October 17, 2015
My history with Twin Peaks goes back a few years. In my first attempt (2012), there was a fatality on the freeway, and I started 45 minutes late. Even though the race director said that she would give me an extra 45 minutes to finish, it took me over 8 hours for the first 25 miles, and I was not confident that I could finish the second 25 (actually 27.5 miles) in 9 hours, especially with more tough hills. Fortunately, the race has a “wimp-out” option and I finished the 50K in 10:50.
In 2013, the race was cancelled because of the government shutdown, but resurrected as a 50K “Fat Ass” a few days later. I tried to do the 50K (regular 8am “hot” start) and fell apart really early on, like Mile 7, and when I got to the Holy Jim section, it was all I could do to get through the 4.5 miles in 3 hours, 7 minutes. (No, that is not a typo.) I had to get a ride back down because I was so tired.
In 2014, I tried again, and did a bit better, but still was not able to finish the full 50M (“only” the 50K), but my time was about an hour faster. I joked with the race director, my buddy Jessica DeLine, that if I could start extra extra extra early, maybe I could finish. She said she might be open to me starting earlier than the early start.
I don’t know if I intended on running Twin Peaks in 2015, but in early 2015, my friend Lauren Miertschin (who I met at the finish line of the 2012 Twin Peaks), was turning 50, and expressed a desire to finish the race for her 50th birthday year. I said that I was in, if I could convince the RD to let us start at, say, midnight. (The official early start is at 5am.)
I also somehow convinced Angela Holder to enter the race as well. I didn’t know if she was up for a super difficult 50 Mile course as her FIRST 50 mile course, but she was certainly game to give it a try, especially if she, Lauren, and I could start extra (to the third power) early.
One thing that we intended on doing to prepare ourselves for the race was to get super familiar with the course. Over the years, in essence, I know the course pretty well, but the purpose was to get ourselves solidly familiar with every twist and turn and come up with a strategy to get through this race.
If you read my post about the Bun Run 3M in late August, I suffered a Grade 2 Ankle Sprain trying to familiarize myself with the course. A few days earlier, I had maybe sprained my thumbs (I know it sounds weird, but I hyper-extended them on a fall.).
Three weeks ago, Angela and I did a 23-mile training run on part of the course, mostly to see if my ankle could handle the strain (wore my ankle brace) but was super nervous on some steep single-track trail on Upper Holy Jim (25 minute miles on the downhill!).
The upshot of all this training was that I was super familiar with the course, and could tell you every hairpin turn on each section of the trail. One thing I find in many ultras is that parts of the trail all look alike, so knowing how many turns there are, helps you to know how close you are to the next aid station. I guess it could also be demoralizing if you are not moving that fast, but I liked knowing where I was on a particularly tough section.
As the date of the race neared, I made sure that I negotiated the opportunity for an early start, and Angela was nervous that she would not be allowed to start with me. By this time, Lauren had decided not to run the race after all, so it would just be the two of us. Jessica had said, “Yes, you can start early,” but had not specified a time when we could start. (Give me an inch; I’ll take a mile.)
Angela and I talked it over, trying to figure out our best strategy. More important than the starting time, was being able to finish by the finishing time. On the front end, it is simply knowing the course, but on the back end, it’s not making volunteers stay beyond the end, and finishing before the course closes. It’s easier to appeal to an early start rather than an extended finish.
On Friday afternoon, I wrapped my ankle with KT tape, but it was not sticking really well, so I also wore my Neoprene ankle brace over my sock, hoping it would hold it into place, but I decided to wear all these layers anyway, just to be on the safe side. If anything, it will provide a little extra padding, because I won’t wear my Hokas (since I sprained my ankle on this exact trail wearing them).
At about 4pm, Angela met me at my condo and we headed out to Corona to pick up our race numbers. Traffic was BAAAD (but no fatalities). Had a little trouble finding the hotel, but we weren’t too late to pick up our numbers (that would have been bad, since we were starting way early).
They had some pizza at the check-in, so we each had a piece and chatted with Jessica and her check-in volunteer. I reminded them we were starting early. Jessica tried to pin us down on what time. I kept saying, “Really early. Really really really early.” Jessica said, “Four?” (Ha ha.) “Um… probably 2am, but we considered starting at midnight.”
I was a little worried that she might balk, but she knew that I am familiar with the course (I even volunteered to carry a roll of ribbons with me in case the course had somehow been sabotaged) and that we would have enough supplies to get by until the aid stations got set up.
Angela and Emmett a few hours before starting Twin Peaks 50M.
We took leave of them around 8:00pm, including almost a full large pizza (not a lot of people picked up their numbers early), and then drove over to try to decide where we would “hang out” until the start. We opted for the parking lot behind Vons. There were, of course, all of those warning signs that said, “Customers only,” and “No overnight parking.” We decided to go into the store, and we certainly not parking “overnight.”
Angela bought a cupcake and something to drink; I think I bought a Powerade, and then we chatted in the car for a bit. I “napped” for a bit, but I was just running over the course in my mind (which was exhausting).
I kept getting awakened by employees cleaning up or dumping trash. I worried that a cop would come kick us out (we were steaming up the car a bit, probably because of nervous breathing).
Around 1am, we decided to head over to the start and begin prepping ourselves to go. The drive from Vons to the start is less than a mile, and we got a good parking spot close to the start. There were already a few cars there, presumably people camping out near the start.
It was pretty cold outside, so I had my jacket on, as well as gloves. I also “overdid” it on the water side, with both water bottles AND my Camelbak. I also put a piece of duct tape with my name and number on the Camelbak, so that I could leave it at the top of Santiago along with my jacket, headlamp, and anything else I didn’t want to carry with me all day.
We both made use of the port-a-potties, where I had a tough problem getting more than one square of toilet paper at a time. By the time we had gotten all of our ducks in a row, we had made it all the way to 1:20am. The question was, do we go back to the now cold car and sit for another 30 minutes, or say, to heck with it, and just get going? (I’d definitely rather have the extra 30 minutes!) So we started, even extra earlier than the extra (x3) early start.
The first section of trail is 6.5 miles long and 3,800 feet of elevation gain. This is the only section where I didn’t count turns, though honestly, this entire section was in the dark and I stumbled a lot… at least I had Angela’s brighter headlamp helping me in the dark.
We had an interesting episode not long after we passed by the Korean Church. We heard all sort of screaming and howling. It kind of felt like a scene from Deliverance. It made us really nervous. We decided that it either was loud Korean churchkids, and then sound was echoing, or it was some people camping up near the Main Divide and just making a lot of noise. We never got close to or actually saw where this noise was coming from. We saw a few lights, so maybe it was aliens.
Our goal to the top (and the theoretical aid stations) was 2 hours. Our pacing was based upon a 17-hour finish (which is the real time limit if you start early (5am)) and then we have a margin of 3-1/2 extra hours. If you divide that out, you can lose about 4 minutes per mile, but the goal is not to lose much time because it is harder to make up time at the end of the race, and also it is hard to translate a time change for each section of trail, because some are astoundingly harder than other sections. We reached the top in 2:15 (2:00 + 4 x 6.5), so by an average accounting, within the margin of error and 7 minutes to tack onto the next section.
We could see (aided by headlamp) the skeleton of the aid station, basically a table or two and some boxes of water. I took advantage of refilling my water bottles, even though I had not consumed a lot in the cold dark.
The next 4 miles has a net gain of 100 feet, but this is really misleading, because there is a long, technical climb out from the “top” of the hill, and then a scary descent. Especially scary because this was where I sprained my ankle… during the day. We were doing this in the dark. It was just a bit before 4am, still an hour before the early start.
I needed quite a bit of assistance from Angela and her light. Although we were on a wide fire road, it seemed more like being on a steep single-track. Several times, she was nice enough to turn around and back light my way down. I’m very grateful, because it made it a bit easier.
We reached the West Horsethief Aid Station in 1:18 (goal 1:20), and took advantage of refilling water bottles once more.
Now, we have 4.5 miles downhill with about 2,800 feet of elevation loss. The first section is not that bad, pretty straightforward, not a lot of steep or slippery trail, but once we exit this section, there is a really rocky section, followed by 5 long switchbacks. All of this is single-track trail, with lots of low branches (probably not as troubling for Angela), loose gravel, and sheer drop-offs to the side. There isn’t a chance I will miss my footing, but it’s still slow going.
Once we get to the bottom of the steepest part, there’s a gentler descent through a number of creek beds. Angela is doing better than I am on this section, so she surges ahead. I figure I will catch up to her on the uphill, because I do a little better on that part.
When I get out to the fire-road section, I run into my friend Christopher Ferrier (who I met at the Santa Barbara races in July). He’s taking pictures for the race, so he runs alongside and snaps some photos (which apparently don’t come out well in early morning light). He gets my ultratall ultrarunning experience, because he is similarly ultratall.
I get down to the Holy Jim Aid Station location in 1:43 (goal 1:25). I can hardly believe how slow a pace I managed in this section. I obviously had to take it slowly because of my ankle, but 25 minutes per mile, downhill? That’s so slow!
Now begins the “fun” trek up Holy Jim Trail – 4.5 miles, 2,800 feet of elevation gain. This is a trail I know really well. There are 17 switchbacks before the trail starts traversing the hillside in long swatches. The trail is also marked with 0.5 mile signposts to keep you feeling like you are a slow-poke.
I catch Angela about a mile up and continue on past her, figuring we will meet up again at the top of Santiago Peak. We trained together on these trails, so I have confidence that she will do well. The good news for us is that it is still early, and if it gets hot, it will be later in the day.
I get to Bear Springs, the unmanned aid station in 1:55 (goal 1:25). Now maybe you can understand how you can’t make determinations on exact pace from section to section. This part is obviously a much tougher section, and I expected to lose more time than on a downhill section.
Also, what is funny here is that I have now been out for 7 hours and 12 minutes, and it is now 8:45am. But I don’t feel too tired… yet.
Now the climb gets more intense. I know, I know. If you’ve read this far, all of the hills seem tough, but in terms of elevation gain per mile, this WAS a difficult section. There are two mile-and-a-half sections, each with 800 feet of elevation gain. That’s 10% gain for 3 miles!
I just keep pushing forward and slogging up the hill. I am passed by 3 guys who are running up the hill. Running! And the sad thing is that all of them started at 6am. They’ve made up a 4-1/2 hour stagger in 3 hours (basically, they are twice as fast as I am).
When I get to the top of Santiago Peak, I am craving something that is not water. I don’t necessarily need food, but I do need flavor (flavor in my water). And guess what? The aid station hasn’t arrived yet. I guess I could deal with it, but the three leaders also wouldn’t get anything either.
The radio people are there, though, and give me a granola bar, and they point out the truck making progress towards the summit. I wait the five or so minutes until the truck gets there, but I can’t get anything until the drop bags are all unpacked… so I helped with that, AND helped set up the table and pulled out all of the food, too. I did get my Nuun tablet and the water tasted so-0 much better! (By the way, my average pace up the hill was 28 minutes/mile!)
On the way down, I do finally encounter Angela. She is cutting her losses. Her knee feels off. I try and convince her that she should just push through it, but not only doesn’t she want to push through it, she wants my car keys, because she’ll get to the finish before me (probably). I don’t really want to give my keys up, but if I don’t, she will be stranded without a change of clothes until I finish or quit.
We discuss a few other things. Both of us made plans to have pacers for the latter half of the race. The earliest you can have a pacer is Mile 31. Art Acebedo is planning on pacing Angela from that point, then back to the bottom of Upper Holy Jim at Mile 44. This is the worst point to start pacing, as he cannot run with us to the end (well, he can, but then I would have to somehow drive him back to his car as the base of Holy Jim where his car would be parked and I don’t have four-wheel drive). He’ll get in a good 18 mile “run,” but Angela would be on her own for the last 8 miles.
But Angela will not be running back down Holy Jim and we don’t know if she got a message to him in time not to show up. He MAY be my pacer for 4-5 miles.
On the other hand, I made arrangements with Aaron Sorensen (who DNFed in the first third of Santa Barbara 100M like I did) to meet me at Mile 38. I’ve given him a time range, since it is so difficult for me to figure out exactly when I get there. His added difficulty is that Mile 38 is at the top of Indian Truck Trail (the initial 6.5 mile climb). They are not really offering rides to pacers (well, they were, but we didn’t find out about that option until it was too late). So, he will have to climb 6.5 miles to meet me, and then run an additional 14.5 miles with me, but at least he will be back at his car and not need a drive anywhere. I hope that the timing will work out, but there are a lot of “ifs,” because it was already a big imposition for him to drive to Corona from Long Beach (about 50 miles) to pace me.
So, now I head back down the steep mile-and-a-half to Upper Holy Jim (or Upper Holy Jim Parking Lot, as I call it, because it kinda resembles a parking lot). I am passed by a couple more of the top 10 folks, and I re-encounter my photographer buddy, Chris. I do a little better on this section. It is downhill, but it’s really rocky and ankle-turning, but I manage 19 minute miles down the hill, and now I am on the Upper Holy Jim Trail, which I have been dreading.
It’s another mile of downhill, but the recent rains have rutted the trail quite a bit. At parts, the single-track is narrower than the width of my foot, so even in practice, I had to walk with both feet at different heights (one foot about 18 inches higher than the other). There are other sections where there is scree and I have to climb down backwards, or I will fall… and I also don’t want to impede the forward progress of the fast runners behind me. In practice, this mile-long section took me 25 minutes, so I am hoping to improve upon this.
It is a struggle, but I did go down at a 22:00/mile pace (which includes a half-mile of flat leading back to Bear Springs, which is the top of Holy Jim Trail).
So now I am basically “running” everything I did earlier, but in reverse. I am going down the tough uphills and up the tough downhills, and then I will run past the initial downhill and climb up to the top of Santiago Peak again, before heading back down. (I am not looking forward to that climb HOURS from now.)
When I get to Holy Jim, I start encountering a number of my friends who started early. They are about 6 miles behind me, but have the horrible climb up Santiago Peak looming. I see my friend, Cherry Cheng, who ran with me from mile 4 to 10 in the shortened year (when I did Holy Jim in 3 hours, and she turned around after 10 miles).
I also see my friend, Ben Gaetos. The past couple years I always see him in the same spot. I am about a mile from the top of Santiago and he is about a mile behind me (and then I don’t see him again because I dropped down to the shorter distance). Because I started so freakin’ early, he is about 7 miles behind me (I don’t want to tell you how much better he is doing than me, but you can make the calculation… 7 miles, 4-1/2 hours.)
Coming towards Ben Gaetos on Holy Jim Trail.
I feel pretty good on this section, because it is almost all downhill, and I know that once I do my last traverse along the hillside, I have 17 switchbacks, and then about a mile to the aid station. I just bound down at a comfortable pace (13:00/mile). I am pretty excited because I made up some of the major time that I’ve lost climbing up to Santiago, and maybe preserved some time that I will lose up West Horsethief Trail next.
My halfway split (midway down Holy Jim) is close to 10 hours, which would be well slower than the pace I would need to finish in under 17 hours (the normal early start time limit), but I have given myself 20.5 hours, so I am doing OK, but maybe cutting it close. Art isn’t here, so he must have gotten Angela’s message.
Now I get to head up West Horsethief. Remember, this was the section that I averaged 25 minutes per mile DOWNHILL. I also will tell you that last year, the average pace on this section UPHILL for people who finished was 20 minutes per mile. I hope I can do something acceptable to give myself every chance to finish.
The weather is still pretty overcast and moderate, so I am hoping that I can get through most of West Horsethief before the sun re-emerges. I get through the fire-road section and through the creek bed section well enough, but I know I will have a difficult time on the switchbacks. I just keep moving with authority and try to not let too many people pass me.
On the entire section, I do not hear or see another living soul. It is weird, because I was passed a bunch of times on the downhill sections. In fact, I make it all the way to the top of the trail without being passed. This may be because the folks behind me were moving not much faster than I was. Also, about 3 switchbacks from the top, the sun did come out (dang) and made it that much warmer. I didn’t do any 20 minute miles, but (strangely enough) my average UPHILL pace was 15 seconds per mile FASTER than it was this morning.
Just after I filled my water bottle, the person behind me emerged. It was the female race leader, Deysi Osegueda. Maybe she couldn’t catch me up the hill, but she disappeared ahead pretty quickly once we got back onto the Main Divide Fire-Trail.
The volunteers are really cheery. While I feel concerned about my pace, they let me know that I have 7 hours to complete the final 19 miles. Twenty minute miles. C’mon, you can WALK this!
In order to finish, I know that I have to just run whenever possible and walk with authority on the uphills. I do slightly better on the section back to the top of Indian Truck Trail, averaging 17:15/mile. (Everything faster than 20:00/mile will bank time towards finishing under the time limit.)
I get to Mile 38, and no sign of my pacer. I ask if maybe he already showed up and went on ahead, but I guess not. No worries, because I have never used a pacer before. So, just as I am filling my water bottles, a truck drives up and out pops my pacer.
He tells me that I told him to arrive around 3pm. It’s 3:01 now. What a good (and fortunate) guesstimate. He had gone partway up the hill and then got a ride the rest of the way.
I actually have two pacers, but only one is human. The other is one of those aliens we encountered on the way up earlier… no, actually, it’s Aaron’s training partner, Lacey, his dog. I am not great with dogs, but Lacey is helpful and not annoying. When we are alone on trail, she runs at her pace, not too far ahead of us. When there are other runners around, Aaron leashes her and he pretty much does not have to ask twice for her to accede to his commands.
Aaron ends up being a great pacer because he helps me forget how tired I am, and also I do not have to lead the conversation. Aaron is telling me about how he did a few laps of Barkley (the hardest 100 miler ever) and his ideas for this crazy 20 mile loop near Mt. Baldy that he wanted to call Ridgecrest (there’s another race called Ridgecrest, though).
The weather has cooled off quite a bit, since we have passed the 3 o’clock hour, and so going up the Main Divide to the top of Santiago doesn’t seem as bad the second time around. It wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. (On the other hand, it might be that I haven’t been carting around my Camelbak for the past 6 hours, but will pick it up at the top.) Anyway, instead of 28 minutes per mile, I have zoomed along at a super-speedy 24:45/mile! Woot!
At the top, we refill our water bottles, get Lacey some water, pick up my Camelbak, which has my headlamp in it, and then start to head down. My feet do hurt quite a bit now (especially with all of the technical trail poking into my thin-soled shoes (not padded like Hokas, but less apt to make my foot fold in half).
My jog-walk down the technical trail to the Upper Holy Jim Parking Lot is about 20 minutes a mile again (though back within the acceptable range), and another 20 minute mile down the treacherous Upper Holy Jim back to the final aid station at the top of Indian Truck Trail. The excellent news at this point is that I have approximately 4 hours for the final 6.5 miles… almost all downhill. It going to get dark out again, but I think I will be able to manage 45 minute miles and FINISH!
Once the dusk starts settling in, I turn on my headlamp. It’s pretty insufficient. The batteries may be a bit drained, but super-pacer to the rescue. He has a second hand-held small flashlight for me to use. It is a bit awkward with me also carrying my water bottles, but is small and powerful enough that it is WAY better than my headlamp.
As I mentioned earlier, I don’t know the ins and outs of this section. I do remember from previous years (because you have to go down this hill to get to the 50K finish, too) that you head downhill forever, and there’s a zillion turns and you never seem to get any closer.
The one landmark I am looking for is the Korean church, because that is less than 2 miles from the finish. When I get there, I am absolutely giddy because I know that after 3 failed attempts and a super-early start (which made me famous or infamous – “OMG! You’re the guy who started at 1:30am!”), I WILL finish this race.
When I see the lights of the finisher’s tent, I am actually not clear on where the finish line is, so I almost run by it. Stupid. Many of the recent finishers are still there (not the winners, who finished 4-1/2 hours ago) and Angela. Thank goodness I gave her my car keys because she would have spent 7+ plus waiting for me and freezing her ass off.
Besides my motivation to finally beat this difficult course (and the early start), I also had my inspirations from my pace sheet – Angela (who despite dropping down completed her 3rd ultramarathon, the beastiest 50K possible), Stephanie Harris (who had just donated a kidney to an ailing friend), and my buddy Gilbert Barragan, Jr., who had just completed his first marathon at Long Beach. People that you find more inspirational than yourself give you that extra boost to achieve your own goals.
My 19 hours and 1 minute time was my 3rd longest race (by time), maybe my slowest pace, but with 30,000 feet of elevation change, probably appropriate.
Not sure that I will attempt this again (unless I do an early start to help a friend finish) or maybe volunteer-slash-pace someone through the race and pay it forward, but even though I am probably the slowest “official” finisher of this race ever, all that matters to me is that I finally finished this challenging event.