June 14-15, 2013
Despite a not great couple of weeks, I am still going to attempt the DRTE 100 mile race. Since I have been given a free entry, I have nothing to lose (but my sanity). Also, there is a 42 hour time limit, so I can afford to go at a fairly pedestrian pace and still finish.
Most of the course will be super familiar, because they had to move the start back to Rancho Oso due to a HUGE fire in the area last week. The first 25 miles are just about identical to the Blue Canyon Trail Race 50M I ran in 2009. (Man, come to think of it, this is going to be tough.)
Robert (the RD), in his wisdom, has decided that everyone needs to suffer, and therefore, the race is starting at 6PM on Friday night. This way, the elite runners get to run through the night as well.
It is about 80 degrees out in the afternoon, so I am having trouble taking a nap in my car for a few hours before the start of the race. I am decked out in my usual finery, plus my Sunmart Tyvek jacket, with gloves and cough drops in the pockets (for my cough and for when it gets cold at night).
It is difficult to get actual sleep, for several reasons, such as, the heat, the proximity of the parking lot to the pool area, the fact that it is afternoon (I put a pillow over my head to block out the light), and I can’t really stretch out anywhere in the car. However, it’s best to get whatever rest I can.
The race does not start promptly at 6pm (close), which is fine, because we will still get 36 hours to finish, and the shorter the period that I am in the heat, the better. On the other hand, how will I fare when it gets dark?
If you have read my 2009, 2010, and 2011 posts about Blue Canyon Trail Race, you know a few details about the course, running through the Rancho Oso Campground, continuing uphill on a narrowing fire trail that gets steeper and steeper, and eventually pops back out on another fire road (which keeps going uphill).
The entire group of people starts out running, but I don’t, so immediately find myself towards the back. As long as the course is well-marked, that isn’t a problem for me. I will either catch up to people, or I won’t. I will run my own race, such as that is.
In the middle of the steep hill up to the fire road, I am passed a second time by a guy with red hair… I guess he either missed a turn or made an early pit stop. Weird.
Once I get up to the main fire road, the going is a little easier (Not as steep), but I am still walking. When I get up to the paved road section (Camino Cielo, I think), I run into a gal who is heading down to the next aid station to volunteer, Nichol des Jardins Clark. Having been out of contact with everyone for over an hour, it is really nice to have a short conversation. It is about a mile hike (down) to the first aid station, which I reach a little after 8pm. Yes, it took me 2 hours and 12 minutes to cover 6 miles!
From this first aid station is my “favorite” section of trail. I have good-slash-bad memories of this section. I know how difficult it will be, but am thankful that it is getting dusky and hopefully, cooler. On the other hand, I am concerned how difficult it will be to proceed in the dark.
The first part of this trail is “rolling hills.” Normally, that would mean that the fire trail road is undulating gently. In this case, it means I am descending down some steep hills and then climbing back out on the other side. While the trail is not technical (read: rocky), it is awkward, the darker it gets. I hope that I might meet up with someone as two heads usually prevail when ‘out of it.’
The second part of this trail is “THE climb.” This is 4 miles of mostly unrelenting uphill, and the average grade is 18%!!! I have done this trail both in 110 degree heat (up or down hill, that is pretty horrible) and in moderate weather but when the trail was not maintained (machete would be helpful). This is mostly new territory, as the brush is not too dense and it is pretty dark out.
The hardest part in the dark is the fact that I have to be super vigilant for the reflective ribbons in the dark. Once I spot a mark, it isn’t so bad, well, except for the fact that I can see the mark, but not necessarily the path that leads to that mark. It is slow going, but about a mile from the top, I do encounter another person. It’s Ralph Keith (52), from the Sacramento area. He is really struggling. We stay together briefly, but his knee is really bugging him, and despite my pedestrian pace, it is a little too slow for me. I tell him we will probably connect at the top, which shouldn’t be too far away (a tough measurement in the dark, though).
The end of the trail connects with a fire road and the aid station.
Unlike many other ultras, I have not consumed a lot of my water, nor do I need very much energy to continue (just top off my water bottles and keep going). I let them know that Ralph is behind me (but it may be a while). There is another runner at the aid station with me – Ashly Miller, one of the few gals in this race. (Also, she ran as a legacy runner (the RD’s word for Charity.)
Before I can leave the aid station, I have to weigh-in. I didn’t mention this earlier, but at the check-in, we had to weigh in, and along the way, we have to make sure that we don’t drop too much weight. At this particular juncture, because the scale is sitting on the ground (and not level, because we are on a hill), it shows I have GAINED 12 pounds. Yes, that’s right. I have gained 12 pounds in the past 4 hours by drinking 32 ounces of water! Fortunately, they let me continue since I seem sane.
I limit my time at this aid station and leave BEFORE the gal who got there before me.
I am mostly familiar with the next section of trail, especially with the surface, but of course, I have never run it at night. The good news here is that it is downhill, and NOT rocky. I am doing my best to run down the hill, but it is mostly a gallop, in order to prevent tripping in the sections where there is a slight upslope.
When I have run this trail (both up and down) in the light, I am able to tell where I am and how far I have left to go, but in the dark, I can only focus a few dozen feet in front of my face. My only indication of where I am on the particular section is when I am not running downhill anymore.
Once I am at the bottom, then the trail turns to the right and becomes more rocky and has a slight uphill section. Even in the light, I have a hard time remembering how long this section continues. In the dark, it is worse. There are no landmarks or relativism. I do remember a long, steep, rocky downhill section, but feel that when the downhill ends, I should be at the aid station. Either I have remembered that incorrectly, or I missed a turn.
I should probably also mention that since there are not a lot of options for side trails, the trail is very sparsely marked here. Instead of ribbons every 25 yards, there are ribbons probably every quarter mile. In the dark, the lack of course markers is alarming. For those that have never been on this course, they don’t know that there is a left-hand turn to some other trail that runs by some houses. I am worried I have missed a turn, and therefore, screwed.
I convince myself to keep going, but out loud I am murmuring to myself whether I should backtrack (uphill) to my last mark… or try and wait for the gal behind me. I decide to continue down the hill to what I think is the back porch light of the houses in here. I can ask them how far it is to get back to the correct route.
When I am about 100 yards away, I realize it is the aid station, and that I was never off course. I am so relieved to see the people. I do another weigh-in, and I am back to my original weight. (Theoretically, this means, I lost 12 pounds in the last hour. Not really.)
Again, out of this aid station, I am familiar with the trail, though it has been over 4 years since I covered this section. The fire road continues, but narrows more and more until it is somewhat of a single-track trail (though I feel like I am just wandering through the bushes). As long as I don’t wander into the reservoir to my left, I am good. Just watch your step!
The highlight of this section was seeing a bunch of markings… well, because I had to climb through the branches of a tree that were blocking my forward progress on the trail.
Further along, I came upon a section of trail which I struggled with in 2009. Three closely connected sections where the trail stopped and opened up onto an angled “field” of loose sand. This is hard to describe, but if you can imagine what it would be like to climb up a large sand dune where the sand is not clumped together. Now imagine that you are traversing the sand dune in the middle of the hill… in the dark… after run/walking for 6 hours… and you are not exactly sure the height at which the trail on the other side picks up.
There were three 50 yards+ sections within the space of a mile-and-a-half and not all of them continued at an elevation equal to where I came into the ‘sand pit.’
Once I cleared that section, I knew the next part would be an easy descent to a creek, with an awkward ascent out the other side. Awkward in the sense that I would be stepping on solid parts of rock within the creek and rising up a hill. Extra awkward in the sense that it was dark and I could not tell what was actually solid and what gave way… until I stepped on it. So a couple of times I did submerge my foot into the creek.
To make things worse, I was looking at my watch and realizing despite having a generous time limit, I was rapidly falling off the minimum pace needed to finish the race, and maybe even approaching some of the time cutoffs (which had not been intimated to us as mandatory or suggested).
It was probably around 3am and it had not gotten cold. I still had my jacket around my waist, and my cough drops and gloves in the pocket were swinging around and banging against my legs. Annoying.
When I got to the top of the hill, I knew I had a harrowing descent (technical) down to the “valley floor.” But, once I got to the bottom, I knew I was near to the next aid station. However, the location was at a different part than originally stated (or remembered), but the guy from the aid station was looking out for us and even hiked out a bit to find me. I mentioned that I was up against the time, but he was encouraging and sent me on my way.
Looking at my watch, I had about 2-1/2 hours for the next section. By my estimation, I needed to reach mile 29.8 by 6:45am (a little over 12 hours for a little less than 50K, albeit in the dark). From the aid station, I descended to a single-track that had a slight descent. I vaguely remembered this trail from 4 years ago, because where I was headed was the turnaround on the 50 miler. Of course, once I reached this point, then everything would be brand new… then again, all this running in the dark made EVERYTHING brand-new.
After about an hour, my watch alarm (from the day before) went off at 5:20am. I shone my headlamp to see the time I was at (should be around 11.5 hours) and all I saw was “00:00:00.” Crap.
I had been noticing for weeks that my watch did not light up that well at night. Now I realize that the battery was running low… and now it had reset. So I didn’t know what time it was or how long I had been out there (other than relatively from when the alarm went off).
I tried to reset my timer, but the best I could do was look at the time and calculate time from the new “midnight” hour.
Not long after this happened, dawn was all but upon me. The trail opened out into a great grassy field and I was headed for a copse (the 50-miler turnaround). In the copse was Hector Aleman, and a little frustrated and addled because he could not find the outbound trail. Seeing as that I had never gone beyond this point, I had little answer for him, but said we could work together to figure out what to do.
There were essentially three paths leading out of here… one was not really a path, though we did hike along a creek bed for a few hundred yards before deciding it was not realistic for it to be a trail.
Next, I decided that since we were headed to Romero Camuesa aid station, that we should follow the arrow that was pointing toward Romero Camuesa ROAD. We followed this trail for 15 minutes, but after failing to see as much one ribbon, I decided we should backtrack and try to take a closer look where we came in, to see where we might have missed a turn.
I began backtracking on the trail I had come in on, and then reversed my course, heading for the copse. Just before I got to the entrance, I saw on the ground a little plastic reflective flag. It should have been sticking out of the grass, but it looked like its plastic stake affixing it to the ground had somewhat melted in the heat of the sun, so it was lying in/under the grass. In the dark, I would have probably seen it, but in the light of day, it was a challenge. The trail did not go into the copse at all, but circumvented it and continued in the direction we had not tackled yet.
Hector seemed skeptical that I had picked the correct direction. He tried to tell me that that was the direction we came in from, but it was not, and I said, “Do what you want, but I am certain now that this is correct.”
He eventually followed me, but we did not run together after that (meaning he never caught up).
It was starting to get warmer and I knew that I had a bit of a hill to climb before arriving at the next aid station. Since I had no idea of my time, I knew I needed to stay consistent and get up there as soon as possible (not running, though).
It was extremely frustrating (other than not knowing how far or what time) because every time that I thought I had reached the fire road at the top, I would crest another INTERMEDIATE hill. Even when I did get to the top, it was still a LONG 1/2 mile to the aid station.
I told myself that if I am not within 20 minutes of 6:45am, that it would be best to stop. The volunteer told me it was 8am!! So, I quit.
Once I stopped, the volunteers told me to scour my body for ticks. I found and removed 4 or 5. Since this aid station was a double-whammy (meaning runners came through here again after an 18-mile loop), I informed runners as they came through to look for ticks. No one believed me, but nearly everyone found some. Yuck.
Hector came in about 30 minutes after I did and quit as well. The volunteers kept trying to encourage us to continue, but I know how little I accelerate mid-race and it just didn’t seem worth it to suffer through another 18-20 miles of hell (I had pretty severe foot blisters, too.) just to quit 7 or 8 hours later.
The girl, Ashly, who I passed preceding the downhill section really struggled and she parked herself about a half-mile out (the top of the hill) trying to secure enough energy to get to the aid station and quit.
Both Hector and I napped in the back of a U-Haul on cots (because it was cooler and dark in there) while waiting for a ride back to the start.
Eventually, the RD’s wife showed up with some supplies and we got a ride back to the start. Probably the funniest moment on that ride back was picking up a runner who was off course (I think he had decided to quit, but didn’t want to slog through the trails and moved off to the paved road, which is where we found him.).
Once I got back to the start, I found a few folks I had run with (half the field ended up dropping). Ralph had gotten to the aid station at mile 12 and dropped. Another runner, Aaron Sorensen (apparently of Long Beach, too), had a stomach issue and had stopped at the same location.
I watched some of the shorter distance race finishes – 30K and 50K – and then waited for the top 2 finishers, who came in 22:55 and 23:30. Just as comparison for how tough this race was (besides the listed 52,000 feet of climbing and descent), the winner at Rocky Raccoon 100M did 12:47, 10 hours faster! I later learned that my friend, Jakob Hermann, had nearly quit, but stuck it out to finish in 38 hours or so.
I drove back to Santa Barbara and spent the rest of the weekend with my cousin Daniel and his partner Henri.
If there’s something I take away from these DNFs, it’s not discouragement. I take each race separately and I realize that conditions and my health dictate whether I have a chance to finish or not. When I finish, it’s about the adventure. I usually don’t finish in first and have finished at the back. If I don’t finish, I strive to do better next time… or realize that I have limitations – I’m not a 20-something average height kid who has endless energy and can bounce back quickly; I’m 6’6″ and in my 40s, but I still love a good challenge.