoff, they are packing up to leave, since after me, there is but one more runner trailing. I fill up my water bottles and eat a bunch of watermelon. They warn me that the temperature is heading northward, and I am starting to feel it. Gosh, I don’t do particularly well in heat, but I am hoping that gravity will pull me down the hills.
The 5K back to “base camp” for Modjeska Peak is more uphill than downhill (since it is essentially the reverse of what I just did), and I cover it in 43:18 (about 10 minutes faster than the uphill direction).
Alas, though, I need to do the mile out and mile back Modjeska Peak route AGAIN… and it is pretty miserably hot on this section. I would love to say that I accelerated on this section again, but the reality is that I am 19 miles in, the temperature is hotter and it is still a sucky hill! Instead of a mere 35 minutes, it is 40 minutes this time… but at least my net pace is now at 17:15, 10 seconds per mile (10 x 20) ahead of the cutoff.
Now I head back down to the top of the hill aid station. Naturally, they are pretty short on water, due to the heat. I am able to get some water by breaking down some of the ice in the cooler. At least they do not need to take care of a lot more runners, just a couple. I cover the 1.6 miles in 26:41 (about 3 minutes faster than up).
Now I have the more substantial downhill section coming up of 4.6 miles, through lots of switchbacks and the burnt out section through unusual plants (maybe just burned out trees?). I would like to press the pace, because it is significantly downhill, but the heat is just rising up from the road and it is like running through a hair dryer. It’s pretty miserable. Nonetheless, I am able to cover the section in 63:27 (15 minutes faster!). At least now I feel confident that I will finish substantially under the time.
I have only the last section left, which is now 85% downhill, with only the miserable last gasp uphill part to make me suffer. The other part I can focus on is a house near the bottom. With about 3 miles to go, it is easy to spot and focus on – “That’s where I’m going.”
I am still struggling in the heat and then I get to the last uphill section. Oh. My. Gosh. I can’t run this section; in fact, all I can do to keep moving forward is lean forward, and very nearly lift my legs with my hands and arms. I keep telling myself that when I get to the top of the hill, I can just lean forward and gravity will take me in to the finish.
The last section is very steep downhill and I go by the start (the gate blocking trucks from driving on the Truck Trail) and run about 100 yards on a paved road to the finish. I finish the whole race in 8 hours and 32 minutes. Laura, who I barely saw all day (maybe on the first Modjeska Peak climb), finishes 12 minutes ahead of me. The heat did her in, too.
At the finish, I am somewhat disappointed, because they have raviolis and sauce. HOT raviolis. I would like to stick my mouth in an ice box, but instead I am heating it up with a hot meal.
Despite a tough race, I now have 7 ultras in 7 months for 2012 (and around 3 years of running at least a marathon distance race every month). I have made it over “the hump” and hope I can struggle through another 5 ultras and reach my ultimate year-end goal.