June 10, 2012
I had heard some information about the Holcomb Valley Trail Race, and I had clarified whether it was on the same side of the lake as the Endure the Bear 50K I had done a few years earlier. It did not.
My friend, Chris (aka Undercover, from the Hash), had mentioned he was interested in doing the 15M race (recently, he ran his first marathon, at age 69, and was really enjoying trail races). Since the drive to Big Bear is sort of long, he proposed that we go up together and split a room. We always have had nice conversation at the Hash, and I may have convinced him he could do a marathon, I thought it might be a fun adventure, and a good (different distance) ultra to continue my streak.
We drove up on Saturday morning and decided to take a look at the course beforehand. I think we intended just to hike up to where the trail became dirt. However, we ended up hiking up to the start of the Pacific Crest Trail, which was about 2.5 miles away, at elevation, without water, and in my non-running shoes (tennis shoes, but I don’t use them on trail). We ended up exhausting ourselves somewhat.
When we picked up our bibs, they told us all about the staggered start. To me, it makes little or no sense. We start in two-minute increments, based upon race, gender and age group. While that makes sense for race leaders, this is a small race and also, it separates me from people that I might actually run with (i.e. women who run a similar pace… but will start 18-20 minutes behind me). I wonder if they thought that a staggered start would be better for the trail? (The answer is they are bike racers and that’s something they do in those events, but it doesn’t translate well to running.) We also got our shirts, which are Dri-Fit, gray, and say “HOLOCOMB Valley Trail Race” on them (no year, either). How much effort did you put into this?
Afterwards, we had an early dinner at an Italian restaurant somewhere along the lake. Chris’s phone indicated a number of interesting restaurants, but most of them were closed or non-existent. The Italian place was good, food-wise, if not service-wise.
In the morning, we headed over to the race. I think Chris started a good 40 minutes behind me (because he was in a shorter race), so I hoped that the timing would work out that he wouldn’t have to wait extraordinarily long for me to finish. (We are both slow.)
The first few miles were the same miles we covered in our long practice hike yesterday. The paved part is a lot longer, because we start all the way at the bottom of the road (and will finish that way, as well). It is kind of nice to have an idea of the trail, but it still sucks, because it’s a lot of uphill, at elevation.
Near the Pacific Crest Trail
Since it is mostly uphill, I manage a little better than a 15-minute pace, and therefore am running near no one, because the other 4 people in my division are shorter, younger and faster!
After 3.8 miles up to the Pacific Crest Trail, I head downhill (mostly) on a nice wide fire road, without too much gravel or rocks along the way. This is very comfortable to run and walk down, because it is not technical in the least. The trail is not particularly scenic, but there are a lot of nice trees around. By the next aid station, I have covered 8.6 miles in just under 2 hours.
Now I head uphill for a few miles. It is pretty exhausting, but I have heard that I will encounter some people I know either at the aid station or en route. About a mile out of the aid station, I come across my friend Richard (aka Hozer) from the Hash. He is hiking backwards from the aid station. I know he always wants to do the entire trail, but he has had some health issues (aka “getting older”) and has reasonably cut back.
The aid station is nicely set up and has a bunch of American flags. I am offered and kindly accept a cup of champagne (!). At this point, I am just working on finishing and obviously not going to win anything (as stated previously, those in my division are LONG gone), so why not enjoy it? I managed a reasonable pace to this station, still managing about 13 minutes per mile. An AREC friend, Paul Epperson, reaches the AS at about the same time (but he is in the 15 miler).
From here, I leave the fire road and am on a parallel single-track above the fire-road. I like this quite a bit, because it is more interesting. At this point, I am essentially heading back to where I started on the Pacific Crest Trail (and the 15-milers are heading back to the finish). When I reach that point, I have another mile or so to the next aid station.
From this point, however, the make-up of the trail changes from light-packed dirt to a really rocky path. While it was not difficult up and down, I had to step very carefully, and that markedly restricted my speed. A little bit of downhill kept me under 16 minute pace, however. At the aid station, they had limited water (and gosh, we were coming through here again – makes me nervous), and mostly only orange slices. It was getting pretty hot and I was already struggling with the elevation.
A couple of girls caught up with me and we stayed together for a bit. Unfortunately, they were (obviously, if they caught up) much faster with me, so we didn’t stay together for long.
This next section was rolling hills at the start, but ended up being a 6.5 mile slow descent to approximately the same level as where we started the race. The trail was single-track and cut long stretches across the hillside – maybe 3 to 4 tenths of a mile each time. The biggest challenge (though I enjoyed it, strangely) was this gigantic rock field. If I thought that the previous trail section was rocky, well, this section was pure rocks. The only way you could tell that there was a trail was that there was a bit of flattening through it, but walking on the rocks, well, it sounded like walking on broken glass, and it was disorientating to have that loss of balance. This is hard to describe. The rocks were all the size of a slice of bread (maybe a bit thicker) and it covered all of the hill in that section and was probably a tenth of a mile long.
So… I would work my way across the rock field, continue another 2 tenths, hairpin turn down, 2 tenths of a mile, tiptoe across the rock field, another tenth, another hairpin, and so on. The rock field didn’t extend throughout the entire descent, but I crossed it at least 4 times. I should have been accelerating down the hill, but this thwarted most of my forward progress.
At the bottom, there was still about a mile of flat, wide road to the aid station. While this was welcome after the rock fields, there was no shelter from the sun. It was probably close to 80 degrees at this point. The aid station was situated at the end of a road… or rather, at the end of where we were ALLOWED to go. There was a guard gate of sorts. We were at the far edge of the park. Going was slow, nearly 20 minutes per mile… and it was downhill!
I didn’t waste much time (other than refilling my water bottles) and headed up the hill. At least it was not too technical… but it was hot!
Usually, I sing to myself, but I was too tired and too out of breath to keep myself occupied that way. I started thinking of puns. First, I came up with the runners’ favorite rock group – The I.T. Band. Then I began fixating on something offered at a previous aid station – Iced Heed (Heed is like Gatorade, but fairly yucky tasting and sugar-free.). And so, I came up with the following story:
Haley Joel Osment (of Sixth Sense fame) is running an ultra. He gets to an aid station that is run by co-captains. He needs electrolytes, now! So, he says, “Iced Heed, Head People.” (Bad, I know, but I did get a bit delirious in the heat.)
Strangely enough, despite an unsheltered and hot uphill trail, I maintained the same (slow) pace (according to my calculations, 1 second faster per mile) on this uphill slog.
From this location, I knew I would be heading back to the understocked aid station and be that much closer to the end. I figured it would be mostly downhill, because of the HUGE hill I had just climbed. It ended up being mostly rolling hills, but untechnical, so I could walk relatively fast and covered the 3.3 miles in about 55 minutes. When I got to the aid station, they had no more soda, no more Heed, pretzels and a little water, but only enough to fill one water bottle. Luckily, I usually don’t drink ALL of my water… one bottle is ‘just in case.’
This last section was really hard to bear. My feet hurt quite a bit, and I had to traverse that same rocky single-track (but uphill this time) back to the intersection with the Pacific Crest Trail and then down the hill to the paved path and the end. I wasted quite a bit of my time getting through the rocky section, but was able to gallop and speed walk down most of the hill. The couple of times that I ran, I stumbled on roots… and if I fall, that’s probably IT. Finito. Game over.
Once I got to the road (despite not liking to run on the road), I was able to open up and get done in a reasonable time (8:56:00). I was particularly pleased (technically a PR, since I have never run 33 miles before) because my time was 5 minutes faster than the Endure the Bear 50K, and this race was nearly 2 miles further.
As I crossed the finish line, they handed me a water bottle (?). A water bottle is really great at the finish line especially when your hands are already full holding… water bottles. The one plus was that they made some delicious strawberry smoothies. It was refreshing and hit the spot, but there wasn’t much food of any kind… or if there was, the 8- and 15-mile finishers had taken it all.
I was happy to see my friend, Yolanda Holder, at the finish. She came in around 9:11. We could have run together, but she finished about 30 minutes after I did because of the staggered start. I am including this photo of us (although she cut me out, you can still see me to the left, and Yolanda is no shrimp).
Yolanda (and me hiding)
Afterwards, I heard about Chris’s adventure. There was some confusion on the course. The volunteers sent him the wrong way (to the 8-mile finish). He got about a mile down, and then turned around and came back to the course and actually do the 15-miler… so he didn’t have to wait as long.
I don’t know about him, but I would NEVER do this race again… unless some major changes occurred, because it was a bit of a disaster.