January 17, 2015
Since I opted not to run the Avalon 50M, I have been “in the market” for some kind of long-ish trail race for January or February (I have Way Too Cool 50K on my birthday in March.). I don’t have anything in particular in mind, but earlier this week, I saw a posting from Jean Ho about the inaugural Soboba Trail 50K.
I am a bit wary of inaugural any distance races, particularly ultras, because there is so much that is not thought through. I am slightly heartened because they have put on a 5K and 10K before (like that’s ‘just like putting on an ultra’) so at least they have an idea about what goes into putting on a race.
Their website is not particularly helpful, except for an overlay on a map that shows the course and the elevation change. It looks like there are some hills, but nothing I ca)n’t handle. As for location of aid stations, what is at the aid stations, or other details, it is pretty lacking. I am waiting for an e-mail response before I dive in and do this race. (I am also hoping that I can convince someone to come with me – there is also 5K and 25K distances – though a friend running anything other than the 50K will probably have to wait awhile.)
After a couple of days waiting for an e-mail, I finally break down and call the contact number and talk to a very nice (and apologetic) guy, who gives me better details (not exactly what I needed but I feel a bit better). He says that the folks monitoring the e-mails probably forgot to forward to him particularly (something they didn’t think of).
By this point, I have missed the online sign-up deadline and will have to pay an additional $10 at the start… but they re-open the registration for an additional 48 hours (and best of all, do not charge a credit card fee) so I am able to sign up and save $10 (for gas to Riverside County, probably).
I have to get a really early start in the morning, because it is probably a 90 minute drive (and I should allow extra time in case there are any issues).
As part of my pre-race prep, I don’t really eat anything, but I try to make sure that everything is out of my system so that I don’t have a mid-race bowel movement. I am still having issues with my fissure healing (I am waiting for a special medication to be prepared.) so, of course, when I “go” in the morning, I am bleeding.. and when I am bleeding, sitting for prolonged periods REALLY hurts! Great. I am about to embark on a 90-minute drive.
I get out the door a little before 5am (!) but make pretty good time on the freeway, as there are not a lot of Saturday morning commuters. I have my basic directions, though when I get into Riverside, there is some freeway interchange spot where I wrack my brain trying to remember what it looked like on the map. Hopefully, I have picked the correct direction and will see the name of the exit I need to get to Hemet.
After my usual paranoia and wondering if I maybe needed to go on the other road, I spot the exit a few miles off. Phew! Now I have a bit scary two-lane highway drive for about 8 miles (windy and a few locals that would like to drive faster than the posted speed limit). I have more precise directions here (as in, “drive 8 miles, turn left and go 2 miles,”) so I get to each listed street at approximately the right time (and I am ahead of schedule).
After some time, I began seeing signs for the Soboba Indian Casino and soon enough, I pass by it on my right (totally empty parking lot). My directions say to continue to the guard gate. The gal there asks me, “Are you here for the marathon?” “Sure, the marathon,” I reply, and I am in. (Hope she doesn’t mind that I am actually here for the 50K…)
I follow my next set of directions, but Mapquest didn’t have a lot of details on the Reservation streets (all listed as “Private Roads”)… and of course, I miss the first necessary turn (but then again, the street I am on dead-ends), so I have to U-turn and then get on that road. The landscape is somewhat bleak. There are a few homes here, but are primitive (not in the sense of lean-tos and tepees, but of the ilk you see driving through rural California, fenced off, and basic).
After about a half mile on this road, hand-made signs for the race begin to appear on the road. Now I have to worry less about precisely this turn and that turn and just follow arrows. Eventually, I turn off onto a narrower road and am heading to the sports field area. There is a nice baseball field to my left and a good-sized parking lot straight ahead with some tents and tables set up to the side. I park wherever and go to sign in.
When I get to the check-in table, of course,they do not have any of my information. I mention that I did only sign-up online a few days before. They say that they probably trust me and direct me to the problems table-slash-timing table. Jean Ho’s business partner, Lambert Timmermans (Negative Split Running) is there saying that he has my information but that they didn’t give that information back to the Sobobans but everything is OK. Jean is not there; she is taking a chainsaw class (to operate a chainsaw when doing trail maintenance work), but Jean has been so helpful as a somewhat go-between. When I was trying to recruit others to participate, she negotiated a 10-hour time limit. That’s pretty generous, unless the course is super-hard.
Come 7am, the race starts. There are maybe 12 people in the 25K and 6 of us in the 50K. We are told that there are 4 aid stations on the course, that we should maybe hit twice. The first two aid stations are in the initial 5K loop of the course. They will be unmanned, but may be gone when we do our second loop. The third aid station is at approximately 6 miles and the fourth aid station at 12 miles. Both of these latter stations will have water and food.
I recognize one person in the 50K (and 25K, for that matter). It’s Eric Hodges. I know the name; we haven’t run together, but I think he ran Santa Barbara 100M last year and I met his wife. He is a pretty good ultra-runner and will probably finish in the top 5. I am hoping for 5th or 6th.
The first bit of the course is paved – maybe 25 feet – and then straight up (no joke) a long hill at least 15% grade elevation on trail. It keeps going up and up and up, though the grade lessens after a couple of tenths. About a mile in, we pass the first aid station, which consists of a large table with some jugs of water on it. I don’t really need anything yet. Additionally, on our way up here, we passed by AS2 (same set-up) but we will pass by this on the way back down the hill and do so at about 2 miles.
Having seen only 2 miles so far of the course, I realize why they have two water stops on their 5K – this is a supremely difficult 5K (later, I saw the results and only a dozen people finished under 30 minutes). When we get to the bottom of the hill, there is a nice flat section where the course literally snakes across the landscape – it is almost frustrating because you can see where you are going… on the other hand, I was able to wave to other runners! Just when I think the hills are over, there is a 25% grade 10 foot long hill UP… and back down. Too steep to run downhill! Random. Then we vaguely ran by the start and headed downhill further into a sandy and dry riverbed. I glanced at my watch (figured I finished around 5K here) and I was at 42 minutes. Wow.
We continued on through this dry riverbed. I was able to catch a few ladies (when one of them tripped in the deep sand and I helped her up). The course was well-marked, though a dozen of us missed a turn and kept trudging through the riverbed. I ended up backtracking (though probably could have cut over to the course, but I like to run the entire correct course). I was happy to get off of the sand.
This next section had a bunch of up and down, but mostly flat and runnable. I should be coming to the first (real) AS soon… I hope.
About 10 minutes later, I turn a corner and there’s the aid station. Two nice Native Americans offer me water and a choice of a banana and a PB&J quarter. Ugh. Don’t know how long it will take me to run (walk) the next 6 miles, so I eat a PB&J quarter. My time to this point is 84 minutes (about 12-13 minutes per mile).
This next section is IN-SAN-E! I thought some of the earlier steep hills were difficult, but this section is relentless. I am not sure how I could describe the course. I loved it, but it was HARD. The entire section is single-track, and in some spots, drop-offs on both sides where I didn’t want to run downhill because I was not that confident in my footfalls. I never felt like I would get lost because there were wood posts with laminated arrows mounted on them. In fact, I could see turns off in the distance, so I knew of more ‘horrible’ steep hills ahead.
Just when I thought I had finally gotten off of the hill, I would descend to a low point, only to climb back up another steep hill, but eventually, the trail popped out on a wide fire-road (where I had spotted a number of ATVs from the higher points on the trail) and the other aid station… which had only water. Where’s my sustenance??
This 6 miles took me another hour and 50 minutes. Slow.
Now I have about 3 miles to finish my first lap. From the aid station, it’s a long-ish climb on this fire-road out of the canyon. At about the same time I leave the aid station, I come upon another runner, who had started late. We walk and talk for a bit, but then he wants to run up the hill. I keep in my sights but will not catch up with him.
When I get to the top of the hill, I can see the finish line (or rather, the end of the loop, but eventually, the end). I am hesitant to run down the hill on the other side, because I don’t know where the course goes AND I have to do another loop in the afternoon sun. I think I made the right decision to jog down the hill because when I get to the bottom of the hill, there is a hairpin turn and back up another steep hill.
Some of this is beginning to look familiar, and now I am not certain whether I am back on the course from earlier this morning because there is another snaky loop through a field… but when I pop out on the road, I am directed to a trail through grapefruit groves and a drop down into another dry riverbed (though this time, there are high walls and it is narrow). When I climb back out, I am following part of the morning course in reverse (creative arrows on a course seem confusing but it all makes sense), and soon find myself at the end of the first loop. My total time is 4:07, which gives me just under 6 hours to complete the second loop. The 10-hour time limit, which I somewhat pooh-poohed earlier in the week seems just long enough now.
Naturally, there is no food at this pseudo-aid station, but I must persist and continue on the course.
I leave on my second loop just a minute or two behind the guy I have been following for the past 3-odd miles. I think I may walk this entire loop, because it is really hot out.
I just maintain a nice walking pace and keep within sight of the guy ahead of me (motivation). As I crest the initial horrible hill, I notice the guy ahead of me stopping at Aid Station #2 (for the 5K) refilling his water bottle. I don’t stop at that aid station (since it is 25 feet away from MY course and I don’t want to do any extra distance), but notice soon afterwards that I have lost sight of the other runner. I have a really good view of considerable distance (probably a half-mile) and I don’t see him at all. I think he may have cut the course short.
I continue through the course… the rest of the 5K, the dry riverbed (I don’t miss the turn this time.), the fire-road to the aid station at Mile 22. When I get there, a couple of different guys are there (big Native American guys – one with a long ponytail) and they have a little water (in water bottles), but no more PB&J. The only food left is banana, and since I have not eaten anything since the PB&J 3+ hours ago, I have to eat a banana. Due to the heat, I am about 30 minutes slower on this section than the first time.
On this next section, I am moving even slower and am not terrible sure-footed. There are a couple of the downhill sections where I am wary about falling down the hillside. A couple of times I have to really throw back my weight in order to avoid doing just that. Also, this section is totally without any shade. When the trail widens and there is a small shaded area, I actually stop and sit down for more than 5 minutes trying to cool off a bit.
As difficult as this section is, at least I know what I am getting into, even though every bit of uphill seems to surprise me once again. Meanwhile, I keep seeing ATVs similar to the one the aid station was on last time zooming away on the fire-road. I am hoping that none of those are my (much needed) aid station, but who knows? Since they ran out of food (didn’t have much to begin with), I don’t have any expectations, and I am rationing my water just in case.
However, I do arrive after nearly 2-1/2 hours, and the aid station is still there. They fill my water bottle up with warm bottled water… and it’s those water bottles that hold about 4 ounces of water, so it takes a whole bunch of them to fill my water bottles. I also drank about 8 of those bottles. While warm water sucks, at least it’s water.
Now I have about 3 miles to go, and around 90 minutes to finish. The time limit I ‘negotiated’ for my friends is looming, but I will make it, barring some kind of disaster.
This last 3 miles doesn’t seem so bad the second time especially because I know where I am headed, all of the ups and downs, twists and turns. I am actually able to jog the last few yards (though I still do about 20 minutes per mile). When I come in, I am about an hour behind the guy I started out with. (I know this seems like sour grapes, since in reality he would have beat me anyway, but shaving a mile off the course (including a lot of hill) is bad.)
Regardless, I finished in 9 hours and 25 minutes, in absolute last place, aka 6th overall and 3rd in my age division (40+, I believe). That entitled me to a hand-painted ceramic plate. It’s nice.
On the other hand, there is zilch-o at the finish line, other than water. No food, no nothin’.
I loved the course, but didn’t love the support, but I did have a long talk with the race director, who politely listened to my grievances (and also received my e-mail suggestions). I think they will have this event again next year and do a lot better. If steps are taken, I would do (as long as it is not on or within a weekend of Avalon 50) this race again and would advise anyone who would like to be challenged in a beautiful trail setting to try this race.