March 23, 2013
Since the Twin Peaks 50K (drop down from 50M) last year, I had maintained a FB correspondence with Lauren Miertschin, my partner-in-crime (from her including me in her race video to hanging out at the finish waiting for our bags) – us slow folk got to stick together! She had noted in February that some spots on the Old Goats 50M waiting list were opening up and suggested (rather, ASKED on HER birthday) that we see if we could get in. I got on the waiting list, and 10 minutes later, was in the race.
Additionally, I would note that I really wanted to run Way Too Cool, but had been on the waiting list as #160… but by the week before the race ended at #2… and did not get in.
Lauren gave me some advice about the course (which I had mostly never done, though parts of it were parts of Twin Peaks), especially the “Candy Store loop,” which was the first 21.0 miles of the course and had the first cutoff of 6 hours (or 6-1/2 hours if started early). She lives somewhat near to the course and said that she had never gone faster than 6-1/2 hours in any of her training runs, so was somewhat concerned that she would not be able to continue.
My further correspondence with Lauren was the possibility of carpooling together to the race. She lives in Dana Point (close to the start as I said), so I said that I might drive down on Friday night, camp out in my car near her house and then we could drive up together in the morning (there was some instruction from the RD that if you carpooled, the driver would get a $10 refund and the passenger $5… to cut down on cars parked in the park). She said that I could sleep on her sofa.
So, I drove down Friday and timed it so I would arrive close to the time she would be home (rather than freaking out neighbors by “stalking her”). It’s a nice neighbor a bit right off the main drag, so I did drive around the block a few times trying to find the place.
I got to meet her family – 3 sons and a husband – and ate a spaghetti dinner with them… plus she made them be quiet early. I felt bad, but at the same time, we probably needed sufficient rest for a tough next day.
The early start on the race is an hour before everyone else, but you only have an additional 30 minutes for the first 21 miles. This was foreshadowing on the confusion that I encountered during the race.
As I have been doing the last couple of events, to give myself a better idea of where I am at in the general scheme of things, I created a pace sheet, mostly for where I wanted to be, and where I had to be… especially to make it through the first 21 miles in under 6-1/2 hours. Usually, the cutoffs on these races correspond pretty closely with the time needed to complete the race. In a few instances, you will see a tougher-than-needed cutoff to account for darkness. Rarely do you see a more generous cut-off, only because runners do not tend to accelerate in the latter stages of the race.
I noted that I needed to be at the Bear Springs aid station (a couple of miles after climbing up the Holy Jim Trail) by 3:00pm in order to maintain pace and finish by 8:00pm. The website, however, indicated that if you made it through by 5:00pm, you would not get pulled. While generous, this would mean that I would need to do the last 16 miles (not all downhill) in 3 hours, or about 12 minutes per mile, even though the pace to get to this aid station by 5:00pm was approximately TWENTY minutes per mile!! I hoped that I would come through in the 3:00pm range.
There were not a ton of early starters, and that also meant that the volunteers at the start were not necessarily ready for us yet. Jean Ho was still trying to get all of the race bibs together. But everything came together and we started on time.
The first part of the course was an ascent out of the start/finish area. I immediately slowed to a walk to get myself going at an easy pace. Once we cleared the hills, the course went into a single-track heading out of the campground area. It was EXTREMELY technical (rocky) and it was not easy going in the dark. If I had run this trail a few times, I might be more familiar with it, but I stopped several times to let more familiar folks pass by, because I was not willing to fall down early on just to go a bit faster.
The elevation on this section was not significant. I would say ‘rolling hills,’ if I ever got myself completely oriented. There was a bit of descent, but for the most part, it was traversing a hillside with little view of the rest of the trail (large bushes/shrubs on either side of the single-track). Once the sun came up, it was really quite pleasant and cool. The first aid station was in the middle of this part (6.7M) and I came through in about 15 minutes per mile – I need to maintain a little over 18 minute miles to complete the 21 mile section in under 6-1/2 hours.
If you have run a marathon slowly, 6-1/2 hours for TWENTY-SIX miles seems excessive, and for 21 miles, over the top, but understand, this is a tough trail course. It’s slow, but not ludicrous, in terms of time.
Soon after the aid station, we left the shrubby ridge trail and headed down into more marshy, riverside climes. There was a point where I saw arrows coming from another direction, and figured that this is where the inbound trail would loop back towards the start. It was also around this point that the on-time starters started passing me, a few at a time. I was expecting Dave Binder to be among the front-runners, but he did not pass me until about 3 miles short of mile 21 – he had arrived late and so was behind early.
A little later, I reached the halfway point on this trail… and the Candy Store Aid station at Mile 11. I had lost a little of my pace, but was still under 17 minute miles and thereby, on pace. I had not seen Lauren. She had passed me on the uphill section and I caught her a few miles later. I hoped that she was slightly behind me, because I really wanted both of us to make the cutoff.
From this point, the trail continued straight, paralleling the Ortega Highway (not reversing direction). There was a cool section where we were going down a rock stairway of sorts. I maintained a jogging pace, knowing that when I got back into the shrub single-track section, I would need to push it slightly and there was quite a bit of uphill.
About 15 minutes before I got back to the point where I had seen arrows on the outbound part of the course, I came upon a runner coming towards me on the trail. He asked me where he might have missed the turn-off. I felt bad, because I knew that it might be quite a ways (tried to describe about ‘crossing a creek’ and something). I suggested maybe he might continue and then run the rest of the section backwards, but he followed me back to the intersection. I assume he was not an early starter, so might still have enough time to make the cutoff.
I got back to the Chiquita Falls aid station (the first, and now third), and had dropped another 30 seconds per mile aggregate. I now had 1 hour, 57 minutes to complete 5.2 miles. I felt pretty good… but then again, it could be close depending on how I tackled the terrain.
Towards the end of the single-track, I became a bit despondent, because I thought maybe I won’t make it after all (and because it all looked somewhat the same and every time I thought I was getting close, I would turn another corner and it looked the same, AGAIN), but soon after, I reached the campground road, and knew I could do the mile or so in under 30 minutes, and I even pushed the pace a bit, knowing that I would probably need every bit of time to finish the entire race.
When I arrived at the Mile 21 aid station, I was at 6 hours and 8 minutes. Laura and Chuck were helping man the station, and I also saw Dave Binder (still) there. He had decided to call it a day. Sometimes, I guess, it just isn’t your day, though I think he would have had no problem finishing. He offered me a beer, and I took him up on the offer, even though I did really need to get going.
Dave giving me a well-deserved beer.
I “wasted” about 10 minutes before continuing. I hadn’t seen Lauren, but held out hope that she was just behind me.
The trail continued further into the campground, but eventually came out and got into some of the back-country fire roads (some partially paved). Once I was on this road, it began a fairly steep upgrade that continued for well over a mile to the next aid station, resulting in a slow pace of 21 minutes per mile. I haven’t even completed a marathon distance and I’m already over 7 hours!
The next section is a 3.2 mile descent down West Horsethief to the base of Holy Jim. I know that once I get near to the bottom, the course will seem “slightly” familiar (because I have done this section as part of the Twin Peaks race last year). The downhill leading to that point, however, is somewhat steep and rocky (read: slippery) – somewhat treacherous – and made more treacherous by the fact that I have done 20 miles of trails in 7 hours and am pretty tired to boot.
Familiarity with a section, however, does not make that section any easier. The trail through the “familiar” section is flat and mostly downhill, but I am both hot… and worried about how bad Holy Jim could be. I SHOULD be at the top by 3pm, but it’s already 12:30pm, and it’s 6 miles of substantial uphill.
I spend little time at the Holy Jim aid station, knowing I need to get a move on.
The beginning part of Holy Jim is not that bad – a minor ascent out from the aid station, and then a flat, slightly uphill section through some houses/cabins. About a mile in, you reach the trail, and another half mile from here, you start hitting the steep switchbacks. The approximately elevation gain is 4,000 feet in 4 miles! It is TOUGH. I am just walking, and not even walking with any pace. It is about surviving and hoping that I am close to that 3:00pm time.
Once I get to the top of the switchbacks and on to the Main Divide, it is still another mile-plus to the aid station. When I get there, I look down at my watch – 4:07pm – nearly an hour slower than where I need to be, BUT the aid station captain tells me, “Good news. We have extended the cutoff at this aid station by 30 minutes, due to the heat.” I ask about whether the overall time cutoff has been extended, because, well, I already made this cutoff, but I could use another 30 minutes (or 2 hours) to get to the finish.
I again waste little time and begin heading up more hills.
The trail here is less steep than on Holy Jim, but no less exhausting. There are longer stretches but basically it is still switchbacks. There is a unmanned water drop at Upper Holy Jim, and this is probably the worst section, because it is steep, rocky, and unshaded. At least I am on a fire road, but it is tough.
About 3/4 of the way up, I do finally get into the shade. It cools me off a bit. It is also nice seeing folks, since I have had some sections where I have not seen anyone (especially going up Holy Jim for 40 minutes or longer – this includes physically seeing ANYONE off in the distance). It is nice to have conversation consisting of “Hi.”
The top of the hill is the highest point on the course, Santiago Peak. In pushing the pace, I have done 23 minute miles, but I am increasingly concerned about the overall time cutoff. The people at the aid station seem to think that I will be OK.
As I head back down the hill, I see Lauren (she DID make the cutoff by about 8 minutes – must have just missed her) and she is not in last. Cris Francisco, the sweep, and I have a brief conversation. He tells me that “they’ll let me finish” because I easily made the Bear Springs time cutoff. That makes me happy, but I still try to push the pace as much as I can downhill, and manage 16 minute miles (not the 12 I think I need to finish by 8pm).
Now I am about 10 miles from the finish, and there is no more tough climbing, but my feet hurt quite a bit from the hard surface of the roads and trails, so I am reduced to jog/walking along the Main Divide, at around an 18:00/mile pace. I stop briefly at the next aid station (Mile 42.0), just to refill my water bottle and then keep on going.
I run a bit of the next section with Kristen Trujillo, and her friend, who apparently hosts the Nanny Goat 24 hour race (1 mile loops, boring!) later this year. It is nice to have someone with you on the trail. As I come into the West Horsethief Aid station, the captain tells me that I am done. What?!?! They told me I could continue.
We argue about it for a bit, and someone suggests that they ask the Race Director for clarification. I would rather have been pulled at Bear Springs for being an hour too slow (I KNEW I was too slow) than 5 miles from the finish after being told I could finish!
There is some trouble in getting ahold of the RD (bad reception). I suggest that I continue and if they drive by me and say I am done, I will abide by it, but no, I have to stand there for 15 minutes while they confirm that I cannot continue.
Although it is not yet 8pm (it’s like 7:30), there was some confusion because they apparently told the ham radio operators that the race ended at 7pm, so when they wanted to extend the time limit by 30 minutes, it was 90 minutes for those folks, and they balked. I mean, I understand about keeping everyone safe, but I know I could have finished by 9pm.
Lauren got swept up just behind me, but she was not as perturbed. I am more upset about how it transpired (giving me false hope) than not finishing. I mean, I did almost 45 miles of an extremely tough course!
This is one of those situations where one would normally say, “I will be back and I will finish,” but I say that with a caveat, “I MIGHT be back (if I could get some clarity on the cutoffs) and (then) I WILL finish.”
And thus ends my streak of 20 consecutive months finishing an ultramarathon, and I will soon end my streak of 37 consecutive months of completing at least a marathon distance in race (which includes a few DNFs), because, honestly, my body needs a break.