During the four-hour ride home to San Diego after finishing the Santa Barbara Red Rock 50 this past weekend, Carrie joked with me “So, ya finished your first 50. But would any 50 do? Noooo, it had to be the hardest one you could find. What’s with you and always finding the hardest of these things?” While I’m sure she knows the answer as well as I, (neither of us is entirely sure why I do anything I do) the question was valid and there are many answers, both short and long, but they aren’t the point of this. The point is on Sunday, I joined a group of similarly brain-addled members of the trail running family and took part in, and completed, my first 50-mile trail race.
This race wasn’t supposed to happen for me; as has been the case the past 2-3 years as I attempted to tackle my first 50 miler I came down with an injury leading up to it. This time it was a revisit of Chondromalacia in my left knee that occurred during the descent off the back side of Jacinto during our “Cactus to Clouds +” day about 5 weeks ago. It didn’t bother me too much until I went out and did the course mapping for the San Diego 50 route. After that I was forced to rest it, swim and do a handful of very short runs in the weeks leading up to the race. Heading up to Santa Barbara I packed my gear but had no real intentions of using it. But after a short 2+ mile run/hike on Friday afternoon and a slightly longer (4-5 miles) run on Saturday morning I had little to no sensation of pain in my knee and decided to give it a go. If I had typed this out on Saturday afternoon I wouldn’t have run the race, in hindsight and as I look at the lead up, it seems ridiculous to assume that after 4 weeks of little to no running and a “4-5 mile test run with little pain” that toeing the line at a 50 that looks like this…
…is a good idea. Fortunately, I’ve never been accused of making the best decisions. So with my knee not rebelling for the time being, and against RD Luis Escobar’s plea to not start the race if you have doubts about finishing, I decided to give it a go and see how long it would hold up.
The Santa Barbara 50 & Trail Marathon is a continuation of the legacy of the Santa Barbara 9 Trails event. I’m not 100% familiar with the history but from what I gathered the event used to be “50+ miles of toughness” in a 35-mile event, which apparently just wasn’t quite sadistic enough for the good man Luis. I mean, if 35 miles can feel like 50+, just imagine the fun of an actual 50+ miler on the same course! With low-key, minimal events like this there are often debates about elevation gain, actual distance, etc. With the general consensus falling in the range of 16,000-17,000 feet of gain over the distance of 50-52 miles the one thing that no one argues about is that this is one of the harder 50 milers around. Combine a truly difficult course with beautiful trails I’ve never run and I’ll show up any time I can, and so I did, along with about 90 other 50-mile starters and a couple dozen marathoners running a point-to-point from the turnaround to the start.
Shortly before the 6AM start, we gathered in the Rancho Oso screen room for our last minute race instructions, Luis’ final attempt to talk us out of doing the race, and the Caballo Blanco oath/waiver, “If I get lost, hurt, or die, it’s my own damn fault. Amen.” With an extremely positive energy in the air, like sheep being led to slaughter while thinking it’s lunch time, we made our way to the road and the countdown. With headlamps on and a “Have Fun” we were on our way.
I could go over all the details of the course, but honestly I’m not a skilled enough writer to detail 50 miles of beautiful and brutally challenging terrain without reusing the same adjectives (beautiful, gorgeous, hard, soul sucking, etc) and boring you to death so I’ll just stick to the highlights/lowlights of my day. After a brief rolling section of about a mile or so from the start we began the first major climb of the day and received a very early lesson as to what the day is going to be about; run when you can, walk when you have to. There was a pretty solid group of us climbing and we started to thin out a bit as we reach the top of the climb and started the single track. Over the first 11 miles leading up to Aid Station #1 I found myself with a good group of about 6 people including the lead woman. There was some small chatter back and forth but for the most part everyone seemed pretty content on getting settled in to whatever zone it was going to require for them to make it through the day. Knowing this would be a minimally supported run with aid at miles 11, 20, 25, 30, and 39 I went in planning it as a self supported run with water stops along the way and all the adventure runs we had done this year really paid off. I carried all my calories and only using a 2L reservoir instead of the normal 3L made the pack significantly lighter which was a nice change of pace, quite literally. I had no need to stop at AS#1 because of the cool temps I had only gone through about half of my 20oz bottle of Fluid Performance and had barely touched the water left in the pack, I think the lack of fluid intake over the first two hours negatively affected me later in the day. “#151 in, #151 out”.
After leaving the Aid Station I ran the next bit of climbing section away from the Dam with nice guy that was a strong runner. We talked about his 100 and planned revenge for next year as well as some of the adventure runs I knocked out this year. It’s cool to hear from other people that are interested in those types of self-supported endeavors. Like the rest of the course, it was a really nice section and there was a cool dilapidated mining building off the trail that I wish I had my camera out for. Unfortunately, when you’re running and carrying on a conversation it helps you forget about what you’re doing and I didn’t want to lose that. On it went, up and down…always up or down. Beautiful trails and challenging climbs over the next 9 miles leading to the second Aid Station.
I exchanged running partners a few times over this section and met some really good guys. It was pretty obvious I was out of my element when it came to experience while talking to everyone as I’m pretty sure they all had at least one 100-miler under their belts if not years and years worth of Ultras. It was really cool though to hear the stories and have their support for making such a tough race my first 50. It may have been a dumb idea, but ultra-runners tend to support this kind of stupidity. It was also great to see Keira Henninger, ultra-runner and Race Director extraordinaire, coming back the other way. She had won the women’s 50 miler last year but took the smart alternative of the point-to-point marathon this year to give her over-raced body a rest. Also got to cross paths with Luis, and made sure to thank him for the race and tell him how much I love the course. His comment of “You haven’t seen anything yet” didn’t sound ominous at the time…it should have.
When I hit AS#2, I skipped refilling my pack and only refilled the bottle since there was only 5 miles of downhill to go to the turn around. The downhill started with about 2-2.5 miles of great single-track overlooking the city of Santa Barbara and what would have been the ocean if not for the “sea” of clouds. It was cool to be able to see the tops of the Channel Islands peaking out before finishing the rest of the way with a double-track/fire-road descent. That section reminded me a lot of the Oriflamme 50K down/up-hill and I tried to focus constantly on the scenery to not think about having to climb this and then run another 20 miles. Nearing the aid station I finally got to start seeing the leaders coming back at me. Some really solid efforts out there and it was inspiring to watch them start the climb out. I hit the trailhead in just over 5 hours, which was perfect because I had banked almost 2hrs to meet my goal of sub-12. The turnaround AS was like an oasis. It would have been enough to have my wife Carrie and Orion (support dog/trail scout) there to cheer me on and swap out my food but there were quite a few people and the AS volunteers were unreal. The women wearing costumes (a German Beer Girl is ALWAYS a hit), friendly faces, and just very eager to help in anyway they can. Have I mentioned how much I love this sport?
After a quick stop for some good luck kisses, from Carrie and Orion although I think his was more just enjoying the salt on my legs, I was back on the trail and starting the climb. Tons of encouragement from the runners coming down and I was sure to return it all. As I hit the start of the climb I decided it was time for the reward I had been saving for myself. I stopped using music to run a couple years ago but had been planning to bring it back for this race, primarily for this section right here. I knew this would be a long, difficult climb so I put in the headphones and started off. I slowly jogged sections while I worked through the trail leading to the wider climb. Unfortunately I had a problem with the iPod and while I was fixing it missed a turn. After a few hundred yards and knowing something was wrong I turned around and hit the creek crossing in time to meet the next runner. Over the next mile or two I just kept repeating, “It’s my own damn fault” in my head and laughing to no one in particular. Again, in an effort to spare you I’ll sum up the climb in the words of fellow runner Bo: “soul-sucking.” This is what he had to say when we met at the AS at the top of the climb and it was the perfect summation of the last 5 miles of the slowest climbing I have ever done. The only word I can use to describe my speed is stroll…and even that might be generous given the amount of times I stopped moving all together.
After some time in the AS quite a few people had completed their climbs and were joining me in the welcome relief of chicken soup, soda, and potatoes. I don’t consider myself a racer, especially in a 50 miler but competitive instinct took over and it was time to get out of there. I pushed my effort more than I would have really liked over the next mile to create a gap between me and the AS, partially because I didn’t want to be able to see anyone coming behind me and I didn’t want them to see me. This is how it stayed for the next 20 miles with the exception of the final aid station. Alone on beautiful trails, running the flat and downhill sections, walking any semblance of an incline, stopping more frequently than I liked to put my hands on my knees, question my sanity and then push on. Looking over my shoulder frequently expecting to see the red singlet of Bo at any time coming up to overtake me. It was nice to be out there alone for so long and know that it was completely up to me to determine if, and how quickly I would get to the finish line. I’ve become much stronger mentally over the past year but I have a long way to go in order to be able to push myself a little further out of my comfort zone. There were a number of times when I was struggling that I would think of what got me to that point. This year has been huge in terms of accomplishments and my thoughts often went to those runs and my friends that helped get me through them. This year was also marked by the tragic loss of our good friend and training partner Ben Horne. Ben was the type of person and athlete I can only dream of being. I thought a lot about talks we had on the trails and over email and it was amazing how much energy I was given by his memory and the overwhelming emotions that came with them. His energy and spirit always find a way to be there when you need it.
One side note about the last aid station…it was awesome. I made quick work of getting through it, staying just long enough to grab some soup, soda and M&Ms. I decided to skip the cat food, yes, there was cat food on the table as well as the offers for a variety of different liquors which the AS crew was enjoying freely. When I was offered the eggnog I almost considered the cat food as it sounded like an infinitely better option at the time. I did grab a couple of the dog biscuits for Orion though; he waited all day for me. He deserved a treat. Sorry Carrie, they didn’t have any coffee or muffies. 9 miles to go…
The highlight of the final 20 miles (I’d narrow down the exact spot but I honestly can’t remember) was without question the one time I wished someone was with me or there was a hidden camera on hand. I must have been doing some combination of watching the trail at my feet and looking at the surrounding mountains because I completely missed the linebacker that was bearing down on me. At least I assume it must have been a linebacker because after he clotheslined me across the forehead, taking me completely off my feet and down hard on to my back he disappeared and left me laying on the ground under a low hanging branch. The trail was a slight downhill so I was actually moving pretty well up until the abrupt stop so when I left my feet I did so with some gusto, landing on my back with my feet uphill and my head down. After trying to get up and having my hamstring seize I had to roll myself around so that my feet were downhill in order to stand. After I found my sunglasses and realized I was no worse for the wear, it was back on the move, again laughing to no one in particular and disappointed no one got to enjoy the humor of my misfortune.
Other than the course, the biggest challenge I faced all day was my stomach. I generally have a very good idea of what to take in and how much but this is the first time in a while I have gone at a higher rate on intensity. Most of the adventure runs I have done this year have been leisurely with extended breaks in them. Because of this, and the lack of fluid intake early in the day, I had a terrible time taking in calories. Every time I ate a gel or waffle my stomach locked up and I wasn’t sure if I would have to throw up and step off the trail. My saving grace was a combination of the aid stations and the Fluid Performance I was using in my bottles. It made a tremendous difference and was the only thing my stomach would tolerate in the long stretches without aid. I haven’t done the calculations yet but I know I took in significantly fewer calories than I usually would. It’s definitely something I am going to have to work on if I plan to do more events as opposed to just self-supported adventures.
After a last climb off the single-track the race finishes with the couple miles of fire-road downhill that was great because I was finally able to just open up and let it fly down the hill. I knew I was almost done, I was going to make it and there was no need to hold back. With just a stretch of winding trail the follows the edge of the Rancho Oso campground left I cruised along, excited, tired, sore, and anxious to see Carrie at the finish line. Then I remember what the finish line entailed and I couldn’t wait. In order to top the clock you have two choices, a shot of cinnamon whiskey or kiss Manley (timing guru) on the lips and ring the bell. It was the best shot of whiskey I have ever tasted!
After finishing, a brief chat with RD Luis and a few fellow runners it was time to head over to the shower and get on the road. My amazing wife had work the next morning and we still had a 4 hour drive to get back to San Diego.
Lastly, I have to thank a few people because no matter how alone you may be during a long-distance trail run, you didn’t get there alone and you don’t finish alone. Carrie is not only an unbelievable wife and overly supportive but without her coaching and guidance I never could have reached this point.
My friends that have taken me from a wannabe trail runner and brought me along on adventures I never could have imagined myself doing. You guys are such an inspiration and constantly keep me craving the next journey.
Trevor and Skinfit USA for making just unreal gear. I wore the new Vento shorts and the Basic Tech T during the entire race and they performed beautifully. Even after a 5 mile climb at the warmest point of the day, the clothing dried quickly and never felt heavy or uncomfortable.
Richard and Phaen at Fluid. As I mentioned earlier, your product saved my butt!
And last but certainly not least, the crazy man himself that made this event possible, Luis Escobar. For a minimal, no-frills race the support, course markings, trails and entire weekend was excellent. There is no comparison between an event with an RD who truly cares about his runners and volunteers and one who is in it for other reasons. Luis, you’re a sick man and I couldn’t appreciate it more.
Finally, here’s a video of the first half of the course and my finish if you want to see what some of the trails look like.